Supporting Women in STEM: How the Men as Allies Program Got Started

8 min read

| By Eric Galis, Chief Information Security Officer, Cengage Group |

As Cengage’s chief information security officer (CISO), I have worked my way through the ranks of cybersecurity and witnessed countless examples of tech industries remaining a “boys club.” As a consultant in cybersecurity, I silently heard too many misogynistic jokes; a fact that I am not proud of.

That’s why I was drawn to Cengage’s Women in Technology (WiT) program.

My first thought was how much I wanted to participate and establish myself as an ally for the cause. I wanted to stand alongside—not in front of—their movement, providing support where I could and stepping back when my voice wasn’t needed.

My second thought was that my presence would be a hindrance instead of a help. If these women had experienced behaviors, some horrendous and some just one of a thousand papercuts, that so often forced them out of their roles, a man being present in the room might feel like a threat or an attempt to steal the spotlight.

I decided to join, to get the lay of the land, only to find that I was indeed the only man in the meetings. I was graciously welcomed and included in the discussion, but it still felt like WiT meetings were a sacred space.

I raised my concern to a close colleague, a cofounder of the WiT group. She quickly pointed out that my discomfort was part of the core experience of women making a career in technology, and advised me not to “self-select” myself out. So, the next logical question was, “How can I support my colleagues without intruding on their work?” When Men as Allies was proposed, I knew this was the key to answering that critical question.

Despite Progress, There’s a Long Way to Go

When you’re so ingrained in a particular culture that normalizes discriminatory behaviors, some conscious but often unconscious, it’s difficult to “see the forest for the trees.”  To that end, I think it’s important to consider the context that fueled the creation of the Men as Allies program.

Dr. Vandana Singh, Professor of Information Science at the University of Tennessee, details the extent of the exclusion of women in STEM in her March 2023 article “The Retention Problem: Women Are Going Into Tech but Are Also Being Driven Out.”

One of Dr. Singh’s most compelling quotes states, “Women make up 57% of the overall workforce. Comparatively, women make up only 27% of the workforce in the technology industry. Of the 27% that join the technology industry, more than 50% are likely to quit before the age of 35, and 56% are likely to quit by mid-career.”

I would encourage everyone to read Dr. Singh’s article. Her insights into why women are leaving the field are eye-opening—harassment, discrimination, lack of opportunity to advance; their contributions going unacknowledged, stolen, or ignored; and the general “Tech-bro” culture … It’s a laundry list of challenges that some of the industry’s best and brightest face simply because they’re women.

Who would want to stay in a field that was so hostile and dismissive of their intelligence and talents?

Absolutely nobody.

Toward a Mission of Authentic Allyship

The numbers don’t lie. Men are the dominant culture in the tech industry and often participate—consciously or not—in the behaviors that push women out of STEM.

That fact puts a massive burden on women. Even if they’re “allowed” in the room, once there they find themselves talked over, “mansplained” to, or having their ideas co-opted by a male colleague. Worse yet, there’s the fear of being ridiculed or infantilized for trying to take up any space at all. Never mind who will take notes during meetings, or coordinate lunch.

Not only does this perpetuate a long history of excluding talented, innovative, hardworking women from a field in which they have every right to thrive, but it also creates a homogenous echo chamber that lacks the true diversity of thought required to solve the toughest problems.

That’s why the mission of Men as Allies is to provide authentic allyship to our colleagues and other women in tech fields. We are making a conscious commitment to support them in their efforts to change that reality—not out of self-interest, but out of our genuine recognition that women are marginalized in our industry. This isn’t about riding in on a white horse and saving women; they don’t need saving. It’s about changing culture and behaviors. The required changes aren’t always seismic shifts, often the unconscious, subtle slights are causing as much damage as misguided misogyny.

As author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said during an interview on The Daily Show, “I think you can change women all you want, but if you don’t change men, nothing changes because we share the world … I also think, sadly, that we live in a world where men are more likely to listen to men.”

How We’re Measuring Progress & Outcomes

One of the first steps in establishing our program was agreeing to a set of norms to which we could hold ourselves and other male colleagues accountable. We worked with the WiT group to build a “checklist” of strategies that male allies should use to become more conscious of discriminatory behaviors and what we could do to begin correcting them:

  • Recognize your own implicit biases. Acknowledging these mental constructs is the first step to consciously tearing them down.
  • Approach conversations ready to listen and learn—not argue or speak your side.
  • Seek resources on your own to gain perspective and understanding rather than relying solely on the women around you to educate you.
  • Use your privilege to take a stance when the stakes are high. Women have a lot more to lose than men when pushing back against discriminatory behavior in STEM.
  • Don’t try to give solutions. Your perspective on what might solve a problem doesn’t necessarily align with those who are facing the problem.
  • Remember that your role is not to save women; it’s to support them.
  • Directly address problematic behavior and dialogue, including when it’s coming from other allies.
  • Advocate for women’s voices to be respected and heard in meetings, group discussions, emails, chats, and any other time they are being unacknowledged for their contribution to the conversation.

With those norms in mind, it became much easier to envision our long-term goal for the group: To forge a relationship with WiT built on trust, advocacy, support, and accountability by seeking feedback on what we could do to use our power and privilege to further their mission.

But First, We Listen

How did we know what we needed to focus on? We asked! We initiated a survey of the members of WiT to capture what behaviors they had experienced here at Gale, and overall we were pleasantly surprised. Thankfully, we’re not a culture of sexist jokes and unwanted advances. But it wasn’t all positive news, there were still many cases of “mansplaining”, the relegation of “housekeeping” tasks (e.g. taking notes, birthday cards, ordering lunch) to women, credit-taking, and risk avoidance (e.g. men not taking women as mentees because they were “afraid of what could happen”). We had our discussion topics!

Full disclosure: This experience has been, at times, overwhelming. Allyship isn’t an overnight transformation.

It’s hard work. It’s an ongoing, often uncomfortable process that requires coming to terms with our own behaviors that for so long have been upheld as appropriate and justified, or just unnoticed by the perpetrator. It’s sitting and listening even when you want so badly to speak. It’s making mistakes, recognizing them, and genuinely asking how you can do better.

However, it’s also an opportunity to develop empathy, make connections, incite change, and do your part in rewriting the narrative.

In the hopes that you’ll do your part to support women in STEM as an authentic ally, I’ll leave you with this:

Don’t let that discomfort turn you away from your mission. The best way men can support women is by working within our professional communities to push ourselves past the guilt, shame, and anger we might feel about being told we’ve created inequities. Only by taking responsibility for our participation in supporting the current status quo can we hope to change it.

About the Author

Eric Galis leads the cybersecurity and IT risk function at Cengage. He has over 19 years of experience in Information Security and Risk & Compliance. He believes the way to drive true change in cybersecurity is through a focus on process improvement, but you cannot ignore the core competencies including security monitoring, data protection, and system and application security. He values coaching and development of team members both within his team and across Cengage.

Leave a Comment