Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Some Gender Observations at Work

This week has been interesting for me in terms of the STEM gender gap - so much so that I feel like I need to write up my observations. Though I have been aware of the STEM gender gap since I decided to go into a STEM degree in 10th grade, I still don't know how to approach it sometimes, or how to educate others about why the STEM gender gap matters (not to mention the STEM race gap). Diversity and the impact of diverse teams is a hard concept to really describe, and the emotions surrounding it are so complex.

1) The Impact of Age
An interesting impact of age is that for men 40 and over, it's hard for them to recognize me (the 23 year old female) as a peer. For some, it's because their daughters are "just a few" years younger than I am (where "just a few" is 6-8 years, when their daughters are in high school). This does not happen to my male counterparts - they don't look at them and get reminded of their sons. I'm not sure why this happens, but it's extremely interesting and has a big impact from a work perspective - it's much easier to talk to someone as a peer when they don't remind you of your child at home.

Also, before you all say I'm imagining it, people have flat out told me "you remind me of my daughter" or "my daughter is a lot like you" and then proceeded to act accordingly. One of my supervisors literally patted me on the head once (he didn't mean for it to be weird, but I flipped out a little bit). Approaching those you supervise as though you are approaching a child is funny sometimes, but more often harmful, and it's my hypothesis (though I can't prove this) that women are more likely to be approached as a child than men.

Now, I'm fully willing to admit that some of the problem is me and how I present myself - I want to be told what to do and tend to speak about myself and my experiences with level of uncertainty that I don't see in my male counterparts. I'm often afraid of being told that I'm "too aggressive" and therefore I act in a non-threatening manner - which leads to my being seen as "young" and therefore treated somewhat with a parent/child relationship. And I know, none of these guys are doing it on purpose and would be upset if they knew that sometimes I feel as though they treat me that way (this is why I'm part of the problem). But still, it's super interesting. 

2) The 'Strength in Numbers' concept at Meetings
Today, I went to three meetings. In each of the meetings, I was the only female. One was a lunch with a high school mentor student (1/2 ratio) one was a project weekly status meeting (1/8 ratio) and one was a brainstorming session for new work (1/6 ratio). In each of these meetings, I was fairly quiet, and I prefaced most of my comments with "Well, I think" or "Well, I don't have X but based on what I do know, Y" or something along those lines. All the things I said, I prefaced with something that, in the event I was wrong, covered my bases so I could say "well, I wasn't certain".

I've also attended three all-female meetings in the past two weeks (not today, because the all-female meetings are fewer and further between). In those meetings, I speak with confidence and act on my experiences without hesitation. Part of this is because I am just more confident speaking to women, but another piece is that if there's another woman in the room, I'm less likely to feel judged for my opinion. Knowing that you're not the only one out there - it's a real thing, and it helps.

3) The Funny End Note
Now, before you go away all depressed about the gender gap in STEM, here's a funny ending note about gender differences - It is easier for guys to just wear a funny or nerdy t-shirt, and call it a Halloween costume. Case in point - on Friday, Oct. 30th, my project manager was wearing a star trek t shirt, and getting away with calling it a costume. His boss (a woman) was wearing a full on pink bunny suit. Another guy was wearing a Darth Vader jacket, while a different woman was wearing a Minnie Mouse dress, gloves, and ears. It's so much harder to dress up for Halloween as a female (especially in a work appropriate way)! I demand equality in Halloween costumes! (just kidding). 

The point my boss made was this - no one expects a guy to make an effort in his appearance, so remembering to put a geek t-shirt on in the morning is quite an accomplishment. Since women are already known for taking time to look good, more is expected from their costumes. Which I guess I can accept.

Anyways, I'm interested in hearing your take on gender gaps where you work - especially those of you who work in female-dominated jobs where the males are the minority!