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The Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Blog On Allyship: A Conversation with Dr. Nancy Spector

Nancy Spector, MD: Executive Director of ELAM and Associate Dean for Faculty Development

June 30, 2022

In the two-part blog series, “On Allyship,” Lara Ronan, MD, talks with members of the Drexel University College of Medicine about what allyship means to them, and the role it plays in their work.

Dr. Ronan is a professor of Neurology as well as the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Drexel University College of Medicine at Tower Health, our West Reading campus.

In the blog post below, Dr. Ronan speaks with Nancy Spector, MD, the executive director of the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine program. Dr. Spector also serves as senior vice dean, Office of Faculty at Drexel University College of Medicine and is a professor of pediatrics. Dr. Spector is a graduate of Brown University and the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She completed her residency, chief residency and general academic pediatrics fellowship at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children.

Lara Ronan (LR): I'll start our conversation by asking, what does the word or the concept of allyship mean to you?

Nancy Spector (NS): I would say I am on a learning journey with thinking about allyship. I don't even think it was a regular part of my vocabulary three years ago, and in the time of the pandemic, after George Floyd's death, that changed. I began realizing how critically important allyship is in our organizations and how I think we need to be creating a culture of allyship. And I've evolved from originally thinking about allyship from the viewpoint of men supporting women -- because the majority of my work through Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) is in gender equity -- thinking originally about men and how can men be allies for women? And over the last couple years, I’ve really come to understand more deeply and am continuing to learn about how white women need to be allies for women with intersectionality. I’ve also been thinking about how the burden of the learning really is on us as allies and not on those we are providing allyship for, how we all need to be current and understanding of all the issues that are affecting all of our colleagues every day in their personal and their professional lives, being active learners through reading and listening to presentations to really keep current with what is happening.

There’s an alumna of ELAM, an “ELUM,” and her name is Dr. Monica Lypson, and she is the Vice Dean for Education at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. She speaks about allyship as such a critical, important point of our thinking as a community and emphasizes that it needs to be such an active role. She says that to be a really great ally, you need to be a co-conspirator, meaning being very active in thinking about how to disrupt processes, structure, things that are in place, to move our environment forward and to really be active in creating psychologically safe spaces. And that, again, thinking not only do allies need to be active participants, but super active in their perspective and being forward-thinking in the work that they do.

LR: Nice. Can you give me a couple examples that you've encountered of really successful allyship? Whether it's men showing allyship toward women or more broadly with intersectionality?

NS: I think from a higher-level perspective, I'm very impressed with the work of Fred Johnson, who wrote the book “Good Guys,” and he and his colleague David Smith also wrote a book “Athena Rising,” and how they're really thinking about their roles as white men being strategic in engaging leaders in organizations and institutions to be allies. They’re thinking about their roles as white men and engaging other men to be allies, and that's very impressive to me because I think we need to shift the burden of this work off of people who are underrepresented in whatever way. I'm really impressed with their work nationally, and I know they're engaged in many programs and organizations to promote that work.

I think at an individual level, I have to reflect on my own career: there have been many times where I've had experiences where I’ve felt like other men could have been allies in the moment and didn't speak up. And so I can recall those and think, ‘Wow, if somebody had stepped in at that moment,’ whether it was in a clinical situation, or a committee situation, or in a professional organization, how I would've benefited and how much I suffered because of that. So on the flip side, when I see somebody actively engaged in what could be potentially a vulnerable, challenging, risk-taking thing in the moment, I am so grateful, whether that thing was directed at me or some other colleague in the room. And, feeling like I've suffered when others haven't provided allyship in the moment, has emboldened me to be a better ally in the moment.

Having said that, on the positive side I have been in meetings where, now I’m in that setting as a leader in the structure of organizations, and I've been in situations where I'm one of only one or two or three or four women in the room, and benefited from a male colleague being an ally to me. And that could be that they're amplifying my idea so that my idea isn't lost, or mitigating the effect of a negative comment that might come my way because maybe I was too agentic in my bringing that idea forward -- so I have been the beneficiary recently of some really powerful male colleagues being allies to me. And again, I'm thinking of myself on this learning journey of trying to learn the lessons from watching role models be allies to me, and also learning from when it hasn't happened for me or for colleagues and thinking, ‘How could I do it better?’

