Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Deconstructing the Boys' Club

Over on Skepchick,  Jacqueline posts about the "Boys' Club" and how a woman can "infiltrate" it, by working hard, speaking up, and getting involved. And not having sex with the guys until she has her membership locked in. The advice in the article is useful in general, and anyone on the outside of power or privilege would be well-advised to follow her a point.

I had a little problem reading the article, though, and it was because it bared a sort of similarity to other articles written, where the underlying assumption is that the reason why women aren't in more positions of authority is because they just didn't want it bad enough. Too often, it seems that the reason for women's failures are that they didn't speak up, they didn't ask for the raise, they didn't report the sexual assault at the right time, they didn't wear the right dress and that's why they were raped. While Jacqueline's post is positive, and avoids laying blame anywhere, I feel like the larger part of the problem is ignored. But that's okay, because the post wasn't about how men are evil, it was about actions that women could take to improve their situation.

The larger part of the problem isn't really that men are evil (obviously), but it's that the playing field is so overwhelmingly tilted against women, and it will remain that way until men get their shit together and start paying more than lip service to the idea of equality and equity. And, because I'm so darn helpful, here are some ways that men can help women to get into the boys' club (if you wonder why we should want this, you might be reading the wrong blog):

1) Acknowledge contributions - it's true that women (and other minorities, really) need to work twice as hard to get half the credit. There are a lot of reasons for this, including our own biases. Because of the way we've all been socialized, we naturally attribute some qualities to men and other qualities to women whether or not they've actually demonstrated those qualities. For a man to appear hard-working, all he has to do is show up. One thing that men can do is to carefully and consciously look for and acknowledge or reward when a woman has gone above and beyond. Not patronisingly, but frankly and honestly. Take a long hard look at who is being rewarded and why, and do your best to overcome your own bias. Sometimes we miss things that are really, really obvious, and we need to put in extra effort to see what we are missing. Who gets the promotions? Who gets the bonus? Who gets the congratulatory emails? When in doubt, side with the minority: they have so many other obstacles to overcome, it would be nice if you can give them a break, even if you're wrong once in a while.

2) Leave space for others to speak - women are socialized to defer to men, and men are socialized to speak up. Years ago, while training to volunteer on a gay youth helpline, one of the subjects we covered was how people with privilege often have the assumed right to speak, and so entire meetings can happen where only one point of view is ever spoken. For anyone who's ever been in a group situation where your opinion differed from the group's, you know how difficult it can be to speak up. The next time you're in a meeting, pay attention to who speaks, and how many times someone is interrupted or ignored. Unless there's been a massive shift, you'll see that most often men speak. When women do try to add their opinion, they're more likely to be interrupted, ignored, or dismissed. Try to be aware of this and allow space for other viewpoints to be expressed. If you're chairing the meeting, give time to the people most different from you to speak. They will probably have an insight that you hadn't considered, and you'll also be showing that you support an environment where different perspectives are appreciated and welcomed.

3) Invite people. If you're organising a conference, and realise that all or most of your speakers are straight white men, do some research and change it. This isn't token-ism, its due diligence. Rare are the professions where there are no experts with diverse backgrounds. It's a giant planet we live on, and we tend to only pay attention to the meagre little circle of colleagues and acqaintances that we already know. Also, there's this thing? Called the internet? Use it. If you can't find a person of colour, a woman, a differently abled, a queer speaker, you are doing it wrong. Right now, it takes a bit of extra work, but that's because the playing field is not level. One of the ways to get that field level is for those of us with the advantages to put in the legwork to give some advantages to other people. Awards, panels, discussions, lead teams....if you've only got men, you've got work to do.

4) Give respect. To a degree, respect is earned. But there is room for all of us to decide on a base level of decency and regard that we can give to every human being we encounter. Examine where this level is for you, and whether it is consistent across genders, cultures, and ranges of ability. Take the time to learn a little bit about the psychology of bias, and examine where your prejudices may lie (if you're human, you have prejudices). Then, do what you can to overcome those biases. Acknowledge that some people have had to work twice as hard as you did to reach the same achievements, and be prepared to give the benefit of the doubt. Consider the other side of things, the other person's perspective. Think of them as a person.

Boys' clubs don't really help anyone. Individuals profit from them by getting privileged access to information and power, but as a whole what they really do is limit our vision and hamper our ability to make decisions. When you only have one "kind" of person in charge, important factors get missed and catastrophes can happen that could have been avoided. By making room for different perspectives and experiences, you allow your organisation (or whatever it is) to open up more opportunities for enrichment. Oh, and also you get to be a pretty decent human being as well.

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