Sunday, February 10, 2008

So much for equal opportunities

My work place recently celebrated something big. People of power from a whole range of institutions were invited for the event, the place was made to look it's best and the daily routines were interrupted by fancy meals, important speaches and people dressed to impress. A lot of work and thought have gone into planning this thing. A dedicated committee has been working on it for at least a year, and I don't even know how many people were involved in the practicalities of the actual event.

All went smoothly. No scandals, the invited guests seemed happy and all of us employees somehow felt a little more important from being surrounded by all the flowers, free stuff and important people. Part of the program was a seminar series with invited people from just about everywhere and some representatives for our workplace. Out of maybe 25 speakers one was a woman. I don't know if the women did not get asked or if they declined the offer, but off the top of my head I can think of at least a handfull of women who were around for the seminar and whom it would have been appropriate to ask.

The final big-deal-event was a party with many invited guests from all sorts of leadership positions within academia, industry and government. I'm not sure exactly how many invited guest were there, but somewhere between 30 and 50 is probably correct. Out of those 5 were women.

I live in one of the most progressive countries in the world when it comes to gender and diversity issues. Politicians speak at lenght about how to accommodate women in particular, and families in general, and most girls and some women believe they have equal opportunities. Sometimes I almost believe that too. On paper we have equal opportunities and we have one of the most accommodating maternity/paternity leave legislations in the world. Some people would argue that women even have better opportunities, because of affirmative action initiatives (I don't agree, but that's another can of worms). But equal opportunities only go so far.

For my PhD I did all my field work with an all-male group. For most of the time I felt like an outsider in this group, but at least we behaved like a group when we went to meetings. We were part of a bigger research network, and in total we were only five women in the network (of a group of 50 or so people). Three of us were PhD students, and as ridiculous as it sounds, our groups scored some sort of extra credits among the others for having the "token" females onboard. My group were endlessly proud when I wrote an above average dissertation and got a job before I finished, but I was never really accepted into their clique. It wasn't exactly a delightful experience for me, and I have been more than happy to put it behind me, but even in such a toxic environment I wouldn't have had the connections I have today if it wasn't for some of the people I worked with.

I have moved faster in this career than most women/people. I am often the youngest person present at many meetings/ in many situations and I often have somewhat unusual roles for my age. I know many of the bigwigs in my field because it's a small and tightly knit community and I have good mentors who introduce me to people. I also had an advisor in grad school who made an effort to introduce me to his network. I tend to think that I interact with these people on an equal level, and to some extent I do, but really, most of the time it is the token female thing all over again. I have the positions I have and go to the meeting I do because (male) mentors have pointed me out and made it possible. Not that I'm completely passive and don't seek out opportunities myself (I do), but many of the doors that are open to me are so because someone made an effort to make them open to me. There are women in my field, but they are rarely in positions where they can offer to open these doors for others.

I thought about this at the big event the other day, where practically everyone who were in some position of power were men and many of us who were in no position of power at all were women, and then I thought about the seminar and how part of the reason maybe is that women don't even get asked when it really counts. Maybe one of the reasons there are so few women in upper level positions in my field is that the only way one can reach any level is to be "adopted" by one or more male mentors who will make sure that the token female is promoted and shown off in the world. And even if that happens, and one happens to get "adopted" by good people apparently no one makes it to the very top.

This post is a bit messy, but I've got to leave it as it is because I a plane to catch before sunrise tomorrow morning and I still haven't packed. I'll be back in a week and probably won't have internet access while I'm gone, but if the post really doesn't make sense to anyone else but me I'll clean it up when I get back.


At 6:18 AM, Blogger Mad Hatter said...

I have the same conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I think women are disadvantaged and should be helped in their careers by their mentors. But on the other hand, I wouldn't want to be perceived as having achieved success simply because of my gender. Perhaps we are still in a transitional stage--some men have decided to support and promote women in science, and once enough women achieve some measure of success, the idea of the "token woman" will fade.

As for the social interactions aspect, that's a difficult thing to solve. I was briefly the lone female in my lab when I was a grad student and found interactions with the men to be rather odd even though I was friends with each of them individually, and we had all gotten along fine when there were more women in the lab. I think men simply behave differently when they are in mostly male company compared to mixed company. Men would probably find it equally odd to be one amongst a group of women.

At 6:37 PM, Blogger Wayfarer Scientista said...

ah, my Russian colleague used to say "life is getting better" whenever things were particularly rough. I think it's true that you can't get very far if you don't have mentors who don't introduce you to their networks. Mine didn't, not for me or the men, and I think it really affects our abilities in the field.

At 2:46 PM, Anonymous Sabine said...

"I tend to think that I interact with these people on an equal level, and to some extent I do, but really, most of the time it is the token female thing all over again."

I feel like this quite often.

At 9:34 PM, Blogger saxifraga said...

sabine: thanks for validating my experience on this one. Like you I tend to think I'm on equal terms with the others, but then I have this nagging feeling that probably I'm not. It's often easy to brush off because the pointers are vague, but nevertheless I think it's true.

mad hatter: I like the way you talk about it as a transitional phase. I agree with you that it's complex and with wayfarer that it's not only women who are dependent on mentors. It's difficult to point out exactly what should be done differently and how.

I have some thoughts on this, but wrote a separate post rather than burying everything in the comments.


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