Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Joining the Boys' Club and Womens' Spaces

Apologists for the gender gap in science and engineering often seem to focus on the actions of women, particularly whether they "choose" to enter (and remain) in those professions. They point to recruitment drives and official departmental policies that, at least on the surface, appear woman friendly. What gets ignored is that the social atmosphere in those fields can be unwelcoming - even hostile - to women.

That issue came to mind when I read amberella's post at .51 about her experience at the The Last HOPE (Hackers on Planet Earth) conference last month. She notes that most of her interactions on a professional level with male attendees were pretty comfortable. It was the social interactions that made clear that the conference was a boys' club:

HOPE set aside part of the mezzanine for lounging in hammocks and watching video streamed from the talks for those who wanted a break or who were overflow from packed conference rooms. Across the bottom of this video was a scrolling marquee of comments pulled from a specially rigged up internal URL. This meant the crowd could watch and participate in a real-time chat, anonymously, with other people in the room. I happened to walk into the rest area looking to take a much needed nap during Steven Rambam’s presentation, glanced at the screen, and saw the message trolling news-ticker style:
“Rambam sucks. I want three hours of my life back“. …Funny.
Then: “Who’s the new girl in the red shirt? Look down at self: I was wearing a red shirt.
A few seconds later: “I like her more than the other girl in the red shirt. Uh, what?

Then: “I’m faithful to Red Shirt Girl #1 … I’ll take you on long walks on the beach and……” You get the picture.

I laughed and brushed it off and found a hammock. After failing to elicit a response from the women in the room (there was also “Gray Tank Top Girl” and later “Necktie Girl” in addition to me and my other red shirt counterpart) the intensity of the messages increased. I’ll spare you the details of the ensuing message thread, most of which was LOL-worthy in a purely adolescent and self deprecating way, but I will say that some of it was downright vulgar. I’m not one to flinch at vulgarity or abstain from [frequent] obscenity, but when still no women took the bait, there was an eventual message of “You won’t say anything until I rape you and then you will cry. I assume it was meant as a joke or incitement, but I think we all know that making rape funny is right up there with making Hitler funny: Imminent Fail.
She ignored the comment and continued participating in the conversation. And that's how she copes in her male-dominated profession: by ignoring the vilest comments and joining in the joking.
As demonstrated on a very small scale by my eventual acceptance into the “scrolling message quip makers club” at HOPE, it’s possible to muscle into the boys’ club with tenacity, spunk, and a heavy dose of ignore-the-troll. Women who seek out these communities, though, have to be prepared to fight for the chance to “prove their mettle,” as my grandmother would say. The women at HOPE have already jumped the largest hurdles to inclusion and the majority of male attendees respect them for it, regardless of childish message board antics.
But what can you do if you're a woman who wants to stay in the field, but isn't interested in being "one of the boys"? The atmosphere isn't likely to change if no one is calling out the trolls and telling them their behavior is unacceptable. Amberella points out that women-only events can make at least a small difference.
I can think of no quick fix, only that a growing number of tech communities geared towards women offer some refuge and an estuary environment to grow one’s confidence before trying to conquer the “real world,” and that historically, female creep into male dominated realms has been steady, unrelenting, and eventually accepted. In the short term, this offers little consolation.
But even having such spaces can offer a respite from an environment that isn't particularly friendly to women.

The frustrating thing, however, is that some men see such get-togethers and feel excluded or even discriminated against. See, for example, Jenny F. Scientist's post about women in her lab who lunch together. Zuska points out that the men should be more concerned about making the women the work with feel comfortable than worrying about being invited along.
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.
Hopefully there are men planning to attend The Next HOPE (and other tech-related conferences) who are willing to do that.

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Patchi said...

Great post! This is a tough question.

Most of the successful women I see in science are "one of the boys". They had to be tough to make it to the club. I've always thought that was the way to go: work hard, speak up. If you don't think you belong, then you won't.

It's hard to say if creating "women's clubs" would change things. Segragation has never led to integration. My fear is that we will end up with 2 clubs, not none. The boy scouts never went co-ed because someone created the girl scouts. Is that a good thing? Hard to say...

Kea said...

My god, that's dreadful. I'm one of those women who played along when they were younger, but am no longer prepared to do so, because this kind of behaviour could continue indefinitely. Now I protest loudly. Sometimes, it is necessary to fight. So the comments are anonymous? I'd be off to the administrator in a jiffy and tracking down the perpetrator of the rape comment, with harsh punishment in mind.

Anonymous said...

I think this is an interesting post, but I've got to say that I'm having a hard time with the notion of using hacker cons as a typical representation of the tech industry.

Obviously there are extremely brilliant people that attend them - which is the part of them that I love. But, at the same time, SO many of the attendees are just script kiddies who are intrigued by the scene. They have little or no actual skills in the area and they're young and this combination often leads to guys who are desperately trying to look cool. And, let's face it, cute grrrls are an obvious way for them to think they're looking cool to their buds, no matter WHAT field we're talking about. And you have to understand that these cons are like really big parties. Yes, parties with speakers where you can learn things, but the general mood is of one big party.

And, admittedly I haven't been to HOPE since H2K2, but I found that the women who really know their stuff (who, like the men, are in the minority) really were respected. And, my experience was that it was actually easier for a lot of us to be included in circles - mostly because we are a bit of a rarity and therefore a little more interesting and stand out from the crowd. *shrugs*