Bridging the gender gap: How men can be allies to women in STEM

To celebrate Ada Lovelace day earlier in November, I spoke at a panel event hosted by Digital Science, which approached the topic of how men can be allies to women in STEM. Although the Ada Lovelace day celebrations have died down, there are still a number of challenges for women that should be addressed.

“Cookie-chasing”

The word “ally” is often used to describe someone, usually a man, who advocates on behalf of women in STEM. But I want to unpack our usage of this term, because it has unfortunately resulted in the phenomenon known as “cookie-chasing”. What do I mean by this? I’ll let the wonderful artwork of Tatsuya Ishida explain it.

In other words, it’s the act of seeking approval and praise for doing something that we should all be doing anyway. Believing that women should receive equal pay for equal work, or that women shouldn’t be sexually harassed, or calling out sexist comments online are all examples of things that we should all be doing anyway and doesn’t deserve special kudos. 

A flickr user demonstrated this by baking actual “ally cookies,” which are hilarious and look delicious at the same time.

Too often, we think of an ally as a person, rather than actions that we can all do.  

A great instance of “allyship” that deserves recognition is how Jonathan Eisen uses his senior academic position and all the privileges that come with it to name and shame organisations that have poor gender representation in their conference speaker line-up.

Here is an example where he calls out Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories for having a low percentage of women speakers at their conferences.

“Why does it have to be a race-thing?”

Something I have noticed in a lot of these discussions about feminism and science is how we rarely discuss “intersectionality”. Intersectionality means that we must recognise there is often overlap (or intersection) between different types of discrimination and oppression. For example, this means that we can’t uncouple the racism and sexism that a black woman scientist will face as she navigates a career in academia. The so-called “double jeopardy” effect highlights this, and discussed some of the findings of a recent study that explores this phenomenon.

Even though all women are affected by some form of gender bias, some women (such as minorities and transgender women) experience these biases more than others. For example, the “prove it again” bias describes how women are asked to provide more proof than men for their scientific assertions. In other words, men are presumed to be more competent, while women often have to prove their competence over and over again. This effect is actually worse when race is taken into account; 77 per cent of black women scientists reported experiencing the “prove it again bias” as opposed to 66 per cent of other women. It’s worth reading the many excellent summaries of the full report to understand these effects.

Unfortunately, intersectionality is often ignored when we talk about equality for women in STEM. Indeed, Ida Wells, a pioneering figure in the US civil rights movement experienced this when she was asked to march at the back of the line during the Suffrage parade in Washington in 1913. Kate Beaton describes this in a fantastic comic.

Sadly the same language used by some men to dismiss feminism is also used to dismiss the issues of intersectionality. We have to stop doing this, and work together to bring about true equality for everyone in STEM.

“Leaning in vs falling over”

Support and encouragement for women in STEM is vital, but this often plays into the “lean in” narrative, which is problematic. At 2014’s Grace Hopper Celebration, a male allies plenary panel was widely hailed as a failure for the tone-deaf suggestions offered by the panelists. The panel featured leaders from tech companies such as Google and Facebook, but failed because the advice offered to women was patronising and unhelpful. Some choice quotes include “The best thing you can do is excel, and to push through whatever boundaries you see in front of you. Just continue to push and be great” and even “It’s more expensive to hire women, because the population is smaller.”

This type of “advice” ignores the structures of oppression that impede women from progressing in STEM careers. It lays the responsibility solely on the individual to be more ambitious, to be more outspoken, to be more driven while failing to consider how sometimes no matter how ambitious, or outspoken, or driven a woman is, it’s usually not enough because the system itself is biased.

So what can we actually do to fix the system? Professor Douglas Hilton, director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Australia wrote an article in Nature with some excellent policies that his institution has implemented.

Examples include quick wins like making sure that all important meetings are held within school hours, to make sure that researchers with child-care duties can attend, or designating a separate room to allow women to breastfeed their infants or to express milk. Some tougher changes that required more thought, investment, and time include deliberately starting to appoint faculty members at a younger age, in their early to mid-thirties, perhaps after a two to four year period as postdocs. This ensures that women are not forced to choose between a career and a family.

In summary…

I want to change the way we try to bridge the gender gap in STEM. This is not just a “women’s problem”, and we need to stop framing it as such. We need everyone’s help to fix this. We need to be inclusive and welcoming; people of all races and all genders must work together. We need to implement change at every level, from the institutions down to the individual attitudes. Finally, we all need to listen when women share their experiences, and find ways to make a meaningful difference.

Buddhini Samarasinghe is the founder of STEMWomen.

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