What Keeps Women Apart From Other Women? Discuss!

Sep 27 2012 Published by under Daily Struggles, Isn't It Ironic?, Naming Experience

1) Have you ever been buttonholed by a woman recently ejected from her science career, anxious to tell you her tale?  You know it will be filled with sadness and anger.  You know you should listen and give some form of support, maybe point her to some resources if she’s asking and you know them.  But what you want is to disentangle yourself as quickly as seems decent.  You wonder whether if maybe she wasn’t that great in the lab and has jacked up a few disparate events to cover for her deficiencies.  You want to get away in case whatever she has – bad lab karma, a kick-me sign – is catching. You feel slightly ashamed. Still, you hand her off to someone else with a palpable sense of relief and head for the door.


2) Have you ever been approached by a woman scientist looking to start a support group for women at your level? Something informal, meets maybe once a month, just get together over some munchies and talk about how things are going, share career advice, provide moral support. You say it sounds like a great idea but you aren’t sure you can commit to another project at this time.  You really need to keep your head down and get this set of experiments/thesis/job search/grant proposal/tenure packet/promotion under your belt before you can even think about anything new.


3) Have you ever gone to a conference where you knew a Famous Woman would be present and you were excited to meet her, your hero? And you are finally introduced to her, and she’s in the company of Professor Eminent Graybeard, Dr. Big Swinging Dick, and Dr. New Hot Thing? And she gives you a brief nod and a cursory hello and goes straight back to her Important Discussion with the boys? And you get the hint and wander off, and never get another chance to speak to her, let alone meet the big boys?


4) Have you ever found yourself in the position of being the Famous Woman at a conference, and you just couldn’t find a single minute to introduce yourself to any n00bs, take a little time to mentor someone, or participate in the women’s caucus, if there is one? Did a n00b approach you with shining eyes and tell you she is such a fan, because you have done X! And you drily reply, “Well, yes, but I’ve also done Y and Z,” irritated that the n00b doesn’t even know this significant information about you. You! The very things that make you a Famous Woman! Who is this crazy person who thinks she is your fan? And you turn back to your conversation with your Important Friends, giving the n00b some of your back so she knows to go away?


5) Have you ever been at a talk about the advancement of women in science, and during the Q&A you opine that such talks bother you, because you (the only woman ever hired into your department) have worked very hard and been extremely successful as a result, and you didn’t get any help from anyone, or any special treatment or lowered standards to make it easier to get to where you are, and you resent the idea that spreading talk like this around is going to make other people question your credentials even though you don’t believe in this hogwash?  Women just need to work twice as hard as men to prove they can do the work, and the men will see they are capable and they will get the jobs!


6) Have you, a white woman, ever had an HR or department admin bring to you a talented person of color, because “you will know everything about being a minority in this field, and can help them out”?  Have you, a white woman, ever been tasked with orienting a woman of color to your lab, and begun (and sometimes ended) by saying “you probably want to know where the Multicultural/Diversity Office is. I’m not sure, but I’ll look it up for you.”  Or you assume the new woman likes to drink heavily, or is interested in scoping out dudes with you?


7) Have you ever wondered why we women have so many ways to keep ourselves from joining in solidarity? Why we believe so much the lie that individuals are responsible for all their success and all their failure, so we each need to get cracking in our lonely monk’s cells? That failure might be catching if you talk about it, but not success?  That other women are the real enemy?



26 responses so far

  • I personally have participated and started support groups. I have also been the woman in role number 1 and have tried to help other woman in that situation. Sadly thought I am now the woman who doesn't have time and needs to get her shit done. hence my lack of blog post etc.

  • I actually have gone to conferences where I have talked to women more senior than me in my field who have given me advice and mentored me. In my neuroscience grad school there were (way) more females than males, and in the lab that I work in the women also outnumber the men. I know that at the professor level this is not reflected at all, but I still don't at all feel like the only woman in a men's world. Maybe this is different in other fields, but I almost wonder why women need to join in solidarity? Should people just join in solidarity?

  • Ria says:

    I don't fit any of the categories. Rather, I've been approached at two different universities to help with programs to increase opportunities for minority representation and retention in research, and I've always participated as much as I was able (typically as much as I was allowed to participate by the program in question, given that I don't fit the demographic). I have actively sought out help to deal with problems in my training (related to a variety of -isms that are supposed to be illegal to discriminate against), and was able to receive the help of an amazing senior female scientist to deal with these problems. I think it's very important for people to always act in a professional and ethical manner towards one another...which means that if I see someone in need of help, I try to help, if at all possible. I want to be clear, though...this isn't synonymous with being "nice". It doesn't feel very good for a senior person to tell you that you have no idea how to write a grant, or that you need to work much harder at one or another skill at which you're weak...but that's really valuable information, and it's actually helpful, whereas being "nice" often isn't helpful at all. People too often confuse the two. The main exception that I can think of where being nice and being helpful are often the same would probably be in networking opportunities.

