#AllMenCan

I’ve been struggling all week with trying to figure out my thoughts about #YesAllWomen, the misogyny all of them deal with, and issues of diversity in STEM field (my discussion below will focus on the lack of women in STEM, but similar applies to other underrepresented groups):

I’m a cis-gendered white male, aged 18-49. I’m single (and I do feel guilty about that for both cultural- I do get the ‘so, why aren’t you married yet’-and personal reasons- isolation is not healthy, I have friends but don’t get to see them nearly as often as I’d like). I haven’t had a lot of romantic success (two short relationships); I’ve never been an alpha-male (but am keenly aware of the narrow definition of manliness our culture idealizes/subscribes to…I am not it), but shamefully have pretended to be one at times (never ends well for me…my soul feels pain whenever I behave that way). The person I consider to be my best friend is female. I am more comfortable being friends with women, generally speaking, in fact. I was in a fraternity in College; I don’t think I fit in very well even though this was a fraternity that I still have friends from and was not nearly the extreme stereotype of fraternity culture, though that did exist. I was the guy who did Party Patrol, making sure rules were followed, guests got home safe– we always walked women back to their rooms or offered to…sometimes women said no to that request and I respected that.

I believe all my close friends are married (I’m an introvert, so I don’t have many close friends, but the ones I do have, I’d pretty much take a bullet for), so I feel a little isolated because of that; I hate not being able to share relationship stories with them (even just being able to say ‘we’re going to______’). I am that annoying person who says when one member of a couple is traveling away and says they miss their significant other ‘well, just think, it’s good you have someone to miss’ (I know, not helpful). So I do feel like I have a gap in my life (and yes, I am well aware I am not entitled to a relationship and need to be whole/happy– perfect?- myself before she’ll magically appear in my life (ha! As if. It could be I’m being waaay too picky; or am oblivious). Hell, at this point, I have so little experience, I don’t have confidence (the universally acknowledged attractive trait) in my ability to successfully navigate a relationship (I do try to take notes from my friends whenever I hear them chatting about relationshippy things though; they may come in handy some day). Of course, my heart probably needs to grow by 3 sizes, at least.

So even though I feel I respect women– for romantic purposes it almost borders on avoidance (e.g. seeking consent to the point of likely annoyance), trying to treat them like I would anyone else, I don’t feel I’m any sort of great ally either (the last year or so I have finally had my privilege bubble popped; I can thank Twitter for that. I’m still learning what experiences women are having and just how f’ed up our culture is). I *might* do the bare minimum; they’re people, I treat them as such, or do the best I can. Again, I am far from perfect. I am single and I basically refuse to do a ‘cold approach’ of women out in the world anywhere…my assumption is that they do not want to be interrupted (even at a party– my own introversion & shyness help with that belief). I’ll chat if I’m approached and of course I talk to women in my professional life all the time. Again, I’m not special, I just try treating them like people and have basically cut out any possibility of a romantic life. I don’t think I’ve ever been the one to make the first move and almost cannot believe a woman would be interested in me romantically in the first place; I’m sure I’ve missed cues that a woman is attracted to me in the past, but I simply could not believe it….when I’m clubbed over the head with it, then I notice; but still have a hard time articulating that yes, I too am interested…(I do get crushes on people, I am human after all, but I almost never act on them). I guess I need to get more in touch with my feelings. So yes, All men can treat women with respect, listen when someone’s wronged them and actively intervene when misogyny is happening in front of our faces (I still need to work on those last two, especially). Can I just re-iterate, I am not great here, I’m doing what is probably the bare minimum and probably not doing that well at that, but I’m trying.

I show off the leaf-cutter ant colony at the local science museum sometimes. The kids are often shocked to learn that all the ants in the colony are female; all related sisters. (One little boy’s response: “So I’ve been stepping on girls every day?!” One little girl’s response at same session: “YES!”). One dad said once after I talked about how the worker ants were well, constantly working doing their various jobs something along the lines of “Yeah, getting them back into the kitchen where they belong”…which makes no sense– they’re ants– but I’m pretty sure is sexist, but I didn’t call him out on it.).

