Why Women-Only Spaces Are Not Sexist

While there is a small part of me that squirms at the exclusivity of a women-only circle, there’s a much louder voice that remembers that “old boys clubs” have run the world forever.

I have a new job. It’s day three and I’m on the phone with my best friend stressing about how much I don’t know how to do, how the decisions I have to make are ones I’ve never had to make before, how I’m in way over my head.

She is baffled by my newfound anxiety. She pointed out that the interviews went well, obviously, because they hired me. She pointed out that this is exactly what I’ve been wanting to do for a while now. She even remembered that during the interview process, I bragged about how knowledgeable I sounded. Yes, I said, but that was just talking. Now I have to do it. What if I can’t? What if they find out it was all talk?

As it turns out, it wasn’t all talk. I do actually know what I’m doing, at least most of the time. I am qualified for this job. But that temporary fear of being exposed as a fraud or a faker? Not uncommon.

In fact, it’s so common it has a name: Imposter Syndrome. It’s the voice in your head that says,“You don’t know how to do this,” “You’re in over your head,” and most insidiously, “You faked your way here. What if they find out?”

This is not my first ride on the Imposter Syndrome merry-go-round. When I was 23, I gave a presentation to a room full of traveling sales reps, most of whom were the same age as my parents. When I stood up at the front of the room and the chatter immediately quieted, I was shocked that were quieting for me. Didn’t they know I was only 23? Couldn’t they tell how green I was? That all the smooth talk was just a cover for how much I didn’t know? Did they really think I had something to teach them?

Though anyone can suffer from Imposter Syndrome, young women in heavily male work environments are particularly susceptible. You have fewer mentors illuminating the path to seniority, if that’s a path you’re trying to follow, and the pressure to represent your gender makes it difficult to ask “dumb” questions. You can’t just be the newbie asking for help; you’re the new girl.

For me, having a female support network on or offline is what enables me to power through the anxiety until I feel competent on the other side. Usually I find I was competent all along, but validation of those feelings reminds me that I’m not crazy and I’m not alone.

As it happens, I actually found this new job in a closed, invite-only Facebook group for women in business and technology. I’d been a member for a few years, and I loved the dynamic inside this safe digital space. Women posted events they wanted to attend with a buddy, articles that resonated, and jobs they were looking for or looking to fill.

They also asked the questions they didn’t want to ask of their colleagues: I’m a freelance contractor and my client is bullying me into working more hours than we negotiated, how do I put my foot down without losing the business? I’m hiring a copywriter and I don’t want to lowball, what’s the going rate? Help, I broke my company’s WordPress blog by accident, can anyone walk me through a quick fix? I’m about to ask for a raise, here’s what I currently do and what I currently earn, how much would you ask for?

While there is a small part of me that squirms at the exclusivity of an invite-only circle, there’s a much louder voice that remembers that “old boys clubs” have run the world forever. For men who work in business and tech, the industry is the men-only space. It may not be a backroom cloudy with cigar smoke anymore, but you can still see it in the inner workings if you look close enough. Every lineup of executives that all went to the same three colleges and pull each other between the same three companies and promote each other’s people is the new version of an old phenomenon.

Now we’re creating our own opportunities to help, hire, and promote each other. Is it overcompensation to insist on women-only spaces? Sure, but we’re nowhere near the point where it’s unnecessary. When people start ranting about the “sexism” of all-female spaces, I’m reminded of the West Wing bit about White House bathrobes:

Sam: There are bathrobes at the gym?

CJ: In the women’s locker room.

Sam: But not the men’s.

CJ: Yeah.

Sam: Now, that’s outrageous. There’s a thousand men working here and 50 women.

CJ: Yeah, and it’s the bathrobes that’s outrageous.

There’s been a lot of news lately about female-only spaces, from the woman-to-woman cab service SheRides, to the feminist-hacker space Double Union in San Francisco, to the new policies on transgender students put forth by women’s college Mt. Holyoke

When people point at these and rave about reverse-sexism, it means they’re too focused on the White House bathrobes when the real problems—only 2% of drivers are women and female passengers feel unsafe; and women in tech industries are woefully underrepresented—are staring them in the face.

Do I dream of a world in which I don’t feel like I need the safe space of an all-women community? Sure, but in the meantime, I’m going to work my Old Girl’s Club until the playing field is less bumpy.

Role Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for JezebelThe FriskyThe Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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