So you want to be an ally

By Anonymous Author


The cover of the book “We should all be feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This isn’t about convincing you to be a good feminist. This is for the guys who want to be a strong supporter of women but aren’t sure where to start.

Here are two approaches to supporting women:

  1. Taking action that will be helpful in a particular circumstance. These are actions that proximately support women.
  2. Taking action that will be part of changing culture. These are actions are primarily directed at men and at organizations, to change the parameters of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

These two kinds of actions are not mutually exclusive, but if you’re going to do something, it’s good to know what you hope to accomplish.

Here are some suggestions to help you be effective. This list isn’t intended to be comprehensive, or replace the good ones that are already out there, such as this one – which is excellent. Or here’s another. There is a mountain of literature on what men need to do. This essay is no substitute for studying up.

Recognize that the problem is men.  While it’s true that women are sometimes unconsciously biased against women, the real problem is deliberate and harmful actions of men. It’s not bias or reproductive biology that’s keeping women from advancing, it’s malicious actions – big ones and the everyday microaggressions – that hold women back. Women experience harassment and have their work and their talent minimized on a daily basis. Sometimes, it happens right in front of us and we don’t even notice. If we are going to do things that help, then we need to first diagnose the magnitude of this problem.

Don’t be an ally. How can you be an ally without being an ally? One common thing people say is, “Ally is a verb, not a noun.” In other words, performing actions that serve as an ally are great, but making “ally” part of someone’s identity is a bad idea. Being an ally means nothing, but acting like an ally matters. Why don’t you want to self-identify as an ally? Because there’s nothing about that identity that helps your allyship be more effective, and it can often get in the way. Because it might appear that you’re doing it to get credit, instead of working to make change. You don’t ever even have to use the word “ally.” Aside from this essay, I’ve never used it.

Avoid building a reputation as a loudmouth. Women don’t need to be informed that you’re on their side, they need you to act like you’re on their side. If we are working to normalize treating women as equal peers, then we can serve as a role model of the normal guy who does the right thing. The long-game goal of allyship is to move the cultural needle, so that doing the right thing isn’t an extreme act. We’re building towards a future where any form of sexual misconduct is entirely unacceptable, and everyday gender inequities are a thing of the past. We will get there when normal everyday guys — who aren’t identified as rabid feminists — are keeping the bad actors in check. Yes, please go to great lengths, but making a show about it doesn’t help. Here’s another way to put it, as someone wise once told me: the impact of your words is inversely proportional to the number of your words. Yes, speak up — when it really matters.

Get trained. Knowing what is wrong and knowing the right thing to do are very different things. Some kinds of actions that might look good on the surface can be harmful, or counterproductive, or not as effective as other actions. Show up at workshops, seek out and read articles, listen, identify people who can help guide you. It’s nobody’s job to educate you, though it’s possible to find more experienced people who can advise you.

You’re going to have to tell other men their behavior is unacceptable. Sometimes, the sexist thing happens right in front of a bunch of people, everybody knows it’s happening, but nobody does anything. Such as in this panel discussion. It’s okay to speak up, though it’s hard to do so in a big room. But when there are just a few people there – or maybe it’s just you and one other guy – it’s also hard. For example, let’s say you’re hosting a visiting speaker on your campus, who is a friend of yours. After you introduce him to a bunch of colleagues, once he’s talking just with you, he makes a remark that objectifies one of the students. If you just entirely let this slide, then you’re enabling this kind of behavior. If you come down on him like a ton of bricks, then you’re just the rabid ass who is no fun, which makes your comments easy to dismiss. Perhaps you could say, “We don’t do that here,” simply, and move on. Is this easy to do? Hell no. Will you be making any new friends like this? No. Might it cost you personally? Yes. It is precisely these kinds of interactions – where men are correcting the behavior of men when women are not around – that will make the changes that are long overdue.

Listen to women, and amplify their voices. In so many professional interactions, the expertise of women is doubted and minimized by men. When you see this happen, speak up only as much as necessary to give the platform to the women who have been the target of minimization. Women don’t need men to defend them, but they do need men to visibly treat them as peers in the presence of men who don’t regard women as academic equals. That is the culture that we need to change.

It often comes at a cost. Gender equity isn’t a zero sum game – when women receive fair treatment, we all benefit. That said, if you’re going to be effective in pushing for this change, there are costs, in terms of your time, effort, emotional labor, and favor with men in power. For example, does your department have a code of conduct, that is a set of accepted norms of behavior for employees, students, and visitors? Does your department have a safety policy for travel and fieldwork? Getting these policies is not glamorous, and takes effort, and might annoy some people, but doing the work behind the scenes to implement these policies is the right thing to do. Let’s say one of the department’s favorite job candidates has a history of sexual misconduct accusations. If you advocate for women, and work to pursue due diligence and help the department make a choice to protect its students, that can come at a political cost to you on campus.

Know that you don’t get any special status for acting like an ally. Don’t expect any reward, you’re just doing the thing that everybody is supposed to be doing, and women are doing more of this work on a daily basis than you. Keep in mind that you’re still a guy, and of course, women will treat you like all other guys. There are many guys who talk the big feminist talk, but also use this talk to exploit women and act as serial predators, and you can’t tell the difference until it happens. So just because you might look like a good guy, that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to a position of trust.

I realize that this is written in the context of gender issues, but these principles hold if you’re working to advocate for any other marginalized group of people as well.

Author biography: The author is a man and an ecologist in the United States.

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