What’s in a Name, Part 1

One would think that after 40+ years with the same name, we at WISE would be confident in our “brand.” On some level, WISE’s name is fine. It tells the campus community who we are charged with supporting: Women in Science and Engineering. But on multiple other levels the name is both limiting and confusing (beyond one of the biggest challenges we have with brand awareness: the fact that hordes of students (understandably) mistake us for our awesome colleagues and partners, WISE RP).

A Thought Experiment

In my first blog post, I wrote, “What we … do, and have been doing, is help female-identifying students develop additional supports (beyond those they came to U-M with) to help them survive inequitable and exclusionary learning experiences.” That certainly isn’t surprising given our name. So what if our name was actually Men in Science and Engineering (MISE)? What kind of work would we do?

Looking at the data I shared in the first blog post, that suggestion seems absurd if MISE were to have analogous objectives to WISE. At U-M, the proportion of undergraduate STEM degrees awarded to white men is 6.3 percentage points higher than the proportion of white men in the undergraduate student body and 5.0 percentage points higher than the proportion of all undergraduate degrees awarded to white men. Asian men fare almost as well, with the proportion of STEM degrees awarded to Asian men 4.8 percentage points higher than the proportion of all undergrad degrees awarded to Asian men. And although BIPOC men generally face chilly climates in higher education (including at U-M), the proportion of undergraduate STEM degrees awarded to BIPOC men mirrors the percentage of the BIPOC men in the U-M undergraduate student body.

Even though earning a STEM degree is a challenging endeavor for everyone, these data indicate our work in this hypothetical MISE program wouldn’t focus on retention efforts; MISE would have different objectives than WISE. An article published last year, How well-intentioned white male physicists maintain ignorance of inequity and justify inaction, provides some insight into what kinds of support men in science and engineering need. Although that paper captures the perspectives of white, male identifying physics graduate students and faculty members, it seems reasonable that many of the findings would be applicable to other white, male STEM populations.

At the beginning of the article, the authors (Melissa Dancy and Apriel K. Hodari) quote a white, cis male, physics graduate student, whom they call Ryan, who is planning on leaving academia because of his frustration with the inequities surrounding him. They go on to write

…There are a lot of other men like him. Men who deeply care, men who are willing to give their time to learning and acting to address the injustice they see around them. And also like Ryan, many of these men feel powerless to have an impact.

– Dancy and Hodari, How well-intentioned white male physicists maintain ignorance of inequity and justify inaction

What MISE would need to do, then, is help our men own their power and use it for positive change.

Dancy and Hodari identified three themes when interviewing (self-described progressive) white male physicists about race and gender in their field. The first theme derived from the interviews was a physical distancing from inequity in STEM. The interview subjects asserted that they did not see sexism or racism in their classes, department(s), research group(s), institution(s) or sub-field of physics. More than two-thirds of the interview subjects spoke to this theme saying in some way or another, “I know this is a problem, but it’s not a problem where I am.”  

Let me be perfectly frank for my U-M readers: Racism and sexism are both problems in STEM classes, departments, and research groups here.

You may not see it, and there are many reasons why you might not perceive it (Dancy and Hodari describe some of these reasons in the above linked article as do Drury and Kaiser in this article), but multiple data sources tell us STEM at U-M is not devoid of sexism or racism. So a core part of our work at MISE includes informing our constituents about the data that indicate STEM at U-M is not an environment where everyone is equally likely to succeed. An equally important part of our work at MISE would be training our members how to see the bias impacting women and scholars of color around them and giving them the skills to interrupt that bias.

The second theme Dancy and Hodari identified in the interviews of cis white male physicists was a belief that they (the interview subjects) could not do anything to make a difference about STEM inequity because it is rooted in larger, intractable social inequities. Every interview subject except one named the K-12 school systems, socioeconomic differences, the history of overt sexism and racism in STEM, and/or the disproportionate impact of parenting on women’s careers as social ills that were the real problems and impossible for them to impact.

It is absolutely true that there are inequities built into all of our social systems. That fact doesn’t absolve any of us from acting; in fact it is because of those broader systemic issues that it is imperative that each of us take action to create change. When I think about systemic issues, I keep coming back to a quote from David Banner at the U-M DEI 2.0 Community Assembly.

