Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 498:
A CONFERENCE WITHOUT MEN

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 498.

Today, we learn about inclusiveness from an act of exclusion. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In August 1990 primatologists held a conference in Santa Cruz. The subject was female biology and life history. It dealt with such matters as gender roles and menopause in human and ape societies. The two women organizers read their list of people most likely to contribute. They were all women.

Then they made a shocking move. They closed the meeting to men. It was a brazen step by any measure. It probably violated state laws. It was guaranteed to stir a big fuss.

They gave their reasons. On one level, it was a subject-matter issue. Women speak more freely about questions of their own sexual nature when men aren't around, they said.

But the more important reason had to do with style -- with rhetoric. They pointed out, equably enough, that male posturing and filibustering slows conferences down.

The male primatologists didn't react at first. Maybe they were stunned into initial silence. Afterward, many of them expressed outrage. They pointed out the obvious. What had happened was improper, illegal, and just perfectly terrible.

Meanwhile, we'd been given a useful lesson. The meeting fairly hummed along. The women really did get a great deal done, by all accounts. One of them said,

No one was searching for feeble points to attack. We had discussion without victory or defeat.
Perhaps the most damning attack on the meeting was inadvertent. One participant wished her male colleagues could have been there to watch. That was the Catch-22. Men could not be there.

I doubt this sort of segregation will happen twice. I also wish the message didn't have to be repeated. The meeting brings home the flawed way women have had to enter male workplaces. Working as true minorities, women have often adapted to a male world and male values. Many have become more male than the males around them.

These primatologists have pointed out that it's time for women to bring the gift of femaleness to the workplace. We've used combat and disputation to shape science for centuries. Women offer an alternative. They offer truth-seeking through a far more permissive form of discourse.

Do not misunderstand me: I would not eliminate stereotypical male behavior. I rather like the male part of my own being. But we must learn to mix male and female. We must find a hybrid mode of discourse. It's time to accept the gift women bring. It's time to learn how to put that gift to use.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Dusheck, J., Female Primatologists Confer -- Without Men. Science, Vol. 250, September 28, 1990, pp. 1494-1495.

See also letters to the editor in Science, Vol. 250, Nov. 16, 1990, p. 887, and Vol. 250, Dec. 7, 1990, p. 319.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode