Group projects and sexism
November 10, 2014 11:11 AM   Subscribe

There's one person in my (school) project group who seems to really not respect the ideas and skills of the women in our group. Now what?

This is the final design project for our engineering major, and our group is split exactly down the middle in terms of gender, which is already unusual. Up to this point, we've mostly been doing paperwork/researchy type things, and it has been quite egalitarian. However, we are about to start designing and prototyping in earnest, which naturally comes with all sorts of discussion on how we're going to do things/who's going to do what.

There is one person in these discussions, who, I've noticed, only addresses his questions and comments to the other men in the group. Any comments or arguments from women get aggressively dismissed with a "look, that's not how it works in the real world", but get considered seriously when rephrased by one of the men in the group. Recently, he has been pointedly only addressing the men in the group when talking about tasks to do: for instance, emailing to the whole group: "Other Dude A, let's sit down and hash this problem out together", or "hey Other Dude A and Other Dude B, let's go to the hardware store after class and check out their selection of widgets". (Note here that all of us have more or less similar levels of technical experience, through SAE teams/work, etc)

All of this, of course, leaves half of our group with not a whole lot to do, other than trail behind the dudes filling out the paperwork, which rankles me a bit, and, after checking in with the other women in the group (to make sure I'm not just imagining things), all of us are sort of bothered by it. Other Dudes A and B are, as far as we can tell, oblivious (they're aware this one guy comes off as somewhat abrasive, but we're all engineers, we can deal with that), and one of them is actually very good friends with him. I feel like I'm devoting a lot of energy that could better be spent elsewhere to being frustrated with this situation. How do you think I should go about making sure that I am: a) pulling my own weight in the group, and b) actually learning something out of this whole project?
posted by btfreek to Human Relations (31 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
Call it out matter-of-factly, and redirect when he does it. "No, this does not require partial-team problem-solving, let's have a conference call at 2:30 for a quick discussion." "Let's work out a equitable division of labor here, as this isn't one."

You can choose to call it out with more specificity if you want, "Let's not do this so the men do all the physical labor and women do all the paperwork, we can do better than that." But you know this guy's going to get his world rocked by even the mildest protest so I would be as dry and neutral about the whole thing as possible and only make a point of the sexism when he pushes back.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:17 AM on November 10, 2014 [30 favorites]


By the way, it's fine if he dislikes you for it. You don't need to care what his personal opinion is about you, because he's not of especially impressive quality anyway.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:19 AM on November 10, 2014 [71 favorites]


Any comments or arguments from women get aggressively dismissed with a "look, that's not how it works in the real world"

"DudeBro, I have just as much experience in 'the real world' as you do, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't dismiss my comment like that. Tell me what's wrong with my comment and we can consider it as a group."

Note the emphasis there -- don't frame it as "You're a sexist who's ignoring me because I'm a woman"; frame it as "This is a group project, not a DudeBro Project with assistance from some other people." That can help get the other men on your side without making it a sexism issue (which can make them feel like they've been put on the wrong side).

Recently, he has been pointedly only addressing the men in the group when talking about tasks to do: for instance, emailing to the whole group: "Other Dude A, let's sit down and hash this problem out together"

"I have a few ideas on that problem too. When are we meeting up?"

or "hey Other Dude A and Other Dude B, let's go to the hardware store after class and check out their selection of widgets".

"That's a great idea -- I'll join you."
posted by Etrigan at 11:21 AM on November 10, 2014 [7 favorites]


You need to come at this directly. Being subtle will go right over his head.

The next time he dismisses something you or one of the other women says, call him on it. "Why did you immediately dismiss my/her suggestion? Let's think it through as a group, as our professor expects us to."

When you get a "that's not how it works in the real world" type of comment, counter with "we've all had similar work experience (or lack thereof), and I never experienced attitudes like yours in the real world, so I don't think that's true at all."

When he tries to break off into gendered subgroups, intervene. Reply-all with "That sounds like a good idea. I'll join you. Anyone else want to come too?" If necessary, be more explicit about pointing it out. "You probably don't realize but it seems very sexist and 1950's of you to just assume that the women can't or won't want to [do X,Y,Z]. Let's make sure we're all getting a good balance of hands-on work as well as the administrative side of the project."
posted by trivia genius at 11:23 AM on November 10, 2014 [23 favorites]


"You are directing your questions and agreement to only the other men in this group. Why? We are a team, ALL of us, and we will be graded as such. The women in this group are not your assistants, they are not wallpaper, they are active members and should be treated that way. Start operating from that perspective so we can keep moving forward."
posted by Hermione Granger at 11:27 AM on November 10, 2014 [17 favorites]


This guy is an ass and if you accuse him of being sexist, he will surely say you're overreacting and dismiss it, and try to get the other guys to tune you out as well. I would just take charge and assert involvement in the tasks you want. "While you guys do that, Lady A, Lady B and I will make a decision on Something Important." When he suggests two guys meet to discuss the design, you can pipe up and say "We should really brainstorm the design as a group. I'm free to meet at that time. Lady A and Lady B, can you meet then?"