…The people make the institutions, …and without the people, the institutions would not be there. It is about the people, and the people have to change.

– David Banner, U-M DEI 2.0 Community Assembly

Not only should all of us, regardless of our social identities, take on the mantle of change maker, those of us who hold relative privilege or power have a much larger opportunity for impact (see the Drury and Kaiser article). White men are looked on favorably when they argue against sexism; the same is not true for women. If you hold marginalized identities, you might be accused of being too emotional, taking things personally, blowing things out of proportion, or being too angry if you speak out against racism or other forms of bias.

Understanding this second theme from the interviews in Dancy’s and Hodari’s research gives us a sense of another dimension of work MISE would need to do. No longer would we focus so heavily on the STEM self-efficacy of gender minoritized students, we would have programs and workshops on allyship self-efficacy for male-identifying individuals and white female-identifying individuals in STEM.

The first two themes Dancy and Hodari wrote about centered the sense of impotence their interview subjects felt with respect to creating change because they believed the problem was not within their sphere of influence. The third theme spells out the range of justifications their subjects used to explain inaction when it was likely they could have created a positive change. All but two of the interview subjects provided a rationalization for not taking steps to foster equity in physics. Those justifications included subconsciously “refusing to see” discrimination and a desire to avoid negative consequences (for themselves, for the perpetrator of discrimination, and/or for the victim of bias).

I already mentioned that MISE would need to take on the work of training our constituents to see the discrimination that happens to others around them. But how might we support individuals who use their own discomfort as justification for not intervening? This would likely be one of the biggest challenges MISE faces. Taking action to foster equity is uncomfortable, scary, and sometimes more awkward than a middle school dance. If you hold power or privilege in a given context, you might be afraid of doing it wrong, getting ‘canceled,’ or causing more harm. Those concerns, in so many words, were raised by the subjects in Dancy’s and Hodari’s study. I think, drawing from multiple disciplines like psychology and public health, MISE would be able to develop appropriate interventions. For example we would have workshops on distress tolerance, and we would develop skills in motivational interviewing in order to coach individuals on how to take action even when their motivation is low.

Truly Absurd

I’ve floated the idea of having programming for faculty similar to what MISE would need to do. The responses I get come in a few different flavors, but they all boil down to, “It will take a lot of work (e.g. incentives, marketing, persuasion) to get faculty to come to workshops/events like that.” Or, “Faculty are already really busy – asking them to do one more thing means we need to make sure it’s really worth their while.” And that is the crux of privilege: Instead of asking men, or faculty, or others in power to give up their most valuable resource, time, we ask women and BIPOC individuals to put in the extra work. The extra work of finding people like them to serve as role models. The extra work of attending workshops to develop their STEM efficacy. The extra work of building and running support communities so that they, and others like them, can develop a sense of belonging. Not only do we ask them to do extra work, but we tell ourselves that extra work benefits them: They get leadership experience starting up a student club for women in their field; they build resilience navigating the challenges inherent with holding their particular social identities; they develop conflict resolution skills and learn to be assertive when they are the only person from an underrepresented group on a team.

If we’re going to ask men to develop the skills to see bias and to risk their social capital to create change, we need to pay them a stipend or give them an award. If a Black student or a woman of any race switches out of a STEM major into a non-STEM program, we ask whether they sought out all the resources that we’ve made available to them. That, in my mind, is truly absurd.

Clearly, I’m skeptical that we could create a unit called MISE, but how can WISE do the work of this hypothetical MISE? How might this thought experiment (and the research by Dancy and Hodari) help us do our work better? I don’t yet have answers to these questions, but the WISE team will be exploring these ideas within our staff and with our faculty advisory board. I’ll report back on what we come up with.

In an upcoming blog post, I’m going to dive back into what I find challenging about WISE’s name. Forty four years ago, society had a much narrower definition of “women” and the term “intersectionality” hadn’t even been coined. We need to wrestle with the fact that work for women’s equality has historically been work for cis white women’s equality, but we at WISE want to see equity for all in STEM.

Scroll to Top