Being a male feminist means doing what?

It seems like I see a new spat on twitter every single day related to people trying to police feminism. It is no longer a surprise to come across, but it remains frustrating. 

One thing I have not explicitly mentioned as part of my blog or bio, is that I consider myself a feminist. I don't discuss it much because as a dude, there isn't a lot of perspective I have in this conversation. I can't speak to what discrimination and stereotypes women face. In fact, I can't speak with any experience, authority, or expertise about the discrimination anyone who isn't a white male atheist wouldn't face. 

I can't tell you what it's like to be black in America. I've never been black.

I can't tell you what it's like to be a trans woman/man in the America. I've never been anything other than a cis man.

I can't tell you what it's like to be Latino/Chinese/Taiwanese/Norwegian/Italian/Nigerian/etc. I've never been anything other than an American. That's the perspective on life I possess. Literally nothing more. 

That doesn't mean I can't play a role in the feminist movement. It does not mean I can't be an ally. It does not mean I can't be part of the solution instead of the problem. But it absolutely does mean that I need to be more conscientious about what role I play.

As a man, I'm not someone who can or should be a leading voice in the feminism movement. Why? Because I am not a woman. Yes, I know that it shouldn't matter in a truly equal society, but part of the point is that our society isn't truly equal. That means that I shouldn't be looking for my voice to be the one amplified or promoted across the world in support of feminism. Instead, I need to be the one doing the supporting and the amplification. 

I want to tell 2 stories that explain why I came to this conclusion about my role in the feminist movement, and then I want to take the time to list some people, projects, and organizations that do great work for women and feminism.

The first story, was the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Like a lot of people, I've been quite enraged by the way that this movement has been mischaracterized. There are so many things I can and do want to say in support of it, but that would be another blog post and again, it would be so much better for you to go read something by a black lives matter member than me. 

What the BLM movement made me realize was that I needed to stop and listen more to the people in the heart of the movement. When I did, it became apparent to me that the people criticizing it and trying to dismiss it, were not listening...at all. If I wasn't listening and was instead too busy trying to put my voice in the middle of it, I was clearly going to miss the message too. That was when it dawned on me that in my fervor to voice my opinion on any given subject, I did less listening and more talking than I should have. 

There is a deleted scene that can be seen in the director's cut of "Pulp Fiction" where Mia Wallace (played by Uma Thurman) is recording Vincent Vega's (played by John Travolta) answers to various questions before they go out for the evening. One of the questions she asked that has always stuck with me is: "When in conversation, do you listen, or do you wait to talk?"

Vincent Vega answers the question honestly, and in a way that I realized I would also have to answer that question if I too were being honest. He says: "I wait to talk, but I'm trying to listen."

Far too often, we aren't listening and are instead waiting until people pause so we can inject our own opinions into the conversation. We assume we have something important to add, instead of asking questions to make sure we aren't about to stick our foot in our mouths. We should listen more and ask more questions.

The second story I want to tell is closer to the topic at hand. A colleague of mine was searching for jobs last year, as was I. She and I are in different fields, so we weren't competing for jobs. That made it easier for us both to discuss and voice our concerns and frustrations with the whole process.

A constant stresser for her, was how to present herself without putting too much information out in the public sphere that might be used to discriminate against and/or stereotype her. We shared a lot of similarities with respect to our personal lives in that we were both married with offspring, and we were both seeking academic jobs, but her worries were not the same as mine. What she stressed about was primarily centered around how she would be viewed as a woman and as a mom. She worried about how expectations might be different for her if she were to make too much of her personal life known. Would anyone even hire her if she dared indicate to them that she planned on spending a fair amount of time with her family? We'd love to say "no," but the truth is that some places want people to be more dedicated to the job than anything else. And yes, one might have similar worries as a man and a dad, but it would be a false equivalence to say that the discrimination and judgement men have faced in this regard is comparable to that which women have and continue to face.

At first, my reaction was to try and think of my concerns to voice to her in response. What I wanted to do was to try and say something about my experiences so as to show that I could be sympathetic and empathetic to her situation. What I realized when I started to do that though, was that it seemed condescending, patronizing, and dismissive. Those were not my intentions, but I've no doubt that is how it came across. I mean, I too worried about how I would be judged about having kids. I too worried about how I was being viewed on a personal level, but my concerns were not centered around a systemic bias against my gender identity and/or race. 

So, instead, I tried to do more listening. My colleague absolutely voiced the same concerns to other female colleagues, who could directly relate to her with similar stories of their own. I couldn't and pretending I perfectly understood her situation was more about me fooling myself than me actually understanding. The only way for me to really understand, is to listen. She wasn't asking me for advice. She wasn't telling me her concerns so I could solve any of her problems for. She wasn't stressing out and using me to bounce her concerns off of because she wanted me to be her therapist. She wanted me to listen as a friend and colleague and fellow human being. What she wanted was for me to know the bullshit she and other women have to face. This is valuable information that has helped me realize when to say something in the conversation on feminism, and when to shut the fuck up and listen (or maybe try and make supportive statements and/or jokes). 

