A response to ‘Don’t be that dude: Handy tips for the male academic’ and comments surrounding it

A recent blog post from ‘Tenure, She Wrote’  titled “Don’t be that dude: Handy tips for the male academic” has been making its rounds around the interwebs. I contributed to this by tweeting about it, which actually is what led me to write this post. A friend of mine and fellow grad student replied to my tweet citing some issues she had with the article. This led me consider the merits and drawbacks of some of the points raised in this post in more detail. You can (by that I mean should) read the post here: Don’t be that dude.

The article addresses 20 different ways through which men in academics can aid in providing a platform for gender equity. I will only address the points that I or members of the blogosphere find contentious.

2. Don’t comment on a woman’s appearance in a professional context. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are; it’s irrelevant. 

I think this is a little extreme. I agree there is a lot of prejudice and pressure surrounding female appearance and its role in the academic/ professional setting. However, being a a first year graduate student, I would greatly appreciate people telling me whether what I’m wearing is appropriate for the task at hand. Now, before someone screams ‘slut shaming’: believe me, I know the difference. I just think that there is a right way to comment and there is a wrong way. Instead of forbidding male academics from commenting or giving helpful suggestions, I think it is more important to indicate what type of comments are inappropriate. Everyone knows that commenting on someone’s ass is a no-no, but what about advice? Personally, I believe defining an appropriate and inappropriate form of behavior is more effective than asking someone to stop the behavior entirely. These are some examples of the different forms that I can think of:

Inappropriate: This is a personal experience. During TA orientation, a woman on the panel directed the following comment at the female students.

Girls, please wear bras while teaching. You shouldn’t go around tantalizing your students in class.

This is more like slut-shaming to me. It implies it is the women’s fault if her students are too busy staring at her chest to learn.

Appropriate: These would be non gender-specific comments regarding appearance or clothing:

Hey, next time don’t wear sweatpants while teaching, it is unprofessional.

This comment can be directed at anyone irrespective of gender, sex, etc. And for people like me who love sweatpants, it can be pretty useful.

5. Make sure your department seminars, conference symposia, search committees, and panel discussions have a good gender balance

A general critique of this idea is that the seminars/ symposia/ panels should or will represent the distribution of the field. I wholeheartedly disagree with that critique simply because it fosters the idea that we shouldn’t attempt to alter the status quo.  Furthermore, the diversity in faculty or PIs does not necessarily represent the diversity of the student population. If so, they will not be capable of addressing the issues or representing the values of the academic community in a holistic manner.

6 & 7. Pay attention to who organizes the celebrations, gift-giving, or holiday gatherings. Volunteer when someone asks for a note-taker, coffee-run gopher, or lunch order-taker at your next meeting. 

The responsibility of organizer, coffee maker, cleaner, etc. most often falls onto women because as the article states we are ‘socially conditioned’ to volunteer for these tasks. Not to say that we always do it out of obligation, I personally love making coffee every morning. However, if no one else volunteers a woman is more likely to end up doing said task. On this point, I’ve heard people say – if you are aware of this then why don’t you stop volunteering? This isn’t the 1920s! That is a very privileged standpoint in my opinion. We don’t all come from the same background. I grew up in India where often women are expected to help in the kitchen, clean up, serve food at family gatherings. While I had the privilege of growing up in an extremely liberal and equal household, I was exposed to this through a variety of other social interactions. Till this date I feel compelled to set up, serve at and clean up after any event that I’m a part of – whether I’m an organizer or a guest. Some of us are conditioned to behave this way, and without male volunteers will probably end up doing this on every occasion.

10. During a talk Q&A session, call on women. Be a good moderator, and make sure men aren’t talking over women.

The criticism of this point is similar to one above: why don’t the women volunteer? My response is the same as well. While some of us are lucky enough to have been encouraged to think and share our ideas publicly, not everyone has. I have met enough women whose self esteem has been beaten down throughout their lives – literally and figuratively. Recovering from that takes time and help, especially with respect to sharing in a public setting. Considering intersectional identity is extremely important when criticizing this idea: not all women experience the same form of discrimination. There are more factors to consider here, and it will good to do so.

20. Finally, if you do all of the above, don’t expect a cookie. Your efforts may go unacknowledged or even unrecognized much of the time. Keep at it anyway, because you’re not out to get special recognition. You’re doing it because it’s the decent thing to do.

I know that congratulating someone every time they promote equality is not feasible. And I understand that if you make a big show about this behaviour it will come across as doing something extra, making discrimination the passable norm. However, people learn from positive reinforcement, even really really smart people. So, if you commend a colleague for making an effort to promote equality and diversity in something they did, they’re more likely to do it again. 

Preview image: http://www.usfca.edu/uploadedImages/News/Magazine/Fall_2009/images/science_people.gif