If you do want to call it out, don't accuse him of being sexist. Just say, "it seems like Lady A, Lady B and I are being left out of everything. This project counts toward our grades too. Personally, I'm not really comfortable with having you guys go off and decide the final design without my input. I think we need to do this project as a group, as that's sort of the point of this group assignment."

I don't know much about engineering, but I do know it is mostly men and very few women study it. So that may be part of the explanation for why he doesn't seem to understand you ladies are a valuable asset to the group. It's your call if this would be helpful or make you seem like you can't work in a group, but you could mention it to your professor, who should be fostering an inclusive atmosphere.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:40 AM on November 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


If you fail to get through to the one DudeBro, be sure to talk to the other guys in the group about doing more to assertively include the women in the group.

The women in the group can also re-gain their ideas that DudeBro has praised when coming from a guy by saying "I agree, Guy A's idea is great, like I mentioned 5 minutes ago. I still support this idea."
posted by filthy light thief at 11:44 AM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


If there is one thing sexist men aren't, it's open to the idea they might be sexist.

My guess is if you bring this up directly (which is your right and you are a freakin hero if you do), he will be on the defensive, will deny like hell, or may even double down on the behavior, actively recruiting the other dudes to align against the "crazy girls." So be ready for that stress.

Since you are on a project with a deadline, you may instead want to just react to these instances as they come up without directly addressing sexism in so many words. Be cool, be brief, be factual, don't try to win hearts and minds. Just use some of the more succinct scripts. ("Great! Woman Z and I will meet you there." "We should all be included in this decision/activity, I have some different ideas." "We all have the same degree of real world experience here, but anyway, what I was saying was." "I agree, Woman X just said that though.") The other men in the group may even catch on if you don't let one of these get past you.

You are right that this field is full of know-it-alls and blowhards, and it will be exhausting having to shoot down what he lobs up each time, but you might get really good at it and influence your other group members to do the same.
posted by kapers at 12:12 PM on November 10, 2014 [11 favorites]


I am a female engineer in an academic setting and I talk to these kind of guys a lot. (It was fun to get supertechnical with them while heavily pregnant. They couldn't even look at me. That belly was a weapon.) You have my sympathy.

I basically deal with this situation by doubling down on the science and logic and butting in more than I normally would. There's no reason he should be the one doling out tasks unless you all agreed to give him that job. Call him on it. Offer alternatives based on what skills people actually have. "It looks like DudeBro wants to be involved with finding widgets at the hardware store, and I did my internship at WidgetCo and am really familiar with their product range so it'd make sense if I went. DudeBro, do you want to come with me or look at the choices at the store on the other side of town? Man A, did you want to come too?" "Woman A should be involved with that financial discussion, she's the SAE treasurer this year and a business minor, and might have some valuable insight."

It might also be useful to break down the remaining parts into 5-10 tasks, and send out an email asking people to volunteer. Again, don't let him pass out assignments, get people to take charge of the piece they want to work on. That way you can more clearly define your own role in the group project, he can't take charge of everything. Done right, you'll even look like a leader.

If this class involves individual writeups of your classmates, I wouldn't hesitate to mention that DudeBro seemed to be very antagonistic towards you, Woman A and Woman B and would only work with Man A and B. Let the prof connect the dots.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:13 PM on November 10, 2014 [38 favorites]


6 people on a senior design project is a lot. Do you have a Work Breakdown with defined tasks and due dates that can be split up and assigned to each person or 1-2 people? For example, if you're prototyping then 2-3 design ideas can be prototyped simultaneously.

In my experience as a woman engineer, it's not useful to accuse people of sexism, especially if they are being sexist, but advocating openly and explicitly for even, equal work is critical. Sometimes this involves refusing to do "busy work" or simply documentation of work that he does. Reward cooperation with cooperation.

If you have three women that all already agree that they're uncomfortable with this dynamic, and at least one other teammate who already agrees this guy is a jerk, that you can talk with and convince that work parity is important (for your grade and for your futures), then you have the majority and can collaboratively model a positive and inclusive dynamic.

"Woman A should be involved with that financial discussion, she's the SAE treasurer this year and a business minor..."

