Hey, welcome back!
Today I’m taking a piece of advice from Gretchen, who I met at an event hosted by Doyenne Group in Madison, WI. The Doyenne Group supports entrepreneurs who identify as women and/or express a marginalized gender. I’ve been working with Doyenne in an accelerator program, and Gretchen showed up an event to give feedback to our particular cohort of entrepreneurs.
Gretchen mentioned to me that she and her husband talk about what it means to be an ally to a female colleague in your academic department. And she suggested that I develop some materials specifically to help folks know what, specifically, they can do to be allies.
So I’ve created a little handout – Five Ways to be Her Ally – as a .pdf.
These tips are helpful for all of us – no matter our gender expression – in our efforts to elevate the women we work with. Let’s get started!
Ok, this is not a new concept, and if you’re a woman you know what I’m talking about. But literally just this week I learned there’s a word for this. A “he-peat” is when you say something in a meeting and it gets no traction. And then guy says the same thing a few moments later, and suddenly it’s the best idea anyone’s heard.
So tip #1 for supporting your female colleagues: Put a stop to the he-peating.
I don’t mean only don’t do it yourself, although of course I mean that. I mean put a stop to it whenever you see it happen.
This requires first that you listen for it, and then second, that you interrupt it. Pay attention to the ideas and suggestions offered up by the women in the room. If a female colleague shares a good idea, amplify it. Take a moment to say “Hey, Samantha just shared an idea that’s really worth talking about.” And if you miss the chance to do that, and Samantha gets he-peated, call it in the moment: “Hey Dave, that’s an interesting idea. It sounds like what Samantha was proposing a few minutes ago. Let’s take a few minutes to discuss this. Samantha, can you tell us more about what you were thinking?”
First of all, I think I can pretty much promise that all the women in the room are going to notice that you’re doing this. And that’s a good thing. Because once you know your voice matters, you are more likely to use it. The more voices you have in conversation, the more genuinely diverse and inclusive the perspectives are, the better your decisions will be. There is really interesting science around this, and if you’re up for a long read I HIGHLY recommend the work of Scott Page at the University of Michigan. I’ll drop a link to his bio in the show notes as well.
Statistically, women do more physical and emotional labor at home. This carries over into the workplace, where women are frequently asked to do things like organize department events, take meeting minutes, bring their delicious coconut-banana cupcakes to celebrate the dean’s birthday, whatever. I bet if you start keeping tabs of who does what, you’ll notice that the women in your department do more of this “Office Housework” than the men do.
Your job as an ally? Redistribtue the housekeeping.
You can do this lots of ways. You could, for example, simply stop asking women to step in and do this work, and ask only the men instead. That would probably shake things up in maybe an interesting way.
You could ask people, privately, which of your department’s typical office housekeeping duties they want to keep doing, and then reassign accordingly.
You could also take an inclusive, sort of democratic approach to this and create a rota. I have a colleague who lists every committee member at the bottom of the minutes. The committee works is way through the list, with each member taking their turn as the secretary. Her list is alphabetical. You could also order the list by seniority. In fact, you could order by seniority and, say, leave off your colleagues who are in their first year. You’ll know what’s most fair in your context, and how best to be an ally to the women in your department.
Office housework typically gets in the way of promotable activities. If I’m baking my famous cupcakes, I’m not writing my journal article. If I’m editing and posting meeting minutes, I’m not working on that edited collection I’m pulling together for my discipline. If I’m literally taking minutes in the meeting, I’m probably spending my mental energy making sure my notes are complete and accurate, which gives me less focus to actually participate in the meeting itself.
Give back to your female colleagues the time they need to do meaningful work that will advance their careers.
Ok, so, it’s not enough just relieve women of office housekeeping. Yes, that’s important. But so to is giving her meaningful work to do that WILL advance her career.
So let’s say you’re having an event and your department is choosing which guest speaker to invite. You know, from Tip #2, that you’re not going to ask the women in your department to be your party planners. But you COULD ask a female colleague to reach out to your guest speaker – let her be the person to represent your department and institution, and let her be the person to build her network.
Or let’s say your department has some amazing stats on post-graduate placement for your majors. Ask your IR Office to compile those data into clear and aesthetically pleasing charts, and then invite one of your female colleagues to be the person to present those statistics to the Board of Trustees.
