Home > Daily Struggles, Naming Experience, Sex Discrimination, What They're Saying, Why There Are No Women in Science > It’s SO Not Fair For You Women To Hang Out Together!

It’s SO Not Fair For You Women To Hang Out Together!

Jenny F. Scientist reports the following:

Recently, three women joined my lab, more than doubling the female population. (Just in time for me to leave.) There was instant bonding, which I had only seen before among married postdocs or among single grad students. But it is lovely to have other women about. We go to lunch together; every couple weeks we all go out together for drinks or dinner. (Which I love, by the way.) Every so often one of the men comes along- we are outnumbered about 3:1- but mostly, not.
Dr. S argues that this is discriminatory of me. What if the poor dears fell left out? I felt left out for years, I said. That doesn’t make it right, or nice, he said.

She then asks, “So, are we mean? Or are we apathetic? Or both.” Neither, and I’ll tell you why.


Dr. S has made the same misguided critique that gets lobbed at people of any marginalized group whenever they gather together for comfort. “Hey, not fair, you’re being exclusionary!” You will struggle mightily for years to get people to see the exclusionary practices that permeate in-group culture. But just let two or three of the out-group gather and voila! the pangs of exclusion become unbearable for the in-group members.
What’s missing from the picture is an acknowledgment and analysis of the power differential that exists between the two groups. Jenny F. Scientist and her gal pals don’t have any power, by virtue of membership in the out-group females, to exclude men from the power centers of science, to keep them out of the conversation, to sabotage their careers or pass them over for coveted opportunities. Their gathering does not function in an exclusionary, harmful way, but in a reparative manner. That is, by gathering together, marginalized group members can help each other manage and minimize the pain, anxiety, stress, and loneliness of existing in marginal status in a less than welcoming environment.
Cynthia Burack and I wrote about this in our article Telling Stories About Engineering: Group Dynamics and Resistance to Diversity (in NWSA Journal v. 16 No. 1, 2004 (Re)Gendering Science Fields). It is worth quoting at length from that article here.

Related to the belief in and expression of intellectual superiority is the threat presented by self-segregating practices such as the establishment of institutionalized programs for women and minority students as well as lectures, classes, and other events directed at out-group students. In her whimsical definition of “womanism,” Alice Walker indicates that the womanist is “not a separatist, except periodically, for health” (Walker, 1984:xi). Walker’s concern with the availability of separatism to people of color “for health” can be generalized to the situation of out-group members in engineering. The unconscious group culture of engineering and its social residues can be difficult for women and minority males to negotiate without the ability to appeal to segregated spaces and the interpretive possibilities they hold. Unfortunately, when minority group members get together even in informal ways, they are likely to be labeled by in-group members as “self-segregating” and to arouse suspicion as to their motives. This happens in a myriad of ways, both small and large, creating a form of “death by a thousand paper cuts” (Knight Higher Education Collaborative, 2001:2). Examples are not far to seek:

  • Women are standing in public spaces (hallways, campus sidewalks) engaging in conversation with other women faculty or administrators. Men who know the women conversationalists comment as they pass by: “Say, no self-segregating here!” “What are you three up to?” “What are you two plotting now?” Groups of two or three men engineers gathered in public spaces for conversation are unlikely to be assailed by similar comments from either men or women.
  • An announcement for a pizza-party for women engineering students is vandalized, and male students complain to their female classmates about their exclusion.
  • In a set of office moves on campus, the space for a multicultural student study lounge is eliminated. The story circulates that other space needs had priority and that multicultural students should be encouraged to mingle with white students, and not to self-segregate. The need of those students for a place within their very white educational world that they could call their own is not recognized.

In-group members often complain: “we don’t have a special lounge (or program, or scholarship) for whites (or men, or whoever the in-group members are), so why should they get one?” These group members are unable to see how all of the institutional structures and spaces they occupy and learn within are already their own – this is as invisible and unremarkable to them as the air they breathe. They are unable to see how those structures and spaces exclude and disadvantage out-group members, because they themselves are so very comfortable and welcomed within them.
How can leaders in engineering acknowledge the need of minority out-group members for “safe” space while achieving the goals of integration, team-work, and mutual respect? First, leaders must be persuaded of the benefits to the program, department, or team as a whole of voluntary and temporary self-segregation. This self-segregation may work to interrupt malign group processes that marginalize or stereotype those who represent minority social groups. Those who would offer safe spaces and special programs to women and underrepresented-minority men must defend many fronts at once. They must articulate the need for such programs to those who control access to resources, while simultaneously addressing stereotypes about the unsuitability of these groups for engineering. When someone asks, “why special programs for women?” the answer must be that women and underrepresented-minority men do not need special help to be good engineers, but they do benefit from assistance in dealing with engineering culture. Thus, the special programs are not for them so much as they are for engineering. It is engineering education, as it is currently constituted, that cannot effectively welcome out-group members, and that needs an array of programs to help counteract the conscious and unconscious dimensions of science and engineering culture, practice, and pedagogy that squelch the interests of those who are different, and ultimately drive them away.

