Filling the Gender Gap in STEM: Are Affinity Groups Inclusive or Exclusive?
In the world of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), we all know there's the ongoing issue of the gender gap. There are a lot of reasons why there is a gender gap - historical and cultural biases, “boys club” culture, parenting, family responsibilities and lack of maternity leave or support, underrepresentation in leadership, etc. It’s a complex issue with no singular cause or simple solution.
One thing that has helped women in male-dominated industries is women-only spaces such as affinity groups or women-centered events like the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. But is creating “women only” spaces, as some argue, discriminatory to those who don’t identify as women? What is the point of affinity groups if the goal is to have everyone work together effectively and amicably?
The Power of Affinity Groups & Spaces
In spaces where the majority is male and has been male, the standard of behavior and the path to leadership is skewed male. Women have long learned how to “speak” like a man or operate in a way that is conducive to communicating with their male peers and bosses at work. This has been necessary to succeed and get along with peers. However, this can lead to not feeling completely authentic and unsure if it’s possible to do things your own style.
We’ve asked ourselves some version of, "should I act like the guys and be super assertive, or can I find my own path?"
You should be yourself, and find a leadership style that works for you. Don't try to be someone you're not. Instead, find your unique way to lead and succeed in STEM. That's how you'll shine the brightest.
But when you are the only woman in the office, it’s easier said than done to be 100% authentic. It may not be well received, you may not even know that it is possible to succeed by being yourself because there aren’t any role-models around you that are similar to you. That’s where women- centered spaces and events come into play.
Women-only events have this incredible power to supercharge the growth of women in STEM fields. They're like the pep rallies where women are not just acknowledged but celebrated for their awesomeness. Imagine that feeling – knowing you're not alone in this, that you're part of something bigger.
These events offer a safe space where women can hone their skills and connect with other women who share similar career aspirations. Let's be honest, in mixed settings, sometimes asking questions or admitting you're not entirely sure about something can be intimidating. Women-only events remove that intimidation factor, making it easier for everyone to get the support they need.
Here's a cool example: I’ve regularly attended "Speaker Sisterhood" meetings, where women help each other get better at public speaking. Now, when you see them up on stage, they might look like they've got it all together, but many confess to being nervous wrecks before they start. I remember distinctly one woman went up and gave this amazing talk, and everyone was so impressed. After she came back to sit near me, she disclosed that you was nervous before and during the whole speech. It was a refreshing reminder that not only are we all works in progress and our nerves are not necessarily written on our faces. I think that since we were in a “Safe” space we all felt comfortable sharing our struggles and insecurities about public speaking and this gave us all a sense of camaraderie and inclusion. The same can be said for women-centered affinity groups, where women can feel comfortable to share their struggles and also share their wins without feeling self-conscious or under scrutiny.
Inclusivity, Not Exclusivity
Now, let's set the record straight – women-only events aren't about shutting men out. They're about making sure that women, who've historically been underrepresented in STEM, get the spotlight and support they deserve. It's about leveling the playing field, not about creating exclusive clubs.
It's also worth noting that men can benefit from their own networks and events. It's not a competition; it's about helping everyone reach their full potential. And with that being said, women can still benefit from having male mentors and advisors (and men can benefit from learning from female mentors and advisors, too!).
And women can take what they learn from traditional male-centered work culture and put their own spin on it. Take business networking, for instance. Sure, golf outings might be a traditional male thing, but the root of the activity is networking and bonding. You don’t have to make golf your thing if you don’t want to - you can create your own ways of networking and bonding. The key is to adapt and make it work for you.
Creating Success Together, Not Separately
In the grand quest to bridge the gender gap in STEM, women-only events are a crucial piece of the puzzle. They empower women, offer a safe space for growth, and encourage authentic leadership. But, here's the big takeaway – diversity and inclusion matter across the board. The end goal is to share and collaborate authentically and freely. Men should be able to have their spaces too, and collaboration between genders is essential for the advancement of STEM fields.