Don’t be that dude: Handy tips for the male academic

There is a plethora of research on the causes of hostile environments for women in academia, and on why we have an underrepresentation of women in many fields. There are support groups for women, societies entirely devoted to women academics (broadly and field-specific), workshops for women in academia, and countless articles and blogs devoted to the topic.

These initiatives are important, but here’s the thing: gender equality has to be a collaborative venture. If men make up the majority of many departments, editorial boards, search committees, labs and conferences, then men have to be allies in the broader cause of equality, simply because they have more boots on the ground. And, as much as I wish it weren’t so, guys often tend to listen more readily to their fellow guys when it comes to issues like sexism. I’ve also found that there are a lot of guys out there that are supportive, but don’t realize that many of their everyday actions (big and small) perpetuate inequality. So, guys, this post is for you.*

1. Use the appropriate salutations when writing to a woman academic. Don’t call your female professor “Miss” or “Mrs.” Don’t write to a colleague as “Ms.” when you would otherwise say “Dr.” or “Prof.” There is a long history of baggage around names, and I guarantee that most women are sensitive to this. Show that you’re not One of Those Dudes by respecting a woman academic’s titles, at least in the initial greeting.

2. Don’t comment on a woman’s appearance in a professional context. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are; it’s irrelevant. Similarly, don’t tell someone they don’t look like a scientist/professor/academic, that they look too young, or they should smile.

3. Don’t talk over your female colleagues. There is a lot of social conditioning that goes into how men and women communicate differently. You may not realize that you’re doing it, but if you find yourself interrupting women, or speaking over them, stop.

4. Avoid making sexual remarks (or wearing clothing, etc., that is sexually explicit or suggestive), regardless of whether they are about your colleagues.

5. Make sure your department seminars, conference symposia, search committees, and panel discussions have a good gender balance. If you find that someone turns you down, ask them for recommendations for an alternative; don’t give up. Recognize that if there is a minority of women in your program or discipline, they may be disproportionately burdened with invitations to serve on committees or give talks. Be sensitive to this!   

6. Pay attention to who organizes the celebrations, gift-giving, or holiday gatherings. Make sure that it’s not disproportionately women in your lab, department, or organization who are the party planners or social organizers. Volunteer to do it yourself, or suggest a man next time.

7. Volunteer when someone asks for a note-taker, coffee-run gopher, or lunch order-taker at your next meeting. Don’t let this task fall to women, even if they tend to volunteer (we’re socially conditioned to do so). Make sure that women aren’t being asked to do this more than men.

8. Don’t refuse to go through doors opened by women, insist on carrying their field equipment, or otherwise reinforce stereotypes that women need special treatment because of our gender. Offer help, and drop it if help is declined.

9. Take an equal share in housework and childcare duties at home. Women (including academics) are often disproportionately burdened with domestic duties relative to their male academic spouses. Figure out if your household is an equal one.

10. During a talk Q&A session, call on women. Be a good moderator, and make sure men aren’t talking over women. In large lectures, use floating mics, rather than mic stands, to encourage women to comment (this works!).

11. Learn about benevolent sexism

12. Learn what mansplaining is (I’m not going to get into whether this is a good term or not). Guard against it, and be quick to derail it when you see it in others.

13. Learn what the tone argument is. Don’t use it. Don’t dismiss your female colleagues as angry, emotional, or otherwise not deserving of respect because they aren’t adopting what you think is the appropriate tone.

14. Learn how to apologize when someone has called you out for inappropriate behavior. 

15. Don’t leave it to women to do the work of increasing diversity. Be proactive, rather than reactive, in your departments and institutions. Speak out about incidents that promote a hostile environment at your school, to your students and your colleagues. If you observe someone doing or saying something sexist, tell them that it’s not okay. Actively support your female colleagues when they experience sexism.

16. Adopt teaching tools and practices that promote gender equity. Pay attention to the example you set for your students. 

17. Pay attention to who you invite to informal work-related gatherings. If you’re often going out with members of your lab or department for drinks, make an effort to include women. You may be shutting your colleagues out from research opportunities or the sharing of ideas that happen in informal settings. 

18. Make sure you’re aware of the gender biases in scientific journal editorial practices. If you’re an editor, find out what the gender ratio is among your reviewers. Take steps to make it more equal. 

19. Know when to listen. Don’t assume you understand what it’s like for women. Don’t interject with “but this happens to men, too!” Don’t try to dismiss or belittle women’s concerns. Remember that women are often reacting to  a long history of incidents, big and small.  

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. 

Please feel free to share any other tips or ideas in the comments, or to share your experiences. Many thanks to a number of folks on Twitter who contributed to this list!

*This post begins with the premise that sexism exists — institutional and individual, big and small, intentional or otherwise. This is not the place to debate that. This list was generated out of the repeated personal experiences myself and many of my female colleagues, and even a number of men who have observed these behaviors in practice.

225 thoughts on “Don’t be that dude: Handy tips for the male academic

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  3. However, it is a lie if you think looks don’t matter. So, you’ll have men who follow those rules, who will not mention your appearance or make comments about it, because it is maybe a more succesful manipulative strategy to get you in bed if they compliment you on your work or personality.

