Re-post: The Gap and the Wall

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on April 1, 2012.

Last week APM’s radio program, Marketplace, did a story with Freakonomics about the patent gap between men and women. Women are responsible for only about 7.5% of patents in the US. That doesn’t surprise me. What is interesting about this story is that the presenter points to research that shows that when women compete with men they tend to perform worse (not just in comparison with men) than when they compete with women only. He casually recommends that companies like Google allow or encourage women to segregate themselves so that they can attain their full potential without being affected by the gender interaction.

Does this sound familiar? This is the case being made for sex segregated education. Women passionately defend girl’s schools and women’s colleges as safe and nurturing spaces for young women to learn and grow, and I am sure that they often are. My concern is, specifically, with engineering. To my knowledge, there is no women’s college in the US which grants a bachelor’s degree in engineering. I know that some women’s colleges cooperate with a neighboring university so that their students can attend engineering classes, but when women students attend classes at a coed school, they are no longer participating in a women only program. Women may perform better when they are segregated, but the truth is that the real world isn’t segregated and I don’t want it to be. Sooner or later men and women are going to have to work together. I would prefer we change the things that contribute to poor performance by women when working in the presence of men instead of removing all the men.

Do you think you would do better work if you could work in Lady-Land without the Male Gaze? If we are open to segregation why not also look at quotas? Both systems are interfering with “supposed” pure merit systems in an effort to even the playing field.

If you accept that the composition of the community affects the performance of the individual members and you are willing to change the composition of the community to allow some members to perform better then why not move the community to parity as opposed to segregation? Why not require that women need to make up a certain percentage of management and the workforce? I would like to see how women perform when they are represented equally at all levels of an organization.

17 thoughts on “Re-post: The Gap and the Wall

  1. Genevieve

    As an alumna of one of the top Seven Sisters colleges, I have two things to point out. First- I know that Smith College has a Bachelors program in engineering. Second- I couldn’t agree more with your assessment.

    While I was thankful for my solid education, the beautiful grounds, and the sisterhood aspect of my college, I resent the way that my fellow alumnae viewed the outside world: that we, as female graduates of a Seven Sister school, were impervious to the societal norms around us. Rather than see feminism- the act of gender equality in our world around us- as a life-long pursuit and struggle that, in order to achieve would require our years and lifetimes like those of anthropologists, studying in the field American culture from within, we rallied behind a front of girl power, harboring resentment and anger to our male counterparts while safely hidden in our ivy-covered towers. As a woman pursuing an archaeology PhD from an Engineering department at a major technical university, I can say that more change is made by confronting the injustices on a daily basis rather than rallying in forgotten (and archaic) educational systems.

    Men exist in the real world. Some are feminists and allies; others hold a misogynistic view and will never change. And still others are on the fence, having never really met a strong, intelligent, and ambitious woman. The best way we can affect change is by joining society and demonstrating our equal worth: in the classroom, the boardroom, in hospitals, research labs, on stage, behind the scenes, in our homes, through our words and art, through our contributions to science, on the senate floor, and amongst every other place where we should be heard.

    This is how we get the respect we deserve; not by hiding, but rather, by being our best despite the hardships. So many of my sisters were ill-prepared to join the real world because of a naivety of gender relations. While I laud the attempt to foster a supportive, inclusive environment for women, I do not think it prepares us for the confrontation that we will face. By changing minds through demonstrating our worth, by raising the next generation with strong female role models, by voting for politicians who understand that equal pay is not a gift but our right as citizens and that our bodies are not a place for red tape, by supporting our Trans and Cis friends and allies, and by being present, every day, in every community: these are the ways we will make our voices heard.

  2. Elizabeth G. Post author

    Hi! OP here! I think that when this article was originally posted commenters mentioned the Smith program. I would be interested to here from a woman who completed this program. I am looking at the website and the course of study and I can’t figure out if it is a partner program or not (ie if you actually go take courses at another college). The degrees are BS in Engineering Science and a BA in Engineering Arts.

    My bad, sorry I missed it!

    1. Jesse

      My best friend got her degree in Engineering Science from Smith, and she took her engineering classes at Smith, not at a neighboring school.

  3. AntiSlice

    I’ve only attended co-ed schools, but I’ve worked at an all-girls math summer camp (r.i.p. SEARCH) and attend a lot of women-only software/programming events.