LR: So when you think about the skills that a good ally might need, is it partly the risk-taking, is it partly the awareness? What would you say are sort of the key skills of a good ally?

NS: What's fascinating to me as I've been traveling across institutions and organizations over the last two years in particular, is that your experience is your experience. And sometimes you don't even see what's happening around you because you are in your place of privilege and you're living your life and you don't see. So the first thing is awareness. The second thing is deep listening to others, and hearing their perspectives. Third is pausing and remembering that life is not just happening to you, it's also happening to everybody else in the room from their different perspectives, whether it's at the bedside of a patient or in a conference room. And the fourth thing is what you described: being willing to put yourself out there and be a little bit risk-taking. At the same time, I think it's sort of about navigating how much risk there is, because if you escalate something in the moment, it could blow up and then really injure the person that you're trying to be an ally for. So you have to have that incredible emotional intelligence to be aware of like, ‘Wait, maybe let's let it go for the moment, and step back later,’ and make sure the person who might need an ally is okay, and then strategize about how to address the issue. And then you have knowing the tipping point of, ‘You know what? I'm going in there right now.’ [Laughs]

LR: Excellent. It’s about situational awareness, almost.

NS: Thank you. Situational awareness. Absolutely.

LR: So, through your work with ELAM, where would you say the needs remain for women as far as allyship in academic medicine? What are still the soft points there that are preventing women from getting full access to this?

NS: I think it's incredibly relevant for every woman in every level of our profession. I think we need allies right now more than ever to really think about the structural issues we have in academic medicine. If we're talking about gender --

LR: Let's talk about gender first, because your work with ELAM is so directly related to that.

NS: Yes. It needs to happen now, because still we have disparities at every level, ranging from the deans' level to the number of women who are full professors. We still have disparity. So if we're going to really affect change, we need men to be allies at all those levels. And even in high level, if we're talking about department or division chief level, we still don't often have a critical mass of women at the table making decisions for a very diverse group of faculty; our faculty tend to be much more diverse than our leadership, and we need allies at the table to ensure women's voices are heard and, as decision-making is happening, for a diverse group of voices to be included in those final decisions. So allyship is really critically important right now, as we have disparities at the structural level.

LR: So what's been interesting is that in the last, about two years, the conversations in business in general, but certainly academic medicine, have been more about disparity that's not gender-based, but based in race or identity. How do you think the lessons that have been learned through gender allyship will translate to that greater diversity discussion with other identities?

NS: I think for me, it goes back to thinking about how white women can be allies for women with intersectionality. Number one, I think we have to go back and decide what we are considering as diversity. I love that John's Hopkins diversity wheel, which has these two layers; the inner elements are really linked more to things you were born with or that are harder to change, and then the outer part of the wheel is diversity elements that we acquire over time, for instance education, or disability. And I feel like right now, we are only at the very tip of thinking about diversity, because we really are thinking about axes of gender diversity, equity and inclusion on race and ethnicity, as opposed to all the other levels of diversity. So I think deciding how we're going to consider diversity and how to support people with diversity is really important.

And in the beginning of the ELAM work we were focused primarily on gender, and in the last several years we’ve begun thinking, ‘gender and race and ethnicity.’ And our colleagues who are LGBTQ are saying, ‘Well, where do we come into these efforts?’ We also have to think about disabilities and all these other components. So I think we have to be broader and broader and really be careful not to have our efforts compete.

LR: Do you have any thoughts on how to teach out those concepts or how to build the skills of allyship in the majority population, in order to let the culture itself become inclusive and supportive?

