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Starts With A Bang

6 Steps Everyone Can Take To Become An Ally In White, Male-Dominated Workplaces

If fair treatment for all is something that’s important to you, here’s how you can help level an uneven playing field.

In some ways, it’s true that life isn’t fair for each and every one of us. But for those of us who are underrepresented in our chosen career field, the level of unfairness is greatly magnified. A large number of scientific, technical and academic professions — including computer programming, mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, etc. — are inordinately dominated at all levels (undergraduate, graduate school, early career, senior positions) by white males, far in excess of what one would expect if there were a level playing field.

The gender and racial disparities in these (and other) fields cannot be explained away by the “inherent differences” hypothesis. However, there are real, ubiquitous, and pervasive problems that disproportionately affect women, people of color, and all underrepresented minorities. This includes not only harassment, but many inappropriate behaviors that add up to send the toxic message of, “you don’t belong here.”

Thankfully, more and more voices are speaking up to counter that message. Here are six steps that you can take to help.

Protesters fill the street and pass the Space Needle during a women’s march that brought tens of thousands to Seattle in January of 2017, in support of women’s rights and other causes. (ELAINE THOMPSON / AP PHOTO)

Step 0: You have to care. I know, it’s not fair to say there are six steps and then to pull out a “step 0” to start, but this is to illustrate what I feel is an extremely important point: not everyone begins at the same starting line. When people with the same superficial attributes as you — particularly on the metrics of race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, language or religion — are not well-represented in your field, it’s often assumed that you don’t belong.

People of color, women, LGBTQ+ individuals, members of the disability community, and many others are often given insufficient credit for their contributions to group projects, even when they’re the principal investigator. They encounter a default assumption that they’re junior, that they’re less competent or knowledgeable, and that the white, male members of their collaboration are the only possible real contributors. People who have to fight underrepresentation on multiple fronts simultaneously (e.g., black lesbians with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome) receive the “you don’t belong here” message more strongly than anyone.

In 2011, the Boston’s Museum of Science held the first national exhibition, RACE, to tell the stories of race from the biological, cultural, and historical points of view. Combining these perspectives offers an unprecedented look at race and racism in the United States. The exhibit was developed by the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota. (David L Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

It should go without saying that these attitudes are harmful to everyone, as anytime a large number of qualified, intelligent researchers are pushed out of a field, it’s not just those individuals but the entire scientific endeavor that suffers. In order to even get your foot in the door as an underrepresented minority (URM), you have to:

  • take a path where very few of your peers and superiors will look like you or be able to relate to your experience,
  • where you will need to build your own support network (because the infrastructure in place wasn’t built with you in mind),
  • and endure people who’ve competed for the position you’ve managed to secure accusing you of being unworthy, and only achieving what you’ve achieved because of your URM status.

People who are smart, talented, qualified, competent, interested and capable come in all shapes, sizes and colors. The playing field is not level. If you’re interested in being an ally, you’ll take steps to actively counteract the unfair inequities bred into the system. (And if you’ve read this far and determined you’re not interested in being an ally, you can stop here. This article is not for you.)

One of uncountably many incidents that actually occur in the sciences on a near-daily basis that illustrate how casually discriminatory attitudes can undermine and marginalize members of underrepresented groups. (ALICE ADENIS/DIDTHISREALLYHAPPEN.NET, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Step 1: Listen to (women/people of color/URMs) when they discuss the problems they face. This is the first real step towards being an ally, and all it requires you do to is pay attention to the many voices out there — especially the voices of people whose experiences are vastly different from your own — and pay attention to them.

You’ll find lots of challenges that they talk about, and a myriad of ways that people are given the message that they are inadequate. This is a problem that practically everyone faces, but the degree of severity of this problem varies drastically among people of different races, genders, sexual orientations, religions, and ages. Many things that we think of as minor offenses if they only happen once or twice become unbearable, like death-by-a-thousand-papercuts, when they happen continually.

Over a century ago, women experienced vastly different treatment than men in academic circles and institutions. Here in 2019, the playing field is still far from level, although the reasons are far more insidious than overt these days. (HARVARD COLLEGE OBSERVATORY, CIRCA 1890)

Step 2: Resist the urge to compare your own experiences with theirs. Yes, you have experienced unfairness in your life. You may have even — in many regards — experienced unfairness at a level where the injustices you’ve been forced to endure are greater than many of the underrepresented minorities you’re expected to be an ally for. Your experiences, struggles, and injustices are your own, for sure, and no one should make you feel like your struggles aren’t real.

But the very real adversities you’ve faced in your own life don’t in any way invalidate the obstacles that people whose experience you don’t share encounter. When someone shares their story about an injustice they’ve faced, you can either take the initiative to help, reach out to be supportive (and to ask how if you don’t know), or simply let them know you have their back. Under no circumstances should you tell them that their experiences are wrong, untrue, invalid, or that they need to toughen up and get over it. And, as a bonus, try to never start a sentence with the words, “well, actually…”

1927 Solvay Conference on Quantum Mechanics. Nearly everyone shown in this image has a Nobel Prize to their name, and everyone except Marie Curie is a white man in physics. (BENJAMIN COUPRIE, INSTITUT INTERNATIONAL DE PHYSIQUE SOLVAY, BRUSSELS, BELGIUM)

Step 3: Recognize that “treating everyone the same” can magnify, not erase, pre-existing inequalities. When I first got to college as an undergrad, I had a problem: my de facto instinct was to call all of my instructors “Mr. or Ms. Name,” rather than Dr. or Professor. I didn’t intend any disrespect, but while the white male professors chuckled, the professors who were women or people of color were clearly grinning-and-bearing-it.

