Actions required of men to advance gender equity in academia

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Yesterday, I gave a talk at the at the Entomology conference, and I’d like to share with you what I had to say. (Here are the slides in a handout version, if you’d like to follow along.)

The last time I was in the audience for a Women-In-Science panel, a member of the audience asked something like, “Of all of the changes that we need to make, what matters most?” The panelist — Dr. Joan Herbers — responded,  “The single most important thing we can do is get men to change their behavior.” (That’s a direct quote, I wrote it in my notebook.)

We have to change the behavior of men, because, frankly, it’s men who are the problem for women.

Nonetheless, whenever we are hearing about what to do about gender equity, most of the advice is designed for women, to tell them how to negotiate a world that is hostile to them. The obvious prescription for gender equity is to make sure that men take actions to make the world more fair, but when we go to the pharmacy, we just get more tips for women about how to get by in an unfair world. Such advice is useful, but it doesn’t fix the problem.

What are the root causes of gender inequity in academia? Let’s set aside the clear problem that men aren’t doing their fair share at home (even we think we are), and focus on what happens in the workplace. The primary causes of gender inequity are implicit bias and gender harassment. They have a pervasive and synergistic negative impact.

Why is it that men have to fix the gender equity problem? First and foremost, men are the problem. It’s men who need to change their own behavior and fix how they manage their relationships with men and women. Yes, women often experience implicit bias against women just like men do, because this implicit bias is the water that we all swim in, and as men are the beneficiaries of this bias, we need to be the ones to make equity happen.

The other big reason that men need to fix the equity problem is that, unlike women, we don’t pay a huge cost for advocating for equity. Women who complain about unequal pay, harassment, being talked over, disrespected, and actually assaulted at work get labeled as troublemakers, as “shrill.” They pay a real cost for speaking up to advocate for their own interests, against the massively unfair treatment that is subjected to them. On the other hand, when men speak up for gender equity, and for fair treatment for women who are their coworkers, they do not pay that social cost for speaking up.

If it cost only men a few bucks to buy a load of groceries, but it would cost women more than hundred dollars to buy the exact same stuff, wouldn’t we be sending men to the grocery store? If women who I work with work for equity, it hurts them. It doesn’t hurt me that much. So really, isn’t it our duty to do this work?

What do we need to about implicit bias? Get yourself tested. Then, take actual steps to work against the consequences of this implicit bias. When you look at laundry lists of actions you can do to do a better job, a lot of them fall under this category.

What about gender harassment? Again, educate yourself. This is a complex issue, and blog posts and conference presentations aren’t enough. A great resource is the new National Academy of Sciences report on sexual harassment in STEM. If that seems too much, please start with this five minutes of powerful testimony to Congress by Dr. Kate Clancy. If anybody is promising an easy solution to this complex and pervasive problem, then be skeptical. Learning about the change we need, and doing the necessary work, is a journey.

The take-home message of this NAS report is that focusing on punitive measures and policing isn’t going to give us the change we need. Yes, bad actors need to experience just ends, but the real mechanism toward equity is a change in the culture of our institutions. If harassment and bias is the water we swim in, then we need to change the water in the tank. The recommendations in the NAS report are a good roadmap about how to do this in our institutions. I think this is required reading for anybody in the sciences. The changes we need to make involve adjusting our actions and relationships on a daily basis, and also going to efforts to change the institutions we are working in. (For example, if you’re a faculty member, are you making sure your institution is pursuing funding through the ADVANCE program? Are you willing to take the lead on such a proposal?)

I’d like to add a few key points. It’s not helpful to refer to yourself as an “ally.” Ally is a verb and not a noun. That identity doesn’t help anybody, because someone who claims to be an ally — or is called one by others — might not be acting as one consistently. If you hear a guy is an ally, or he calls himself one, you can’t be sure that he is one.

Another critical point is that women of color experience the adverse effects of sexism far worse than white women, and the effects of racism and sexism aren’t merely additive, but compound to a much greater degree. If we’re talking about gender equity without talking about ethnicity, we’re missing the boat. As others have said better than I am here, true feminism is intersectional feminism, because that’s the only way to support all women. Likewise, gender equity isn’t exclusively about improving conditions for women, because this excludes nonbinary folks. If we’re working to be inclusive for women, we can’t make the mistake of failing to be inclusive on other important axes of diversity. Likewise, if we fail to specify the need for inclusion of LGBTQ scientists while working for gender equity, we are making a critical error. Too often, people interpret “feminism” as “straight cis white feminism,” so we need to be explicit about that we mean gender equity means all people.

Also: Your feelings don’t create change. It’s action that matters. Telling a woman you support her, without following through, isn’t really making any change.

Last point, and I think it’s a big one: Guys, in the process of working for change, you’ll screw up. When this happens, take some real time to listen, and learn. Fear of screwing up is not an adequate excuse for not trying. And when you try and screw up, you don’t have a free pass to throw up your hands and say, “I tried!” Keep in mind that the biggest penalty that you can ever possibly pay for working to advance gender equity is far less than the penalty that women face for merely existing. If your intentions are earnest, and you honestly are listening to others and prepared to change your mind and apologize for mistakes and work to make amends, it will turn out okay. Of course, mistakes aren’t a good thing, but this is a process of changing hearts and minds. And evolving your own heart and mind is a part of that process. For the times that I’ve screwed up, I’m not entitled to anybody’s forgiveness on the basis of future actions, but I realize that having tried is better than not having tried. Because this change requires men to roll up their sleeves and put their necks out to make sure other men get their act together.

Men must stop tolerating unacceptable behavior by other men. We must model appropriate behavior, change our institutions, and increase the social cost to bad actors. This is how culture changes.

3 thoughts on “Actions required of men to advance gender equity in academia

  1. I think this is a really great post. My only issue – saying that all men who call themselves allies are not allies. I strongly disagree. Sometimes, men who say they are allies really are not. I have dealt with them. And, when you call them out, they react defensively, and do not listen and learn. But, sometimes they are allies. Sometimes when you call them out, they listen and learn. They want to be better. Making a blanket statement like that detracts from your overall message.

    • I didn’t intend to say that all self-proclaimed allies aren’t. I’ll edit the post to fix this! Thanks. (I just wanted to say that not everybody who says they are one really are)

  2. Thank you, Terry, for taking the risk in taking action. Signed ~ A Woman

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