Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Empowering or Separate But Equal or Unfair Advantage?

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?


  1. You keep going because the men- yes, even the ones who are clueless about career issues- are getting a big advantage just by being male.

    I have had only a few egregious instances of sexism in my career, and mostly am comfortable with the fact that I am often the only woman in the room, etc., etc.

    But, I've started to become more aware of the subtle sexism that exists in our culture. Men and women are perceived differently when they exhibit the exact same behaviors. Many of these perceptions put women at a disadvantage in our careers. It is harder for us to negotiate for increased pay. It is harder for us to put our hands up for big promotions and plum projects- not only because it goes against our cultural "training" to do so, but also because we cannot count on those actions being perceived as positive when we take them.

    Even men who think of themselves as "equal minded" will say shockingly wrong and sexist things about mothers in the workplace- and then claim that they are just recognizing different biological realities.

    I could go on and on.

    Take the few benefits that come with being a woman in your workplace, because believe me, the fact that you are so rare indicates that your workplace has a problem in this area, even if the evidence of that problem is incredibly subtle and hard to identify.

  2. very provocative blog post, anandi. enjoyed reading it. i love your interesting topics:) i believe "special treatment" to socially engineer ANY environment outlived its need at least a decade ago. agencies exist to deal with discrimination. should you take advantage of special opportunities? yes! should they be offered? no. companies might spend that money on merit pay to reward excellence, as excellence comes in all colors & sexes. (Come & get me, Ladies:)
    2 seconds ago · LikeUnlike.

  3. My observation is that one's experience of sexism may be context dependent. We were both at Caltech at the same time, and my experience differed considerably from yours (probably owing somewhat to having a kid in the process). I also worked at the women's center there, and my observation was that the experience was far worse for women grad students than women undergrads.

    I have run into problems quite a bit being a woman, but it seems like most of it comes when dealing with men who are in the 50 and older bracket. I don't run into it too much with younger men (though I won't say not at all). Where I'm working now, most of the younger men I work with have been students of mine at some point or another. This means that they generally respect me before they get here and won't give me any problems. I also think that some of my problems stem from being in the midwest.

    My suggestion would be to take into consideration 2 things: 1 - do you feel you're receiving any benefit from these opportunities, regardless of whether they're aimed at women or not? If so, then there is no reason to stop going. I agree with the first commenter that there is a large amount of unintentional bias (shown to exist in many studies where men versus women's names are put on resumes and other things), and some of these opportunities may give you a leg up in overcoming these. The rule of thumb is that a resume from a woman has to establish that she's three times as competent as a man to be viewed as 'on par'. 2 - I'm guessing that where you're working now is not full of men who are in the 50+ age range or who may come from a more conservative mindset. However, will you always be working there? Do you see that in the next 5-10 years, you could change professions or employers where the work environment may change? If so, these things will probably be of benefit to you as well.

    However, if you don't foresee any problems and don't feel you're getting much benefit from them, then it's not worth your while and may open up spots for other women who are in need of them.

  4. Nope, I agree with Cheryl. Anything that tries to undo some nebulous disadvantage that we assume a group experiences by giving them a clear advantage ALWAYS rubs me the wrong way. I was also a woman at Caltech. I never felt discriminated against in any way. I never did any women's group stuff. I hated to think that anyone gave me a break at ANYTHING because of my gender, because if that were the norm, it would actually INSPIRE discrimination, and rightly so, by giving people the very reasonable idea that I wouldn't have gotten where I was without the help of favoritism. That's why it burns me up that ANY minority group accepts affirmative action (and yes, you have carefully avoided that term but I'll just throw it out there)--because what you're saying is basically, "Yep, I couldn't do it on my own!" And when you go to interview for a job and show your credentials, why SHOULDN'T the interviewer have in the back of his or her mind, "Hm, I have to discount those credentials a little bit in comparison to others, because they got a break to get there"? To me, things like this make the problem WORSE.

