Gendered experiences at a male-dominated conference

10 minute read


Last week, I attended a workshop focused on developing software for a popular bioinformatics platform in my field, which is a space that is much more skewed toward men than I’m used to (as a bio*engineer, I’ve been mostly spared from situations with extreme gender imbalance). It was an interesting experience, and overall incredibly positive. However, we live in imperfect world and I had an interesting gendered experience that I want to reflect on here.

Note: I’m not using names here because I know how the internet can take things out of context and distort stories and facts. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences developing for and meeting this community (given, you know, society as my prior). The point of my story is not the specific people involved, the point is that it could be about anyone at all. There’s also no one clearly in the right or wrong - even the dude who said the thing is probably just oblivious to it at all. But, again, that’s the point. These are the stories from the field, the ones that we everyday scientists need to learn to prepare for.

I got involved with developing for this software when the person leading the project emailed my co-author to ask him if he was interested in putting our method into their platform. My co-author said he probably didn’t have the bandwidth or coding chops, but asked me if I wanted to do it. (Side note: yet another example of sponsorship (beyond simple mentorship) from this postdoc, who is truly an amazing mentor/sponsor/human being.) It seemed like a great opportunity to get our method out to more people, and the fact that the project lead was asking for it made me really confident that this was wanted!

But right from the start, I was already aware of the gender imbalance in this community, which was sourced predominantly from computer scientists. When I decided to start contributing to this project, I was incredibly intimidated to be starting from scratch and didn’t really feel comfortable asking for help. I knew nothing, and felt that all of my questions probably had obvious answers that anyone with “real” or “formal” computer science knowledge would know immediately. I looked through work from other developers and found (what seemed like) the only other woman developing in this space, and used her code as an example for mine. For some reason, looking through her code and not understanding things didn’t make me feel like total shit, but I think looking through a man’s code would have (oh hi stereotype threat how’s it going?). Only after I’d made significant progress did I feel comfortable posting on the help forum with my questions. This was after ~10 hours of looking around others’ code and trying things, and in spite of there being no documentation for developers (it’s a very new project).

That said, the responses I got from the moderators were super supportive, enthusiastic, and encouraging! They made me want to keep going with my work, and more importantly made me feel like a valuable contributor to the community. The things that made their responses so positive were: lots of exclamation points, recognition of their failures (i.e. total lack of documentation, lol), gratitude for the work I’d already done, and liberal use of emojis. In short, they were super happy to have me there and they made it known! (When I met them in person at the conference, I conveyed this to them and they laughed - they were so used to fielding questions from users who know very little coding that they were excited to have someone new who also cared about coding to talk to!)

I then received an email invitation to a conference specifically for developers and contributors to this project. In the email I sent to my advisor asking him if I should go, my third reason for wanting to go was: “I get to be help their team not be just full of men (srsly seems like it’s all guys right now grrr).” Sure enough, when I arrived I briefly counted and it seemed like the conference was about 30% woman-presenting attendees. To be honest, that’s actually pretty good, especially given what I expected!

I was excited that there were women selected as speakers (about 10 of us presented flash talks on the first day), though the ratio of speakers was also a little under 30%. Oh well, at least it wasn’t zero! I’m not sure if diversity of voices was a priority of the organizers, but I hope that in future years they do try to reach out to their women (and non-white) developers and ask them to submit abstracts, if they haven’t already!

Okay, so far so good. But then…

There was a reception after the first day, which was fun and delicious and full of men (I didn’t converse with a single woman the entire evening, I noticed). I was having a conversation with three other men: one other grad student (slightly more junior than me), one advanced postdoc, and one (tenured) professor. Then, a very senior white man (so senior that he’s not quite in our field, but so above “fields” that he still has authority in this space) joined our group, and the atmosphere of the conversation immediately changed. We started talking about the Internet and I asked a question, and he responded to me by starting with something like, “Well you see, dear, …” (and continued on addressing the male postdoc in the latter part of the sentence without such “honorifics”).

I actually immediately ignored/buried the comment, to the extent that after the conversation I couldn’t remember what exactly he had called me. I think I expect this sort of behavior from his kind of person (white man with incredible power and authority). I’ve internalized not challenging that in the moment, but I also expect it so much that I basically brace myself to be patronized any time I have a conversation with a man above a certain age. That said, a few sentences after he said that, I sort of “came to” and really wanted to address it - but at this point, I couldn’t remember what he had called me and so didn’t want to appear completely foolish.

Looking back on it, I’m fascinated at how immediately and naturally I changed my entire demeanor as soon as he entered the conversation. I automatically braced myself for a less pleasant and interesting conversation as soon as he entered. Regardless of bias, when someone like him enters my conversations, I expect that they will take up more than their fair share of space (and not notice anything), and will honestly probably be less interesting or relevant to the conversation that interests the overall group. I find that very senior/”scientifically famous” people are just a super drag to hang out with. It also doesn’t help when they’re couched in their old, white, male privilege - but even independent of that, the power hierarchy alone is a bummer. The microaggressions are an additional unpleasantry, but certainly not the only ones! I realize that I try to get out of those conversations pretty immediately whenever I get into them. How has that affected my networking, I wonder? How many women have strong networks of peers, but few senior mentors who know them because of these internalized, automatic social behaviors and dynamics?

Anyway, our conversation group soon disbanded to get more beer (or in my case, find more interesting conversation and not hang out with someone who calls me “dear”). I reconnected with the postdoc, and he immediately brought what happened up. And in that moment, I realized that was so crucial: even though we had both panicked and frozen up, to have this postdoc acknowledge that (1) it happened and (2) it was totally not okay was really important. Like I said, I’d almost already erased it from my memory by then - as a defensive mechanism. So to have him, in that moment, explicitly call it out and make it real prevented me from ever in the future wondering whether it even happened (“am I crazy?”) and whether it mattered (“am I overreacting? Did it matter?”)

The next day, the professor found me at our coding session and brought up that he’d noticed it too and wanted me to know that he too thought it was not okay, and wished he had spoken up at the time. Again, not the ideal reaction but still really important and powerful. In that moment, I felt so supported. This is a community that, though imperfect, does value its members. He also made a really interesting point: “what that dude should do is learn about your work and respect you. So if he won’t, I will. And so far, I’m super impressed!” I think that’s a good reaction: if you can’t make things better in the moment, you can still make the world better overall. It’s like a carbon tax, but for bias!

Finally, all of this would have gone down so differently if I were a more junior, less confident, and less accomplished student. I definitely felt like an important contributor to this community the entire conference, and nothing anyone called me would have changed that. I think the story would have been very different if I’d been more junior, without any papers or much code to my name. So that’s a large caveat for my experience - but in any case, I do think that any response is better than no response (better late than never!). And for now, I need to start thinking about to respond when this happens again (because it will). Maybe if I have a response ready-to-go in my back pocket, I won’t shut down as automatically next time, and we can all have a learning moment.