Noticing how many women are in the room
Posted by Melissa on January 13, 2015
Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s NY Times opinion piece about women speaking up at work has been making the rounds in the past few days. The situations they discuss are familiar to most women with whom I’ve talked. The larger issue of the representation of women in groups, and particularly in leadership positions, has been on my mind frequently on account of several discouraging experiences I’ve had in the past year.
A number of years ago, I was at a STEM faculty development workshop where we had been split into groups to work on a particular task. I happened to be the only woman in my group of about 6 or 7 people; in the debrief discussion afterwards, all of the workshop facilitators had noticed this, but I was the only member of my group who had noticed it. I was somewhat surprised that none of the men in the group had noticed the gender breakdown. I admitted to the group that I usually pay attention to how many women (and women of color) are in the room/group/meeting at most STEM events I go to. I do it without even thinking about it. My question: When I notice the gender makeup and dynamics of a group, under what circumstances should I call others’ attention to it? I tend to keep my observations to myself, but I sometimes wonder if that is the right thing to do.
I asked a physics colleague at another university about this mental accounting, and I learned that she also usually notes how many women are in attendance at physics-related activities. Like me, she rarely shares what she notices with others, but we both find ourselves wondering who else is paying attention to the gender makeup and dynamics of a group, and who isn’t. It can feel exhausting to always notice these details and to feel alone in your noticing. The other day I was reading an article by Adrienne Minerick in the October issue of Prism, the magazine of the ASEE, that made me wonder whether I ought to bring up what I notice more often. Minerick writes, “Simply talking to people similar to yourself about uncomfortable topics such as gender roles does too little to change the status quo. The majority remains oblivious… Well-intentioned individuals who try to be advocates for a minority can still miss indications of a problem.”
When do you notice how many women are in the room, and how that impacts the dynamics? And when do you call that to the attention of others?