    I also think it's ridiculous to pretend that a group of people TENDING to have different strengths or preferences can't be possible outside of their being discriminated against. I am female, and yet I believe that women (as a group) tend not to be as wired for math or as interested in it as are men (as a group). That's NOT to say that every woman is bad at math, that every man is better than most women at math, or that women don't tend to be better than men at other things. It just happens that way, and so be it. I don't think it's purely the result of discrimination that there are few women in engineering. I think it's individuals having an interest in things that suit their strengths. Coddling millions of women into taking engineering is not going to be useful if most of them are not "math wired" and don't care for science. Deciding that standardized tests must be biased because different groups of people don't score the same on them is shooting at the wrong target. People wail about this sort of thing on BOTH ends of the spectrum now, realizing that early grade school now leans so far away from supporting the tendencies and learning styles of little boys as compared to little girls that boys are becoming disengaged with school. You can't have it both ways, where sometimes we have tendencies as a group and sometimes we don't. Let's just admit that groups can tend to differ without that having an implication about their worth and move on.

    That said, I think if opportunities present themselves to you at work, you need to take them, if only to not be at a disadvantage to other women who take them. It's a dog eat dog world out there. But should things be open only to women? No, no more than there should be training only open to men.

    And I, too, totally hated when guys at grad school would try not to swear in front of me, or would apologize for doing so--I (and the other female grad student in ME design) swore more than all of them combined. ;)

  5. Love these comments, thank you.

    @Cloud - your post reminded me of something I have seen at work, with respect to perception and performance reviews. I can never seem to hit the right balance - either I don't speak up enough (according to reviews) or I'm "too aggressive in my communication style", which is in reality, FAR less aggressive than most of the men I work with (who get away with things like calling someone "a fucking idiot"...) So yeah, you're probably right that there is still some assumption that my behavior will be a certain way because I'm female.

    I think @Cherish is also right that it's more of an issue with the 50+ year olds, who we don't have a lot of in my workplace.

    But I also see @CherylZ's point, hence this post in the first place.

    I do get a lot out of the training and social events, because the ones I tend to sign up for aren't so much "Oh it's so hard being a woman in such a male environment" but more "discover your skills, strengths, etc".

    Anyway, thanks for your insight.

  6. Wow. What a head scratcher.

    My personal view is - I am woman hear me roar...and I can roar just as loudly as a man. That being said, I'm well aware that I am not treated like a man in so many other ways (Pay for one).

    I think women's lib (do I dare call it that?) has come a long ways. There is still some old beliefs that barefoot and pregnant is where a woman belongs, but I think by and large, women have found their voice.

    I say keep taking advantage of these opportunities. Its not all about being singled out as a woman who may need guidance, you could just as easily learn something new that may help you as a woman, as a mother, as a nerd (a delightful nerd) and as a career woman.

    The fact that you even care about this and how you should handle it shows your light years away from a lot of women who do feel they deserve that or need it. Your personal growth is something always in the front of your mind, and that's a good thing.

  7. (This was from the comments on Facebook, if you get confused who Sarah is. Anandi asked that we copy/paste here.)

    By similar logic, perhaps you should consider moving to sub-Saharan Africa so you don't have to feel guilty about the unfair advantages of things like infrastructure and safety that you can have in America.

    If you want my take on it: I agree with Sarah. Go and enjoy, and pay it forward when you can. Don't feel guilty about taking the opportunities you have, if you're using your powers for good. Sure, encourage your company to pay for good training regardless of gender, but don't pass up good opportunities to learn things, just because somebody else isn't getting invited.

    One other thing to consider: in a male-skewed environment like Tech and tech companies, you're providing a little extra value by being a female engineer there, all else being equal. Both to the controller of the environment (by proving they're not discriminating excessively) and to your colleagues (by showing/reminding them that females are just normal people too, which can be valuable knowledge if learned properly, and which can be surprisingly non-obvious to people who aren't thus exposed).

