Let me first say that this post is probably going to rub some people the wrong way. I'm exploring my own thoughts, which are jumbled, and would love to get a discussion going on in the comments to help sort them out.
When I was accepted to Caltech in 1991 (good lord, that was a long time ago), the offer of admission came with an extra surprise. Not only was I invited to attend Prefrosh Weekend, which was a way for prospective students to figure out if the school was a good fit, but Caltech would PAY FOR ME to attend, simply because I was female.
First thought was "OMG, I got in?!". Next thought was "Hooray, a trip to California!" since it can be cooold in Pittsburgh, even in April. But having never thought about it before, I was puzzled by why they'd fly me out for free, since I had not expressed a need for financial aid. Of course, I soon understood it was because of their 4 to 1 male:female ratio, and the fact that they wanted to increase their 'yield' of admitted female students accepting the offer.
I went to Caltech, I made lots of friends, both male and female, and it wasn't terribly hard for me to adjust to life in a skewed-ratio environment. After being labeled as "The Nerd" and having the resulting typical American high school experience, it was really nice to be in an environment where one was not penalized for being smart, and as a bonus, where wearing makeup and clothes that matched generated a reasonable amount of interest from the opposite sex. And in fact, I did find me a husband there, which seems only fair after all the blood, sweat and tears it took for me to get that degree.
While I was there, we had the occasional girls' night out, which was a bunch of my friends getting together for dinner. I joined the Society of Women Engineers (SWEeee!) and was even an officer for a while, before I decided to skip out on engineering in favor of chem and bio. I didn't feel like being female was a disadvantage or that anyone was discriminating against me for it, so I never felt the need to seek the services of the Womens' Center or other women-only groups. I had one professor make an asinine remark about women not being able to visualize 3-D space, but it was, thankfully, an isolated incident.
Despite having mediocre grades, I was able to get into my grad schools of choice because of all the lab research I had done and the excellent recommendations from my professors. Grad school and my subsequent job at Deloitte Consulting were pretty much close to a "normal" ratio.
And then I came to my current company, a very tech-focused environment which seems to have the same male:female ratio (or worse) than Caltech, at least in the product engineering teams I've been on. I'm frequently the only woman in a meeting, and in our last team meeting, I counted maybe 3 women in a room of 40.
This is typical, but doesn't bother me. I've never felt like people were treating me differently for being female. Oh, except when guys apologize for using bad language in front of me - that actually drives me up the wall. But I know they mean well, and I tell them I am fully capable of swearing like a sailor and then it's all good.
My company sponsors a Women's Conference, which is open to all, but typically it's 98% women who attend, and the topics are mostly focused on women in technology, how to navigate office politics, work-life balance, etc. We have several active womens' groups at different levels of the company that sponsor training, social events, and meet regularly to work on various initiatives, like sponsoring STEM events for girls. I'm guessing men aren't explicitly excluded from these events, but they don't attend.
And here's my dilemma. I've taken advantage of the special training sessions and conferences offered by these groups, because they're really great opportunities that others pay $1000s for externally. I like to go to the occasional social event to see former coworkers on other teams and meet new people. But I feel guilty about this, because I don't feel like I *need* the help just because I'm female. And I wonder if I'm somehow saying with my actions that we women "need this kind of help".
And at the other end of the spectrum, to borrow a term from the Caltech Honor Code, sometimes it seems like I'm getting an "unfair advantage" by being offered these things, when most of my coworkers are not.
Some men in technology fields are socially awkward and not savvy about things like office politics and networking either. Or maybe they're from other countries and don't "get" the way things work in our American culture. I bet they could benefit from the same training opportunities as well.
And when I think back to the Prefrosh Weekend trip to Caltech, I know my parents would have sent me anyway, even if they had to pay for it. There may have been guys who didn't go because their parents didn't want to spend the money. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of my attendance being more valuable just because of my gender.
And yes, I'm really, really lucky that I don't have to deal with overt sexism, and that I haven't felt that frustration. I know it still exists, even in the land of technology where I'd like to believe it's all about intellect and efficiency.
So I'm not sure what to do with this. Do I continue to take the opportunities offered to me? Do I respectfully decline them because I don't feel like I'm at an inherent disadvantage and maybe someone else does? Is it like going to church, where some people need that kind of community support more than others? Am I naive and being discriminated against more than I realize?
Help me out here. What's your thought on these sorts of things? What do you do?