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Went to a presentation on the book "Women Don't Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation" by Linda Babcock & Sara Laschever and noted one very important task they recommended for women in male-dominated fields:

Do anything you can to reduce your token status.

In other words: being the one woman in a group will ALWAYS put you at a disadvantage, no matter who you are, how smart you seem, or how often you call bullshit on the XKCD 385 phenomenon:

Let's just lay this all out, accept it and move on: being different creates a barrier. It keeps you from feeling like part of the family, makes someone else wonder if there are other ways where you don't really fit in. It will mean that when you get a promotion, someone will think you got it because you were a woman, not because you're talented. It will cause someone to question whether you're biologically disadvantaged. It will give you impostor syndrome.

And what I just realized is that we can say "Well that's not fair, we should be treated equally" until we're blue in the face... OR we can just even out the numbers. And it's something that Caitlin Moran hinted at in her excellent book "How to Be a Woman": some people don't think women can accomplish great things because we just HAVEN'T. We spent most of the last 100,000 years trying not to die in childbirth, we have no Einstein or Galileo to stand on. We can try to say we did some great things despite all that and deserve to be celebrated just as much as men, but eventually we'll lose that argument based on history and everyone knows it, so why not move on? The only way to prove how smart we are is to break down the barriers today that hold us back.

I've always said that helping out other women was the right thing to do, the nice thing to do. I've noticed that way too many women in engineering refuse to identify themselves as feminists. They claim that any woman who wants to be an engineer just needs to buck up and do it. We don't need to be a "team". Their sentiments are fingernails on a chalkboard to me, mostly because these women are in total denial that they have benefitted from some form of privilege along the way. We all have "the invisible knapsack" of advantages granted through birthright. It's not really fair to anyone to pretend that success is something that arrives magically through pure talent, that no one helped you along the way, and no one needs your help.

But now I have a second argument for helping women, besides the fact that it's a nice thing to do... it's critical to YOUR success that you're not a token. The book says that when a minority reaches 15% of the makeup of an organization, things start to change. Individuals really can be looked at as individuals, not representatives of their race or sex. They can network with each other, give one another the words to express what's wrong with bad experiences. Members of the majority can look around and realize "hey, our demographics shifted, but it's okay, I'm still employed, I guess it is safe to be open to new ideas. Maybe we can draw our talent from the entire population, not just the people who grew up just like me... that will help our whole company. What a nice idea."

Yes, it's a chicken and egg thing: women don't want to go into fields where they're the minority, but they'll continue being the minority until they jump in. And that's the cycle that we've been kind of stuck in for the last 50 years. But maybe it's just as simple as declaring that our first step will be to help each other out. As Gail Evans says, "when she wins, you win!". Quit trying to fix all the problems you've encountered being a minority... just bring another smart woman up to your level. Stop being the token. It's as simple as that.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Apr. 19th, 2013 02:41 am (UTC)
I hear what you are saying and I (sort of) agree, but I also disagree.

I think the reason we don't have an Einstein or a Galileo is not necessarily because they did not exist, but because smart women were put down, put to death, ostracized, etc. And when they did do something brilliant? The (male historians) gave credit to male relatives/coworkers or covered it up entirely. And no, I don't meant that it was some giant conspiracy, just that they gave the work no credit because it had a female name attached, it was not worth mentioning in their book.

And as for the "just stop being a token". That's a very easy statement to make and a very hard thing to accomplish, especially when you are at the lower rungs of the organization which is very often when women are looking around, thinking about kids, and deciding on a career path.

I work at a small company (we just reached 50 people again, we've been as small as 35 and as large as 70). I have always been the only female engineer in my department. Until we were acquired last June, we never had more than ~10% female employees and almost all of them were "on the other side", ie in the other half of the building (meaning we interacted maybe once every few months) and in non technical positions (secretary, hr, finance). Last June we were acquired and got a female CEO! And a giant influx of women! Including at least one women with an engineering background! And we are over that 15% mark! And it's made a difference in the overall culture of the company but it's not something that I could have planned or helped at all.

And even with that, I am STILL the token the majority of the time because we are consultants and I work with clients who are overwhelmingly male. (In 6 years, I have had precisely 3 female clients, all very small personal projects. I have met exactly 3 other females in the course of doing business, two of whom were interns.) And that's not something I can really affect. So, yes, on a grand scale I can do outreach events and work with SWE and mentor and all these good things but none of them actually affect my day-to-day "only woman in the room" situation.
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