    If that's correct, that makes it arguably fair if you get minor extra perks. Even assuming they're taking measures to make sure you're paid fairly (which still keeps coming up broken in apparently well-meaning companies). Not to mention the "subtle, pernicious discrimination you can't see" kind of claim you sometimes see people making.

    Not that any of these extraneous issues would be present in a perfect world, just that it makes a hand-wavy kind of sense to me as to why your bonuses might reasonably balance with other second-order effects. And if that's the case, there's no point agonizing over the nickles and dimes.

  8. The way I see it, MS finds business value in making sure that even women who already felt happy and supported in their career (you) feel even more so. If it makes you more effective on your job or just more fun to work with, it enriches the experience of the people around you so they benefit too.

  9. @Jake and @Tom brought up some interesting points on Facebook so I asked them to post here.

    I think what makes me feel a little better about the perceived "unfairness" is that I can *share* the knowledge with others who might not be able to attend.

    @Rachel brings up something that's very true in our competitive tech culture. If I don't take the opportunities, someone else will. In a situation where our performance reviews involve being literally ranked against everyone in that org, stuff like this does make a difference. (I could write a whole ranty post about how this discourages teamwork, but not today...)

    Also, my company does offer excellent training and conference opportunities to everyone, and these women-focused things are in addition to that. So it's not exactly the haves and have nots.

    You guys are awesome. Love the different perspectives here. (And things I didn't even think about, to be honest!)

  10. You definitely keep going. You take every advantage you can get! There is no shame in that, whether you "need" it or not. It's being given to you, and that still doesn't level the playing field, honestly. Keep taking every opportunity you want!

  11. My thought as a fellow employee: I don't think this is about women needing extra help to get ahead. I think it's about fostering women's interest in technology since there are so few that seem to come into this field. We as a company recognize the many benefits of having a diverse gender ratio driving our tech development, and we want to continue to keep women passionate about the field. I think it is great that they are offering such great courses to anyone who wants to attend, but focusing on women. It is a field that needs more women, and by exciting the folks here, we as a company can hope that folks will pay that excitement forward in the community!

  12. @Sonja - thanks for chiming in. I like the idea of spreading that passion through the community as well.

    @Rachel re: gender tendencies to one thing or another, I do think those exist, but I also think we can mistake subtle conditioning for those tendencies.

    In other countries like India and China, there isn't such a HUGE gender gap in science and engineering careers. I would love to know what we do differently here to make that so, and it makes me think it's cultural.

  13. This is an interesting discussion.

    @Rachel, I mean this comment respectfully, but the problem with your statement about groups tending to prefer one thing or another is that people then assume that those tendencies are hard-wired into the biology of the groups. The data do not support that conclusion, despite what people like Larry Summers say. The data actually indicate that even in spatial reasoning, which is one of the most profound gender differences (which is not actually that big- the aptitude curves of adult men and women are still largely overlapping), if men and women practice a task they end up equally good at it.

    But our culture ignores the counter-evidence and people go around saying things like "women's brains just aren't wired for math" as if it were proven fact, and little girls start to internalize this cultural belief. They think that they are just not as good in math and science as boys are (even though the research indicates that they can be!) and so they don't choose to pursue careers in STEM. And then everyone points at this continuing disparity, despite the large decrease in overt discrimination, and says "See! The women just don't LIKE these fields."

    I recommend Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot for anyone wanting an overview of the science and an argument about how even subtle differences in how we treat our children can create these supposedly innate preferences.

