While at lunch in the Ecology and Evolutionary biology department, I [Anna] was discussing my position as chair of Women in Science at Yale. As the largest women in STEM organization at the University, we hold events geared towards supporting women in science and advocating for gender equality in all fields. A faculty member expressed his approval of the organization, but when I asked if he had attended events, he responded that it isn’t always clear when it was appropriate for him to get involved. This reaction is understandable, as many of these meetings serve as a safe space for those who don’t identify as men. But the conversation stuck with me, and I realized that once this safe space was established, the next step may be to establish spaces where men could listen in and learn how they can be effective allies. People in dominant groups (heterosexual, white, cisgendered, wealthy, male, etc.) have important roles to play in the struggle for equality.
It is for this reason that I reached out to Dr. Christopher Kilmartin, an author, stand-up comedian, consultant and professional psychologist (among other things). Kilmartin lectures on the facilitators and barriers regarding men’s involvement with efforts to increase gender equality. He agreed to come to Yale on September 26th to give a public seminar regarding how to be an ally to women in the STEM fields thanks to funding from the European Society for Evolutionary Biology Equal Opportunities Fund. In discussing his lecture topics and workshop, we’ve come up with some take homes that can be useful to those not attending the lecture.
As Kilmartin aptly puts “If there were no barriers to men’s participation, we would all be doing it; if there were no advantages to men’s participation, nobody would be doing it.” And so any analysis to male ally development must include an investigation into what keeps men away from this work and what facilitates their participation. In putting together this list of tips from Kilmartin’s recent chapter, Men as Allies (In 2017, Counseling Women Across the Lifespan, J. Schwarz, Ed.) we took into account the potential barriers and facilitators to being a successful ally.
So—what can you do?
- “Engage in “snowballing”. Talk to like-minded others and build a group of peers who are willing to engage in organized action. Ally development is facilitated by modeling by other men further along in this process. Therefore it is important to establish a critical mass of men who are involved in various ally activities that can inspire other men. Men often overestimate other men’s acceptance of sexist attitudes (Kilmartin, et al, 2008) and so it is important to amplify the healthy voices of the majority of men who are offended by sexism.
- Talk with colleagues on STEM faculty about their problematic behavior, as well as their good ally behavior. Sometimes a well-meaning person has some blind spots and will respond to concerns but people with less power may be reluctant to give him feedback. Faculty with tenure are in an especially good position to influence colleagues because they are less likely to suffer or fear retaliation.
- Discuss the diffusion of responsibility. To take action one must: 1) notice the event; 2) define it as a problem; 3) take responsibility for intervening; 4) decide on a course of action; and 5) implement the intervention (Darley & Latane 1968). The diffusion of responsibility comes into play in step 3, as it has been shown that bystanders are much less likely to intervene in large groups, and when they do, it takes them longer than it would in smaller groups. Kilmartin emphasizes that understanding this phenomenon can help one to overcome it and take action. Therefore, by teaching men how diffusion of responsibility affects them, we may help them to progress through these five cognitive steps.
- Listen to women’s voices. Reflect on what it is like to be a woman in a sexist society. Learn about your own socialization as a man and how it involved antifemininity and privilege. Accept constructive feedback non-defensively. Resist the impulse to respond with, “men have it hard too.” As Kilmartin states: “We do, but you are changing the subject.”
- Build daily intervention skills. Attend a workshop or do some research if needed to acquire these skills. For example, sometimes when someone makes a sexist remark, a brief intervention can be very effective. Doing so can be as simple as asking the person to repeat the remark or matter-of-factly stating your disapproval. Men make sexist remarks to win the approval of other men, and so when they lose status for doing so, they are more likely to stop.
Men need to engage in these behaviors, which often result in unpleasant exchanges, simply because it is the right thing to do. We cannot wait until we are comfortable with confronting other men’s sexism. We must learn to do it despite our discomfort, and over time, we gain confidence in our ability and thus become more comfortable and less skilled. We invest time and effort in learning a skill when we value the outcome, and many men are committed to this work because they understand its importance.
-Kilmartin, C. (2017). Men as allies. In J. Schwarz (Ed.). Counseling women across the lifespan. New York: Springer.