Jenny and her friends are getting together without the guys precisely because science is unable to welcome them on equal footing with those guys. If the guys feel excluded from the conversation with the women, they shouldn’t whine about how bad they feel. They should instead think about how they can work to make their neck of the science woods a more welcoming home for all women, to redefine in-group membership in a manner that includes women. Then women’s safe spaces will be the same as men’s, and the men needn’t worry about feeling left out anymore.
References cited in the quoted text:
(The) Knight Higher Education Collaborative (September 2001). Gender Intelligence. Policy Perspectives, 10(2), 1-9.
Walker, A. (1984). In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Harvest/HBJ.

  1. August 5, 2008 at 12:21 am

    Yes!
    Where are the SuperReaders when something like this needs to be placed on the Feed ASAP?

  2. August 5, 2008 at 12:21 am

    Yes!
    Where are the SuperReaders when something like this needs to be placed on the Feed ASAP?

  3. Anonymous SuperReader
    August 5, 2008 at 1:43 am

    Bora – I was going to tag this one prior to reading your suggestion. I’ve seen this behavior in several majority groups who have a hard time understanding why underrepresented populations need to use each other for mutual support.

  4. Matty
    August 5, 2008 at 6:09 am

    People should be able to associate with who they want how they want, how they want and if this helps make life better for people who feel excluded I’m all for it.
    That said, I’m uneasy about special facilities especially when provided for a minority by the majority. When a student union run by men sets up a ‘womens lounge’ it sounds a bit too much like “this is your room, the rest are ours so you stay in your own place”

  5. August 5, 2008 at 6:37 am

    Z, you’re such a misandrist.

  6. August 5, 2008 at 10:02 am

    What’s missing from the picture is an acknowledgment and analysis of the power differential that exists between the two groups. Jenny F. Scientist and her gal pals don’t have any power, by virtue of membership in the out-group females, to exclude men from the power centers of science, to keep them out of the conversation, to sabotage their careers or pass them over for coveted opportunities. Their gathering does not function in an exclusionary, harmful way, but in a reparative manner. That is, by gathering together, marginalized group members can help each other manage and minimize the pain, anxiety, stress, and loneliness of existing in marginal status in a less than welcoming environment.

    This is a incredibly simplistic notion of “power.”
    “Johnny F. Scientist and his old boys don’t have any power, by virtue of membership in the in-group males, to exclude women from the power centers of science, to keep them out of the conversation, to sabotage their careers or pass them over for coveted opportunities.”
    This can be still be true, because Johnny’s power to do all of these things may come from somewhere other than his membership in his lunchtime coterie.
    The fact is that power rarely comes “by virtue of membership” in informal social groups such as these.
    Power in our society mostly comes from institutions, and to the extent that getting institutional power can be attained through informal “networking” in groups like these, women can play this game as well as anyone, and do. I’ve seen it done in academic settings, to both men and to women who are on the outs in groups like these. I don’t think it’s a huge problem that we need to get all aflutter about, but I also don’t think women can just dismiss this sort of moral/ethical question out of hand.
    All arguments along these lines–essentially that “minority groups,” definitionally, can have no power and therefore cannot exclude or oppress anyone–are pretty arbitrary and, in fact, patronizing. As is, I’d say, turning such social gatherings into a form of group therapy.

  7. Becca
    August 5, 2008 at 10:26 am

    This is a tough one for me.
    @Oran- The notion that a social group can have a therapeutic purpose is not a bad thing. Certainly not patronizing.
    That said, excluding people is ugly, and no less so for being incredibly common. I agree that we can’t dismiss the moral/ethical question out of hand- and I don’t think this post is a dismissal of the issue. This post is making the argument that the net good (particularly for the long term functionality of the discipline) is greater than the net loss (men potentially feeling left out). I think the fact that Jenny F. Scientist has noticed (and mentioned) that the men do ocassionally come along means she isn’t dismissing the issue. I certainly don’t think Zuska’s analysis is dismissing the issue- she seems to think men won’t feel excluded if we had a culture of science that was truly welcoming to women.
    You can, of course, disagree with that point. Personally, I think anyone who has been to high school or watched primate socialization is well aware women can be exclusionary (to the point of bullying). I am inclined to think that if this behavior creates more problems in scientific fields, it very well could be addressed by a healthier attitude toward gender- and pretty much can’t be solved by simply scolding women for finding pleasure in their choice of company.

