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.


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

  1. Pingback: Conseils aux hommes (et aux femmes) universitaires | Academia

  2. Hi! I know this is an old post – do you have a citation for the point about floating mics vs. stand mics? I’m coauthoring a paper on women asking questions in conferences, and while I swear I’ve seen a paper about this I can’t find it, no matter how many ways I change my google search. Thanks!

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  9. As a women with a PhD and experience in both academia and the private sector, I can confidently say this is one of the most apt articles I have read on improving gender equity. Kudos! These are clear, helpful, and effective strategies that both women and men can do to improve equity in the workplace. Thank you!

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