Asking for advice
If we’re friends on Facebook and that’s why you’ve ended up here reading this, then you know that every now and then when I really care about something I write about it (if you didn’t know, well now you know). This is another of these instances. The big difference is that today it’s far less about sharing a story than asking for advice. I’m not asking for a friend, but for myself, and I’m asking for advice on how to be a better colleague, a better ally, a better friend.
Last week I skyped with a good friend. We talk regularly, but not frequently, like every three months. We are at instant ease with each other when we do talk even if it’s been half a year. It’s the kind of deep friendship that doesn’t require constant contact for us to be able to talk about the important, personal things in life. And every time we Skype, we promise each other to not let too much time pass before talking again. It usually still happens. We’re both PhD students, living in different countries, having our daily schedules and responsibilities, so we understand the constraints the other faces.
During our call my friend shared with me that she’s had a rough few weeks, that she’s felt lost and worthless partly because of her supervisor’s criticism. That hit me. To put this into a greater perspective. My friend is brilliant. To suggest some sort of equivalence between the two of us by saying we’re both PhD students couldn’t be more misleading. I mean hers is in neuroscience, do I need to say any more? Oh also, besides being super smart, she’s a great dancer, charismatic, kind, loyal, caring, and generally overall fantastic. If it’s not clear yet, let me spell it out, she is awesome. And I told her as much when she shared how she had felt in the weeks and days before our call.
Part of the reason why this hit me so hard was not just because she’s a good friend that I deeply care about, but also because I couldn’t help but think that if she felt like this, someone so talented, someone I look up to and ask for advice, if she felt like this, how many of my friends feel like this?
I know that the state of mental health in academia is generally not great, but this clearly went beyond the usual PhD doubts and I couldn’t help but notice the gendered nature of her supervisor’s criticism (readers familiar with me might not be surprised at this). This gender dimension really stuck with me and the next day I read this story about how two co-workers (one female and one male) had switched their email signatures for two weeks. The male was baffled at how much more difficult clients were all the sudden, and the female had her most productive two weeks ever. And then I thought of my girlfriend’s stories about her job as an environmental consultant and how men at site visits would want to do the sampling for her. And let’s not even start with the toxic masculinity culture in the US Marine scandal. For me all these things just neatly align. They are part of the systematic, yet often invisible structural disadvantages and oppression that women face every day. These are the kind of things that would make anyone question themselves, make them feel small, make them feel worthless. It makes me angry. It makes me sad.
Last week also featured international women’s day. I didn’t post about it. I shared some UN statistics on Twitter, but that was about it. But I reflected on it, and I reflected some more on it in the context of this post at hand. I thought about what it means for me to try to be a feminist. I thought about how I might fail in every day situations because I’m so privilegedly unaware and untouched.
And that is where you come in. As I said at the beginning, this is less about sharing this particular story, than it is about asking for advice. And I really do hope that you will leave comments and feedback, not just for me, but others who want to make a positive change. How can I be a better ally in combating these structural issues? What are the changes that you want to see? How can I make the invisible visible? To my fellow men, what does it take for you to see? What will it take to make you care?