Being an ally to a cause, does not mean being front and center of it. Would it make sense for me as a white dude to be the one promoting the Black Lives Matter movement? No, but I absolutely can support it and I can listen. I can call out the people who are erroneous about it as well as those the BLM movement is directly addressing and calling out. It isn't a movement that is about me. It is a movement that is about helping the black community attain true equality. The best way for me to help in achieving that goal, is to listen and support it and not stand in the way. That does not mean I have to blindly accept what anyone is telling me as gospel, but the default shouldn't be to assume someone is lying. When the same stories, concerns, and situations continue to arise over and over and over, that's a good sign that whatever is happening isn't just random and that people's concerns are legit.

It is literally the same for feminism. I cannot be a leader in the feminist movement. Women are the leaders of it and women need to be the leaders of it. I can support them. I can listen. I can endorse more female candidates for office, and stop pretending that their gender is relevant at all with respect to their ability to be a politician and lawmaker. I can endorse the good scientists out there who also happen to be women, but not make their science about their gender. If I want to help the feminist movement, there are 2 ways I see myself being helpful:

1) promote women and organizations that support feminism and equality

2) call out the sexists and misogynists when I see it

What I shouldn't do, is try to:

1)  make feminism about me

2) say "but not all men are like that." We know. There are almost always exceptions to the rules. If you're not one of the guys being criticized, then the women are not talking to you or about you. If you can't help but say "not all men do X" in response, then they are talking about you because YOU made it about you. (this is also a more general pet peeve of mine. If I am talking about brachiopods and I say "well, brachiopods are mostly epifaunal" and some jackass says "but they're not all epifaunal," I am always tempted to throw things in the direction of their head. I know, I actually have a fair amount of expertise with respect to brachiopods and, check this, women have a pretty damn good idea about what it means to be a woman. Ain't that something?)

So, since I am not a person to look to for leadership or help with being a woman in the US, the best thing I can do is point you to people and organizations who are. This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but it is what I see as the best way to end this blog post:

There are the obvious people and organizations that hopefully most of you have heard of (various congresswomen like Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Duckworth, Planned Parenthood, The View, etc, etc). What I want to do is list those you may not be aware of:

The Bearded Lady Project (http://thebeardedladyproject.com) From their site: "The Bearded Lady Project" is a documentary film and photographic project celebrating the work of female paleontologists and highlighting the challenges and obstacles they face.

Women in Science and Engineering (WISE; https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk) From their site: WISE enables and energises people in business, industry and education to increase the participation, contribution and success of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG; http://www.awg.org). From their site: There are thousands of women in the geosciences today, both students and professionals, who are looking for ways to enhance their experiences as a geoscientist! AWG provides financial support, professional development and leadership opportunities, and advocates on behalf of women geoscientists across the globe. Join or renew your 2018 membership today and help AWG SUPPORT you.

As for people, I am going to list those who have either mentored me, and/or those who you can easily find on twitter who are part of the intelligent conversation about feminism and science in general (note, I can't list everyone. I'll list those I am the most familiar with and/or have interacted the most with, which includes my academic and research advisors for my professional career):

Dr. Ann Holmes (Stratigrapher and professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga)

Dr. Linda Ivany (Paleontologist and professor at Syracuse University)

Dr. Lisa Park (Paleontologist, professor, and director of the Center for Integrative Geosciences at the University of Connecticut)

Dr. Phoebe Coehn (Paleontologist and professor at Williams College; @PhoebeFossil)

Maggie Haberman (New York Times Journalist; @MaggieNYT)

Dr. Sarah Myhre (Climate scientist; @SarahEMyhre)

OnNoSheTwitnt (twitter user; @OnNoSheTwitnt)

Rabia O'Chaudry (Attorney and host of the "Undisclosed" podcast; @rabiasquared)

Jaynie's Got a Bun (twitter user; @FreeGirlNowNYC)

Courtney Heard (the Godless mom twitter user; @godless_mom)

Dr. Danielle E. Lee (Mammalogist and maintains a blog at Scientific American; @DNLee5)

Dr. Jacquelyn Gill (Ecologist and professor at the University of Maine; @JacquelynGill)

Dani Rabaiotti (PhD student at UCL and co-author of "Does it fart?: The Definitive Field Guide to Animal Flatulence; @DaniRabaiotti)

Sofia Rune (twitter user; @sofiarune)

Julie Blommaert (PhD student focusing on evolution; @Julie_B92)

 

Listen to women. Listen to people of color. Listen to trans people. Listen to those who are not like you. Listen to understand. Don't just sit there and wait to say your piece. It isn't about you. If you honestly listen to them to try and understand and help, they will respond in kind. Trust me.