Because You’re a Man

March 8, 2016

Conference panel. Photo © Ian Forrester/Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Imagine you are a Caucasian man. If you are one — even better. Close your eyes, and see yourself on stage. Big or small, any size stage will do. In the room with you are revered peers, people at the top of your field, leaders of key companies, organizations, or nations you admire. You have worked your whole life towards moments like this. The invitation was a coup, saying yes was a true moment of pride.

You have prepared your remarks for weeks — calls, consultations with peers, background research. Your heart beats a little fast, your cheeks are a little flush. You cross and uncross your legs as your colleagues settle into the chairs next to you. You take a sip of water, careful not to bump the mic on your lapel.

The panel starts. The first panelist gives their remarks. Fascinating. They make you rethink yours, and you make adjustments in your head on the fly. Your brain is buzzing, feeding off the thoughts of your peers, and the chance to be engaged with them in an important way.

It’s your turn. The moderator introduces you. You don’t really hear what he says. You’re revisiting your points in your head, a final check. Then you’re on. A little tense at first, but then it flows — you are in the moment. The years of learning, struggling, critique, testing, and growing are coming out of you in a brilliant stream. You see heads nod. A man in the front row puts his phone away. You know you’re nailing it.

And then you’re done. You look to the panelist next to you with a mix of relief and expectation. What will they say? You listen closely, knowing it will go to question and answers next, and you’re already thinking of what points you might make.

The panelists finish. This is one of those rare panels where everyone was interesting. This is why you’ve always wanted to be on a stage like this—this is where the good stuff happens! Your thoughts are flying, you quickly sort the questions you have for the panelists so you can follow up later and the points you want to make to the crowd.

The moderator asks the first question. It’s a good one. The panel is really engaged. A small exchange starts between the panelists – a true conversation. The room feels tight, the audience is leaning in, excited by what they’re hearing. You’re eager for the next question.

The moderator turns to you, and notes that you are a man. He asks if you can talk about why it’s important to have men in conversations like this. Can you cite any studies or give us any data on what men in particular contribute to the field or the topic?

You freeze. You wilt. Then you catch yourself and try to sit up straight again. You thought this was a panel about the topic, not about what’s inside your pants.

Everyone is waiting. You flash a glance at the moderator to make sure you understood the question. He stares back, visually prodding you on. But the moderator is a man, too. You think to yourself, why would he ask that? The press of the audience suddenly feels different. Their lean of excitement now feels like a collective dark, hard stare. You must say something.

You scan your memory. There must be a study in there you can quote. You pull out a fact and mumble through it, suddenly feeling that not having a fact would mean your value hasn’t been proven. The moderator names a few other studies to help you out, then thanks you and moves on to the next question.

You don’t hear it. Your mind feels thick. Half of it is trying to follow the question and the panelist’s answers, the other half trying to sort through what just happened. That part is searching for other facts and feeling guilty. Why didn’t you have a better answer? You need to read up on that so you’re ready next time. At the same time, it’s furious. How could you be asked such a question? This was your moment to share your best thoughts with a critical audience. Now, your presence there has been questioned. Not because you gave a weak answer, or even a provocative one. Not because you forgot your points, or didn’t know about the latest advances in the field. Because you are a man.

It takes everything you have to quiet that side of your brain. You succeed, and get back in the dialogue. You answer another question pretty well, but your voice is different. You’re unsure, you hesitate. You sound scripted, not like a bold, thoughtful leader.

The panel ends, and you shake hands with the others on stage. You try to read them, wondering what they now think of you. You turn to the moderator, and shake his hand. Your stomach turns. He was one of your peers, a well-respected colleague. You spend the rest of the meeting distracted, revisiting the moment on stage. You remind yourself that you did get the invitation, and you didn’t mess up. It went well. But in your core, you are unconvinced. The experience is muddied. The moment is shadowed.

I have never seen something like this actually happen to a Caucasian man. It sounds entirely ridiculous. But, I have seen it happen over and over to women. It’s happened to me more than once. And it happens to men and women of other under-represented groups; African-Americans, Arabs, Punjabi’s, Native Americans, Latinos, the list goes on.

