Even a passing glance at Inside Higher Ed and other news media reveals that higher education is definitely having its own #metoo moment. And this moment has revealed that, despite certain advances, fairly monumental work remains to be done. As someone chairing not one, but two, ad-hoc committees tasked with developing sexual harassment policies for disciplinary organizations, I am all-too-familiar with the failings of the current system and the substantial changes the academy must make if it is to ensure that higher education is a safe environment for women. (And this, of course, leaves aside the serious and no less vexing questions of making it the same for people of color, the LGBTQ community, and any groups or individuals that feel discriminated against or threatened).
In short, the work is necessary but it is also big and can feel overwhelming. Entire systems -- how we hire, how we evaluate instruction and so on -- are broken and need fixing. I don’t know about you, but that often leaves me feeling tired and somewhat ineffectual. And yet at the same time, all of it weighs heavily on me because I firmly believe that it is my responsibility to use my relatively secure position as a senior female administrator and faculty member at my university to try to improve the work experiences of my female colleagues.
So I got to thinking about the small steps I could take in the meantime -- while I confer with colleagues and work on the draft of that sexual harassment policy or while I urge my disciplinary organization to come up with a different mechanism for conducting job interviews at the annual conference -- that might not have a huge impact, but that might start to tilt things in the right direction.
In that vein, I offer the following interventions as small, immediate steps we can all take to improve the work environment for our female colleagues. I also suspect that the accumulation of these small steps, if enough of us did them, would also help shift the culture at our institutions in significant ways.
Amplify the contributions of your female colleagues. We’ve all experienced the phenomenon of offering an idea in a meeting only to have a male colleague say the exact same thing five minutes later -- and, more insultingly, to get all the credit for it. So take a page from the women of Obama’s White House and highlight and amplify the contributions of your female colleagues. When a woman makes an important point in a meeting, repeat it and credit her: “As Emma said, ‘we should probably revise the introductory level course if we want to attract more majors.’”
Invite a new female colleague out for lunch or a cup of coffee. Try to remember what it was like when you first started. Take the temperature of her experience at your institution. Offer any relevant insights. Explicitly offer to be a mentor or sounding board if she needs someone to bounce ideas off of or perhaps more seriously, someone to help her resolve a crisis or problem. Some institutions have strong mentoring programs, others don’t. And they are especially scarce for adjunct faculty. Don’t wait for a program to appear; be the mentor you needed when you were new or junior or contingent.
Extend that mentoring relationship beyond yourself and help your female colleagues make connections. Don’t just assume that someone new will figure out the networks and cliques within your institution. Help them get to know the decision makers and power brokers. At receptions and other similar events, introduce them to as many people as possible. Rather than the entire burden being placed on new colleagues to make coffee dates and draw their new co-workers out, help to create those opportunities: “Hey, Liz, I’m having lunch with Senior Colleague X, why don’t you join us?”
Be an advocate and a voice for your female colleagues. Nominate them for awards. Encourage them to apply for those big grants -- and offer to read a draft of the proposal. Sing their praises to their department chairs, deans and other senior administrators. Try to help them mitigate the impostor syndrome we all feel from time to time.
Pay attention to social configurations in the academy that expose women to fraught situations. Don’t let female job candidates be put in scenarios where they will be alone with male colleagues -- such as getting picked up at the airport, for example. Make sure that when female candidates are taken out for meals that at least one other woman is in the group.
Finally, think about the example that you set. In other words, what kind of culture do your behaviors create for the women at your institution? Are you running yourself ragged, staying late, answering emails at all hours? I’ve blogged more extensively about this here, but I firmly believe that one of the best gifts we can give our female colleagues is to model some semblance of work-life balance and to leverage our position as senior women to say that is okay to take care of ourselves while still fulfilling our responsibilities.
Folks often mistake my small-steps approach to big problems as naiveté or misplaced optimism. Do I for even a second think that doing these things alone will change the systemic barriers and obstacles that women in the academy face? No, I do not. But do I think that the accumulation of such things might improve the experience of women in the academy and be part of the leverage for systemic change? I absolutely do.
Of course, we have to keep doing the big work to change the system. But in the meantime we can take these smaller steps that will support our female colleagues.