If there were no barriers to men’s participation, we would all be doing it: a unique perspective on how to be a male ally to women in ecology

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from graduate student Anna Vinton and professor, author, comedian, and consultant Christopher Kilmartin.


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.

Take home:

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.

10 thoughts on “If there were no barriers to men’s participation, we would all be doing it: a unique perspective on how to be a male ally to women in ecology

  1. Very interesting! But – what about when a woman makes a sexist remark about other women? As a hypothetical example, a female faculty member implying that another female faculty member or student is not capable of doing something because of her gender? Would it be appropriate for me, as a man, to state my disapproval?

    • I feel that it would be appropriate for you to state your disapproval, though I’m another male (who identifies as male). I mean, someone implying that another is incapable of doing something because of gender is backward (independent of who the someone is)…

  2. For the record, I just blocked a comment calling the post “bogus”, accusing its authors of “slacking off”, complaining without evidence that white males are being “excluded” from hiring pools, and so on.

    As stated on our About page, we welcome comments that disagree with the posts. If the author of the blocked comment, or anyone else, would like to post constructive disagreement that refrains from slandering the post authors and adopts a professional tone, we will be happy to publish it.

  3. Anna and Christopher,

    Thanks for the post! We recently founded a departmental and affiliate AWIS (Assoc. for Women in Science) group at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that, in two years, led to the university initiating an institutional partnership with AWIS.

    The quote, “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.” resonated with me.

    Our meetings began as small, intimate meetings of female-identifying faculty and students, with no clear goal. Sometimes, an attendee would be very vocal about an issue they were having/had, or would get emotionally charged by a discussion topic. It was great that they felt comfortable to be open (and still professional!), however, we failed to establish boundaries or limits for these informal meetings. Our meetings organically morphed into a suite of agendas (e.g., workshops, brown bag discussions, formal administrative meetings). Sometimes a male faculty member attended. I entertained comments from both each extreme:
    1) they shouldn’t be here, this was supposed to be a safe space!(!!!)
    2) wow, this is great that they feel comfortable and/or are supporting us in our efforts!.

    We never set limits on who or why someone could or could not attend. Because are overarching goals were to broaden participation of underrepresented groups, including women, in STEM fields within the university, closing our doors to anyone made little sense to me.

    I had no aim for this comment other than to reflect on the aforementioned quote.


    • That quote resonated with me also. Several of my friends and colleagues founded a women in science group at Oregon State. I remember once they had a social and I wanted to congratulate my friends on their hard work in establishing the group and show my support by stopping by, but I also did feel like I was intruding in a way. I ended up going, saying hello, congratulating them, and leaving after about 5 minutes because I felt awkward. I don’t think I really should have felt awkward, but I’m a pretty self-conscious person. Maybe I’ll give it another shot at some point.

      This post was certainly helpful in helping me think about how to be an ally, so thank you for writing it.

      • Kyle, happy to hear that you’re showing your support-thank you for sharing your experience as I’m sure that many can relate. It’s common to feel insecure about attending such events. I think that is one of the reasons it is beneficial to find other allies interested in learning how they can get involved and show support. If in doubt email the organizers of the women in science events and ask when it is appropriate for allies to attend-in our case allies would be welcome at all of our advertised events!

    • Hi Jessica-thank you for sharing your experience! It’s great to hear that there is building interest in your AWIS meetings. This is a topic that comes up sporadically in our board meetings as well. I do think that is important and necessary for members of women in science groups to feel that they have access to a safe space to discuss their experiences. As long as we can continue to provide an outlet for that (I think in our case that is done well through our mentorship chains and associated events) then the other events can be opportunities to build networks of allies. It’s great that allies already feel comfortable attending your events-I’d love to hear why you think that is!

  4. Pingback: Tuesday taster: 05/09/2017 – Functional Ecologists

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