Terra Sigillata

We had one of our most active comment threads the other day when I posted my thoughts on drdrA’s own superb post about what is most important to her in being a woman in science. I noted my own desire to listen to and understand as completely as possible the issues of my women colleagues and discuss, in an upcoming ScienceOnline’09 session with Zuska and Alice Pawley (Sat 17 Jan, 11:30 am, session C), how they can enlist academic allies who have the traditional power and resource structure (i.e., white guys like me) to establish partnerships in working toward fair and equitable treatment of women in the STEM disciplines.

Much discussion ensued, particularly as pointed out by a commenter named Spaulding, that Zuska’s rightfully pissed off tone in many of her blogposts is alienating to some of the men she seeks as allies. I and others argued that potential allies must first put aside one’s defensiveness and listen to the content and reasons for the anger. I am learning this in several other aspects of my professional life from other groups who have been traditionally screwed over.

Well, I am truly blessed with some wonderful and thoughtful readers and the following note came in from a woman scientist whom I respect greatly. Everyone involved in last Tuesday’s discussion (and all men in science) should read this. It is truly outstanding:

One of the things you seem to understand is that women are justifiably angry about the “way things work” these days. If anything, I think that women aren’t angry enough, yet. Not enough women challenge the status quo. There is too much trying to catch flies with honey and not enough straight talk. In my real life, I have experienced many times where not letting a thoughtless comment or lazy attitude toward an issue slide has ended up having very positive effects. Here’s an example:

The year I was pregnant, my department sponsored a panel discussion on balancing work and family. When the session started, it turned out that the panel consisted of four tenured professors. While the audience consisted of mainly postdocs and students, along with a few junior faculty. The first member of the panel described how he bought a house near campus (very, very pricey neighborhood) and had a live in nanny who also cooked and cleaned. The second began to relate similar “solutions” and was interrupted by a postdoc, who said, “If this is the kind of advice you all have to offer, then we are wasting our time. Look at who is listening here. This is so far out of reach for people in our positions that it’s almost comical. If none of you have any solutions that don’t require one or even two senior faculty salaries, then we should just end this right now.”

Needless to say, this turned the tables in a way that I don’t think the well intentioned, but pretty clueless, organizers of the panel were expecting. But, after all the backpedalling was done, it was a much more useful discussion than could have ever occurred if it weren’t for that very angry, and, perhaps to some, alienating comment. The discussion continued after the panel was done. Many people brought up the topic to me, because I had participated in the discussion, and probably my very obvious pregnancy made them feel comfortable that I’d want to talk. At one point, I even found myself talking to the chair of the department about some of the issues that were raised. He commented to me in a sort of hopeless tone, that it was really hard to conceive of a way to the help postdocs and students who were struggling with childcare issues because they didn’t even know how many of us even had children. I responded to him by telling him that that was a cop out, and not an excuse for doing nothing. He cited privacy concerns. I told him that this was way too important to brush off for fear that a few people wouldn’t want to tell their status. I did not mince words, and was, perhaps, slightly disrespectful. Or, from another point of view, I challenged him to stop accepting the status quo, get up off of his hands, and DO something. It ended up that the angry postdoc, a couple of others who were very involved in the discussion, and myself, with the full support of the chair, prepared a survey that was sent out to everyone in the department. A scholarship was initiated. The ball got rolling. He started to become a true ally, instead of a paper cutout of an ally. I don’t think that would have happened if we had all just sat there silently seething during that panel discussion.

I often wonder how that whole thing would have played out if the angry postdoc had been a woman and not a man. Although he was certainly motivated by the fact that he was being impacted by the problems that were not being discussed, in a way, he was being “that guy” instead of a “nice guy”, and his speaking up enabled others to do so. Including myself.

Sometimes “allies” need a kick in the pants from those they say they want to support. And sometimes those in a position of privilege need to get a taste of the generalized rage that those who don’t enjoy that privilege feel.

Thank you, my friend, for the kick in the pants.

Comments

  1. #1 drdrA
    November 25, 2008

    Wow, excellent post. I’d leave you a longer comment, but instead I just wrote my own post :-). It can be found here:

    http://bluelabcoats.wordpress.com/2008/11/25/learn-to-use-your-voice/

  2. #2 Comrade PhysioProf
    November 25, 2008

    Yep. Allies need to sack the fuck up and give up the infantile need to be ego-stroked and treated nicely and given cookies and milk in order to keep up their efforts.

  3. #3 Ron Sullivan
    November 25, 2008

    Should I preface this by specifying that I’m female? I forget sometimes that not everybody knows this.

    Something else is going on in the events described above. Not just a kick in the pants, but specificity. Allies of all sorts sometimes don’t know what they could be doing to help, and more important, they don’t know they don’t know.

    This is quite apart from the fact that good intentions are of absolutely no use except as paving material, and we all know which road they pave.

    I’m pretty damned impatient myself with certain kinds of cluelessness, and the get-a-nanny type of solution is a big stinking pile of it. Let me point out that the angry postdoc who stood up and called the panel out on that�unless his glands took over completely in that moment�presumed a certain level of goodwill on the part of his colleagues, or maybe was just willing to flip the rock to see if any goodwill was there. I was thrilled to read that there were good results.

    This was an interesting point:

    I often wonder how that whole thing would have played out if the angry postdoc had been a woman and not a man.

    Yeah. I’m old and cynical enough to wonder that too. Anyone who has enough empathy to put yourself in the questioner’s place might be able to figure out where all that “hostility” comes from.

    Here’s question for the guys: How come you’re not as pissed-off at what’s still going on as we are?

    Rationally, I don’t really expect that people get this mad unless it’s their own ox that’s being gored. But to the extent that I actually feel any kind of connection, relatedness, kinship, collegiality with the guys�exactly to that extent�it feels like a brand-new betrayal every damned time we have to explain why, draw pictures, or be nice when we’re struggling out from whatever pile of shit we’re currently under.

  4. #4 msphd
    November 27, 2008

    Yeah, we need a few more angry postdocs like this. And I do think they have to be guys.

    I for one had the identical experience in one of these “balance” workshops, and didn’t feel I could say anything, as a woman who has no children and doesn’t want any. But even I could see how it was a completely insulting, clueless suggestion to get a maid, a nanny, etc. on a postdoc salary.

    I kept looking around at all my female peers, many of whom already have children or want them. None of them were saying anything. But I didn’t have to guess why not.