    I think that the beginning stages of learning new stereotypically-male skills can be a lot more comfortable in a women-only environment. It helps remove some of the Imposter Syndrome feelings from the situation. It certainly helps me be more willing to ask questions, and in turn hopefully be more assertive in mixed situations. Those meetups definitely feel like our own little world though.

  4. S.P.Zeidler

    I wrote pro segregation of sexes in the comments for the first posting of this text, and missed a question in reaction to my comment there later, about how this segregation would affect trans and gender-queer pupils.

    The effect I lauded would not happen if gender roles would be enforced. The entire point of segregated schools would be to factor out gender and what it means at school. In my experience, at the all-girls school I did not get “you are a girl so you must ..” as I did at the inclusive school, and I would assume that freedom from gender at least part of the day to be beneficial. Am I wrong there?

    Note that there is a distinct difference between German schools (especially when I went to school) and US schools, German schools typically let out at 13:00 and your extra-curricular activities and homework do not happen at school, so schools are for classes only, not almost all the waking time of pupils.

    1. S.P.Zeidler

      amending myself: replace “pro segregation of sexes” with “pro segregation of sexes for children/teenagers while they are finding/defining who they are and what they are good at, and what they like doing, for just at school”.

    2. Tim Chevalier

      I guess i’m not sure how you would segregate schools based on gender while also “factoring out gender and what it means”? How do you choose which school to send a kid to based on their coercively assigned sex at birth, while also not caring about coercively assigned sex at birth?

      1. S.P.Zeidler

        If you had had the choice, would you (assuming an perceived-as-girl viewpoint) have rather visited a school where both boys and girls were attending, and you had been pressured to care a lot about fashion, care about dolls, get gushy about babies, [fill with further traditional female role patterns ad lib], you’d have been ostracized for liking hard science and science fiction and generally been seen as a weirdo for having “boy’s interests” or would you have rather visited an all girls school where none of the above happened?
        e.g. the mixed school had textile crafts for the girls and woodworking for the boys and no option to choose otherwise, the all-girls school offered woodworking and textile crafts and you could pick what you liked better.
        I guess it boils down to “is it more hurtful to be perceived as being some gender and to be surrounded by people of that gender while not being forced to comply to that gender’s role, or to have your environs try to force you into a gender behavior mold no matter whether it fits you or not in mixed company”?

        1. Tim Chevalier

          I’m not sure i’m being clear. If you were a girl, but everyone thought you were a boy, and required you to attend an “all-boys'” school where you would be a social outcast at best and bullied at worst, how would you feel about that?

        2. quill

          Either choice sounds like a slightly different hell, and they both sound way worse than my own mixed high school experience. I frankly don’t believe you when you claim all-female spaces are universally free of gender-policing and gendered socialization – it sounds like your experience was, and that’s nice, but not all experiences look like yours. The queer girls I knew who went to all-girls schools had miserable experiences re: gender expression. Girls are not radically different creatures without boys around. Girls who are in a boy-free space may yet pressure other girls to present in feminine ways, to perform heterosexuality, and all that jazz.

          As someone who is female assigned at birth and pretty uncomfortable being perceived as feminine or being pushed into female space, I’d rather get read as weird and mannish in a place that had mixed genders than a place that didn’t, and I don’t believe any adolescent iteration of me anywhere in modern society would not get read like that and treated as such.

          The kind of single-gender school you describe sounds like it’d be really awful for trans and genderqueer kids. I’d rather see more all-gender schools be less sexist. I went to public school in the US for elementary, middle, and high school, and I believe the only gender-segregated activity was talking about puberty one day at around ages eleven and twelve. Anybody could enroll in auto shop, wood shop, textiles, or culinary courses. The local single-gender schools were private, Catholic, and way less tolerant of diverse gender expression than the public school was. My younger sister just went to a highschool winter dance with buzzed hair, a blazer over a black dress, and a pretty girl. I wore a suit to highschool graduation. Half my AP Computer Science course was female – which doesn’t mean much, since there were two students. I think most of the science and math classes were pretty gender-balanced, except anatomy, which was a science elective almost exclusively taken by pre-nursing students and therefore nearly exclusively female.

