Monday, September 19, 2016

"First" Impressions

For people who are not minoritized, sometimes it can be difficult to imagine what inclusion and exclusion feel like. Here I share two recent experiences of mine that led to very strong feelings of inclusion and exclusion. They are everyday moments. But because of my past experience, both of them were hard to miss. And both of them changed how I experienced the rest of my day, and the space that I inhabit at work. 

I recently attended a training program at my new institution. It was three days focused especially on teaching and mentoring. One of my workshops asked us to pick an adjective for how we’d like our class to perceive us. We were discussing the importance of first impressions (Apparently the first few minutes of class often set up how your students perceive you all the way up to evaluation time, so it is worth considering how you want to be seen.) We went around the room and I kept a running list/tally of adjectives. 

I went early. I picked “Challenging”. We’ll save that psychoanalysis for another day.

But very quickly a pattern emerged. The word that was selected most frequently (by a significant fraction) was “knowledgable”. The second was “professional”. Those words were both selected only by women. 

Needless to say I was gobsmacked. It isn’t that I’m not familiar with the research, but I was brought up short by the very clear demonstration of that societal bias in that room. In our own small group (two women and a man), the other woman selected “knowledgable” as her adjective. Our male colleague was surprised, and said he’d *never* select knowledgable since obviously he was hired in a faculty role so he must be knowledgable. Surely the students must know that.

She and I exchanged a knowing glance.

I wish we’d had the opportunity to call that out, but it obviously was not the focus of the short seminar. I chatted later with the leaders, and I think they will likely modify the exercise in the future with more awareness of how weighted that short exercise can be.

I don’t present this to evaluate the adjectives we all selected (a sampling of the responses of men - “Inspiring, Compelling, Exciting”), but to point out both the baggage we all carry and the reminders we receive that can change our behavior moving forward. The people who said knowledgable? Of course I know where they are coming from. I am deeply familiar with the conversations about young female faculty, about the constant misperception of your seniority but more importantly of your experience and your knowledge. These women are asking to be perceived as they are, because they know it is unlikely. But that even our discussion leaders, who demonstrated in other ways they are well versed in these conversations, did not notice or call out (or expect) this distribution of adjectives was important to recognize.

On the flip side, I was recently in a meeting (obviously a feature of academic life) where there was an issue that could have been an equity flail. I have sat in many such meetings. More often than not, I have waited (eternally) for someone to even recognize the issue, let alone address it. But in this meeting, before I could blink, a male colleague jumped right into the fray with enthusiasm. He asked the right questions, and my other colleague responded having clearly already seen the issue and worked to remedy it. These two men enacted allyship with ease. It meant instead of walking away from that meeting feeling burdened, I walked away feeling valued. 

It is often the little things that add up. Hearing of another instance of discrimination or harassment that no one felt inspired to deal with. Watching a senior colleague shrug instead of taking on some of the work to remedy a workplace issue. Or, the incredible burden that is lifted when your colleagues act to support your existence. This is the widening of our awareness about how enacting our habituated behaviors shapes everything about our world, and it doesn’t matter that it may not be intentional. Bringing about equity and justice is a combination of the big moves and the little ones. We make this world by living in it. 

As we start a new school year, this is the reminder as you sit across from students and colleagues that you can (and should) bear some of the burden. Get trained in bystander intervention training. Get trained in anti-racism. Look to support student groups on campus that are building support structures for minoritized students. Know where the single stall/all gender bathrooms are near you. Ask why your university is still unwilling to incentivize hiring minoritized faculty. When your company or institute hires and fires, watch carefully and ask questions.

How do you want to be perceived on your “first day”? 

Me, I’m sticking with challenging. See you in class.

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