  14. Well, I think those differences may well BE hard-wired into our brains, as hard as we try to confirm the blank slate theory. There's no reason you can't overcome whatever proclivities your own wiring happens to have, if you want to--for example, I wanted a career in a math and science field despite being better at language arts than I am at math, so I probably just had a harder time than if I'd gone into something I had more of a talent for. There may be effects from subtle conditioning, but it's far too simple to say that we raise girls telling them they're no good at math, so they aren't, and yet that's the usual battle cry. People's brains have differences, some of which are surely more common in one gender than the other. I see it in myself. I see it in my opposite-gendered children. That's not a bad thing. As a matter of fact, if women don't want to be engineers, that's not a bad thing either. It just is. Not everything in the world is going to appeal equally to both genders. That has never bothered me. Why is it different in Asian cultures? Maybe people there have higher expectations of their children, regardless of gender, in terms of what careers they should pursue. Maybe women here feel freer to engage in a wider range of other professions. Maybe people in India and China see that the way out of the poverty in those countries is through science and tech careers, while people here don't have that carrot. Who knows? I just know that innate difference is seen as such a taboo belief (railing against the standard social science model!), but, baby, I was born this way. :)

  15. But @Rachel, my point was that the data do not support your hypothesis.

  16. My mouth is open, foot in a holding pattern...

    Let me take this from another perspective. Having a skewed environment (whether that skew is gender, racial, religious, what have you) is both unpleasant and suboptimal. Scott Page, a former Caltech professor, even provided a mathematical proof. The New York Times has an interesting interview with him. (I took Scott's class my last term at Tech; it was a blast, and I regret not having taken it earlier so I could've tried to score an undergrad research position with him.)

    Let's assume the company or school recognizes this inefficiency and asks, "How can we remedy this skew?" The easier route -- aside from lowering your standards, of course -- is to open the pocketbook and fund projects which make the environment more attractive to the underrepresented group. (The harder route is to try to change the culture by attacking the problem directly. Given that this pattern pervades across groups, it feels a bit like a boil the ocean problem to me. I hope someone smarter than me can come along and effectively tackle this. I know that Salman Khan is.)

    From a school or company's perspective, this is not much different than providing an endowed chair to a promising faculty member, paying for an enthusiastic manager to get an MBA, paying for their engineers to attend a conference, etc.

    The primary purpose is to attract and retain the targeted persons. Whether these projects directly impact the organization or not is secondary. Thus, I propose: whether you choose to take advantage of them or not is largely irrelevant (!). They're there, and Microsoft has you (as Caltech did earlier). Mission accomplished!

    On a personal level, I say go for it (assuming it interests you). Someday, I hope, these efforts will be irrelevant and downright silly. You're already part of the solution. Revel in it!

  17. Take advantage of the opportunities, don't feel guilty, and remember this conversation if you're ever in a decision-making position! It's good that you've thought about it, that you're aware of 'fairness' issues. Thanks for the post!

  18. From Facebook: An, if the company sponsors something to which everyone is invited but men generally choose not to go, you should continue to go and not feel guilty. If the company sponsors things from which it deliberately excludes people because of their sex, you should fight that regardless of which way that goes. If the groups/conferences/whatever are independent, then you do what you enjoy or what suits your career goals. Ultimately, you're the one responsible for your career. That means you owe it to yourself, your husband, and your child to take advantage of opportunities which come your way. I guess you're struggling to figure out fair vs. unfair. That winds up being about who has choices and who does not.

  19. From Facebook: Anandi posted: "Bryce - it's open to everyone, but how many men are reasonably going to attend something called the "Womens' Conference"? A few do, and I give them props (and they're probably surprised by how useful the content is to THEM as well...)"
    And I responded: "An, what you're telling me is that the men are being hampered by their own attitudes. I can't see how that's your problem. If it really keeps you awake at night, encourage some men to go. When they still choose not to do so, your conscience is clear."

  20. I think I have a high "fairness" meter, which has always made me wonder about things like this.

    @DAC - thanks for the link to the Scott Page interview - that was fascinating. I vaguely remember meeting him. Sounds like a really interesting guy.

  21. @Rachel - the differences are not hard-wired. (http://cherishthescientist.net/2011/12/15/take-that-larry-summers/) It's a lot easier to claim that "girls are just that way" than to go about challenging cultural norms. As Anandi mentioned, India and China don't have the type of disparities we see here in the US, so thinking it's hard wired is a bit of ethnocentrism on our part.

