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  • Writer's pictureDr Francesca Maclean


I was once in a meeting where my client reduced a challenging interpersonal team dynamic down to, essentially, a cat-fight between women.

I was gobsmacked. In about 5 seconds I weighed up the power dynamics, my relationship with the client and seniority on the project, with my intrinsic urge to call them out.

Normally, I react to these sorts of comments with lightning speed, lest anyone think they had time to laugh and validate the sexist commentary. However, this situation was different. I was, of course, the only woman in the room. I was at least 10 years younger than the other attendees and reported to two of the men in the room. I felt hamstrung. If I said something, I would put our client and my managers offside, potentially harming a valuable relationship worth millions of dollars. If I didn’t, I would be compromising a core value of mine, and by say nothing, I was saying it was ok.

“No, that is inappropriate and has nothing to do with it.”

I breathed a sigh of relief.

For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to be the one to say something. My project lead – a man – called the behaviour out for what it was: inappropriate. And do you know what? We quickly closed out that agenda item and moved on, simple as that.

I was probably more surprised that my project lead spoke out than I was at the original sexist comment, because so often we rely on the marginalised party to defend themselves in a situation where they invariably do not hold the power or safety to do so. That means women either have to be the ones to call out bad behaviour in male-dominated environments like STEM, or they have to let it slide, unless men also call out this behaviour.

In that moment, my project lead was an ally. He was an ally that acted – the best type of ally. Unfortunately, this situation is the exception not the rule, so I’d like to see us change that. We need allies to not just be with us in spirit or in words, but in actions too.

As I have become more well-known as a gender equity advocate, I have more and more men telling me things they have noticed or observed. They send me articles of ‘woke’ perspectives they agree with, or photos of sexist environments or situations. They exclaim their frustration at the slow progress of gender equity in our industry. They seem to understand the issue.

And yet… that’s most of what they do. In recent years I have started to push them to be allies who act. When they send me that article, I reply and suggest they send it to their male peers (leaders in their organisation) and have a discussion about the topic. When they complain about the slow progress, I ask them how they could influence and change policies at work. When they send me photos of unacceptable environments, I tell them to escalate it to someone who can do something about it.

We have, for too long, expected women to fight for gender equity as though men had nothing to gain, and only something to lose. Thankfully, we see the discussion shift away from men losing something to equity, and instead, shift to men being a part of the discussion.

What we need though, is for more men to be a part of the fight, as well as the discussion.

Being part of the fight looks like the technical leader who deliberately sought a gender balanced shortlist in his recruitment process and asked me how he can get a more diverse range of applicants (he was also worried about cultural and socio-economic diversity – that’s what an intersectional approach looks like!). It looks like the leader who asked his utilities company where the gender-neutral version of their ‘men at work’ sticker was. It looks like my project lead who let our client know that sexist remarks were not acceptable.

The whole reason I created The Fortem Project was to spur more action for gender equity in STEM, by unravelling the complexity and providing do-able actions for everyone. This is not a women’s problem, so we all need to step up and take action.

Simply, what actions can you take?

If someone makes an inappropriate comment or ‘joke’, you can say:

  • I don’t get it

  • How is that funny?

  • I think that’s inappropriate; we should move on to…

  • At this company we don’t make sexist remarks like that, let’s move on.

  • Or, don’t laugh, and pull the person aside afterwards to let them know it wasn’t ok

If you read a great article that helped you better understand a concept around gender equity, you can:

  • Post it on your social media accounts explaining what you learnt and what you plan to do with that new knowledge

  • Send it on to others encouraging them to engage with the content

  • Take someone out to coffee who you think might have a different view and talk it through

If you see an all-male speaking line up for a conference, complain to the organisers. If it’s an industry conference, bonus points if you get someone more senior in your organisation to complain (it can carry more weight when it comes from industry leaders). Even if this happens in your own organisation, say something.

If you find yourself in all-men meetings, talk to the organiser about this. To help you with this conversation, check out BYO checked shirt: meeting D&I 101.

There are so many things you can do as an ally. The important this is that you do something. You might not always get it right, but it’s better than letting things slide.

What’s that saying? Be the change you want to see in the world. Sounds pretty good to me.

P.S. I debated heavily about having an ‘allyship’ category on The Fortem Project. After all, every gender is affected by gender inequity, so are any of us really allies? Aren’t we all in this together?

The reason why I decided to have an ‘allyship’ category is to speak to those genders who are not always the marginalised in STEM. While all genders endure sexism and the unfair expectations of gender stereotypes, women are disproportionately affected by gender inequity in metrics like the pay gap, sexual harassment, and lack of acceptable employment opportunities and advancement within STEM. Allies can, for example, also include parents in helping their children pursue and succeed in STEM study and career destinations.

If you have strong thoughts on the concept of allies for gender equity in STEM, reach out and let me know what you think! We will unpack this concept together through many future articles.


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