Last week I attended a conference, at which they had a special meeting on issues facing women in the sciences. It seems that a lot of STEM conferences have meetings like these, whether it’s a networking reception or a brainstorming session. And one of the results of this meeting was a fascinating conversation I had with two recent professors about the role of men in improving the experience of women in STEM fields. I was at lunch with a female professor and a male professor, basically swapping stories with the woman about insensitive comments we’ve gotten and discussing with the man what made them insensitive and what would have been a better thing to say.
The first thing that came up was the practice of pointing out “the only woman in the room.” The other woman and I swapped a few stories about having it pointed out to us that we were the only women in a class or seminar or room. The man was curious about what people should do in the situation where they notice someone is a minority. The answer? Don’t point out how someone is different. It doesn’t matter if they’re the only woman in the room or the only of any other underrepresented group. As I mentioned before, the blaring alarm of “You’re different, you’re different, you’re different” is going off in the head of pretty much anyone who’s at all an oddity in their environment. They already know they’re the only one of their group in the room. You’re not telling them something new, and you’re making them feel self-conscious.
The next thing that we discussed was how to refer to a group of women. The man asked if we were offended by being called “guys” in a mixed-gender group. We both said no, for us, but pointed out that it’s good to ask, and also that the one thing you want to avoid is calling females over the age of 18 “girls.” I am over 30. I am not a girl. And referring to me as a girl makes me feel like you’re diminishing me. The other woman agreed, with perhaps a bit more vehemence. While it’s an unfortunate truth that we live in a world where the English language requires the use of gendered words, at the very least try to avoid the ones that are diminutive or patronizing.
And that’s basically the biggest thing that reasonable people can do to help any underrepresented group in STEM: be sensitive about the way language diminishes minority groups and try not to make people feel weird just for being who they are. And that means that the people in the majority need to make this effort. The people in the majority are the ones that those in the minority encounter on a daily basis and that reinforce the negative stuff, so it’s the people in the majority, particularly men, who can make the biggest difference in the environment. Simply by sitting down, asking questions, and really listening when we answered, that one man was able to walk away with a better understanding of how to encourage underrepresented groups in STEM. And that’s one more person trying, which is never a bad thing.