    But the ugly truth is they actually are not really interested in you as a person.

    • If literally none of my male colleagues are interested in me as a person, then that’s just depressing. And I would still prefer that they compliment my work than my looks. Neither of those “strategies” are going to get me to sleep with them, though, because I’m just not going to sleep with my colleagues.

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  12. It’d be nice if anyone cared as much about equality as they did feminism. As a man in a predominantly female workplace, I know that women don’t want equality in the workplace they want vengeance for perceived wrong done to them generations ago. While men may inadvertently neglect your feelings, women are intentional in trying to demean and emasculate.

    So I say: focus on equality but not equality of results; equality of opportunity. And just be kind to one another.

    • If you don’t think feminism is about equality, than you don’t know what feminism is. If you think women “want vengeance” for a “perceived wrong done to them generations ago,” then you aren’t paying attention to the news. I suggest you take some time to educate yourself on what feminism is (I suggest bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody), on what male privilege is, and on the very real challenges that women (and men!) face because of gender inequality. It’s not about our feelings being neglected; it’s about things like equal pay, access to medical care, being safe from sexual assault, equal opportunities to pursue careers, and being treated like 3-dimensional human beings and not sex objects (just for starters). Feminism isn’t about demeaning, or emasculating. If you feel that people are treating you that way disproportionately, perhaps you might start with examining what you might be doing to cause those reactions– are you treating women fairly? Are they responding to something else that has nothing to do with you (like, say, lower pay rates)? You might start by not making blanket statements that are offensive stereotypes.

      Your statement about “equality of results” ignores the fact that the opportunities aren’t equal, and there are many things (like biases) that are very difficult to address on a structural level. For example, we know that women are graduating in science fields in higher numbers, but not staying in academia. This isn’t due to lack of ability, but rather a series of factors like biased hiring practices (difficult to address structurally, because they’re internal!), lack of support for maternity leave (easier to address structurally!), and hostile work environments like the ones that prompted me to write this post. To address those, it takes effort on the part of the men causing the hostile environment to make a difference. Every single thing I listed here would fall under “be kind to one another” (so long as your definition of “be kind” doesn’t involve being patronizing, or bound to some out-moded, sexist notions of chivalry.

      • Without wanting to get into an argument about my comments, I’ll simply rebut briefly:
        You may want to educate the bulk of feminists about what feminism is. I’m sure YOU truly want equality (as do I) but in my field (which, as i said, is traditionally and predominantly considered ‘women’s work’) I see the other side of the coin. I have also grown up hearing the mantra of man-bashing as much as my sisters heard the call that ‘girls can be whatever they want now’. Boys, on the other hand, are told that they must either be jocked up apes, snivelingly awkward nerds or effeminate lady-men. Every bit of equality that the feminism movement has made seems to be at the detriment to balanced masculinity instead of simply the benefit of women. If it had simply liberated women it would have been to the benefit of all. Basically, we’ve pulled everyone down, while trying to pull half of us up.

        Oh, and by trying to tell me that other people’s mistreatment of me is my fault is exactly what you’re telling men NOT to do. Those who treat me poorly do so because they are sexist. I hear things like ‘No real man would be doing that’. WASPs have no monopoly on prejudice.

        As for the things you might think would be ‘easier to address structurally’, we all make choices in our professional lives to balance work life and life outside of work. We also know the earning potential of our field when we enter it. Monetary compensation is only one kind of compensation, I would ask that when you consider total compensation you realize how expensive long-term leave and other benefits are for employers. NOT having an employee is often 2 times as expensive for only half the profit than having the regular employee making adding greater maternity leave or sick leave very costly.

        Finally, the lost of honor and morals in society is appalling. Chivalry isn’t out-moded or sexist. You may want to track it down, it’s hiding right there with ‘acting like a lady’. I assume your offended by things holding a door for another person, wanting to care for those who are vulnerable or or treating others cordially and with dignity. These are the virtues I’ve seen attacked in the name of feminism. Call a fight for equality “a fight for equality”, I call a fight for feminism “misandry”. Personally, I’m on the same side as you are in the fight for equality.

        • You may want to educate the bulk of feminists about what feminism is.
          I assure you, we know what feminism is. Without examples, there’s not much I can respond to, but from the bulk of your comment it seems to me that you’re thinking about stereotypes and straw feminists, not actual feminism. Feminism is the belief that women should be treated equally to men. That’s all.

          I have also grown up hearing the mantra of man-bashing as much as my sisters heard the call that ‘girls can be whatever they want now’. Boys, on the other hand, are told that they must either be jocked up apes, snivelingly awkward nerds or effeminate lady-men. Every bit of equality that the feminism movement has made seems to be at the detriment to balanced masculinity instead of simply the benefit of women. If it had simply liberated women it would have been to the benefit of all. Basically, we’ve pulled everyone down, while trying to pull half of us up.

          I don’t think so at all. What you’re describing, about the limitations to male identity, is because of patriarchy, not feminism. Feminism helps men by challenging stereotypes– men should be able to be nerdy, athletic, effeminate, etc., without having to feel like their manliness is at stake. It’s not feminism that says being emotional, intellectual, graceful (etc.) are bad; that’s patriarchy. What does my making equal pay, or having equal access to careers, or having ownership over my own body take away from you? Nothing.