  22. Cherish, why can't it be that some differences are hard-wired and some are cultural in nature? To take a simple example, men, biologically, produce more testosterone than women (in general - there is undoubtedly some overlap). Testosterone tends to make people more aggressive. It is therefore no accident that men tend to be more aggressive than women. It may well be that our brains themselves are more or less the same, on average, between the sexes, but the hormones and other chemicals which affect them are measurably different. I think it's sufficiently complex and as-yet unknown that it's hard to draw many strong conclusions.

  23. Bryce, I'm not saying there are no sex differences. I'm saying the evidence doesn't support it. There really aren't any significant differences in cognitive ability, particularly in math. Some of the biggest differences have been shown to be caused by things like stereotype threat. What differences that do exist are being significantly overblown.

  24. I have seen studies going in both directions. The data do not all support my hypothesis, or yours either. My point is, so what if it is hard-wired or not? It's a big assumption to make that just as many women as men in the US would want to be engineers and are somehow discouraged from doing so. There could well be reasons outside society's being mean to females that fewer are in certain careers. Sometimes, yes, I think these things are societal. Look at how people react to a man who wants to be a preschool teacher, for example. But not all disparities are evidence of oppression.

  25. I would be very interested to see what studies you can come up with that can explain how I ended up with 90 freshman electrical engineering students and only 5 of them were women. This is especially disturbing when those five women were all easily within the top quartile for the class. If cognitive abilities were to blame, I would expect that they would have been distributed toward the center or bottom of the group.

    Also, if cognitive differences are to blame, it also doesn't explain why they're actually seeing a drop in enrollment by females in certain engineering and science majors, particularly those that are already male dominated. If it were cognitive, then you would never have expected it to get as high as it did (approximately 15% of EEs) to begin with.

  26. Which would give better career support:

    -Attend meetings on women in tech / office politics / work-life balance.

    -Play on the Microshaft Cricket Team.

  27. Which careers people choose to pursue aren't related solely to ability. They also relate to personal interest, potential salary, risk, and any number of other things.
    Engineers tend to get paid pretty well, but engineering school is hard (I'm an engineer). Why put oneself through the meat grinder? What's the reward on the other side? In our society, which is more acceptable: the man is the "breadwinner" and the woman stays at home with the kids, or vice versa? It's also the case that the higher estrogen/testosterone ratio tends to make women more nurturing and therefore more likely to want to stay home with children. So, when choosing mates, making a good living is more important in a man than it is in a woman, and that is related both to society (which is probably partially reflective of biology) and biology.
    I'll go back to testosterone and competitiveness again. Generally, men want to win more than women do. Therefore, part of choosing a career (and subsequently a career path) is about competing with others to see who can make the most money, at least for a lot of men. So, again, why go to engineering school? To win.
    I presume that there are, on average, some differences in the cognitive abilities and distributions of men and women. I won't claim to know what those are or their magnitude. Ultimately, the best thing I can do is to judge each person on his or her individual merits and not on what demographics into which he or she fits.

  28. Hey folks, while you're welcome to continue discussing *why* there are fewer women in STEM fields, I think we're going off on a tangent a bit.

    My original intent was to understand whether people who don't feel like "victims" of sexism (or any other kind of discrimination) should take advantage of programs in place to alleviate it.

    I'm starting from the place of *accepting* that there is a gender imbalance, given that every team I've been on at my current tech company has been 10% female or less.

    I'm trying to understand if these programs make excluded folks resentful, feel that the target folks do need "extra help", or if it's all for the greater good and contributing to retaining folks in underrepresented groups. (We could make this about race, as well as gender, I think.)

    I'm also updating/reposting this for a Women in Technology blog run by someone at work, and I'd love to use some of your comments and viewpoints (anonymized, of course). If you're opposed to that, let me know.