  8. August 5, 2008 at 10:59 am

    The notion that women excluding men is a problem in science is a complete motherfucking joke. It is as worthy of serious attention as women raping men. Does it happen? Probably. Does it matter one single fucking iota in the broad view? No fucking way.

  9. Mecha
    August 5, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    Oran, the idea that just because women can network, that means that they are not disadvantaged, is a bit weird. A 90 pound teenager on their own can throw a punch, too, but it doesn’t mean they’ll be able to outbox a 150 pound teenager with a coach and better training and a bunch of people telling them they can do it. Just because women are capable of competing _despite_ barriers does not mean the barriers do not exist.
    And the idea that power is not gained in such informal groups is, frankly, laughable, and you yourself do a 180, saying it is both not important and that women can do it as well as anyone, and then tie it all back to how exclusion is bad, despite there being no power whatsoever in excluding people, apparently. You might consider firming that one up and deciding which way you want it.
    Until the women in that group are just as powerful, and just as commonly accepted to be tenured, department heads, and other higher level positions, there is an inequity there between ‘male networking’ and ‘female networking’, no matter how excluded one, personally, may feel that a group of women hangs out together.
    (Also, I would like to introduce people to the Geek Social Fallacies idea, and how they are relevant when discussing feelings of ostracizing with geeks involved: http://www.plausiblydeniable.com/opinion/gsf.html . Nobody here hit pulling one out quite yet, but ‘Ostracizers are Evil’ is a very common concept that one needs to always put in context, and ‘Friends Do Everything Together’ is another one that rears its head when the concept of ‘exclusion’ comes up.)
    -Mecha

  10. JC
    August 5, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    I’m so tired of hearing the “women going to the bathroom in groups” arguments from men. We go there in groups because it’s our “safe space” – duh! I loved that my PhD school had beds and cots in every women’s bathroom, that way mothers could breastfeed or pump without using some stupid pulldown plasticy piece of junk as a table, kids could lay down, hell, we all took naps in there! We instituted a “no cell phones” rule because attention-deprived undergrads would annoy the crap out of us and kill our sanity. Everytime the females would gather in an office to chat or cry or vent, some dude (prof, student, postdoc) would interrupt and butt in (sometimes even KEYING IN with the master key!). So, the bathrooms became our treehouses. I wish I had that here, and oh yeah, more women in my dept would be lovely! I’ll keep dreaming. Great post.

  11. speedwell
    August 5, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    Nonsense. I’m a woman in an IT program that supports engineers, and I do just fine by focusing on the common work. I don’t worry about my sex, and I don’t allow anyone else to worry about it either. What matters is solving problems and making good product and learning together. My father told me I had to be a bitch to be a female engineer, and I’m happy to say he’s dead wrong.
    Do I have to hang with other women preferentially to feel secure? Jesus, no. I have women friends in the workplace, and I have men friends. On the whole I’ve found men to take me more seriously than do women. Why should I want it any other way?
    Before I took this job, I worked in commercial real estate as a glorified secretary. They gave the entire office a class in negotiating. For my practice partner, I drew the ex-President of the location, an alpha bull of a classic Texas cowboy, one of the top brokers in the city. In our practice negotiation, he gave me too much rope, and I hung him with it. When the teacher asked why I thought I won the negotiation, I coolly said, “I didn’t win it. He lost it.” I noticed he treated me with a little more respect after that.

  12. Carlie
    August 5, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m teaching a girls’ science camp this week, there was an article in the local paper about it today, and when I went to read the online version there was one comment, which said that it’s sexist to give a camp just to the girls. Argh!

  13. Carlie
    August 5, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m teaching a girls’ science camp this week, there was an article in the local paper about it today, and when I went to read the online version there was one comment, which said that it’s sexist to give a camp just to the girls. Argh!

  14. August 5, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    Does it matter one single fucking iota in the broad view?

    But we aren’t talking about the broad view. We’re talking about whether/when folks in a minority have to worry about being arbitrarily exclusionary themselves. At least that’s what the post seemed to me to be about.