    You'd be surprised how often personalities will keep women apart, particularly if you aren't perceived as being "nice". Even if you are doing your level best to be helpful. I think this may be more of a problem for women scientists/engineers than in other fields where women aren't necessarily trained to hyper-focus and be so skeptical (good traits in moderation or applied judiciously...bad traits if applied in interpersonal relationships or if trying to get volunteers to help with a task).

  • Zuska says:

    N.B. By asking "have you ever..." I'm not saying X always obtains or must be the case. Perhaps you have never! Or you've encountered something entirely different, or something not on the list. Let us know!

  • pyrope says:

    We started an informal monthly lunch amongst women faculty last year. I wouldn't say it's a support group, but it started in response to some 'issues'. In the last three years my department has gone from 2 female faculty to 8...and it feels like numbers really make a huge difference. In small samples, personalities can wreck all kinds of stuff...but in larger groups I think the herd mentality takes over and you engage because everyone else seems to be doing it.
    The experience for me (as junior faculty) has been really enlightening because we've built a lot of trust and no one is particularly shy about saying what they think. So, my limited experience with groups of women has been pretty positive.

  • KK PhD says:

    Recent engineering PhD grad, currently a Postdoc, happen to be female.

    My answer would be no on all accounts.

    I personally don't think being a female in a male-dominated field needs to be a thing. As a PhD level scholar in one of the most male-dominated branches of engineering, I feel totally comfortable with holding my own as one of the guys. I know not all women feel this way, but this is my truth.

    I also never felt like I needed to join SWE or attend seminars about being a female in engineering (I have attended some seminars on bargaining salary which was for a female and male audience). I would be offended if I was forced or expected to participate in such things. I also don't think it should be required for a female professor to participate in them either if she doesn't want to, for whatever reason.

    It doesn't have anything to do with being unsupportive for other women, I just don't think I personally need a profession venue to sit around and complain about being a girl in the lab with other girls from the lab. I'd rather just grab drinks with the ones I'm friends with in a casual setting and exercise my right to freely complain about our (male) coworkers behind their backs.

    • Zuska says:

      It's great you never felt the need for SWE or seminars about being a woman in engineering. But do you know that SWE is a venue for a lot of career networking? Perhaps you would be in a position to offer tips and insights to another member.

      • KK PhD says:

        Actually that's a good point. I haven't looked into SWE since I was an undergrad, but networking is really important. Plus, now that I survived grad school perhaps I should consider participating in more of a mentor capacity than a mentee/protege.

    • Pascale says:

      Yeah, at your stage of the game I also felt like we were in a post-feminist world. After all, I was in academic pediatrics! Half of our trainees were women! The world would change soon!
      After a few years of subtle sexism and all of the above behaviors, plus other academic studies about women's lack of progress, I changed my mind. I joined those women's groups and began asking why the same 3 middle-aged-white-guys got to do all the cool assignments for the department.
      My husband believes I'm a radical feminist. I still shave my legs, paint my nails, and collect lovely shoes like they could fund my retirement, but because I believe many men still don't believe that women are equal I'm radical.
      I hope he never meets a truly radical feminist because he will come home without balls.
      So keep an open mind. One of these days you're likely to discover that there are still issues with being a woman in your field (my son's in an undergrad engineering school now that is overjoyed to have record female enrollment of 27%).

    • DJMH says:

      While I think it's awesome you haven't felt negative pressures, you mention that some women have. Do you think of yourself as someone in a position to help mentor women who ARE feeling put off by the male dominated field? If not, why not?

  • SEL says:

    Depends on what your definition of "woman" is. According to many of the common definitions, I'm probably not considered a woman. I'm female, but no husband, no kids, not likely to have either, so according to the Republican party I'm not a woman. According to many of the available networking and mentoring things, I'm also not a woman. I've gone to a few "women in science" things, and the main topic is ALWAYS "work-life balance." And "life" always involves family. So if you don't have that, you have no life, or you're not really a woman.

    • KK PhD says:

      Same here.

      My "life" involves Netflix and my cat.

    • Zuska says:

      This is actually a mini-peeve of mine. I sometimes feel the daycare/work-life balance issue is a red herring for more substantive and intransigent issues of institutionalized subtle bias and discrimination. Not that family issues aren't important (and elder care is a family issue, too) but they are not THE issue, imo.

      • pyrope says:

        Family issues are easier to deal with from an institutional perspective than subtle bias (parental leave, stop the clock). I haven't seen much in the way of action targeting subtle bias and discrimination - which clearly remains a problem for all of us given that recent PNAS article. I'm curious what anyone knows about ways to address this problem specifically. 'Raising awareness' seems like a cop out.

    • Hermitage says:

      Agreed. According to 99% of women-centric panels I've gone to, as a female who has decided not to have children or marry someone who refuses to pull their fair share of house duties, I am a non-entity who should have 0 problems climbing the academic ladder and will in no way serve as an inspiration to other women*.