    Carry on ;)

  29. I have no coherent thesis to present here, but a few points.

    (1) If you like women's conferences, then you should go. These types of issues really have no pat solution, and there will be no dominate reason on either side of the debate as you posed it. Don't let analysis paralysis keep you from attending an enjoyable, and probably beneficial event.

    (2) If nothing else, you will serve as a rational point of view at the conference. If everyone that felt like you decided to not attend because it was not fair to people like me (white, male, average height, midwestern, relatively well off, shockingly good looking) then the conference would be decidedly worse off, in an echo chamber of ways the world is not fair.

    (3) People like me do occasionally complain that there is not conference for white males. It's fun to complain. I also complain about my lack of 50% raise, my terrible computer (which isn't), and my lack of a pony (which I don't actually want). Very few, if any people feel genuinely put out.

    (4) Caltech's strategy of paying women to attend pre-frosh weekend is genius. All reports are that Caltech does not lower admissions standards to achieve social goals, so you and I both are confident that you deserved to be there, and didn't push out some more qualified majority. Your parents could have paid your way, and you may have attended anyway ... but you wouldn't have felt as wanted, and maybe MIT would have paid your way instead.

    (5) Ideally, someday representation at tech companies will be so even that these groups will genuinely search for a reasons for their existence. (I don't think that we're there yet.) Even once we get there these groups may accomplish some good.

    (6) I swear at work, kind of a lot, usually when discussing a person or company who is not present. I probably swear regardless of the gender of my current conversationalist. I'm glad to learn that it is not because I'm an a-social cad, but because I and so refined and postmodern. Thanks ! :)

  30. (7) I really like bullets. Probably more than I should.

  31. At some of the women-only events, I get a definite "us vs them" vibe, or a "we women gotta stick together" thing that makes me uncomfortable. i will say this seems to generally come from an older generation of women, maybe those that had to fight harder against ingrained sexism. But it still makes me uncomfortable...

  32. For what it's worth, if you feel like sharing parts or all of my comment, no anonymizing needed. :-)

  33. Anandi, I just want to say how much I'm enjoying this discussion AND how much I admire you for questioning the possible "over-fairness" of corp policies benefiting women (or any specific group). I too have heard the Us-VS-Them rants of some women & understand your discomfort where rational discussion is not an option. But you shouldn't feel guilty about taking an opportunity offered... NOT AT ALL. You walked through an Open door:) Bravo!
    I've reached the Age of Wisdom (aka Medicare), having grown up in the South where a woman's career aspirations were to get married OR become a teacher OR nurse OR Miss America. (Yes, I blush at this memory! Please don't tell anybody!) Blacks drank from different fountains, attended different/inferior schools, & sat in the back of buses. I have seen the MAJOR changes that stopped these practices. I've got 1 foot on each side of the Women's Lib movement. This country has made HUGE strides, not only taking legal steps to punish discrimination, but changing minds. For 10 years, I taught power system & electrical engineers how to use our sophisticated s/w, & the engineers (yes, 90% men) appreciated having a professional, experienced teacher. I do think we as a society have opened all the doors of opportunity & supported$$$ efforts to groom folks to step proudly through those doors. BUT (for whatever reason), apparently women still don't deluge CalTech with applications & native black-American kids score lower in reading/writing than their immigrant peers. I question how much more we should do? Ultimately we are responsible for the choices we make in life. The "social engineering" our government & companies continue to $pon$or merely attempts to "fine tune" a society where the doors are already open for those willing to step through.

  34. An, you can feel free to use my name when you repost.

  35. Exactly what Cloud said in her first comment.

    In my male-dominated field, even though overt sexism has been rare (and mostly centered around the Larry Summers contretemps), women's papers have to be higher quality in order to be published (and this has been measured by citations). Women can't advocate for themselves-- they have to have some senior guy advocate on their behalf. Men who are obnoxious get jobs at Harvard. Women who act the same way are barred from conferences. None of these things are overt or intentional, but it keeps me at a disadvantage compared to white male colleagues who don't work as hard, are equally or not as smart, definitely have fewer accomplishments, but have penises. Sure there are men who are more awesome than I am or just as awesome as I am, but they have much more prestigious jobs. You should see the differences in letters of recommendation we get from famous guys... surely they don't mean to damn women with faint praise ("She isn't as ditzy as she first appears... very much like [a famous female in the field]"), but they do.

