Since entering graduate school, albeit in a STEM field, I have never been exposed to such an emphasis on women-only meetings, leadership conferences, panels, etc. I have seen most, if not all of these venues, exclusive to women. Most of these meetings are hosted by the WISE (Women In Science and Engineering) organization at this university. I am sure this phenomenon is true elsewhere.

Why is it that in academe, in my experience, it is common for women to segregate themselves in the context of raising gender issues?

How does this behavior exemplify equal opportunity?

How does this behavior develop real solutions to real problems?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Also, since comments on a post can only be moved to chat once, future discussion will have to be deleted instead. So please save the comment flaggers the trouble and just post it in chat.
    – ff524
    Sep 20, 2016 at 19:50
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    Please see this meta question about the suitability of this question.
    – StrongBad
    Sep 21, 2016 at 15:07

5 Answers 5


I actually agree with you completely. I think that the women only conference concept is very well intentioned but in practice kind of terrible. I once went to an all girl hackathon and spent 2 1/2 hours not making anything and instead watching everyone pat themselves on the back for being women. Had to sit through a ton of self congratulatory "Ted Talks" while all I wanted to do was code with some other female engineers. It was.... weird.

There are reasons for it though.

  • I think that the biggest threat to women is other women who view them only as competition. The women only concept removes that competition from the equation so that we can have a safe space to actually support each other.

  • Working in STEM, it's really unfortunate but sexism is kind of pervasive, and most women don't really feel like they have the tools to deal with it appropriately. These conferences usually provide some sort of structure to help them learn.

  • Women have been largely ignored by the STEM community for so long that we really do need all these outreach programs. It actually does make a difference to both the women in attendance and our level of visibility and subsequently provides opportunities for growth.

  • For younger women, these experiences are invaluable. It tells them that it's okay to be who they want to be, that they're not alone, and that they have people who really will rally around them and support them as they grow and come up in the world. Honestly, I wish these things existed when I was a kid.

That being said, isolationism is stupid and self defeating. I'd be much more interested in something that fostered actual dialogue between genders, or provided hands-on technical training in skills that I actually need instead of congratulatory prose about what a good little girl I was for showing up.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. (Comments on a post can't be moved to chat more than once, so additional comments here are just going to be deleted. Post them in chat instead.)
    – ff524
    Sep 20, 2016 at 19:46
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    "Women have been largely ignored by the STEM community for so long..." is not quite right. For example, consider the first programmers - they were mostly women. (It changed only later.)
    – Leon Meier
    Aug 27, 2017 at 22:59
  • It is not the STEM community that ignored women. It's (most) women who ignore (certain) STEM fields, for the same reason (most) men ignore nursing. Men and women, on average, simply have different preferences, determined by different biology. Even in monkeys, we see that males (typically) prefer to play with trucks while females (typically) prefer dolls. Let's please embrace these biological differences instead of forcing "diversity" in the workplace, which in practice means nothing other than the discrimination of men. Aug 15, 2018 at 13:25

My answer is focused on the sessions that usually occur within a larger conference.

The purpose of a successful session is to leave the attendees energized and feeling more confident so that they can be more productive. Please be sensitive to the fact that women, for whom those session are focused, have come to a career in science with the lifetime of acquiring not-particularly-helpful baggage from whatever typical cultural biases they negotiated previously.

I have never seen any of these sessions be closed, (there are no bouncers stopping people at the door for lack of bosom) simply that the circulars and announcements strongly emphasize that they are for the women (for the women's benefit). They encourage an atmosphere that will end up with a room full of women scientists (senior/midcareer/junior/student). The attendees, thankfully, tend to self-select for being truly supportive.

Typically, there will be some formal presentation on results of current research on stereotyping and bias, prevalence of impostor syndrome, etc, and its impact on career or motivation and confidence. In a well-run session, the primary purpose of such presentations or panel discussions is not to initiate a spiraling negativity of people comparing terrible experiences or feelings, but to get the information out because these facts are powerful. It helps in confirmation of experiences ("maybe it isn't all in my head after all") - or it simply can be comforting to realize one is not alone ("I'm not the only woman who feels like my successes are probably a mistake"). The sessions that are useful will focus then on making connections, networking, and helping women 'mentor' themselves, showing successful examples.

I have been in a STEM field over 30 years. In my 1st 10 years, I used to be surprised when I saw my reflection off of a window when walking in a street with colleagues. ("Who is that strange-looking person with them? - oh that's me"). Contrast that with having the occasional opportunity to be in a room of scientists, and also majority women. That is a pretty neat in itself, and also is a 'safe' space to ask questions or to make observations and get feedback. It also was very interesting personal observation to recognize a different level of personal comfort being in a space; most of the attendees share similar experiences/feelings that my male colleagues typically have not had (or at least not so pervasively common throughout their career).

I hope that the supportive OP would be self-reflective enough (and informed enough) by now to recognize that we all are 'biased' and that cultural stereotyping and its impact did not disappear overnight. The 'insulted' feeling is natural, (feeling as if you are being told you are inadequate?) but beside the point and not helpful. Perhaps by now you can laugh at yourself a bit realizing that what it sounded like (to me) is that you are so confident about your natural place in STEM that if you feel insulted, you assume it must mean that someone else must be wrong or that it deserves pacifying and explanation. Statistically, women in STEM are a lot less confident. The workshops are to help give little pushes to overcome those insecurities.

