Guest post: How to be an ally

Intro from Meghan: This is a guest post by Gina Baucom. It’s a great take on a topic that I’ve written about in the past.

Here’s Gina’s post:

He’s just a clueless dude.

A friend and colleague told me recently about how one of her advisors had written a grant on the topic she developed in his lab — he was awarded the grant, but she was not included as a co-PI, even though that was a feasible option. Understandably, she was upset to not be included in some form or another. She discussed it with a different male faculty, and his response was that her advisor was simply a clueless dude.

The definition of clueless, according to Merriam-Webster, is:

  1. having or providing no clue
  2. completely or hopelessly bewildered, unaware, ignorant, or foolish.

Although this definition includes ignorance, when we use the term clueless to describe situations like the one above, it doesn’t seem to me that we’re calling anyone an ignoramous. My sense of the use of clueless here is a soft landing. A whoopsie. A ‘he’s a good guy that made a regrettable decision.’

But let me re-frame the above scenario for what it was: a decision that slowed the progression of a woman’s career. Whatever the reasoning behind the decision not to include my colleague, the end result was that she was left out of money, positions, and publications. In addition to the career consequences, being left out of something that you have worked very hard to create can be psychologically damaging. ‘What’s wrong with me that I wouldn’t be included? Am I a terrible scientist and no one is being honest about it?’

Although I’m certain I have applied ‘clueless’ to similar scenarios, I no longer believe this is the right way to think about them. Willful ignorance is more appropriate. There are approximately a gazillion resources (summarized here) detailing why women’s careers lag behind men’s. A conscientious academic who cares about how this happens can (at the very least) pick up a few resources, get himself educated, and learn to think carefully about how his actions may impact the careers of the people around him. Specifically, how his actions may contribute to the slowed career progression of women scientists — and not just the careers of his trainees, but the careers of women who are across the table from him, behind him, and in front of him.

Because there are men who have a clue, I know that willful ignorance is a choice. And since it’s a choice, I thought that perhaps a list of characteristics of people who choose to be allies could be helpful on two fronts. First, it might help clarify when particular situations and people have been less than ideal, or even damaging. Second, it may help people grapple with the toxicity of their past actions (or that of their colleagues), or, it may help solidify the types of behaviors that can add up in the positive over time. So, here is what I have noticed about effective allies in science:

1. They are kind, considerate, and do their best to communicate well. Communication can be really difficult, but transparent, thoughtful communication is a necessity, and shows respect. Talking about hard topics and being willing to compromise is the essence of maturity. And, fyi: there are a shit-ton of books on how to develop communication skills, so no excuses for being a crappy communicator.

2. They are brave. Allies are willing to step up and explain, point out, or if needed, call out others who are behaving badly. Doing so may lead to a loss of status, but allies know that life is short, and when the opportunity to right a wrong arises, one should do so.

3. They create opportunities and give people space. Allies recognize that a strong field is one in which a variety of people are given the opportunity to be awesome. Allies use their power and status to create opportunities for a diverse group of scientists, not simply white men (or white women) who are already at the top. Allies don’t jump in front of junior scientists in the literature; they seek them out, collaborate, or coordinate publication.

4. They give credit where credit is due. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Allies recognize and credit people for their work.

5. They do not use people. Allies do not, for example, ask a woman academic for advice/background for an opportunity under the guise of collaboration, and then turn around and exclude her from said opportunity after getting useful information. And then turn around and fault her for being upset about it.

6. They do not constantly self-promote. Allies recognize they do not need to be the center of attention at all times.

7. They take care in how they center the narrative. If someone points out when a person’s actions have been harmful, they do not first and foremost feel sorry for the person who garnered him/herself some unflattering attention. Instead, allies center the conversation on how the actions might have harmed, and think about it from a historical and/or broader perspective.

8. They listen when being told they have done something problematic or hurtful. Effective allies recognize they will totally screw up at times, and are willing and capable of listening when it is time to listen.

9. They think deliberately about who they collaborate with. As a result, their publications do not look like a manel line-up.

10. They understand the importance of a real apology. Refusing to make an apology to someone who feels wronged by your actions is a clear indicator that you do not see that person as a person. If you have caused someone offense, apologize, even if you do not yet have the tools to understand the offense. Then do the work to develop your empathy.

Some of you reading this may be thinking, ‘Hold up. This blog post is very geared toward men behaving badly and there are definitely women who are jerks,’ and that is a super fair point. Further, although it is clear that sexism and misogyny are responsible for negative career outcomes for women, it is important to recognize that there are other groups–persons of color, LGBTQIA, disabled scientists–that also experience shitty behavior, and that these identities can intersect with gender, leading to even worse treatment and outcomes. I hope that the above characteristics of allies–or just super cool thoughtful humans–can work as guideposts as we think through how our actions can create both positive and negative experiences for others.

The above characteristics are non-exhaustive, and mostly stem from my observations of both supportive and shitty behaviors. I’m certain I am leaving important characteristics out, and if there is something that strikes you as particularly relevant, or something you’d like people to place a higher emphasis on, drop it in the comments.

8 thoughts on “Guest post: How to be an ally

  1. I liked this expression “willful ignorance”.

    Ιt can be used in many other cases when people tend to hide behind either of the following: “Ι did not know”, “Ι did not understand it”, “Υοu did not tell me”…when instead it is “Ι did not want to know”, “Ι did not want to understand it”, “I did not want to listen to you”.

  2. Thank you for this post, Gina! This article (https://nplusonemag.com/issue-34/essays/sexism-in-the-academy/) makes it clear this topic has been timely for waaaay too long. Ever since reading the N + One article I just linked to, I’ve been mulling over how to frame a discussion of some sort around it. It is so disspiriting, and Gina’s colleague is another disheartening example of how rampant bias is against minoritized people in science. This issue is so important, and it strikes me as one that many graduate students and early career folx could benefit from discussing in a safe space. However, I am grappling with how to build such a session so that it’s not just another demoralizing look at the state of things. And, framing these data as a point of awareness, so that minoritized people in STEM know what kind of risks they face and how to mitigate for them is like blaming someone for wearing the wrong clothes. Anyway, I would welcome any thoughts on how to build sessions around these topics which are productive and proactive without being naive or victim-blaming.

    • This is a great question — I’ve discussed these topics with lab members to raise awareness, and then worried that even acknowledging the barriers could discourage them. I don’t have a good sense for exactly the right thing to do here but my instinct is that we should pay attention to the available data, provide support and guidance to the best of our abilities, and work to change the narrative regarding success in the field. This last one is a big undertaking, and requires that the majority of people expect appropriate behavior and do not accept bad behavior.

  3. This issue seems long due and I fear there are several in academia, who do not follow basic rationality. Instead, they defy any opportunity to improvise or least, think that their behaviour is rude when someone informs them the same. They work for power, fame and money in short, I feel.

    • If it helps, I think the vast majority of people are not totally self-serving like you describe, although there are definitely exceptions. I’m an optimist, but I do think most people aim to be good mentors/colleagues, and yet sometimes screw up bc they do not think very carefully about their behavior and the social constructs that influence that behavior. What matters is that a person admits to mistakes, apologizes, forgives themselves, and makes every effort not to repeat the same mistake by being more self-aware. At least, this is how I approach my mistakes!

      • True that! However, once erred can be termed, a mistake and when mistakes persist they cannot be ignored. I rather drift away rather than banging my head on such matters. But yes, I agree optimism does help big time.

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