Does this ever happen to you? I was at a meeting recently and I was walking around one of those infernal mixer type deals, that they always have at these things, chatting with people. And for the most part, that was all fine, and I’m usually quite comfortable with the random chit chat and walking up to complete strangers and starting a conversation about projects, or some other mutually interesting topic.
But then I had one of those weird socially awkward moments. I walked up to a good friend (a man), who was standing with a big group of men, senior in my field, that I had not previously been introduced to. My friend was lovely, and he introduced me to all the other men in the group one by one. Then, all the group conversation totally stopped DEAD. I felt incredibly awkward- it was as if I didn’t know the secret handshake or the men had to use some other language to deal with me. I suppose this incident sticks out in my head because I was the only woman in the group, and junior in the field.
When I think about this incident though, I realize that it isn’t all that rare in my existence. I have a few male colleagues who, when we are together in a ratio of men:women >1, converse amongst themselves. I somehow just can’t seem to get my foot through the door and open up the conversation. The thing that always kind of shocks me when this stuff happens, is that I am one of the more outgoing and socially comfortable people that I know (not to mention just plain loud– a couple of you regular readers out there who know me have SEEN me in action). I’m left trying to figure out why this happens: Is it specific to the personalities involved? Is it a gender thing- do men in a large group related differently to each other than the do to a woman in the group? Is it a junior career stage thing- that the senior guys talk around your head as though you are not really to be reckoned with? Is it a little of all of that?
This kind of thing might seem like a little, unimportant thing to you, but I spend, probably 95% of my professional existence in groups where I am the only woman (or one of a very small handful), and it is awful that science conversation comes to a dead halt for me in these situations.