One woman’s story about being the only female computer science professor at Taylor University. In the 80s. And what we can do better now.
I was not yet 30 when I started teaching computer science full time at Taylor University. Looking back from my newly-retired reality, I am amazed that they hired me. I had no doctorate and three little girls, ages 1, 4, and 5. (Today a person’s family or age cannot be considered when hiring, but that was not true in the 80s.)
It’s interesting – I have felt like a valued colleague when it comes to my role. But personal relationships are awkward at best, and there is little or no interaction outside of work.
Although I had been teaching part-time for several years, me having a full-time job was new for our family. I entered what has been the norm for me during my 35-year career – a department of all men except for the administrative assistant. When I walked into my classrooms in the fall of 1982, I was thrilled to find a few women scattered throughout the room. But the majority of the students in the computer science field were – and still are – male. What is it like to be the “only” female? Or one of just a few?
Honestly? I loved it! I enjoyed the men with whom I worked and we became friends. I had always enjoyed students, and the Taylor students were no exception. I enjoyed them – both men and women. But it wasn’t without issues. I was pretty diligent about working hard when I was in the office because of the other responsibilities in my life, but no one ever invited me to go to lunch or to walk along with them to a meeting. I quickly learned to find other female faculty members to enjoy at faculty meetings and other events. I would sometimes sit with “the guys” but it felt uncomfortable, and I rarely spoke. I learned what conversation topics were acceptable in a group of men and none of them were particularly interesting to me. My interests did not match theirs.
That has continued throughout my professional life. I still can count on one hand the number of times a male colleague/friend has asked me to go to lunch. I ask them and they nearly always say yes – but they rarely or never ask me. When I inquire about their weekend plans or follow-up about an event that sounded notable, the question is rarely returned to me. I have often felt boring and invisible in meetings and when with my colleagues.
While in the thick of doing business, however, I have always found my voice and felt like a valued participant. One of my strengths is harmony which allows me to see unifying ideas in disagreements. That trait has been well utilized in nearly every regular group meeting. It’s interesting – I have felt like a valued colleague when it comes to my role. But personal relationships are awkward at best, and there is little or no interaction outside of work. When recently talking to a friend retiring in May 2017, I asked who she will stay in touch with after leaving Taylor. The list of women was long. When I hesitantly asked about men, she looked a bit surprised and said, “None.” A veteran faculty member and administrator who counts no men among her circle after leaving a long-term job – what a sad commentary.
How can we do this better? I am consciously trying to reach out to some of my former colleagues and propose getting together as couples. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. I may or may not hit it off with his spouse. And since he and I are friends, it can be awkward for my husband as well. And only one of my invitations so far has been reciprocated. There have been a few isolated coffee dates but they don’t seem to be continuing, now that we are eight months past my retirement. Maybe it is inevitable, but I still miss them and wish for more.
As a male, here’s what you can do to make you female co-workers feel like they belong:
- Treat the women with whom you work similarly to the men. If you go out for lunch with colleagues, include the women as well. Maybe even invite a woman to go to lunch with just you.
- Seek your female colleagues on social media. Take the opportunity to learn about their lives and what’s important to them.
- Try to follow up on conversations or things you have observed on social media about your colleagues. This goes miles in relationship building and bonding.
- Be upfront with your spouse or significant other about friendships developing at work – both male and female. Most of us value inter-gender friendships, but keeping your loved ones informed avoids problems later on.
And here’s what you can do, as a female, to fit into a predominantly male workplace:
- Be open to invitations, and take that first step, if it isn’t happening. You may have to initiate for far longer than you hoped, but it may build friendships that are worth it.
- Seek your male colleagues on social media.
- Learn their interests and cultivate an interest in their topics. I finally learned enough about sports to be semi-intelligent in comments. Knowing who is aligned with which team can be an easy conversation started. Be a good listener. And I found that I enjoyed knowing more about a topic on which I was ignorant. Finding common ground with a co-worker is never wasted effort.
- Ask questions. Don’t be offended if you are not questioned in turn. But try to help these colleagues improve their conversational ability by sometimes volunteering an interesting tidbit or fact. I learned to speak quickly and without many details when relating a story. Keep it punchy and entertaining. (Both genders appreciate this trait!)
- Be up front with your spouse or significant other about friendships developing at work – both male and female. Most of us value inter-gender friendships but keeping your loved ones informed avoids problems later on.
I have had a long and, by my measure, successful career, and this issue has not been a huge one for me. I enjoy and value my colleagues – most of whom are male. But I think we can continue to improve in the way we build and maintain these cross-gender relationships. Are you open to it?
This article was written by Connie Lightfoot, a retired dean from Taylor University.