No, we should not ignore the fact that racism and sexism still exist. Yes, we have to pay attention to it. We have to make an effort so that people from all groups and genders are represented in important conversations.

But once they’re there, let’s stop asking them to justify their presence. That question — what evidence do you have to prove you should be here? — undoes the good of inviting us in. I have no doubt that the question usually comes from a place of good intent. But in my experience, it disempowers what was empowered. It puts us in the spotlight, then punches us in the gut.

So if you are a reporter, a writer, a speaker, a panelist, a moderator, a teacher, a Tweeter or a peer, this International Women’s Day, please don’t ask women for evidence of why women matter. Talk about why there’s still discrimination. Talk about solutions. Science has a clear role to play in understanding where and when overt and hidden biases are still strongest, and how we can best overcome them. But don’t pretend that we still need science to justify inclusion.

The same applies for the next Black History Month, the Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, or any other time we pay attention to diversity. Let’s stop asking people to justify their presence.

Join the Discussion

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  1. Thank you Heather, I really enjoyed your blog, you have made a great point. We all should take steps towards reducing discrimination. Definitively diversity enhances our conservation work. Hope to see some more diversity in Cool Green Science, with more contributors from Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

  2. Awesome blog, Heather. I realy appreciate what you wrote. People should not have to justify their inclusion vis-a-vis, for example, your ethnicity, gender, or nationality. However, when I scroll down to your bio-blurb, I ask myself what is the importance of your bio stating that you are “the first female lead scientist in the history of The Nature Conservancy”? Why can’t your bio just describe you as an awesome scientist, a leader in your field conducting cutting edge research into human dimensions in consetvation? I wish it wete not necessary to point it out. But maybe we are still a long way off when there is gender equality in your field, when such descriptors will not be needed. You rock!

  3. Awesome Heather. Resonates strongly with me and my experience too. I don’t mind being the only woman, but I do mind the question since it makes feel the opposite of inclusive.

  4. That was shocking. As a male in media (radio), I haven’t seen that scenario in our building in ages, and I’ve been at our radio stations for 20 years. Most media companies woke from those neanderthal, insecure delusions years ago. Perhaps, in part, because media was one of the delivery platforms for the gender equality wake up call. I am fortunate to be surrounded by talented, focused women who constantly, with their performance, challenge the guys to keep up with them! It’s like a smart family with sisters you respect and are grateful to have around. Did I mention our programming Vice President is a woman? I saw her potential years ago and trained her to become one of the first solo female morning personalities in the country. Now she’s on the afternoon show and another female took over the morning show. They are both funny, intelligent, awesome talents. Never a dull discussion in our building. And the women here don’t have to be advocates. Equality is a given. I would like to see an outsider try to challenge the presence of one of our women. It would be a show. Assuming the women bothered to respond to such nonsense in the first place. Sadly, it’s obviously not like this everywhere.

  5. I agree, take out the “first female…” part of your bio!

  6. I’ve seen it happen, and I agree that it almost always serves to make the person being asked to address (insert hotbutton issue for which they have been nominated as representative for the defense) feel as if they’re being singled out in a way that nobody else there is over something that is essentially irrelevant to the topic. That’s pretty much the point – if gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion etc. are NOT the topic of the panel discussion, then it is not the place to address them. You do more good by focusing on the topic that brings these people together rather than on the differences that set them apart from each other.

  7. The answer to the question, Why is it important to have you (a representative of X) on the panel? The answer is , unless that is the subject of the panel- I thought we were here to discuss XXX, not my (gender, race, sexual preference).

    Just as if someone is asked a rude question, there is no obligation to answer. When someone is asked an off-topic question they do not have to answer it. It is a failing on the part of the moderator when they go off topic. Just as it is a failure when they let someone provide a non-answer (listen to politicians give non-answers) to an appropriate question.

