Why have these "women in math" lunches or get-togethers at conferences, in grad school, elsewhere?
Oh, how I hate this tired old discussion. It is just like teaching: you may get older, but freshmen are always freshmen. I may get older and wiser, but there will always, always be some guy who thinks he is super-clever saying, "What about lunch for the men?"
Clever, eh? I bet you never thought of that line!
Current response: well, go have lunch!
Now that we're done with that, to the more educational component of today's post. Why lunch for the women? Because it's nice to meet each other and reassure ourselves that we're not freaks and share some experiences. (Why can't I stop being snarky about this?)
Try again. To share experiences and notes and develop effective ways to deal with the usual non-gender-specific thoughts (my research is never going to succeed! I am sooo dumb! I always forget the statistic on tableau that produces the blah function, so how will I ever prove anything again!) and the more-gender-specific (I don't belong here! All these guys won't talk to me and the guy who knows everything about the KdV equations is scared of girls and scurries into a corner every time I try to ask him about remark four in his recent paper! The senior professor who's lecturing on stacks switches to talking about love and beauty instead of orbifolds every time I come near and it is freaking me out! I want to have a baby, or three! I keep getting nominated for committees, so now they want me to be on the women in math committee and the diversity in sciences committee and the undergraduate curriculum committee and the mentoring committee!!!! I just want to be on the funding committee.)
When we talk, we can figure out some of these things that no one else is going to figure out for us. We can learn techniques for gracefully declining those committee nominations, figure out how to shake up conference speaker lists so that speakers don't just include the male organizer's male friends, get tips on organizing our time between work, travel, family, and the rest of life, learn different ways of seeing the world that might free us from our own prejudices. We can make some important professional connections. We can learn from women ahead of us how they made life as a research mathematician or liberal arts college professor work, with or without kids/aging parents/a demanding Ironman training schedule. These models are important because life and society still do demand different things from men and women, and the model that some senior men present (have stay-at-home wife, move anywhere in world for career, work all the time and have wife take care of kids/parents/Christmas cards) is simply untenable and kicks us right out of the picture.
Guys, we like talking to you. Don't be so gosh-darned sensitive. You're fine. But we need a network of women: for advice, sometimes for validation that we're not crazy, sometimes for a tampon in an emergency. You're not qualified for a number of these things, some for understandable reasons (the last, I hope) and sometimes because you are simply unobservant and/or don't experience the same world as we do. The next time I hear some guy saying, "But he never stares at my chest" I'm going to start screeching like a hyena.