This, exactly - advocate for each other.
posted by muddgirl at 12:25 PM on November 10, 2014 [5 favorites]


I'd also mention this to the professor. She or he can keep an eye on this in case it trickles into the work.
posted by k8t at 12:27 PM on November 10, 2014 [14 favorites]


Be as assertive as you need to be. Be direct. Be linear. Do not let this guy dictate your project experience. Challenge him when he dismisses you. For example if he shuts down a woman colleague in a meeting, say, "Wait DudeBro, Kelsey has an interesting idea, we should hear it before dismissing her." Hammer him on it at every turn.

I'm in agreement, none of these dudes see themselves as sexist. They honestly believe that they are better than anyone else in the group, it's hubris.

So cowboy up and press your points.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:31 PM on November 10, 2014 [6 favorites]


It's great that you are reaching out for advice on this. Please take some of the advice to address this problem, and get it fixed.

Some of the things you wrote make it sound like you're not sure it's really a problem. Just to be clear: This is really a problem. It's not something you should put up with. It should be addressed.

You wrote:
All of this, of course, leaves half of our group with not a whole lot to do, other than trail behind the dudes filling out the paperwork, which rankles me a bit, and, after checking in with the other women in the group (to make sure I'm not just imagining things), all of us are sort of bothered by it... I feel like I'm devoting a lot of energy that could better be spent elsewhere to being frustrated with this situation. How do you think I should go about making sure that I am: a) pulling my own weight in the group, and b) actually learning something out of this whole project?

I added emphasis to places where you try to downplay the problem with your language. Why does it just rankle you "a bit"? Why are you and the other women only "sort of" bothered by it? Why are you worried about "pulling your weight"?

This guy is trying to rob you of your education. He's trying to get you set up into a pattern of playing the subservient role to men, a pattern that he hopes you and other women will follow the rest of your lives.

More than the quality of the project is at stake here. Sure, the project won't be nearly as good if only half the team members make meaningful contributions to it. But beyond that, your education, your self image, and your role in technical collaborations is at stake here. Ditto for the other women on the project.

Please do not put up with this. Try the advice above to address it, and if none of that works come back and ask for more advice. Really, this shouldn't be allowed to stand.
posted by alms at 12:40 PM on November 10, 2014 [67 favorites]


I wonder what would happen if you asked permission from your teammates to video one or two group meetings, then (if it turns out like a typical group meeting for your group) encourage the other guys to watch the video to analyze the way the team is working?

Anyway, I know one of your team members stands to learn a _lot_ from this group project. Whatever he does learn could be a gift to his future co-workers. Not your job to teach him, but if some kind of harmless opportunity presents itself, maybe this could be a factor.

Good luck.
posted by amtho at 12:41 PM on November 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


Amen, alms.

Also, btfreek, if you want more concrete advice from someone who's been there, please feel free to MeMail or email me. This is a really tough situation, you'll encounter it over and over again, and you're not alone.
posted by muddgirl at 12:45 PM on November 10, 2014


Why not just show up at these hardware store field trips or at the discussions? Do you need his permission to do so?
posted by Ideefixe at 12:54 PM on November 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


This guy is trying to rob you of your education. He's trying to get you set up into a pattern of playing the subservient role to men, a pattern that he hopes you and other women will follow the rest of your lives.

More than the quality of the project is at stake here... your education, your self image, and your role in technical collaborations is at stake here. Ditto for the other women on the project.


He probably isn't trying to do anything in particular. It kind of doesn't matter if he intends it or not, the result will be the same: If you accept this, it just helps lock you into a pink collar ghetto from which you may never really escape. Figure out how to politely and effectively go toe-to-toe with the guys and prove you can keep up. If at all possible, try to not bring up the S word ("sexism").

So, if it were me, instead of saying "I have just as much real world experience as you do" (which makes it about YOU and the fact that you are "only a girl"), I would try to get him to argue the merits of each idea. "Oh? Why do you think that is not how it works in the real world? How do you think it works in the real world? What is your evidence that your view here is right and my view here is wrong?"

If you get emails out to the whole group, reply all with your two cents worth. Try to not be confrontational and assholish about it. But don't let his framing of things de facto silence you. Join in. If that is a problem for him, the polite and non-confrontational approach may fall apart and you may find yourself butting heads. At that point, it would be in your best interest to have already notified the professor that some people are not being fully included in the project. I would not frame it as "along sexist lines." I would say "person a, person b and person c are basically taking over the project, largely leaving out person d, person e and person f." Let your professor notice (or not) that this happens to be along gendered lines. I would go and say it's a concern and you are trying to remedy it and you just want to give them the heads up in case you fail, at which point you might need them to intercede.