  8. I agree, as a man I have observed this in discussions and do not like it. It is out of place and unfair. It throws everything out of context of the issues. However as a man I have also been treated by this same spotlight or even exclusion when “women” dominated fields were being discussed such as children’s education, and raising children. I have been the singled out with poignant remarks about my maleness as if I had to represent all male points of view as observed by stereotypes. I am sure you can see that this happens to everyone and not just women, or “men and women of other under-represented groups; African-Americans, Arabs, Punjabi’s, Native Americans, Latinos.” It also happens to ” Caucasian man”. I am sure it is social dynamics and is often unintentional. I find my opinion in question and checked when women are in discussion about issues they feel men have no place or have less observable validity. It is disconcerting and I like the way you pose how difficult it can be to recover when you feel spotlighted.

  9. I come from law, not science, and if a moderator for a panel on, say, antitrust compliance strategies for large mergers, had gone off topic like that to ask a (female) panelist why it was important to have her there on the panel as a woman, it’s hard to imagine how the room would have reacted. Stony silence from the audience would be my guess, and the moderator treated as a bit of a pariah afterward. I’ve got some years on you, so my skin may be a bit tougher, but with time and more professional confidence (yes, including from shitty experiences like these), successful people just get stronger. I once had a CEO announce with a smirk as I walked in to a meeting of (otherwise exclusively male) executives, “Hey! No girls allowed!” Fortunately my (male) boss, the general counsel, was an ally who immediately responded that I’d be sitting in the CEO’s chair next if he didn’t cut it out. We can’t stop crappy people from being crappy. But we can start to really *get* that their crappiness is all about them and their failings, and isn’t a reflection on us–unless we make it so. Having said that, I left private industry to work at the state’s technology services agency, where I had a rewarding career. I notice that you have also opted not to work in private industry. Years ago I found a significant glass ceiling still firmly in place in the private technology sector, so I left. Even today in tech, you’ll typically only see women in the HR, Marketing, and sometimes finance roles–rarely in engineering, product management, CIO, ops. My guess is it will take generations until whether a person was born with a vagina or a penis (or light or dark skin) stops bearing any weight on how valid their work in the science-based professions is perceived to be. But I believe we will eventually get there, to all of our collective benefit.

    And your bio is your own. These are your hard-won achievements, and for criminy’s sake on your own blog you get to shout out whichever of your achievements you want. I’m surprised they’re not telling you to smile more, too.

  10. Thank you all for your comments!
    I am heartened to hear this kind of thing does NOT happen any more in some fields–there is hope!

    I also appreciate the encouragement from several of you to shut these kinds of questions down on the spot. I do think that’s part of the solution–exposing the question as inappropriate when it happens. But part of the point of writing this blog was to encourage people not to ask this kind of question in the first place.

    I think many do not see it as damaging, but instead think they are helping the issue by bringing light to the particular perspective of X gender/race/age individual. I wanted to highlight how those questions feel so that well meaning people understand what this is like and lessen the ‘opportunities’ many of us have to thicken our skins. Yes, ‘crappy experiences’ are part of life (thank you Elizabeth Haltom!) and we all have to be brave in those moments, but I think we can make some progress by just being frank about what this stuff feels like. Thanks Frank Calise for reminding us this does happen to Caucasian men, too.

    Thanks for engaging.

  11. Thanks for the thoughtful piece, and the invitation to walk in others’ shoes.
    “Talk about solutions. Science has a clear role to play in understanding where and when overt and hidden biases are still strongest, and how we can best overcome them.”
    I’ll be following your blogs for more on those solutions.

  12. Excellent article and pertinent. Sometimes it’s even on purpose, which is vile and demoralizing. The moment you ask someone to justify their existence whether it’s in a panel or in life you immediately put them on the defensive, which is an exclusion move, making them an “other”, as opposed to an inclusive move like asking them to expound on their POV, making them an “us”.

    Well done!

  13. Here a question , Did you know that a greenest of green energies has been sitting in a file at Oakridge for 50 years?
    Did you know that natures simplest form of energy ” the heat deep underground and in lots of places …not so deep! Could be our cheapest fossil fuel replacement?
    Actually both are cheaper than gas coal or oil!

  14. Why wouldn’t this man simply say, “ I do not know what my physical traits have to do with the subject(s) we are discussing, here.”? Just saying.