Emily Eisner and Megan Lang
with reflections contributed by Karl Dunkle Werner, Gabe Englander, Scott Kaplan, and Derek Wolfson
“What can I do?” We heard that question from many men in our field in the wake of Alice Wu’s paper and, more broadly, the #MeToo movement this fall. We thought about writing a “How to be an ally” post for economists. Instead, we asked four aspiring allies in our field to find out how to be an ally for themselves, then compile that knowledge for others who would like to know.
We’ve organized the content from their numerous interviews with women and minority faculty and grad students in our field at UC Berkeley here. These are resource pages that we’ll continue to build and update over time.
We also asked all four men to write reflections on their learning throughout this process. To some, these reflections may seem all too familiar. To some they may be revelatory. Some people may disagree with what they read, or feel disempowered by the thought that white men have any role to play in improving opportunities for women and minorities in the field. Some may find that these reflections resonate deeply. The one thing that is clear is that none of us has all the answers and that people’s experiences cannot be reduced into one tidy lesson.
By offering the four reflections below, we hope to
There is not one way to be an ally just as there is not one correct way to mitigate discrimination in our field. Below are four reflections from the male graduate students we asked to help us write a blog post. We hope they spark thought and conversation. Feel free to reach out to us with any reactions or stories of your own.
Before this process, I hadn’t given thought to what my gender meant in terms of my relationship with my advisor. We are both men, and we have been able to build a strong relationship both at work and outside of it. This relationship has undoubtedly improved my education and ability to do good research.
I took for granted that every graduate student may not have a similar relationship with their mentor. But a point that came up again and again in interviews and the process of writing this blog was how the power dynamics associated with advisors and advisees were inflated by gender dynamics between these two parties. I was educated by a woman, who said that “the point here is not that women want to completely shut down informal activities with advisors, but that navigating those situations one-on-one is more fraught for them.”
I came to understand that it's an additional burden for a woman to have to think about the implications of their relationships with their advisors more seriously than I do. At the same time, advisors may face the same calculation and have difficulty in offering opportunities to advisees of different races and genders. This can have serious academic consequences. We as males need to be cognizant of this calculus; we can suggest that our advisors try to plan activities where all of their advisees can participate, and when we become professors or take on other positions, we can work to create group activities that are comfortable for and inclusive of everyone.
The first year of an econ PhD program is hard. It’s an enormous amount of math, a slew of all-day problem sets, and an endless stream of opportunities to bang your head against the wall. Sitting down with my classmates who tackled first year while raising a family was eye-opening. With large chunks of time occupied by children, problem sets and research are pushed to late nights or early mornings. Choosing when I work is a privilege I had never considered. Those with family responsibilities may have schedules precluding group-work and opportunities to compare notes. Young white guys are disproportionately free of these responsibilities, one of many factors entrenching existing disparities. There have been some attempts in the field to accommodate parents, but coming up with a solution is not easy. We need to think harder about how graduate school’s demanding workload interacts with existing social structures, making the field particularly unwelcoming for women and economists of color.
At a more individual level, my conversations with classmates highlighted how important it can be, in moments of self-doubt, to hear that other people also struggle. In our conversations, people repeatedly brought up how much an affirming word can matter, and how big a deal it is to know that other people face similar challenges. I had always considered myself implicitly supportive, available when someone tells me they need a hand. That’s not enough. I need to do a better job checking in, making sure my classmates are doing well, and celebrating their successes (in grad school and beyond).
Shortly after beginning his PhD, K remembers asking the professor who helped recruit him, “Where are all the black and African people?” K, one of only a couple of black students in the department, said that it would have been helpful if someone—a staff member, faculty, or another student—had explicitly acknowledged this fact and talked about some of the things he might expect to feel over the next 5+ years.
For example, K felt an extra layer of imposter syndrome at the beginning of his PhD program (the garden variety is familiar to many graduate students). Academic setbacks were especially painful because he feared they suggested to others that he was not accepted to his program on his merits.
K also regularly wonders how his identity influences how others interact with him. For instance, when he visited Berkeley after being accepted, a professor asked him what he scored on the math section of the GRE. Does this professor ask this question to most prospective students, or did this professor ask because K is black and African?
I had not previously considered that non-white, non-male economists have less control over how they are perceived. This lack of control creates pressure to make decisions that satisfy other people’s expectations. I don’t face this pressure. Importantly, all this time spent thinking about how one is perceived takes away attention from research. I already find graduate school to be emotionally and intellectually harrowing at times; all of us should try to relieve the additional burden that women and minority students experience. So I will reflect on the stereotypes and biases that I hold, and try not to impose them on others, especially when I am in a position of power. I will also try to take K’s advice and have more conversations that explicitly acknowledge identity and how it influences individuals’ experiences in economics.
My participation in these interviews spurred an intense inner dialogue on what it means to actually be an ally. Before, I called myself an ally but now I’m beginning to understand how to put words into action. I’ve come to the conclusion that being well-intentioned is simply not good enough.
I’ve become more cognizant of the things I get for free by being a straight, white male. I don’t have to analyze the implication of walking for a coffee with my male advisor. I don’t have to act “less feminine” to gain the respect of my peers. I don’t have to worry about uncomfortable one-on-one interviews with male faculty in private hotel rooms during the job market.
These interviews also propelled me to query my own experience and reflect on if I ever consciously or unconsciously made it difficult for women and minorities in economics. I had. Did I ever call women “dudes” or refer to groups of women as “guys”? Yes. Was I more likely to interrupt women in conversations? Probably. Did I react to research differently because the author was a woman? I hoped not but I could not be 100% sure.
Truly being an ally will be an everyday learning process. My involvement with this blog post has already spurred some formative changes but I do not know everything. As a start, I now often ask myself: “Did I read this paper/treat this person/react to seminar comments/write this email/grade this paper/conduct office hours/etc. differently because this person is a woman/minority?” If I’m not sure, I will ask a friend so I may continue learning how to be an effective ally.
We’d like to extend our profound thanks to all of the people we interviewed, to our classmates in ARE, Econ, and Haas, and to WEB. We’re all going to make mistakes, but we’re keeping this conversation open so we can learn and improve. Please join us!