And (on preview), yes, just show up without asking. If a group email states there is a meeting of group members at x place and time, just show up. If he has a cow, that will help make it apparent to other people that he has some issue. If you fail to take action and just start whining about being excluded, that is both ineffective in addressing and will tend to drive away support. Just show up, do your part, participate. And, as much as possible, ignore that this is sexism. In your own mind, frame it as "personality conflict" or "misunderstanding" or any other plausible explanation. You will get further that way then if you start complaining "this is about MY GENDER, isn't it!!??" every time something like this happens and then other people will say "Bitch, you just have a personal problem and you see sexism everywhere and you are making a mountain out of a molehill...etc."

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 1:00 PM on November 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


I agree with filthy light thief that you should talk to the other men in the group about it, if you can and if you think it will help. Get their read on it. There's plenty of great advice here, but you don't want to inadvertently alienate the guys who aren't jerks if you can avoid it. They could be advocates for equal treatment of team members, too.
posted by cleverevans at 1:11 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Forgot to ask - is anyone on your team explicitly designated as the project manager or team lead? They should be a powerful ally.

If this dude is the project manager/team lead, obviously that's a bit of a different situation but by no means impossible to handle.
posted by muddgirl at 1:13 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Group projects are not just about doing the project, they're about working in a group. If you were having problems with the technical aspects of the project you'd go to your professor/advisor for advice, so go to your professor/advisor and ask for advice with this aspect of the project. He or she should have experienced these kind of issues before and should be able to advise you. He or she also knows the members of the team and the kind of work you're doing better than almost anyone else, so he or she should be the perfect person to give you some pointers.

Caveat: Not that you should have to be, but it might be wise to be cautious about how you frame this question - make it about solving the problem, not about this guy's unacceptable behavior.

Good luck. As a woman who was in the sciences and is now in another male-dominated workplace, I have seen this kind of behavior before and know the level of frustration it brings.
posted by sciencegeek at 1:17 PM on November 10, 2014 [7 favorites]


If there are three of you, you outnumber him. So talk to the other two women and make a pledge to defend each other in meetings/decisions. "Kara's right. We should do X!" "Wait a minute, why didn't you pay attention to what Sara said? I think it made sense." "What do you mean by 'real world,' Bob? You're going to have to be more specific, because I think Lara's idea has merit." (It's good to use his name when calling him out, to make it clear you are not attacking in general, but challenging his assertion specifically).

The reason I say that is that women often have a hard time asserting themselves, but much less trouble defending each other. Sexist Dude will not be able to withstand the three of you refusing to let him off the hook. And the other guys may be confused, but will hopefully be on your side. "For God's sake, Bob, her approach is fine, let's move on!"
posted by emjaybee at 1:22 PM on November 10, 2014 [10 favorites]


Female engineer here with 24 years out in the workplace, and this is sadly familiar.

filthy light thief and cleverevans have touched on something that has been brought up a lot lately in the Women in Engineering groups I frequent. Men who are not The Problem usually outnumber the men who are The Problem. Unfortunately, these men are not actively supporting and advocating for the women in the group. Just talking to these other men on your team may get them to see the issue (quite often, as you say, they are oblivious to the situation), and then to speak up when they see DudeBro freezing out or ignoring the women on the team. Men are more likely to change their behavior when called out by other men, so getting them on your side and speaking up in your defense is a useful method to change the dynamic.

I hate that this is starting to sound like I am saying you need men to come and save you; I really don't mean that at all. It's just that social dynamics are hard, and you don't have a lot of time to work on this guy.

I've learned a lot by reading some of the materials available on the Catalyst website, especially in the Engaging Men section and the Men Advocating for Real Change site. These are industry focused, but may be helpful for your current and possible future interactions in this kind of situation.

Good luck, and feel free to memail me if you'd like to chat more, or just to vent.
posted by blurker at 1:49 PM on November 10, 2014 [14 favorites]


Don't just call him out on this. Take control of the agenda. Be a couple of steps ahead of him. Force him to respond to you, even if it is to dismiss you. Then you can say "well, we'll try this one your way and this other one my way and see how that turns out" or something like that. Even better when you can say "we've tried that and it didn't work" or "you're not taking XYZ into account."
posted by adamrice at 2:15 PM on November 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


Talk to the other guys in the group, try to get them on board (especially the one who's his friend), and be sure to phrase it in terms of self-interest. You're nipping this in the bud before he burns any bridges in the professional world. "Hey Other Dude A/B, your friend's behavior is coming off as sexist. This could really hurt him in a job setting."

