The Importance of Good Girl Friends

This post is especially for girls in science, although the overall message is applicable to girls (and guys) in any field.

At Harvard, I studied math, statistics, and eventually computer science, all subjects with badly skewed gender ratios and a preponderance of ego. With the exception of my roommates, the majority of my closest friends were male – guys I’d met debugging race conditions, solving birthday problems, proving NP-completeness. This phenomenon was further compounded by my primary choice of extracurricular, The Salient, Harvard’s ever-beleaguered conservative newspaper, where the total female membership rose to two my senior year (the other being our publisher’s girlfriend).

Over winter break, I went to visit a girlfriend of mine who was spending the semester in Paris. She was living in a tiny apartment in the third arrondissement with views over Le Marais. We spent our mornings taking walks in the Tuileries, our evenings half-assing pilates exercises. We ate breakfast at midnight. We made fun of our exes. The fact that I could count my girlfriends on one hand had never really bothered me – I was brash and frank in a way that bordered on unladylike, and had plenty of male friends and string of long-term relationships – but for the first time, I wished that I had more of them.

A dearth of female friends is of course a problem not unique to women in science, nor is it the only problem facing women in science. But I would argue that it’s one of the most important. How important? If I had to do Harvard all over again, I would strongly consider joining a sorority.

An alternative to the sorority, for those out of college or those unwilling to commit to its rah-rah-rah, are the myriad gender-specific professional organizations that cater to the young, ambitious, and politically correct. I’ve always scoffed a little at say, an investment club that filters pitches based on who was born with a vagina, and I still don’t think that you should join them with the expectation of gaining technical proficiency. However, they can be an excellent opportunity to meet girls of similar interest and sensibilities. Even more alternatively, you could join an organization that is outside of your field but de facto female-only – a dance team, a yoga class, a museum docent program at the Met. These are venues where for years, straight men scouted out romantic prospects. You’re basically trying to do the same.

Many of the benefits of making more female friends are the benefits of making more friends, period. But certain characteristics make girlfriends particularly worthwhile investments: for one, they tend to be affirmative. For another, they’re more physically demonstrative. Sometimes you just need to be petted! And then there are some things that really only girls understand, the side effects of birth control, the indignities of your period, why you need to spend an hour straightening your hair.

Making friends with girls is a different beast from making friends with guys. Guys, even the ones you swear from here to Mt. Sinai are purely platonic, often have ulterior incentives to be friends. It might not be obvious to you. It might not even be obvious to them. But it exists. This is less of a concern in friendships with other women. So if you meet someone you like, pursue that relationship. Invite her out for drinks, for a run, or for your next compilers assignment. Vocalize the qualities you find attractive about her. And make an effort with her friends. The only thing better than a great girlfriend is a whole posse of them.