NS: Oh, yes. I have a lot of thoughts here. [Laughs] And I think those who are much more junior to us, our children's generations, our students’ generations, have a great mindset of thinking about inclusion and acceptance. And I so admire that, and I think we can capitalize and build on that and support all of that. The more senior I get, the more I keep thinking that we have to think about how to really get these concepts to much more senior people and have meaningful dialogue at the leadership levels – not just on the organic, incoming-student level, but also on the senior level, among the leadership, the deans, the deans’ offices, and even beyond that to the university leadership, the chairs, and so on. We should be doing things on both sides, because I feel that intuitively, the younger generations are much more knowledgeable, have better content understanding, and use terminology in a better way. We have a steep learning curve in the more senior generations and we have to be strategic at both levels at the same time and not – I don't think that's true of our school, that we're just check-mark only, but I think there are organizations that are. I think there is really good intent in those cases, and I still think we all have a lot of learning to do, regardless of our age or generation.

LR: Right. And I'm always interested in, what would be a short list of things that anybody can do in our community that would help build inclusion, or help build allyship?

NS: Everybody needs to be an active learner. I think we all should all be reading and learning as much as we can. Different people like to do that in different ways, whether it's reading books, listening to TED Talks, participating in forums or webinars or things that are offered through our institution or professional societies – just be engaged. Myself and many of my colleagues are, you know, considered the national experts in gender equity, and it’s important that we’re thinking about our audiences. I ask my colleagues all the time, ‘Who's in your audience?’ And often our audiences are people who are very similar to us as the speakers, and we need to consider how we engage people who are not similar to us, so that everybody's hearing that message. That is something I think is really, critically important.

LR: That's great. On the flip side, if someone is reading this and they happen to be someone who's from an underrepresented group, are there any suggestions that you could give to them on how to find someone who will be an ally, or a strong mentor, or someone who will help sponsor them? Are there any ways to identify folks that you've picked up on over the years?

NS: That's a question I'm asked constantly and I think, ‘Wow, we have to, across all of medicine, do a much better job at ensuring a culture of allyship, sponsorship, and mentorship.’ That's at the higher level. At the individual level, what always strikes me is that we underappreciate the power of our peers in supporting us. So starting with finding peers who are really supportive, finding those leaders. For example, in your medical school that could be a senior medical student, a resident, or a faculty member who you identify with and who is your supporter. Once you’ve found that person, you should be engaging in a relationship with them and investing in that relationship. Those are the first steps, and you just have to be patient with how those relationships develop.

And as I said, investing in those relationships is really important. A lot of us who are underrepresented in some way, we underinvest in social capital, and we have to remember to spend time in that space. And a lot of us who are in the majority spend a lot of time investing in social capital. So we have to think about that and navigate that along the way and not be afraid to reach out. A lot of the work I do now is thinking about how to help support people who are shy or who are introverts as they navigate networking. I think as a medical school, we can really help with that with individuals, because a lot of shy, introverts struggle with that, and yet they can be empowered and shown how to strategically navigate to get the support they need.

LR: Sure. I resonate with that. I'm not a huge extrovert. That's definitely a challenge. If you're not naturally inclined to gregariousness, it can be harder to network.

NS: I spend a lot of time with my own mentees, whether they're medical students, residents, fellows, or early faculty in thinking, ‘Okay, Discovery Day is coming up, who do you want to meet?’ or, ‘Who would you like to have a conversation with or network with?’ And then we focus on being strategic and I can help them figure out what questions they should ask, and we go over how to phrase questions and how to follow up, or to be introduced to a network. I really try to keep the strategy comfortable for that person, as opposed to what’s comfortable for somebody like me who's very extroverted. The majority of us in medicine are not extroverts. And that preparation has to be an active thing. It has to be an activity we put on your checklist as you're preparing; just as much as you prepare your poster or your presentation for an event, you should preparing for how you can strategically network. And I think that's helping with that preparation is a great service mentors can provide for everybody.

If somebody's feeling like they don't know where to go to find a mentor, they can reach out to Student Affairs or to the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for ideas and support. It’s important not to be afraid to ask. I guess one other tip I've learned along the way is you may ask people to mentor you on something, advise you on something, support you on something, and sometimes the answer is no, and you shouldn’t be discouraged by that because the reality is people are super busy, or the right chemistry or fit may not always be there. And that's okay. It's a disappointment, but remember to keep going and move on and not think of that as like, ‘Oh, I'm never doing that again.’ Keep going.

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