This week in the FSP blog, I described a couple of incidents involving Women As Tokens in science: something I overheard, and something I experienced. In the latter post, a male commenter wondered what he and like-minded colleagues could do to help in situations such as the one I described (in short: during a meeting of a small working group in which I am the only woman, a senior professor mentioned twice, apropos of nothing, that the only reason I had been invited to join the group ~6 years ago was because I am female).
When I find myself in these situations, I may or may not confront the person making the offensive statement, depending on the situation and my mood. If I decide to speak up, I typically employ gentle but not subtle sarcasm. In the situation I described recently, I did not say anything.
None of the men in this particular meeting said anything either. Did I want them to? In this case, it didn't matter to me. I am a senior professor, I don't need allies in this particular working group, I have just as much "power" in this group as the person who explicitly noted that I am a token, and I have confidence that my work in this group is useful. In fact, I do have an ally in the group, but he wasn't at this meeting.
Would I have minded if one of the men had stepped in and told Professor Not-A-Token that his comments were inappropriate? No, I would not have minded. In fact, there are many situations in which it is very helpful for men to speak up in these situations. It can turn the tide of a discussion from being an unconstructive one in which women are isolated and insulted into a more inclusive one. And it can show the apparently biased person that their views are not widely held, perhaps inspiring them to refrain from making obnoxious comments in the future.
Perhaps some sympathetic men stay silent because they don't know what to say. Even if they have no fear of angering the person making the obnoxious comments, these other men may not want to sound patronizing to the woman being insulted, or make it appear that a woman needs a man to rescue her.
Every situation is different, but just to take the example of my recent experience, I would not have minded if one of my senior colleagues had said something to Professor Not-A-Token, such as "That's irrelevant. I'm not sure why you are even bringing that up." Or this hypothetical ally could have alluded to the fact that our working group strives for geographic diversity by noting which group member is the token person from a particular continent.
During an incident such as this, I certainly wouldn't want us all to dwell on the issue, unless it was clearly a major problem interfering with the functioning of the group. Just a brief "You are alone in your obnoxious opinions" kind of comment or two from the rest of the group would be sufficient to get us all back on track and perhaps convince the jerk that further comments about token women were not welcome by anyone.
But that's just one example. Perhaps readers can contribute other examples of when allies stepped in with an appreciated comment or could explain what they wish someone had said during a situation of this general type.