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    As a guy, I was interested to read this and other answers. I can only guess at what exactly you or other women might not feel "safe" discussing in a mixed group (or especially a mostly-male group, which would be typical I guess outside of women-only sessions). From this answer, I get the impression that expressing self-doubts (or other signs of "weakness") and getting positive support is something you wouldn't be comfortable with in front of male colleagues, or think might not even happen from male colleagues. If I'm understand that correctly, that makes sense; thanks for that insight. Sep 20, 2016 at 18:39
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    @PeterCordes this cute story is circulating and critiques the man/woman meeting dynamic nymag.com/thecut/2016/09/…
    – user18072
    Sep 20, 2016 at 20:55
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    @PeterCordes - your comment is a pretty accurate assessment.
    – Carol
    Sep 20, 2016 at 23:57
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    I have never seen any of these sessions be closed, (there are no bouncers stopping people at the door for lack of bosom) Bouncer jokes apart, I find it difficult to believe that these sessions are not closed in practice. Do men attend them? Are they welcome by the rest of the audience if they show up? Sep 21, 2016 at 8:08
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    @FedricoPoloni, yes they are open. I am specifically referring to sessions that tend to be embedded within a larger science/engineering conference. They are open. There are men attending, typically chairs of departments, or organization executive members, smattering of students and supportive interested parties (e.g., faculty whose graduate students are presenting at main conference).
    – Carol
    Sep 21, 2016 at 13:48

The vision of the Association for Women in Science focuses on compensation, advancement, discrimination and respect. These are real problems for women in academia. To an extent, conferences for women are a result of the "leaky pipeline" of the 1970s and and 1980s where women were more likely to leave academia then men. While the leaks have been slowed, possibly stopped or reversed, at the Bachelors to PhD stage, the pipeline may still be leaky at later stages.

What is clear is that gender biases in conferences still exist (e.g., https://biaswatchneuro.com/) and the all male conference panel (aka the manel) are still all too common. In presence of these, and other gender, biases, providing women only conferences/workshops seems a reasonable approach as part of a larger strategy towards gender equality.

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    I don't think that this answers the OP's question. Sep 20, 2016 at 17:04
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – StrongBad
    Sep 20, 2016 at 22:34

[Warning: Male speaking]

If enough people feel the need for such a conference, then there is a need. Since these conferences keep getting held, clearly there is a need for them.

Now, in an ideal world, conferences would be coed and everybody would feel welcome everywhere. Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world.

Many women feel that they are being judged inferior simply because they are women. Most of these women are correct about that.

You complain about being called "unsafe". Remember that there are other men than you in this world and that some of them are definitely unsafe. Also remember that "feeling safe" is not only about physical safety, but also safety from ridicule, from being ignored, and from getting your self-confidence shattered in other ways.

Most conferences are male-biased. Having woman-only conferences is not a good solution to this problem, but it is better than doing nothing about it.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. (Comments on a post can't be moved to chat more than once, so additional comments here are just going to be deleted. Post them in chat instead.)
    – eykanal
    Sep 22, 2016 at 0:03

You're quite right in your observation of that segregation does little to exemplify equal opportunity, and is a poor venue to discuss gender inequality.

However, the purpose of these women-only panels, forums, conferences, scholarships, prizes, etc. is not for the express purpose of solving gender inequality or un-equal opportunity.

The purpose of this is three-fold:
1. There is generally funding and resources available to events such as these, therefore the funding and resources are used.
2. These events add value for the women who are able to attend simply by existing.
3. A field criticized for having poor female representation may be able to improve public opinion by holding events that are specifically for women.
[sarcasm]How could a field of study possibly be gender biased when they specifically hold special events for the discriminated sex.[/sarcasm]

Items 1 and 3 are fairly straight-forward.

Item 2 above is not very clear. However, imagine you are artistically inclined and you are viewing two possible schools. One of which has listed many art clubs and provides several art forums. You don't know how good any of these forums are. The other school has fewer art clubs and forums. Which one is more appealing?

Similarly, if a field of study holds women-only events, there is a perspective that this field of study is taking steps to be extra-geared toward women. A woman who is deciding between a career field heavily populated by women and a field holding routine events specifically for women, may be swayed won by the field holding events expressly for women.

Frankly, and I realize it's not part of the question, but I don't see many of these approaches being very helpful for purposes of equality.

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    Do you have any evidence to backup your claims?
    – StrongBad
    Sep 20, 2016 at 15:59
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    -1: When you base your answer (even partially) on sarcasm, you lose (your) credibility and (my) respect. Your argument is that imposing some instances of "X only" inherently works against "equality (or some acceptable bounds on the proportions of) X and Y". That is clearly wrong: if things are highly skewed away from the proportions you want, you don't correct with equal proportions, you correct by skewing in the other direction. Let me ask you this: what do you think is the percentage of female speakers at the most recent International Congress of Mathematicians? Sep 20, 2016 at 16:37
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – ff524
    Sep 20, 2016 at 19:52
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    Additional comments regarding discussion or moderation will be deleted. See meta.academia.stackexchange.com/questions/3470/…
    – StrongBad
    Sep 24, 2016 at 15:16
  • The [sarcasm]text[/sarcasm] could be rephrased/inverted to make the same point without relying on sarcasm.
    – Jasper
    Dec 5, 2016 at 5:10

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