And this is true! He will most likely have female coworkers in whatever job he ends up in, and if he's still doing this later in life when he's a manager or team leader supervising women it will cause him some serious problems.
posted by Ndwright at 3:22 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


You're getting great advice here. Share the responses here with the other women on your team. All three of you need to speak up. Be a force to be reckoned with. You three need to back each other up. Start supporting each other's ideas. It's harder for him to dismiss your idea if one of the other women goes, "great idea btfreek, let's go with that."
posted by shoesietart at 4:22 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Hi, sorry you are having to deal with this. I am 5 years into the workforce and just last week I was a client in a meeting where the sales guy directed all responses (to MY questions) at my male colleague.

My best, if not immediately useful, advice is to cultivate a support system for this bullshit. I now have a strong network of (mainly female) engineers and we collect stories like this and laugh later. That's been the most effective coping strategy for me.

Shelving the temptation of calling him out publicly, my grownup advice is to shift the group dynamic away from boy-vs-girl. Confide in one the guys privately, with an attitude of disbelief or even concern for a fellow female teammate: "dude, is it just me or was Jack kind of being a prick to (other girl in group)? Sometimes I get the feeling he's got some macho complex thing going on, I don't know..."

From there Jack's macho complex thing can become an in-joke and you all can exchange knowing glances when he pulls this. People love being part of in-jokes.

I would personally avoid the words "sexist", " misogynist", "privileged", or " dear professor, I need to discuss a harmful team dynamic..." These phrases will turn off all but the truly bought-in, and those people are already on your side.

Very long winded answer but one last thing: in meetings where this gets particularly bad, I have stood up and started taking notes, drawing sketches, solving relevant equations, etc on the flip chart / whiteboard. Eventually someone will wonder what you are doing up there. You effectively take control of the conversation as they naturally focus on the words on the board. This is my favorite stealth-move.

Good luck and feel free to MeMail me!
posted by ista at 5:34 PM on November 10, 2014 [5 favorites]


Yeah, you're getting great advice here, particularly from alms who is awesome.

Like some others, I'd advise you not to use words like sexism when you talk about this (even though that's what it is) because as soon as you make an assertion like that, socially the onus is on you to defend/prove it. Instead I'd just say things like "Bob hold up, who put you in charge of the project? Let's all meet to discuss [whatever]" or "Bob, why are you inviting Jim and Mike but not me and Emily?" Let it be uncomfortable for a minute. Let him try to defend what he's doing. Then it'll be much more obvious to everyone what's happening.

And don't let him lead. Why don't you lead?
posted by Susan PG at 9:07 PM on November 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'd be inclined to be much more direct than many of the posters above. next time he pulls some sexist BS, call him out on it, firmly but politely. "Hey, maybe you don't realize it, but you're often leaving Other Girls and me out of the project and ignoring our ideas and suggestions. This is a group project and we all have similar levels of experience and capability. We all should be making equal contributions, so let's start working together more effectively." or something. essentially, point out what he's doing wrong and give him the opportunity to correct it. If he doesn't, talk to your professor.
posted by emd3737 at 4:20 AM on November 11, 2014 [5 favorites]


Take charge. Organize a trip or whatever is needed. Delegate work. Delegate note taking to him. When he assigns work to others and ignores the girls, spear up and say "Ok, sounds great, I'll work on $thing and just assign yourself in. He's not the boss of you, you don't need to consider his feeling on the subject, approach, or anything like that. Take charge and involve the whole group. People will start to listen to you more when you are decisive and inclusive of everyone.

Don't wait for other people to tell you what to do.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:34 AM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Seize control of the project via stealth (talking to the other guys) and brute force (disputing him).

This dude has a manangement bent and he's not good at dealing with the current work atmosphere. He has to be shoved aside.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:56 AM on November 11, 2014 [2 favorites]


Thanks everyone, for all of your excellent answers and support. I think the situation I painted in the question might have come across worse than it actually is (we'd just come from a planning meeting for this year's ceremony honouring the victims of the École Polytechnique massacre, so naturally I was feeling a little punchy).

This week we sat down and divided the project up in a more even way -- the "good" thing is that this project is sufficiently large that it would be pretty much impossible for a smaller group to finish on time -- so things seem resolved on that front, for now. I do have a feeling that some of the strategies above will very much come in handy for our group discussions and design reviews in the next few weeks, though.. Taking charge and standing up for myself and others is not something that comes naturally to me, and I appreciate all the encouragement on that front. Thanks again!
posted by btfreek at 5:37 PM on November 15, 2014 [2 favorites]


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