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 Why is it ok to have women’s only events when so many men’s only groups have been forced to include women?
(Note: I am going to speak about women here, but these arguments apply to any disadvantaged group.)

Edit: When I say "women's-only space" I mean space for people who self-identify as women. For some of the groups I refer to, it makes sense to include anyone who identifies as anything other than cis-gendered male. It is not common, but there can be good reasons to have more restricted groups, e.g. in a prostate cancer support group may have only prostate cancer survivors or a menstrual discussion group may include only those who menstruate. Those groups may wish to open themselves up to a broader range of participants, and I prefer that to be the group's choice.
 
For me, it boils down to the purpose of the group, and how much power the group holds. For any group that holds significant social or economic power, particularly a decision-making body, that group should absolutely represent the larger population they serve. Note that power isn’t always as obvious as a national government holding significant power over citizens. Consider a group like boy scouts, which doesn’t hold that much direct power, but forms bonds that last a lifetime, such that a former boy scout with power is more likely to share that power with other former boy scouts. Also consider prestigious golf clubs, which are ostensibly about sport but also provide a location to broker business and political deals. If women are excluded from these organizations, their careers will suffer as a result.

In general, the women's only events I see have at least one of the following intentions: 1) create a safe space for women 2) give women a chance to bond and talk about issues primarily to women, or 3) help women build skills and bridge the gap into male-dominated areas.
1) Safe Space
If you don’t understand why women might feel safer in a space without men present, do a little research on the internet. In general, groups of men and women interact more like groups of all men than like groups of all women. The men tend to take more of the talking time. Frequently, there is at least one man who condescends to, leers at, or hits on at least some of the women. An example of providing a safe space is a women’s-only dance, where women are free from men leering at them, hitting on them, and groping them.
2) Bonding
There is huge value in women getting together as a group to talk about their experiences. There are some issues women are hesitant to bring up in the presence of men, and if those issues are brought up, the conversation is often dominated by men’s questions and critiques. Also, the challenges of living in a patriarchy tend to separate women from one another, leaving them to fight amongst themselves for scraps of power rather than push for more equal distribution of power overall. By bonding together as a group, women can strengthen their connections to each other and themselves. An example would be a women’s support group.
3) Bridging the Gap
Women’s legal access to the institutions of power has been granted primarily within the last 100 years, and their effective access is still unequal. Therefore, there is great value in having women’s only groups that help women build up the skills and confidence required to go into male-dominated areas. I am most familiar with women’s-only coding events, which are a great way for women to learn to code without the usual pressure of being a token in a room of men. Once women gain some comfort in these groups, they often go on to join the tech community as a whole.

There is definitely great need for men's-only groups aimed at creating a safe space in which men can open up and support each other. Men as much as women need a space in which to talk about issues primarily related to their gender, and that can be hard to do with other genders present. I am happy that I am starting to see more such groups popping up.
 
If you are wondering why a women’s-only gym (for example) isn’t problematic in the same way a men’s-only gym is — if we get to the point where most upper management and government positions are held by women, then it will be problematic. For now, having a women’s-only gym functions primarily as a safe space for women, and if anything keeps women out of the circles of power.
 
If you are wondering about whether lesbians also objectify other women — in my experience, not that much. There is fairly high political awareness amongst lesbians as a group. Most women are fairly aware of how their attentions are received, and rarely push another woman like a man might. Also, there is less of a perceived power differential, so even if a woman is hitting aggressively on another woman, it might be annoying but it’s less intimidating.
 
If you are concerned that women’s-only groups reinforce gender segregation and will prevent men and women from learning to get along with one another — most of our society is now integrated and there are MANY opportunities to learn to get along with diverse groups. If anything, having a little break is very helpful as it gives women a chance to recharge and then go back into the world and engage with men.
 
If you think there should be groups to help men get into professions currently dominated by women — I agree! Go start one!

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Jessamyn Smith

November 2016

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