    Oran, the idea that just because women can network, that means that they are not disadvantaged, is a bit weird.

    I don’t think this is what I wrote. I’m saying just because women in aggregate may be disadvantaged that doesn’t mean that they have no worries about being exclusinary.

    And the idea that power is not gained in such informal groups is, frankly, laughable, and you yourself do a 180, saying it is both not important and that women can do it as well as anyone, and then tie it all back to how exclusion is bad, despite there being no power whatsoever in excluding people, apparently. You might consider firming that one up and deciding which way you want it.

    To clarify: Power is not something one gets “by virtue” of being in a lunchtime group. At best, lunchtime group participation may be one way of getting, say, tenure or a favorable review or a nice fellowship or an easier ride with your committee or whatever.
    And insofar as this sort of informal sociality can be a means of getting power for oneself and ones friends and excluding others, women can play the game pretty well. I’ve seen it in departments where women HAVE gotten power and I’ve seen it used ruthlessly
    The argument I see in the beginning of this piece is essentially that women, as the oppressed minority group have nothing to worry about as individuals as to how they may exclude the majority group. I think that’s wrong.
    It may be that Jenny has nothing to worry about, but the question goes to the case: Jenny can’t just say “I am a woman, I can do no wrong in this regard.”
    I think there may be plenty of good reasons why women may want to have a women-only event/facility whatever. But the argument has to be made from the particulars of the case.

  15. August 5, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    Does it matter one single fucking iota in the broad view?

    But we aren’t talking about the broad view. We’re talking about whether/when folks in a minority have to worry about being arbitrarily exclusionary themselves. At least that’s what the post seemed to me to be about.

    Oran, the idea that just because women can network, that means that they are not disadvantaged, is a bit weird.

    I don’t think this is what I wrote. I’m saying just because women in aggregate may be disadvantaged that doesn’t mean that they have no worries about being exclusinary.

    And the idea that power is not gained in such informal groups is, frankly, laughable, and you yourself do a 180, saying it is both not important and that women can do it as well as anyone, and then tie it all back to how exclusion is bad, despite there being no power whatsoever in excluding people, apparently. You might consider firming that one up and deciding which way you want it.

    To clarify: Power is not something one gets “by virtue” of being in a lunchtime group. At best, lunchtime group participation may be one way of getting, say, tenure or a favorable review or a nice fellowship or an easier ride with your committee or whatever.
    And insofar as this sort of informal sociality can be a means of getting power for oneself and ones friends and excluding others, women can play the game pretty well. I’ve seen it in departments where women HAVE gotten power and I’ve seen it used ruthlessly
    The argument I see in the beginning of this piece is essentially that women, as the oppressed minority group have nothing to worry about as individuals as to how they may exclude the majority group. I think that’s wrong.
    It may be that Jenny has nothing to worry about, but the question goes to the case: Jenny can’t just say “I am a woman, I can do no wrong in this regard.”
    I think there may be plenty of good reasons why women may want to have a women-only event/facility whatever. But the argument has to be made from the particulars of the case.

  16. August 5, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    Okay, I think that’s perfectly clear now. Power is not something one gets in a lunchtime group, except that it is.

  17. August 5, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    Okay, I think that’s perfectly clear now. Power is not something one gets in a lunchtime group, except that it is.

  18. August 5, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    We’re talking about whether/when folks in a minority have to worry about being arbitrarily exclusionary themselves. At least that’s what the post seemed to me to be about.

    I think there may be plenty of good reasons why women may want to have a women-only event/facility whatever. But the argument has to be made from the particulars of the case.

    Dude, I think you are very confused about the purpose of Zuska’s post. I’ll give you a hint. It’s not to “make an argument”, provide “good reasons”, or decide whether women “have to worry” about anyfuckingthing at all.

  19. Mecha
    August 5, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    Zuska: Exactly!
    And Oran, you’re protesting something that never happened. If this were the only X lab, and these women were the only ones in charge, and they kept kicking men away from their lab, then maybe your theoretical case and theoretical protest would start to matter, but the only case that is being discussed is where women are being told that, by having women-only social activities, despite a _3 to 1 male to female ratio_, they’re being exclusionary. It was nice of her to consider it, and all, but… seriously. Zuska’s response was not tailored towards that, either. So what are you trying to get at that is in any way productive here?
    Zuska’s response was towards the particulars of the case, not some sort of strange hypothetical lab in which women hold all the power. The case that is almost always the case that happens, and is the same situation that happened in the referring post, and the same one that the paper quoted refers to: A small group of women, outnumbered massively by men, happen to have found social support and enjoyment by spending time together, and a man is telling them that’s wrong because they’re not inviting enough men along to ruin that feeling of social support, and that they’re feeling ostracized. So, again, what are you actually getting at that is relevant here?
    I don’t see the ‘Women can’t ever do anything wrong’ angle here. I do see a very clear response to a very standard ‘But the women are being excluuuuusionary despite our outnumbering them and having more power as a group!’ complaint.
    -Mecha