    Additionally, I would like to point out that just saying that there are hard-wired differences (when in fact, the evidence strongly supports nurture over nature, and when, in fact, individual differences almost always swamp differences between groups), increases disparities through something called stereotype threat. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stereotype_threat So just repeating those kinds of myths perpetuates bad outcomes for the underrepresented group. (We also have a post on stereotype threat, but it's a bit dirty.)

    I opted twice not to go to Caltech, but I had a lot of friends who went. They're all a little younger though... the oldest would have started in 1994. Most of them ended up in Blacker.

  36. @nicoleandmaggie - thanks for your thoughtful comment. Academia sounds a lot different, and unpleasant, with more than "subtle" sexism, yikes. You must really like your field ;)

    There's a chance I might know some of your friends, and I'd definitely know people who do. I loved my time at Caltech (mostly) but it's definitely not for everyone.

  37. Chiming in late. In short, amen to everything @Cloud and @nicoleandmaggie said. (And I like how you brought the discussion back on track without silencing anyone. Well done.)

    I worked for about a decade in a similarly large, mega rich, male-dominated corporation that's a household name, and which also offered free Women's Programs like you describe. So I know from whence I speak when I say, Hells Yes, you Keep Going to the meetings... with one caveat - your time is valuable and there are some sessions you can skip, but there are some you definitely shouldn't miss.

    Make sure not to miss the ones that help you meet and develop real relationships with senior people in your own company. But before you do that, go read "Nice Girls Don't Get The Corner Office" by Lois P Frankel. After you read it, and do some of the self-evaluation therein, you honestly might not feel you need to spend your time on any more of the sort of general topic sessions where you're not really able to meet anyone.

    Feel free to skip the sessions featuring speeches from "Successful Women in Other Businesses" outside your firm that have no real relationship to your work in any way shape or form - yes, they might be interesting, but IMHO, odds are they won't really be telling you anything new you couldn't otherwise learn about by reading blogs (e.g. my core takeaways from them were things like "Good nannies are instrumental" and "Some successful female breadwinners wish their husbands were more helpful at home").

    What I wish more companies would actually do is to be more explicit about arranging meaningful mentoring relationships with the people who have P&L responsibility. One thing my old company did right was to pair me up with a very senior male director who had volunteered to be a "Women's Champion" - and luckily we clicked, and he really and truly did mentor me (i.e. tell me the unvarnished truth about how to really succeed there) which I am 100% convinced helped me get promoted. My friend who started with me and went to an even better school unfortunately got paired up with a Director of Bunny Rabbits (no P&L responsibility) and was gone within 2 years, and I don't think that's any sort of a coincidence but I digress.

    My mentor would basically give me great advice like the adage I always spread around to my bloggy friends, "Don't Marry An Asshole" and other tidbits like "I could get sued for saying this but if you want to get rich here someday, wait until you're at least a VP here before you have your first kid otherwise Mr. X won't assign you to this and then you'll never get the chance to work with Mr. Y who actually calls the shots." He knew what the proverbial chess board looked like. His perspective was WAY more helpful than anything else because news flash: that kind of mentoring is PRECISELY what men typically get without even having to try as hard to actively seek it out.

    The fact that your employer is even offering these programs in the first place tells me that they're potentially worried about discrimination litigation. They also want to protect their investment in human capital. One way to think about it is that you're actually doing your company a huge favor by attending any of them.

    Longer comment than I intended, but in the words of Tina Fey, "everyone is your competition" - so if you are given an advantage, take it, because the reality is not being a male is probably harming you in other ways you might not always see. (duh - I don't think that's a debatable point at all, but clearly not everyone seems to get it.)


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