Recently, the Grace Hopper tech fair, an all-women tech conference was held in the United States of America. This year they opened the fair space to non-binary individuals. However, cisgender men took advantage of this, registered as non-binary or trans women and overran the fair.
The reason career fairs and opportunities like this are important is because women are severely underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). According to data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, just 30% of the STEM field is occupied by women in the world. Then, of course, there is the gender pay gap within STEM, which was 17% on average in 2022. This problem is compounded by the fact that the number of women keeps lessening as the jobs get more and more prestigious. In India, only 3% of STEM CEOs are women, so while this incident may have occurred in the USA, this general environment is not foreign to us.
In fact, cis men taking over women’s spaces is a concept all too familiar to us. For instance, a quick Google search shows numerous reports of men entering women’s hostels. In a span of five months, there have been two incidents of a drunk man trying to enter the women’s hostel of Panjab University before being caught by a warden. In IIT Madras, an ex-student was arrested after he disguised himself in a burqa to sneak into the women’s hostel. He supposedly did this to meet a woman he liked.
Or if we just look around in the ladies’ compartments in local metros- every other day, there is an incident with a man trespassing. This is so common that the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) recently introduced a fine for this. A similar incident also recently happened in the Mumbai local train.
Almost every day, a man can be encountered in the ladies’ compartment in trains or the metro. The answer or defence from them often is that they are not here to harass women. They are one of the “good ones”- but how can women trust a stranger like this? Their presence can create a sense of unease. And what is even more dangerous is that it legitimises the entry of a man with harmful intentions into the women’s coach. Safety is the number one reason spaces like ladies’ compartments and women’s hostels are closed to men. In trains, women are extremely likely to be sexually or verbally harassed in a crowd. This is also why there are a couple of seats reserved for women in every compartment- they are more likely to face violence in a stuffy crowd and are safer when slightly removed from it.
The most infuriating defence, of course, is why we would even want women’s spaces if we want equality. What seems to escape the minds of the people making this defence, is that no woman wants to be so vulnerable to systemic inequality that we end up needing a space of our own. Like cis men, women too would like the world itself to be their space. These cis men who complain about women’s spaces see it as a luxury or privilege, rather than compensation for a lost right. A woman-only STEM space is also needed only because of the lack of women in STEM itself.
This can also be because studies have shown that men in science often do not notice the gendered biases their women colleagues face. Men often view “less” sexism as no sexism at all and only notice it when it reaches the point of horrific physical violence. So naturally, they do not understand why corrections need to be made when the problem itself has escaped them. So any concerns brought up are not taken seriously at all.
Historically, women are also generally expected to carry the burden of their own safety. Women are supposed to wear modest clothing, be quiet but not too quiet, stay home at night, learn self-defence, share their locations, travel in groups and more. It is women who avoid spaces to be safe. Perhaps it shocks cis men when they are given the responsibility of avoiding a compartment instead of making women feel safe. After all, it is the woman who accommodates. She moves out of a man’s way in the hope he does not harm her. It is not surprising that in a country where men react violently when denied a woman’s body, men would not respect a woman’s space.
Another dangerous outcome from the Grace Hopper tech fair has been the absolutely vile transphobia. People are using this incident as ammunition to prove that trans women need to be kept out of women’s spaces, regurgitating debunked myths about how trans women are taking over women’s sports or ‘invading’ women’s restrooms. Perhaps the focus should be on the cisgender men who actually did this, instead of hypothetical trans people who could.
Often the phenomenon of men invading women’s spaces is justified by invoking the hypothetical trans women who would invade women’s spaces if given any semblance of equality. But there has been such little discussion on the very real cisgender men who already do this on a daily basis. The solution to what happened at Grace Hopper is not to go back to excluding non-binary and trans people. If we make that our solution, then we are once again putting the onus of safety and safe spaces on women- some of the most disadvantaged women at that. It is high time we put the onus on men who do this. While finding a solution on how to ensure women-only spaces are guarded from men is complex, it is imperative to remember that women’s liberation does not lie in the oppression of the trans community.
If we open any social media app, we will find a series of men denying misogyny no matter what data or argument they are presented with. Then these men go out into the world, affirmed by men with similar thinking, and they travel in the ladies’ compartments and argue when they are told to leave. They enter women’s tech fairs and break into women’s hostels. And they react violently when women are anything but completely submissive. All this while, the men around them say nothing.
Therefore, we need to say something to the men around us and call them out when they deny misogyny, relentlessly. We must call out the man lurking in the ladies’ compartment and not let them exist in comfortable echo chambers of patriarchy as they will only continue to perpetuate it otherwise. The world itself has been a men’s-only space for far too long. It is high time men stay out of women’s spaces. If men want these women-only spaces to stop existing, they must make space for women in the world at large.