The need for enlightened men

Last week I was involved in an email exchange with two colleagues (we’re working on a subversive project together…more on that eventually) when one of them pointed out that a 2017 meeting of a major surgical organization has exactly zero women scheduled as a keynote speaker.  Yes, you read that right.  Zero.

This isn’t a a specialty organization I’m a member of because it doesn’t meet my clinical or professional development needs, but both of these colleagues are members. And while I know some of that organization’s higher echelon leadership fairly well from other organizations, I’m not really in a great position to point the issue out to them since I’m not a member.

Fortunately, our third colleague involved in the Subversion Project is a man. Most importantly, he’s a man who does not hesitate to speak up about failure of inclusion, and he also happens to be a member (and leader) of the organization in question. He’s asking lots of questions about diversity and inclusion, and I made it a point to thank him for doing that tonight.

This series of events was buttressed by an HBR piece last week on men who mentor women. While this particular instance is less about mentoring and more about “doing the right thing,” it’s behavior that tells me that this individual is also likely a remarkable mentor and sponsor to women surgeons. And he’s engaging in the first behavior identified in the HBR article, using his authority to change workplace culture.  While he’s not in one of the BIG leadership changes to force change about inclusivity in the organization in question, he is using his voice to ask important questions and make sure that the issue isn’t ignored. He’s being an ally, and that’s something that none of us can underestimate the value of, even as we’re about to enter 2017.

Patricia Numann has long used the phrase “enlightened man” to describe the allies who have helped to advance women in the surgical profession. In interviews I did in 2014-2015 about barriers to academic careers, the preponderance of the mid-career and senior women surgeons I interviewed described at least one male mentor who was instrumental in their career development. Until we achieve a critical mass of women in academic surgery, meaning we’re 1/3 or more of those at the table, this isn’t going to change much in the absence of spectacular help.

You know, the kind of help that raises its hand and says, “Hey, we can do better to represent our membership in general,” then gets to work making sure that actually happens.

(Additional reference for men who want to learn how to be better allies for women in male-dominated fields is the man-focused chapter in Feminist Fight Club.  When I read it, I thought immediately of several men I know who could have written it and definitely live it.  Thank you if you’re among them.)