  5. Kat

    Thinking back on my undergrad days, I probably would have appreciated having a few more women around as mentors and for friends. I don’t know if I would have done better in an all women’s program or not, I just think it would have been easier to get mentoring advice from a female, or someone more like me. Getting talked down to by older males when trying to get help with my area of study discouraged me from reaching my full potential. I wonder if this holds true in the business/patent world as well, where the minorities entering patent heavy fields do not have mentors who are like them.

    It is an interesting idea to make a quota for a certain percentage of management being women, although I do not want to start hearing people say that women did not work as hard to get those positions. This is unfortunately something I commonly hear about women getting into PhD programs or receiving scholarships…even when affirmative action probably wasn’t a factor.

    1. Kim Curry

      I did participate in the Women in Engineering program at Purdue, even though I chose not to reside on the Women-in-Engineering designated floor of the residence halls. In my first semester, I took a class that was supposed to help us meet up.

      I did find the large lectures beneficial, as women alumni came back to talk about their experiences in the industry, and the various ways that they could use engineering in their career (Patent law, Medicine, industry, academia, etc.)

      The small group component… didn’t seem to work as well for me. I felt a lot more judged, and policed there. At the all-girls high school, we wore uniforms that helped to gloss over class differences.

      Something I’ve also noticed with mentoring – in mentoring programs where I’m assigned to work with somebody, it doesn’t seem to work out very well. I’m beginning to suspect that this is because I’ve had a lot of OTHER issues affecting my success, issues of class and economics, that go beyond the happenstance of gender.

  6. S.P.Zeidler

    Tim, quill, thank you for your responses.

    Tim: I fear I can’t really follow, since my gender (and how others perceived me) never were important to me, especially not compared to my interests (the two years at a mixed school insisting what a proper girl should and shouldn’t do and want just made me go “I’m not a proper girl then, go jump off a cliff if that bothers you”). I suppose that’s the boon of being born in a fitting body. I can learn that it would pose a problem to other people though, even if I don’t understand it.

    quill: I didn’t mean to imply that all uni-gendered schools were going to be by necessity free of gender stereotyping, just that there was likely less pressure to polarize against the other present gender. The thing is that (not from personal experience, just from hearing from other peoples’ children) while teachers try to be a lot more integrative than they were when I was at school (which is ~30 years in the past), the pupils themselves police each other even more harshly. I’d wish they could/would develop into something more varied than a fixed, pruned set of either-or.
    Like with Tim: I don’t get it, but I hear you.

  7. EROSE

    I’m very much in favor of short-term gender-segregated programs, like camps or conferences. I think it’s important to have at least some spaces to learn and share knowledge where you automatically feel you belong and feel comfortable voicing questions and opinions. I think gender segregation can be valuable as a bit of a respite from gender-related pressures.
    However, I think segregating the genders on a longer-term basis Others them in one another’s eyes in an unhealthy way. It’s very easy to rely on stereotype when you have no experience that counters it. It’s much easier to believe women can’t do something when you haven’t seen women do it. It’s much harder to feel confident when people tell you that you aren’t as good as the men when you haven’t ever seen how your skills truly measure up.

  8. Kim Curry

    I spent my first two years of high school at an all-girls Catholic high school. As I look back on what helped me to carry on becoming an engineer, those two years stand out in my mind.

    I definitely believe that in the vulnerable times of adolescence (~junior high or middle school through high school), single-sex education can be beneficial. In my experience, like others have posted, being in the women-only environment allowed us to see a broad spectrum of what it meant to “be a woman,” including strong athletes, strong academics, strong arts programs.

    One of the reasons I chose to go to that high school, was to escape the teasing / harassment / bullying that was dished out by the boys in my junior high school.

    A second reason was because I wanted to be able to focus on my academics, and not be distracted by trying to attract a boy, flirting, dating, or passing notes at school. Well… passing notes still happened, but it didn’t have the same emotional and status-affecting charge.

    That environment was also one of the early places where I learned about stereotype threat, about the media & body image, how advertising dissects the female body… many of the basics of my feminism today.

    I will note, as others have said, that this was NOT a boarding school, and was not my entire life. I did go home to my brothers, play with boys in the neighborhood. The school had dances that were open to boys, and many of the girls did date during those years.

    That experience was also a factor in why I chose not to live on the Women in Engineering floor of the dorms in college. Most of my friends at that high school were not into STEM, they were into the arts, and I suspected the situation to be similar in college.

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