          Oh, and by trying to tell me that other people’s mistreatment of me is my fault is exactly what you’re telling men NOT to do. Those who treat me poorly do so because they are sexist. I hear things like ‘No real man would be doing that’. WASPs have no monopoly on prejudice.

          I can’t comment on why people treat you poorly. I don’t have enough information, and it’s none of my business. What I can tell you is that men suffer because of unfair expectations that patriarchy puts on them, and this carries through in negative attitudes that men AND women have. The same is true for women and unrealistic standards of beauty. Women can reinforce negative stereotypes, too; just because a woman does something doesn’t make it feminist.

          As for the things you might think would be ‘easier to address structurally’, we all make choices in our professional lives to balance work life and life outside of work. We also know the earning potential of our field when we enter it. Monetary compensation is only one kind of compensation, I would ask that when you consider total compensation you realize how expensive long-term leave and other benefits are for employers. NOT having an employee is often 2 times as expensive for only half the profit than having the regular employee making adding greater maternity leave or sick leave very costly.

          It sounds like you’re arguing why women shouldn’t have equal pay or compensation. If we want a diverse work-force, we need to address these issues. Instead of arguing against women having access to paid maternity leave, why not instead do what the Scandinavians do– they give maternity AND paternity leave, and they seem to have a robust economy.

          Finally, the lost of honor and morals in society is appalling. Chivalry isn’t out-moded or sexist. You may want to track it down, it’s hiding right there with ‘acting like a lady’. I assume your offended by things holding a door for another person, wanting to care for those who are vulnerable or or treating others cordially and with dignity. These are the virtues I’ve seen attacked in the name of feminism.

          I have no problems with people treating people honorably, respectfully, or with dignity. All of those things are feminist. I have no problem with someone opening a door for me, if they get to the door first. I DO have a problem with someone refusing to go through a door I open for them simply because I am a woman. Why can’t we just open doors for each other? I don’t need to be treated like a delicate flower, or a weakling, or like I need special treatment just because I have a uterus. I want to be treated with the same honors and courtesies as everyone else– no more, no less.

          Call a fight for equality “a fight for equality”, I call a fight for feminism “misandry”. Personally, I’m on the same side as you are in the fight for equality.

          That’s all well in good in principle, but in reality, that ignores the fact that there are real differences in how men and women are treated. Sexism exists. If we just talk in generic terms about equality, we’re not addressing the very real problems that “happen to” affect women more than men. Just like with racism, or classism, or any other issues, we need to be specific if we’re going to have any measurable impact.

          • Thank you Denny. Acclinatrix’ claim that I’m ‘confused’ shows that she doesn’t want to keep an open mind to other’s points of view. I suspected this from her previous retort which is why I hadn’t bothered to answer.
            Here, she was intentionally condescending in an attempt to dismiss me because she fears validating my point: many feminists are out to get men and misandry is as big a threat to society as misogyny.
            In fact, I’d go as far as saying philandry nor philogyny could ever exist as be true equality for if we specifically raise up women (philogyny) we do so by oppressing men (misandry) and if we try to bolster men (philandry) we do so at the expense of women (misogyny).
            This is the exact same problem with most antidiscrimination attempts focussing on the symptoms of inequality and it is specifically the biggest argument against affirmative action.

          • If a climate denier wants to say that global warming isn’t happening, or it’s not caused by people, and I correct that idea, I’m not being closed-minded. If someone claims vaccines cause autism, and I correct that idea, I’m not closed minded. I wasn’t being condescending; you literally do not know what feminism is; these are straw arguments.

            Feminists are not out to get you. What you’re feeling is not the threat of misandry, but the discomfort at having your privilege challenged. Patriarchy exists; we do bolster men at the expense of women in our society. Your argument against equality is based on the false premise that we have to take the dominant group down in order to raise someone up. A better analogy is John Scalzi’s video game metaphor; we’re all playing the same game, it’s that some of us are playing on different difficulty levels. Changing my personal difficulty level doesn’t do anything to impact your experience of the game whatsoever.

            This is not the platform for you to complain about discrimination against men, or to argue that you should get to keep all the fringe benefits of patriarchy because it would be too darned hard or too unfair to change things, or that we’ll never REALLY be equal anyway, so let’s keep the status quo.

            Absolutely NOTHING you’ve argued has been backed by fact. None of it has been relevant in any way to this post. Absolutely none of the things that I’ve suggested here would hurt you in any way, or raise me up at your expense. All I’ve suggested is that you put on your big boy pants and take responsibility for your actions that are detrimental to others. If you don’t want to do that, then we have nothing more to discuss.

            I don’t have an obligation to provide a platform for confused, misleading, or paranoid rantings of antivax folks or climate deniers with entrenched opinions, and I don’t have to do it for MRAs, either. Take your own advice about an open mind, show me the respect of actually educating yourself by listening to what feminists say, and accept that you have privilege, and maybe then we can have a dialog.

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