Shifting gears, there’s a lack of women in STEM fields (especially at the top) as well as in many other fields; technology, media, you name it. It is better than it used to be, when 0 women worked in these fields, but it’s far from gender parity (in terms of numbers and pay).

One of the classic things you hear about men & women’s tendencies in communication is that men want to fix things while women just want to be listened to/heard. With this (diversity, misogyny), I feel like it’s a case where women definitely want to be heard but also have the problem fixed and we men can help with that by ending the culture of misogyny that is evidenced all over society.

The lack of diversity isn’t a new problem; it’s been drummed on for a long time and yet it seems to have stalled in the last ten years or so after some very real progress. In life sciences, the male/female ratio of Ph.D. students is 50/50, I think it’s close to that at the postdoc stage and then at the faculty level, there’s a huge drop off to 20/80 women:men. Other fields struggle to have even a 50/50 ration of Ph.D. students and probably even undergrad majors. So we’ve got a ways to go still. Google released it’s employee breakdown and is apparently 70% men/30% women. Also not the best split to say the least.

Karen James asked how we can get more women into STEM fields and my response was to say ‘by recognizing and celebrating the ones who are doing good/interesting/provocative/creative work at all levels’. There have to be role models at every stage so that the next generation of scientists can see someone at least somewhat similar to themselves doing something that seems interesting. I can be as pro-women in STEM as I want, but I can’t be that physical role model.

At least in the case of Google, it seems to be a still growing company and so getting their gender ratio closer to 50/50 might be easier because they can hire more women than men for the next few years until partiy is achieved (I believe there are enough qualified women out there at this point). In academia, getting to the tenure track is harder than ever; it is not a growing market and so it’s probably harder to see how parity will be achieved; majority female departments are rare, I think. Basically, if departments only hired women for the next few years, it would go a ways to closing the gender gap, but would also likely upset a lot of male postdocs seeking those dwindling positions as well. Obviously, there’s more than just gender to consider when hiring a new faculty-person…they have to ‘fit’ personality-wise, field-wise, teaching-wise, funding-wise as well. I imagine an ultimate goal would have overall 50/50 women/men and where it does vary department by department, it’s as likely to be skewed one way as the other across all universities (in other words, it’s as likely to find a 4/10 ratio of men to women as it women to men).

I know Jonathan Eisen has refused to speak at conferences where there’s an overabundance of men speaking (I do empathize a small bit if there’s a conference where the planners invited every female speaker conceivable and got rejected by them all for reasons of scheduling, conflicting conferences they’ve been invited to speak at, etc.; I don’t know that that has ever happened though). I wonder if science as a whole needs to extend that to hiring practices until things balance out. Life isn’t fair and it frustrates me to no end that I believe one of the best things I can do for STEM is to leave it and hopefully any job I would have gotten would go to a female scientist. Science in the US/Europe needs fewer white men. That that might be what ti takes; a mass exodus.

Recognizing, celebrating and promoting women doing good science will hopefully shatter that glass ceiling. And since academia is shrinking in many fields due to funding being tight, that means that guys like me are probably SOL (again, this assumes a huge cultural shift that makes gender parity a priority– right now, it’s talked about, but nothing is being done about it or efforts aren’t effective as yet). Does it take me marching with my feet to some other field/job? Or just not having one (note: I do need to support myself and I don’t think women would say their movement is about putting guys out of work; just certain kinds of work, or at a minimum, just a level playing field).  I’m not saying woe is me here; I will consider not working in academia (in fact getting out might be the best thing for me), but I feel like where-ever I do end up working, I’ll be another privileged white guy not really helping the diversity situation because of what I look like (if I have hiring power in my next job, obviously, I can promote women & other underrepresented groups, but still will never be that role model to young people coming up).

I’m not an expert in this. I’m still learning. I’m not fundamentally good or bad, just trying to leave the world a better place than when I found it. I don’t know how to solve this problem, but I’ve started thinking about it (probably I have many things wrong here/misconceptions). But a simple first step is to listen to what women are saying in #YesAllWomen.

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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