Originally Written By: Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham and Wendy H. Wong
In a recent blog post, Macartan Humphreys candidly reveals a critical part of how discrimination can happen – a lack of awareness. It’s hard for those who do not get discriminated against to see discrimination, especially when it isn’t overt and obvious. Humphreys walks us through several telling examples from his life where he wasn’t aware of such issues, and then did not know quite what to do with newfound awareness of gender inequities, discrimination, and the frustration around such problems. We appreciate Humphreys’ openness, both in actively seeing these dynamics and work and in acknowledging his participation in them.
Yet, his blog post brings to the fore other concerns, namely hierarchy within the profession (its correlation with gender, we are already familiar with) and why we need to start thinking about discrimination, inequities, and frustration not just as a problem particular to certain women we know and sympathize with, but as something that needs to be tackled with general policy and practice change. It’s not enough that a conscientious few (or even many) try to anticipate the ways in which they might mess up and then try to prevent themselves from messing up, it’s that we need to transform our environment in ways that prevent harassment, promote collegiality, and that make balancing a productive career and family not such a harrowing experience for female and male academics. Such a transformation is not only about helping women, it’s about creating a culture of engagement and innovation that benefits the entire field.
A key thing to keep in mind is that the things that Humphreys raises – being overlooked as a co-author, having one’s ideas stolen, not enjoying combative meetings – is not necessarily gender-specific. It is a symptom of hierarchy, that, while correlated with gender, is not causal. It’s not that junior women have their interesting ideas taken from them because they are women. It may be that, given the imbalance between men and women in our profession in the senior ranks that, if a junior person is interacting with a senior person, chances are that senior person is male, and perhaps that senior person will also unwittingly/wittingly regurgitate a junior person’s work to an attentive audience. This isn’t because that person is a male, necessarily, but because he is a senior person in the field. What Humphreys’ examples force us to confront aren’t just issues of unconscious or semi-conscious gender bias, but blindness of being at the top of a hierarchy, and of being surrounded by people that are similar (typically male and white) in that position. Being in that position will offer few direct experiences of bias. Perhaps more importantly, people at the top of the hierarchy are unlikely to be called out for casual instances of bias because doing so is risky for those lower in the hierarchy. What we are seeing instead is demands for attention to bias after a wealth of information (and scientific study) has proven that it occurs. And, as Humphreys notes, even that does not necessarily trigger individuals to re-evaluate their own behavior because they do not “see” it directly.
Moreover, the attitude that gender is a “women’s problem” sneaks in, even as Humphreys admits to being part of the problem. Yes, it is upsetting to women that there are all male panels (“manels” )and that they are unmentioned second authors on papers, but people (male or female) should just be upset that this happens. What about the men who were upset that there wasn’t a single female on the panel? The fact is, gendered exclusion isn’t just a thing that happens to women and affects only women. It affects all of us.
Finally, it happens that many women care about gender issues because we end up receiving the bias. Bias hurts those it’s directed against more explicitly, but not all women care about gender issues, and not all women think in gendered terms. Thinking broadly about how mistreatment of people in low positions in the academic hierarchy occurs offers a more general approach to these issues and perhaps to assessing our own role in perpetuating it. Gender is just one of many characteristics that affect one’s experience in a professional setting.
Humphreys concludes somewhat at a loss for what to do. Yet, there is a great deal of discussion about how to pro-actively address these issues in the context of gender in our field. In 2016, Kathleen Cunningham posted a list of 8 strategies for men to combat gender bias on Duck of Minerva, which we reprint here:
Understand the ways that the system is biased against women and the role that we all play in maintaining the status quo.
Revise your syllabi to include work by women.
Reach out to women (especially junior women) by incorporating them in professional networks and inviting them to participate in special issues and topical conferences.
Refuse to participate in men only events (i.e. panels, forums with all men).
Call out instances of bias when you see them.
Don’t hijack women’s conversations in professional settings, and work to ensure everyone is expected to speak in important conversations when you are in charge.
Ask women about their research.
Work to change the system when you can (advocate for parental leave policy, advocate for attention to gender issues in your department like uneven service obligation, bring up gender bias in teaching evaluations whenever this is used to evaluate faculty, advocate for back-up care, subsidized daycare, attention to public school breaks and holidays in establishing academic calendars, and spousal hiring).