Are Women Only Events a Problem?

July 12, 2013 | By Felicity Cull

albion_female computerLast week, Belinda Parmar wrote a piece for The Guardian in which she said she was no longer going to be presenting at women only events. This is not to say she wouldn’t speak to women’s issues in a largely male industry, just that she won’t be doing so anywhere where the audience is women only.

Parmar claimed that she had noticed that when she spoke at tech events, quite often every male in the audience left. She explained, “Later, I discovered the cause of the mass desertion: my event had been perceived as being “women only”. It had managed to alienate the very people we need to be speaking to. I have no problem with events that focus on women, but I’m done with women-only events that don’t engage men… I want to speak at events where women AND men are listening. This is not a “women’s problem”. It’s a “society problem”… We need the whole of society to change it.”

It’s an interesting take on the issue. The idea that speaking about the lack of female participation in certain industries has to be solved by women and men together is a sound one. Certainly, many movements towards gender equality have spoken about how men and women can interact in a way that encourages male and female participation in the search for equality. The idea that women and men must come to the party if we want to move forward if not a new one. In fact, writers like Kaufman and Kimmel were arguing these things decades ago. But the need for women only spaces is a contentious one.

Earlier in the year, Naomi Wolf wrote about this issue in this piece. She argued that while it was important to have public discussion be a unisex space, she felt that there was still a need for some women only spaces; “My best sense is that all public institutions, events and gatherings should be open to all without discrimination. But is there is still a place for the occasional same-sex discussion group, training program and private gathering? I believe there is. In my ideal world, so long as we have a larger goal that what is learned separately is always directed back to a discussion that brings us all together.”

Her last point got me thinking, does it matter who is in the seat next to us while we talk about these things? Do women only events mirror negative traditions like white only events or are they something we need to keep having until the gender gap is closed? But these are not easy questions to answer.

I decided that to make any sense out of my conflicting feelings, I needed to talk to someone who works on the front line of women’s issues about Parmar’s position. I spoke to Dr Susan Gallacher, an expert in feminist philosophy with experience in women’s policy, about the article. Susan herself is a bit of a tech-head and self-proclaimed geek. She had this to say;

“I’ve done a lot of work around women and entrepreneurship. It’s a really male-dominated enterprise and by its nature attracts very confident people who are strong networkers and very good at selling themselves. For some women to walk into a seminar on entrepreneurship, they’ll be in the distinct minority and if they’re just starting out this can be extremely intimidating. So I’ve found that holding events just for women where they feel the event is for them – they don’t need to prove themselves, or compete – they can learn, and focus and build their confidence without having to get into a pissing contest.

So whilst a talk about ‘women’s achievements in tech’ should be for all people to attend, if you’re trying to encourage women to get into the tech industry, there can be value in providing a women-only event for them to dip their toe in the water.

God knows the men aren’t falling over themselves to make women feel welcome… For the most part, men won’t take it on themselves to attend a talk on “women in x”. We could go on and on about the reasons for this and Parmar is trying to force the issue by ensuring she’s always talking to an audience where men are present.

The only part that troubles me is this: women-only events aren’t simply about talking about gender issues, read: let’s talk about those women’s problems that are only the concern of females. They’re also a space for women to feel energised, supported, and heard. It seems to me that both agendas need to be pursued at once.

So whilst the premise of her position is valid – this is not a ‘women’s problem’ – as long as women remain underrepresented, underpaid, undervalued and too often undermined, women-only events offer networks and frameworks of support which are infinitely valuable. To feel supported, to be inspired, to raise some of those tricky gendered questions they may be reticent to discuss in a room full of their male peers, for fear of accidentally revealing that they are actually women. Some key women’s networks note that whilst they host many co-ed events, they know from experience that women tend to feel more comfortable asking certain questions and raising particular problems in the context of a women-only event.”

I think Dr Gallacher makes an excellent point there. Women only events tackle many issues and not all of them need to include men in order to deal with them. I think women only events are just as important as unisex events that discuss gender issues. Let’s face it… the world does not lack in men only spaces.

I’m basically cool with Parmar making the decision not to speak at women only events. There’s certainly something that feels like preaching to the choir about it. Of course women in the audience of the head of Lady Geek are themselves Lady Geeks and they already agree that women need to be in tech spaces.

However, some of her phrasing worried me a bit. It smacked of someone desperate not to look like the ‘wrong’ kind of feminist, you know, the ones who have hairy legs. When she said; “I don’t know if the men who left my event were worried that we were going to burn our bras or start ranting about maternity leave and the lack of housework our husbands do, but if they were, they were wrong. It’s time to change the conversation, re-frame the discussion, and bring men to the table.”

Really? Bra burning? I mean, you only have to Google bra burning to find out that it didn’t actually go on, it’s nothing but a silly cliché trotted out by the anti-feminist press. At one protest in the 1970s women binned girdles at a protest against beauty pageants, it was not something habitually done. You can read about that here. I get that she’s trying to be funny but to be frank in this statement she reminds me of one of those girls in high school who would willingly listen to the cool guys deride her friends, just as long as they let her hang out with them. Plus, maternity leave and housework does genuinely impact women trying to get jobs in the tech industry. It’s a shame to push those issues off the agenda just because of a perception that men might find them uncomfortable to speak about.

You can invite men to the conversation without making a point to separate yourself from the larger feminist argument. The men I have met in the digital space are actually pretty cool ‘feminist’ men. I really feel like this article could have been less a condemnation of women-only spaces and more an invitation. Blaming women only spaces for men leaving your talk seems to miss an important point – why did these men feel that a female speaker meant that they weren’t relevant? I think there are larger forces at work there. It can’t just be that there are women only talks every now and again. Let’s not oversimplify something so complex. Personally, I would have said, “Hey Dudes, please stick around when I’m talking. You don’t know that it’s not relevant to you just because I have tits.”

Photo from Expert Infantry.