Why? Because even coming from an 18 year old student, that message of “you don’t belong here” still rang in their ears in a way it didn’t for the professors who were white men. Many prestigious colleges and universities will still default to sending invitations to “Dr. Man and Ms. Woman” to married couples who are both professors; many URM professors have to endure being casually lectured about their own areas of expertise.

There are small behavioral changes we can all make, as allies, to help mitigate the ways that the playing field isn’t inherently level. By publicly treating URMs with the respect they’re due, we can help instill the expectation that you cannot tell someone’s competence or expertise by a cursory look at their appearances. By the same token, if we fail to recognize how URMs in our field experience their profession differently from our own experiences, we cannot begin to support them.

Harassment and bullying of graduate students in academia is a rampant problem, and one that is regarded as likely partially (if not wholly) responsible for the gender disparity at the highest professional levels in the sciences. This is a problem that will require action from the top to eradicate. If you’re a prospective graduate student, talk to the other students to get a feel for how bad racism, sexism, and other discrimination/bigotry problems are for the students in your prospective department. (AP PHOTO/JEFF CHIU)

Step 4: When you learn about one way that URMs experience inequality, look at your own actions. Are you actively working to counteract that inequality? How are you doing that? Is it effective in creating a welcoming environment for the URMs you’re trying to support? Is there a way you can do that in a better fashion?

When I first earned my Ph.D., it was a novel experience that some people called me “Dr. Siegel,” but I quickly found that it created an extra “distance” between myself and my students. So I told them to call me “Ethan” to put them at ease, and that was how I started living: everyone could call me by my first name and I could call everyone by their first name. Now that I had attained the highest educational degree possible in my own field, I wasn’t being disrespectful to anyone.

U.S. Department of Education Program Legal Group (Title IX), from the United States Department of Agriculture. Although bullying and harassing behavior based on gender is explicitly forbidden, there are currently no punitive measures that are universally taken to enforce this legislation, and the unacceptable behavior is still widespread. (USDA PHOTO BY LANCE CHEUNG)

That was my thought, at least: a totally reasonable line of thought. Of course, my experience of getting the “you don’t belong here message” was very different than that of URMs, and — in retrospect — one of my lowlights came about three years ago at an astronomy press conference. I was very interested in one of the presentations, given by a woman scientist in my field, and I casually referred to her by her first name, asked my questions, and got some wonderful knowledge out of it.

But this wasn’t in private; this was in public. In front of dozens of other professionals in our male-dominated field, I addressed a woman scientist by her first name. In isolation, perhaps that would be no big deal, and maybe even today she doesn’t think it was a big deal. But it’s such a small behavioral change to just be a little bit thoughtful — to care enough about their experiences to change your own actions slightly — to give URMs in your field the respect that is so often withheld from them, and to recognize that the respect freely given to you may not be so freely given to them.

The three key points in the largest study of harassment in astronomy point to women of color experiencing the largest amounts of gender and racial harassment, large levels among women and women of color specifically of feeling unsafe due to gender and race, and women skipping professional events due to feeling unsafe, leading to lost career opportunities. (K. B. H. CLANCY, K. M. N. LEE, E. M. RODGERS, AND C. RICHEY (2017), J. GEOPHYS. RES. PLANETS, 122, 1610–1623)

Step 5: When you witness someone in the “in-group” saying something unacceptable about women/PoC/URMs, speak up. One of the often-invisible obstacles faced by minoritized groups is the fatigue they face from the extra burden of having to endure the hurtful words and actions of bigots, harassers, and well-meaning but under-informed nincompoops. The following lines of question are common:

Yet every time such a question comes up, it places an enormous additional burden on the person — almost always an underrepresented minority in some form — solely on the basis of their minoritization in that field. If you are a non-minority in that field (or anywhere), and especially if you’re already part of that conversation, do absolutely intervene. Why’s that? The answer is in this last and final step…

Healthy work environments where people of all races, genders, and religions can work together productively and without bullying or harassing behavior occurring must become the norm. Anything less should be unacceptable. Here, the Mars SAM Team celebrates the perfect landing of their rover. (NASA)

Step 6: Don’t stop striving to improve your allyship. Being an ally is not about doing the bare minimum. You cannot simply state, “well, I don’t think of myself as racist/misogynist/homophobic/bigoted, and therefore I’m part of the solution.” Being an ally is all about supporting people who face additional challenges over and above and outside the experience of the ones you face, and that means continuously working to better support their success in your field, even if it means doing something that works against your own personal interest.

So say something when you see the older, male professor behaving in a sexually inappropriate way towards his junior, female students. Speak up about the existence of non-binary people when your coworker sees the options for “gender” under the drop-down menu as “M,” “F,” and “other” and laughs, even if there are no non-binary people (that you know of) in your workplace. And absolutely resist the urge to make the discussion about you; it isn’t. It’s about knowing what the right thing to do it, and doing it, in a world where not being an ally is a whole lot easier.

Travel the Universe with astrophysicist Ethan Siegel. Subscribers will get the newsletter every Saturday. All aboard!

You won’t get a gold star, a certificate, or any accolades for doing it. You may even receive derision for your efforts, along with accusations of grandstanding, white-knighting, or virtue signaling. Being an ally is about doing what’s right at the individual level, at the department/workplace level, and for the entire field. The best part of it is that you can become one at any point in time, simply by making the decision that others — even those who have superficial features that differ from your own — deserve to be there just as much as you do. The joys and wonders of science are for everyone to enjoy and explore. It’s up to us to make that message as inclusive as possible.

Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.


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