'Is This a Girl Scout Meeting?'

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

January 02, 2013

You can tell you're in a male-dominated discipline in the sciences when a gathering of three or more women working, standing, or sitting together in a professional setting in that field is considered "remarkable."

Three seems to be the magic number. When at least three women are collaborating in a male-oriented discipline or conversing together at a conference, they tend to attract comments, some unwelcome. Recently I have heard male scholars make the following comments:

  • Regarding three female scientists listed as principal investigators on a grant proposal: "That's too many women on one project."
  • Regarding three female scientists (and no men) as organizers of a conference session: "Don't they like men?"
  • Regarding three female scientists talking in a corridor of a science building on a campus: "Is this a Girl Scout meeting?"
  • Regarding the presence of three women on an interview list of six candidates for a faculty position: "There are more women than men!" (Note the strange math: 50 percent female is somehow greater than 50 percent male.)
  • And when three female research scientists and professors (including me) and one male graduate student were sitting near each other in a research facility, the graduate student was asked by a passerby, "Is this your harem?" The graduate student had the grace to be embarrassed.

In that last situation, among the other comments we heard from men walking by who found our three-to-one ratio remarkable: "Can anyone join this club or do you have to talk like this?" (spoken in a high-pitched voice) and "Is this the girls' corner?" and "Is this the departmental sewing circle?"

Of course when you object you hear replies that go something like this: "So what? Was anyone harmed by these annoying comments? Shouldn't women become more 'thick skinned' and let these comments slide?"

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It is quite possible that no one was harmed by any one of those remarks, although the first example raises concerns about whether three female collaborators would be at a disadvantage in the proposal-review process for irrelevant reasons that would not be a problem for three male collaborators. If a male reviewer made it obvious in his review that he disapproved of a project involving three women as principal investigators, presumably his review would be discounted. More likely, however, a male reviewer who felt that way would not make any obvious statement of his objection, and any downgrading of the proposal in the women's project would be assumed to be based on "objective" criteria.

Even if we assume that this comment—"That's too many women on one project"—was just a tossed-off remark by someone who would never have any influence on the outcome of a proposal, the cumulative effect of hearing such sentiments, year after year, can be more than just annoying. It can be demoralizing. It can make you feel like you are forever in the presence of people who are uncomfortable working with women.

Sure, we all make awkward comments from time to time, for a variety of benign reasons. But I am bothered by the tendency to dismiss as harmless some of these comments directed at women.

Whenever this topic comes up on my blog, a commenter invariably makes the suggestion to replace "female" in the offending phrase with a term referring to a minority race or religion to see if the remark sounds acceptable ("That's too many blacks on one project") or would ever be said at all ("Is this a Boy Scout meeting?"). It challenges my imagination to come up with a male equivalent of the harem comment, but feel free to suggest alternatives.

If you hear such comments and are offended, what can you do?

I would respond in a different way to each example listed. The first one bothers me the most, and I would emphatically denounce such a sentiment, making sure the speaker saw exactly why it was an offensive and unprofessional statement, one that strongly suggested that he was not qualified to review grant proposals. Most of the other examples hardly deserve more than an unambiguous disgusted glare.

Expressing disapproval—vehement or silent—is not just the responsibility of women who are offended by such comments. (I don't blame the male graduate student in the "harem" incident for not speaking up. Even if he had wanted to, he might have wondered whether the more-senior female scholars seated with him would have wanted him to "defend" us.)

In many cases it is nice to have outspoken male allies who express anger or disgust in the face of sexism. Most people may say they believe that no one should be disrespected or marginalized because of their gender or race. But in reality, quite a few people are willing to overlook comments that demean women.

Young scholars may wonder: As women get older and more established in their academic careers, don't comments like these become more rare? Don't you ever reach the point where you have "proved" yourself as a scientist and as a professor?

As a tenured full professor in the sciences, I heard all of the comments reported in this column within the past year or so, and they are just a few representative examples offered here for the sake of discussion.

So the answer to the first question is "not really." That doesn't mean, however, that the answer to the second question is "no." And that's where I find a silver lining: Once you become reasonably well established in your field, these comments become absurd. Furthermore, some of your colleagues and other allies are more likely to heap scorn on people who utter such statements. And that is very satisfying. But the next step is for these comments to be viewed as so unprofessional and inappropriate that they won't be expressed or even thought at all.

Not long ago, I found myself working in a research group with three other female scientists and a lone male—that is, in exactly the opposite of the usual female-to-male ratio in our field. The lone male scientist was the subject of much joking concern from our male colleagues, who offered to go "pound beers and talk sports" with him to help him recover from the experience of being surrounded by so many women. Of course we all realized that the gender ratio was unusual for our field, but we wearied of the joking and the assumption (even in jest) that it was somehow difficult for a man to spend so much time with women, even in a professional setting.

Shortly after that, I found myself the lone female working with a large group of men on a project. No one made a single comment about that.

Being "thick skinned" about these comments certainly makes life easier, but a far better solution would be for the presence of three or more female scientists in one place at one time to be completely unremarkable.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes monthly for our Catalyst column. Her blog is