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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?


9 Responses to “Noticing how many women are in the room”

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist said

    As I thought about your question, I realized an uncomfortable reality for me. I would like to say I notice the gender balance in groups, but as I think about times when I’ve done that and/or actually articulated it to someone, it’s been when I’ve noticed the very small numbers of men in faculty development meetings at my school. Interesting, I guess.

    • Melissa said

      I was trying to think about when I started doing this, and I am not sure. I certainly remember noticing being one of only two women (out of 20) in my high school AP CS class, but I don’t think I made a habit of it until grad school.

      • Bitsy said

        I know I do notice, but I’m not sure how often. My memories of noticing gender balance in college mostly center on how odd I felt when I was in a room that was close to 50/50, like in political science classes, and yet I can tell you how many women were in my major-cohort without needing to think about who they were. I think I make a habit of it when I am in a new space — what is the breakdown within Urban vs. Labor — but once I’ve “mapped” that space I stop actively noticing.

  2. Ken in Northfield said

    Along the same line:

    Women can’t end sexism in the workplace just by showing up

  3. “It can feel exhausting to always notice these details and to feel alone in your noticing.” Yes, yes, yes. Last summer Anita and I read Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included…it’s an ethnography of Brit/Australian universities; she details how faculty and staff of color struggle with being alone in so many spaces and how, because of how *viscerally felt* this aloneness sometimes is, they are hyperaware of when there might be allies present.

    I do think that part of our task, once we’re in the room, is to call attention to who’s missing from the table, or how the table’s discourse is problematic. But let’s also acknowledge that that work is hard, wearing, and sometimes feels like banging your head against a wall. I had an interesting discussion with a colleague (white, male) about his diversity work where I pointed out that he was *getting more traction* than others had around some topics…and that he had an *advantage* here. Of course, at the moment, he was just feeling defeated and tired…

    • Melissa said

      Adriana, I agree that I probably *should* bring attention to what I notice more often. And yet, as you note, it’s hard. If what you experience involves members of the group not correctly hearing particular voices or exhibiting condescension towards those voices or otherwise being tone deaf about aspects of the situation, that makes it difficult for the (often unintentionally) marginalized voices to gain traction in highlighting the issue. Thus, in some cases, it feels easier to give up on trying to change the situation than deal with the injury of trying to keep banging your head against the wall. I’ll add Sara Ahmed’s book to my reading list.

  4. Kris said

    I’m a member of an institution that is instituting something called process monitoring into its meetings. The process monitor is someone trained to observe and then, at a designated time, report on the process of the meeting: who was there, how many men, women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ, etc as well as sharing how the conversation went: were conventions followed, were there a lot of interruptions, who spoke a lot, who didn’t speak, etc. What was the tone of the meeting? What knowledge was assumed? Did everyone have access to that? etc No names are used during the reporting as the point is not to single out individuals but patterns, especially patterns of how power and privilege manifest in group dynamics generically. The observations are shared simply as observations, not truth, but as something to think about and wonder about. There is no debate, no discussion.

    It generally adds 5 minutes to every hour of a meeting.

    We started implementing this as part of our anti-racism work, and is we white allies are especially trying to take on so that we can take some of that burden you describe off of the people of color.

    One great thing about the process is that just the knowledge that the process is being observed affects the process. (just like in quantum mechanics!) In this case, the effect is generally positive.

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