In partnership with the University of Michigan, the national organization HeForShe, hosted Professional Women in Conversation Thursday evening, a panel that highlighted the gender inequality and other challenges professional women face, especially those pursuing traditionally male-dominated careers.
HeForShe is a campaign founded in 2014 by UN Women to promote gender equality and encourage women and men alike to become agents of change. It arrived campus in the fall of 2016 to reduce sexual violence and educate on gender issues on campus.
LSA junior Meghan Brody, education chair of HeForShe, said Thursday's panel was a part of a series of events held over the course of the week to raise awareness about these issues.
“I really wanted to give undergraduate students who are in male-dominated fields, be that men or women or people who don’t identify as either, an opportunity to talk to someone who is a part of (those fields) in a comfortable space where they didn’t have to feel like there was a dumb question and where if they wanted to learn more about the issues surrounding these fields they would have a space to do that.”
The two panelists, Chloe Siamof and Stephanie Wightman, spoke about their experience in the sports and software development words, respectively. Siamof is a 2016 Yale graduate and a designer for the sports architecture firm ROSETTI. Wightman is a University of Michigan alum and currently a software developer at ProModel Corporation.
University alum Stephanie Wightman, panelist and the president of the Detroit chapter of Women in Sports and Events, said she first experienced the sexism ingrained in her field in her high school robotics class.
“I was getting pushed out of all the cool mechanical stuff,” Wightman said. “But there were always ‘reasonable explanations.’ One day all five girls (in the class) and I realized we were all getting the same ‘reasonable expectations.’ So that's when I first started noticing the gender differences.”
In the workplace, women often face sexism in the form of microaggressions or gender-based assumptions. For example, Wightman recalled her male colleagues being intimidated when she dressed professionally; a boss who told her she would never advance if she continued baking cookies for the office; she would go into interviews where the recruiters had assumed she was male based on the impressive credentials on her résumé.
Often one of few women in a predominantly male office, Wightman said her co-workers often aren’t aware of how offensive their statements could be, because nobody has been there to hold them accountable in the past. In addition to calling attention to these remarks outright, Wightman said another strategy she has found to be effective is to make them explain the reasoning behind their thought process.
“Sometimes people say things and they don’t even realize how sexist it is,” she said. “Someone will say something (sexist) and I’ll say, ‘Wait — I don’t understand how you got to that conclusion.’ When you make someone explain their biases, they start retreating.”
“When you bounce it back, they hear how ridiculous it was,” she said.
Wightman and Siamof also stressed the importance of having a supportive community, whether this be a women’s organization or a mixed-gender group.
“I was really lucky that my first two years at (the University) I was part of the Women in Science and Engineering residence program,” Wightman said. “We were all taking similar classes, had study groups together. That was a wonderful support group through college, and through them I connected with one of the honors societies here.”
On a larger scale, Wightman said the unwelcoming atmosphere is the biggest problem she perceives as preventing women from entering into traditionally male-dominated fields. She explained women are more than capable of excelling in these professions, but often don’t feel like they should have to resign themselves to a position where they are undervalued or underappreciated.
“It’s not that women can't do all these male dominated fields,” she said. “It’s that we get there, it’s a pain, and we realize, 'I have all these marketable skills and talents, I don't need to deal with this.' Stop pushing people out instead of trying to figure out how to draw them in. If you have a welcoming environment, people will come."