Dear Prof Manners
My AOS is heavily male, and yet there is a steady influx of really talented women working in the area, in addition to a cluster of senior women who have been doing high quality work in this AOS for a long time.
It is very common for many meetings in the area to feature an all male list of speakers, some of which have drawn the notice of the GCC. My question is, how can I bring up gender balance with close friends and colleagues who feature in all male lineups at these meetings? Close friends of mine speak at all male lineups over and over again, without seeming to notice how bad these meetings are for the women in the area.
Thanks for any advice you can give me!
Dear Locked out,
First, apologies for the post title. Imagination just abandoned me on this sleepy Sunday afternoon.
I think bringing this up is a great idea. I gather that you are a woman, but I’m going to address this for men as well, since I think there are many men in the profession who may share the same concerns.
If you are a man in this situation, I think there is an oblique but effective way to bring this up. With friends and close colleagues, one could simply observe to these friends how many all-male line-ups there are, say that you yourself are inclined to mention it when you’re next invited to a conference, then ask if they have ever tried this themselves and seek their advice. In other words, assume (or appear to assume) that they share your concern and approach them as people you naturally expect to collaborate with you in making a difference. If they’ve never given it a thought, you might stimulate them to do so; if they’ve just never done anything out of reserve or lack of foresight or confidence, talking together might create a sense of shared resolve and courage in numbers; if they’re opposed to it, I still think your assumption that they’d share the worry will give them pause, at the least alerting them that even while you share a field, you don’t share contentment with how things have been organized. This latter point might not move them to act, but it will oblige recognition that concern with this phenomenon is growing, that they shouldn’t expect even their own male peers in the field to reflexively accept the status quo. That’s to the good.
A woman in this situation is in a trickier spot, I think. I’m going to digress for a minute away from the question itself just to mention a few things that bother me about situations such as this.
I think it’s important that you mention that the people you most want to speak with are friends or close colleagues. Superficially, this might make it seem easier to speak, but I incline to think not. Where one enjoys friendship or cordiality with professional peers, one is more likely to want to maintain that, and that’s what makes this trickier. Part of that concerns worries about how others’ perceptions of you may be altered by your speaking up.
On that score, it might be useful to mentally run down all the internal ratholes that can accompany speaking up. E.g., if I point out the all-male line-ups, will I be perceived as trying to cajole invitations I wouldn’t otherwise receive? Will people see me as accusing them of being sexist? Or of displaying sour grapes at not receiving a particular invitation? Worse still, will I be discounted as one of Them, one of those trouble-making types who are making everything so much more complicated and politically loaded than it used to be? The worry here is that accumulated good will and camaraderie can be fractured or lost.
Relatedly, and what most bothers me, I like to think well of my colleagues and friends. Raising this issue means risking being disappointed in them. It’s already disappointing that they aren’t apparently doing anything of their own initiative. But talking to them about it risks learning that this is deliberate, that they wish not to act, that they don’t care about the issue, that they are indifferent to the inequities of the profession or perhaps even sanction them in ways that are really pernicious. Likewise, if they construe my concerns in any of the ways I mention above, that’s incredibly alienating in itself. So talking to them about it means risking that you’ll leave the conversation thinking less well of them than you do at present.
I mention all this simply because I think it helps to know what about this can seem hard. To the extent that worries like the above are in play, I’m not sure there is way to approach people that will quiet them. Still, here are a few ideas, all rooted in the assumption that you want to do this in ways that minimize your own discomfort (there are of course bolder ways but those are likely obvious):
– Consider developing an alliance with other women and men in the area. It’s extremely likely that you aren’t alone in thinking the status quo is problematic so put out feelers to those you think most likely to share the concern. Together, you can strategize about how to approach this – e.g., drafting an e-mail you could send to colleagues in the area that lays out the hope that people in the area will raise this when they are invited to conferences.
– Try to craft (ostensibly) casual ways of raising this. There are all sorts of indirection that can be useful. E.g., you can chat about how disappointed you are that your area shows up in GCC posts and gets “bad press,” then try to steer the ensuing conversation to what regular participants in all-male conferences might do. You might also try bringing this up under the auspices of other, related interests, such as concerns that there’s a certain intellectual stagnation where conferences too often default to rounding up the usual suspects and thereby lack fresh ideas and personalities. Then again try to steer the conversation toward what steps might shift things in new directions.
– Finally, if you are talking with someone with whom you’re friendly, I think being relatively forthright can be good. Say that you yourself are discouraged by how often your area hosts all-male lineups and, without acknowledging that the person with whom you’re speaking participates in these, simply say that you’d like him to collaborate with you on ideas for addressing this. As in what I say above, I think there can be great power in assuming that people will want to help. It’s not that I naïvely imagine they always or frequently do, but that your assuming the best about them can influence what they offer back. It’s akin to the Jamesian idea that my treating you as if you’re well-meaning can incline you toward increases of well-meaning. The goal here is ultimately to see if your friends and colleagues will employ their power to effect a change – ideally, I think, by their actively pursuing this when they themselves get invitations to conferences – and drawing them round to this might succeed best where you lead with your own sense that these are indeed friends or at least friendly colleagues, people you can treat as disposed to care about the things you care about.
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