  20. August 5, 2008 at 10:52 pm

    I get it, Speedwell. You don’t feel the need for nor do you want the company of other women. You are identified with the men. You are an INDIVIDUAL, not a woman! No structural systems or institutionalized cultures affecting your life. Good for you. If it’s working for you, that’s nice, keep it up. But why are you so threatened by other women who do want to get together with each other?

  21. speedwell
    August 6, 2008 at 9:25 am

    If you’ll point out where I said I felt “threatened,” or what I said that leads you to conclude that and why, I’ll be happy to address that specific point. But I’m not going to be baited into giving a knee-jerk response to an overheated scare word.

  22. August 6, 2008 at 9:47 am

    Dude, I think you are very confused about the purpose of Zuska’s post. I’ll give you a hint. It’s not to “make an argument”, provide “good reasons”, or decide whether women “have to worry” about anyfuckingthing at all.

    Well what the fuck does this mean then?

    Jenny F. Scientist and her gal pals don’t have any power, by virtue of membership in the out-group females, to exclude men from the power centers of science, to keep them out of the conversation, to sabotage their careers or pass them over for coveted opportunities. Their gathering does not function in an exclusionary, harmful way, but in a reparative manner. That is, by gathering together, marginalized group members can help each other manage and minimize the pain, anxiety, stress, and loneliness of existing in marginal status in a less than welcoming environment.

  23. August 6, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Dr. S is a dumbass. Some people are thinking about this way too hard, IMO.

  24. August 6, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    Well what the fuck does this mean then?

    It is a description of what those women are doing. The purpose is not to provide an “argument” or set of “reasons” why those women should not “worry” about what they are doing. If you are looking to be convinced of anything, you are in the wrong place.

  25. August 6, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    Okay, I think that’s perfectly clear now. Power is not something one gets in a lunchtime group, except that it is.

    Ah, here, we’ll try again.
    You’ve heard of direct and proximate causation?
    My argument is:
    Institutional position is the direct cause of personal power. Lunchtime sociality is, sometimes, a proximate cause of personal power. Very few people, in any case, can say they have power “by virtue of” whom they eat lunch with.

  26. August 6, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    PhysioProf:
    The quoted passage is not a description of what is happening, I’m afraid, that’s the interpretation of what is happening.
    In short, it is an argument about what these events/circumstances mean. If you can’t fucking see that, sorry.

  27. August 6, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    The quoted passage is not a description of what is happening, I’m afraid, that’s the interpretation of what is happening.
    In short, it is an argument about what these events/circumstances mean.

    It is not at all important that your interpretation of the quoted passage (or the post in general) be consistent with the interpretation of its intended audience.

    If you can’t fucking see that, sorry.

    There is no need to be sorry. I have no trouble understanding your interpretation of Zuska’s post. It’s just that your interpretation is not relevant for present purposes.

  28. August 7, 2008 at 9:35 am

    Another great post, Zuska.
    Where were you when I was in my grad program??
    I could have used someone to explain things. Sigh.

  29. Becca
    August 7, 2008 at 11:37 pm

    @ Mecha- I love the social fallacies. I’ve seen all of them at some point or another. I have a case of GSF#1, combined with a weird idea that being around people who I find jarring builds my character. So the social/interpersonal dynamics surrounding the issue of “how does it feel to be left out” was definitely the first thing that came to mind on this post.

  30. Kea
    August 8, 2008 at 3:20 am

    Wow, I so hope my field reaches the stage where women professionals can hang out together. I can only dream.

  31. August 8, 2008 at 10:55 am

    In my lab at the moment there are seven women and four men. We all get on fine and there are no sex-only groups.
    I can see why Jenny would want to have a bit of time just with her female friends though. My friendship group contains more girls than boys and we sometimes go out for ‘girly nights’ together (they’re not very girly though, we did end up watching rugby in one of them). The boys felt excluded so we told them: “OK, you guys have a ‘boys night’ then.” They ended up wandering around the bars and finished up in someones room playing risk.

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