You get the idea.
Every department has work that needs to get done. Some of it is drudgery, but some of it is really valuable to a person establishing their name, building their visibility, broadening their network. Prioritize giving those assignments to your female colleagues. I’m not saying the men don’t deserve chances to be visible, but I am DEFINITELY saying the men already have lots of those chances in lots of arenas. Use YOUR power to elevate the women around you.
My guess is that if you’re working at a college or university you are surrounded by super-smart and savvy women. My guess is also that those women spend more time fielding comments about their clothing and behavior than about their actual work.
Be the person who bucks this trend. When you’re in conversation with – or about – a female colleague, compliments her ideas, her thinking, her judgment, her critical acumen. DO NOT comment on her clothing, her hairstyle, her fashion sense, or how “nice” she is.
Now, I’m not saying you can’t ever tell someone something nice about their appearance or their behavior. For example – I have a faculty colleague in chemistry who an awesome dress with chemical symbols on it AND pockets. It is a really terrific dress. You can bet we talked about it, and how she rocked it. AND we talk about her teaching, and her research, and what she still wanted or needed as a new member of our campus. Perhaps most importantly, SHE brought up the dress. I loved it, but I waited to follow her lead in that conversation.
And PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE be especially vigilant about COMPLIMENTING THE MINDS of your female colleagues from traditionally under-represented populations, whether because of the color of their skin, their gender expression, their visible abilities, their sexual identity, and so on. Those colleagues of yours are already facing higher hurdles than anyone else in the room. You owe it to them to highlight how excellent their work is.
This works for many reasons, but in this case I especially want to call out that you are modeling excellent behavior for your students. Anybody with evena surface-level understanding of student evaluations knows that women faculty are punished in those student evals for how they look, what they wear, the sound of their voice, whether they were accommodating and emotionally supporting – all in ways men are not.
Your students need not only to see diverse faculty, they need to see you treating those faculty as equals. With respect. With recognition for their intellect and their hard work and deep expertise that got them a job standing in front of the students in the first place.
I think for many of us, it’s easier to say something nice, and even respectful, to someone when we’re in a room – or even a virtual meeting – together. Your job as an ally is to remember not only to praise her publicly, but to praise her even in her absence.
If you’re a department chair, go out of your way to tell your dean about the stellar work of your new junior colleague. Remember to praise her thinking and her academic skills, not her manners, behavior, or fashion sense.
If you’re in a meeting with other leaders, find the opportunity to call out the good work of the women in your department. Are your # of majors up, or is your retention getting better? Praise your female colleagues for their skilled teaching.
Did one of your colleagues recently receive an award from their professional group, or have a publication accepted? Talk about this outside of your department, and when you do, call out your female colleagues by name for their accomplishments.
Or even borrow from an earlier strategy: if you’re in a planning session and someone wants to assign office housework to a woman in your area, mention that she won’t have time to that because of the complex and important project she’s working on that will <…insert institutional advantage here…>. That way you get to compliment her WHILE making sure she has time to do meaningful, productive, career-advancing work.
Most organizations – not just colleges and universities – are quick to recognize and reward the men who work there. But YOUR job as an ally is to normalize the behavior of rewarding and recognizing women. This has really great ripple effects.
First, more of your colleagues are known across the campus for their excellence. Remember, the men will naturally get attention. By ensuring that the women do too, you are increasing the positive visibility of your whole department.
Second, the more your female colleagues are known for their excellence and not just their cupcakes and kindness, the more meaningful assignments they’ll get. This can open doors for them into parts of the university where they can really grow. Maybe they’ll get engaged in governance. Maybe they’ll accompany the president on fundraising visits. Maybe they’ll be invited to speak about the university to the press.
Third, your institution will be well-represented by more women. This will make it easier to attract and retain female scholars and female students. This will make it more likely that the women who are treated well stay, and you have less turnover – which means less time in hiring committees, less time onboarding, less hassle for you. And perhaps, if you’re really good at this, you’ll become known as an institution where women are welcome because they thrive in their academic careers.
So there you have it: five really easy things you can do to be a better ally to the women you work with.
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