      * Shamless self-promotion: which is why I decided to host a carnival about academic women in science where we don't ever talk about babehs: http://scientopia.org/blogs/thehermitage/wimminz-in-academia-now-with-100-fewer-babies/

  • Pharm Sci Grad says:

    No to 1-6, and yes to parts of 7. Most especially: "Why we believe so much the lie that individuals are responsible for all their success and all their failure, so we each need to get cracking in our lonely monk’s cells?" - I wonder this about all of us scientists still in the game today. A lot of it comes down to a roll of the dice, a favor from a grayhair, or something else you just can't imagine or control.

    Along those same lines, if I had a dollar for every woman around me who has said, "I just generally don't get along well with women" I could buy a round for y'all. As if there was some innate trait that made females such radicially different human beings to get along with than males. m-|

    I am also tired of watching my female mentors get asked to do more and more of the work for less of the credit. Professor Eminent Graybeard, Dr. Big Swinging Dick, and Dr. New Hot Thing rarely consider the time and effort that goes into the important and essential mentoring and service work I see coming, more often than not, from female faculty. This on top of doing all the other awesome things they have to do to keep their mini-empires running.

    In grad school I had a community. As a post-doc, my community is fragmented into labs full of busy people working hard then generally running home to families. It seems that there are few people who aren't too busy with their nose to the grindstone and all their free time already spoken for to even begin to try to do one more thing. I did go to a local women in medicine and science group thing... it was 90% medical students, so that was a little awkward for me, and not so welcoming either. There is a lot that gets in the way. A lot.

  • Madelaine says:


    "Along those same lines, if I had a dollar for every woman around me who has said, "I just generally don't get along well with women" I could buy a round for y'all. As if there was some innate trait that made females such radicially different human beings to get along with than males."

    I was in SWE during my undergrad in Computer Science and quite enjoyed it. I felt a bit lonely in some of my classes as one of very few women.

    I haven't experienced too many of the things listed above, but maybe 3 a little bit. But also the opposite of 3, in a way, where I've specifically bonded more with women at a male-heavy conference. We're workin' on it?

  • [...] What Keeps Women Apart From Other Women? Discuss! [...]

  • Sylvie says:

    Regarding #7 - once, I found that a woman actually was the enemy even though I had no expectation of any such thing. The only other woman in engineering in my office turned out to be the one deliberately excluding me from social gatherings of colleagues. I was shy, quiet, and very isolated among all the guys at work, who hung out together a lot. For several years, I requested now and then of the colleague I knew best that he please let me know when everybody was heading out to lunch; otherwise, I would just suddenly find the office empty. Once, he did invite me, but apparently the other woman complained; thereafter, he told me that "some other people" were uncomfortable with me, and I spent years trying to think which people and why on earth that would be. I was amazed when I finally found out that it had been her - we worked on different floors and barely ever even saw each other, although I had noticed a strange lack of friendliness when I would smile and say hi; this contrasted with her very outgoing behavior with all the guys. Maybe she saw other women as a threat - I don't know. I heard that she also expressed view #5 about not wanting an association with affirmative action to tarnish her credentials.

    Apropos of women supporting women - I rarely run across mention of the fact that a woman, Jill Stein of the Green Party, is running for president right now; she also has a female running mate, Cheri Honkala. For information on Stein's proposed Green New Deal, see http://www.jillstein.org . Anyone interested in hearing her join in the first presidential debate this evening (Wednesday) can tune in to a special Democracy Now program, to be broadcast live from Denver from 8:30pm - 11:30pm ET. It will feature the full debate, together with pauses for responses to the debate questions by Stein and also Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party. Check your local public TV listings for when it may be broadcast near you - it will also be on http://www.democracynow.org .

    Also, I would really like to see Jill Stein talking about the Green New Deal in the official presidential debates, from which third parties are excluded by collusion between the two major parties. If you want actual free and fair debates, rather than ones where only the two major candidates are allowed and they get to select who asks them questions, please sign the petition addressed to the national media, the League of Women Voters, and other civic organizations at:


    From the Wikipedia entry on the League of Women Voters:

    The League sponsored the Presidential debates in 1976, 1980 and 1984. On October 2, 1988, the LWV's 14 trustees voted unanimously to pull out of the debates, and on October 3 they issued a dramatic press release:

    The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates...because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.
    —League President Nancy M. Neuman, LWV October 03, 1988


    Since that time, the Commission on Presidential Debates, created and controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties specifically to be an accessory to hoodwinking, has run the debates. Personally, I'd rather bring back the League of Women Voters!

    Stein and Honkala are very convincing; if you're interested, you can watch Bill Moyers interview them for half an hour at:


  • Cara says:

    Since I'm an old lady undergrad, I'm the one gently explaining to the younger women that laughing along with the titty jokes isn't going to make sexism disappear. They still think if they can be chill girlz it won't happen to them.

    But a few rounds of "back to the kitchen" with the boyz have opened their eyes a bit and made them open to hearing a hairy-legged old lady's experience. They're starting to get that "only girl in the treehouse" isn't really a badge of honor.