“I’ve never experienced discrimination based on my gender.”
So said one of the panelists at a recent women in science event I attended.
Now, to be fair to this person—and this is going to sound a bit weird—I believe it was said in a misguided spirit of helpfulness. I don’t know this person personally, but based on what I know of her bio, it sounds like she’s landed in good places with good people and received good mentoring/championing/support in those places. She’s very successful, mentors and gives back, etc. So maybe she hasn’t actually experienced gender-based discrimination in science (or maybe has experienced minor discrimination and didn’t recognize it as such). If so, good for her—I’m glad to hear that such places actually exist.
Hearing this phrase in any context makes me especially cranky. Certainly when it’s used to shut down and discount the experiences of women in science, online or in real-world conversations. But maybe even more so when it’s used in a “helpful” (hopeful?) way as it was here. In a way, it is more harmful when used in a “helpful” context.
Let’s consider the setting: The purpose of this particular event, as I understood it, was mentoring/networking primarily for young women scientists. These women are just starting out, still trying to figure out what the hell they’re doing, from the science itself to the culture. They’re relatively powerless in the structure at this point. Maybe they’ve already started to experience the little paper cuts, the subtle stuff—being talked over at meetings, watching male colleagues get the benefit of the doubt and/or credit for their ideas, not hearing about that cool opportunity. Maybe they’re starting to question whether there’s something wrong with them. Maybe they’re just not cut out for this line of work. Maybe they’re wondering why things seem a bit harder for them and a bit easier for some of their male colleagues. So they come to this event, hoping to hear some words of wisdom from women who’ve been there before, hoping to hear something of their own experience reflected in their words.
When instead they hear “I’ve never experienced discrimination”—well, what message does that send? That just reaffirms that maybe it is them after all, that maybe their experience is unique and that there’s not something else going on. How discouraging is that?
So what could this person have done differently? Certainly I’m not suggesting that she speak to an experience she doesn’t feel she’s had. But I would have loved to hear her say instead: “I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had wonderful colleagues and mentors and champions throughout my career and that I haven’t experienced some of the challenges that other women in my position often face. Here’s what made my situation work this way….” And in fact she did end up, if memory serves, talking a bit about why her experience was so ideal—but it was divorced from the original “no discrimination” comment, so I feel the message was less powerful that way. This statement is still true to her experience while not disaffirming (is that a word?) the experience of others in the audience.
Senior women sharing their experiences with junior women can be priceless. But as senior women, we must be careful that the message we send to junior women is truly helpful and not unintentionally harmful. We can, and should, be true to our experiences without discounting theirs.