Monday, November 2, 2015

Why Gender Equity is Everyone's Business

I thought of starting this blog entry with a top-10  list of reasons, but it is hard to balance humor and earnestness (I'm a diversity geek, after all!), so I'll take the earnest approach. Perhaps with a dash of humor. First, the earnest:

A few weeks ago a faculty colleague at another university asked what fraction of female faculty members are supportive of Women in Science or Gender Equity groups at my university and others. My colleague was struggling with hearing from women who didn't want to associate with such groups. As a result, they are sometimes advised by men!

My back-of-the-envelope estimate is that fewer than 1/4 of women faculty (in fields where women are underrepresented) affiliate with gender equity groups. The numbers of women in astronomy and physics at MIT are too small for a meaningful estimate, so I am averaging over many other departments.

Of course, the fraction of men who affiliate with such groups is much smaller: that is one measure of gender inequity!

The implicit question was, "How can I encourage more of my female colleagues to join our support group?" I often struggle with how to encourage busy faculty to support diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts: an inner voice asks, "Why don't they care more?" In essence, these approaches start from a "deficit model" of attitudes toward diversity: if you aren't actively supporting equality, you are handicapped. While this may be true, following the deficit approach may not be the most effective pathway to change.

Some women I've spoken with say that they oppose gender equity issues because they feel they have been treated fairly and there's no need to advocate for women. It's a variation of the power-privilege dynamic: I feel treated equally, so there must be a level playing field for everyone. That belief is unlikely to change simply because someone argues to the contrary. Telling someone they are privileged rarely generates empathy.

Others avoid participating because of the cost in time and social capital that it would entail. The dominant culture in academia is based on the concept of meritocracy, which suggests - wrongly - that ability is the only criterion for success, and everyone has an equal chance. Challenging this orthodoxy may seem hopeless or too costly, especially to those without power. It's a variation on an old theme: fear is the most effective silencer. Again, pressing against this is not likely to succeed.

These arguments apply to both men and women. And so it is important that both contribute to the solutions. My favorite way is to follow the "abundance model:" find what people are passionate about and look for alignment of interests and values.

A few years ago I had the privilege to moderate a panel of distinguished women faculty members who addressed the questions of gender equity. One audience member asked the panel, "Why should men support gender equity?" Susan Hockfield, MIT's past president, replied "Because it's their business!" I strongly agree with her, and I wasn't the only male visibly supporting the cause. The event itself had been organized by our Undergraduate Women in Physics group, one of whose social co-chairs - the lead organizers for the event - was a male student.

A few days after I received the query about women in academia mentioned at the beginning of this blog, I found an inspiring example of why and how gender equity is everyone's business, written by a male engineering undergraduate, Jared Mauldin at Eastern Washington University. It's a great example of the abundance model. Read it when you need a pick-me-up.