I'm a cis white male, and I have never directly witnessed any kind of sexism in my academic world, even though I hear that it is a very real problem in this precise context. I've heard about it, a lot, sure, but always through the media and about people in different institutions, but I have never seen it or heard it directly.

If anything, it felt like the universities in which I've worked before were quite "progressive" on all things related to gender and race, compared to other work environments. Just to give you two small, non representative examples: I work in a small STEM program in which over 80% of the people recruited in the past 3 years are women (much more than in industry) and the university's yearly stats demonstrate the total absence of a pay gap since 2009.

Of course, like everybody else, I'd like to be "one of the good guys" and I feel like I'm not contributing to gender inequality - I'm equally mean to everybody :) I think that I would react if I witnessed something that I perceive as sexist. But here's the thing, I really don't see any of it on a daily basis.

Now feminist theories also tell me that I may not see the problem because I'm a man, etc. Truth be told, I'm a hardcore scientist and the whole "you don't see the problem and that's proof that it exists" really bugs me a little (Karl Popper much?). Being genuinely interested in educating myself and being more aware about these things, I would like to be able to identify daily sexism. For instance, maybe I have a hard time telling mansplaining apart from healthy criticism (which is an important part of science)? In other words, I need concrete examples to help me be more aware of inequality issues around me.

The question

The other day I was having dinner with colleagues; one of them was telling us everything about their (?) gender reassignment surgery (TMI, to be honest) and said something along the lines of:

You have no idea how hard it is to be a woman in academia; nobody ever takes you seriously

That's not very specific, and I felt like asking them to elaborate, because that's quite a strong statement and I simply didn't see where that came from, so I wanted to learn more. Which brings me to the question:

In polarizing issues like sexism, race etc., or any other context in which right and wrong seem to be very... binary values, how can I (a cis white male), ask for specific examples without making people defensive?

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    – Em C
    Feb 4, 2019 at 19:48

5 Answers 5


I told myself I wasn't going to do this anymore, but here we are again...

I was born a straight cis white male, and for the majority of my life I identified myself that way. I was admittedly blissfully ignorant of how the majority of people experienced the world. I was aware that there were problems with racism, sexism, homophobia, etc, but I wasn't really aware of how pervasive these problems were until I came to realize, or perhaps admit to myself, that I wasn't straight. I fell in love with someone who didn't fit that model...

There isn't really an easy succinct way to describe all the little differences and slights one has to endure. Many of them are perhaps so slight that people have a hard time accepting that they are slights and some are so glaring that they're painful to look at.

That's where I'd suggest starting. First ask yourself, what would be a sufficient example for you?

I know that back when I was a straight cis white male, I hated being somehow seen as the privileged oppressor, but looking back on it now... it's hard not to see that I unknowingly engaged in a lot of little slights. Don't get me wrong, I thought I did all the right things, I thought I was progressive and aware of the plight of others, but there were plenty of times where I fell short.

One of my biggest shortcomings was assuming that I really understood, or was capable of really understanding, what the experience of others was like. So much so, that I fell into the trap of thinking that in my straight cis white maleness I was somehow qualified to decide what was a slight against other people and what wasn't. That was pretty messed up and I know that I hurt people doing that. It wasn't what I intended to do, but through my ignorance and arrogance, it's what I did.

So... how can you ask for specific examples without making people defensive?

I doubt that you really can. Most folks in marginalized groups have had these conversations more than a few times, and generally seem to develop a sense that you're weighing their daily slights on an inherently unfair scale. You're going to be asking "would this bother me if I were in that situation?" without having the ability to fully grasp what it means to be in that situation.

So, what should you do instead?

Ask them if they're patient, and willing enough, to tell you about their experiences. Try not to make a judgment call about whether this is racist, or if that's sexist. Really listen to what they have to say. Even if you don't understand or relate, try to understand that there are pretty plain reasons that you don't understand or relate. You haven't had to walk that road, that's why it feels different to you, that's why you might react differently. Understand that you may not see these things because you're not in the position to see them.

Basically when someone opens up to you about what they experience, put down the magnifying glass and pick up a little empathy.


I'm a woman who also faces other multiples sort of oppression. I'm also a feminist and I know a lot about the topic of discrimination and problematic behavior exhibit by privileged classes.

Asking the question

First of all, I will say that a lot of people in a privileged class ask questions about specific discrimination they do not face and then act like they are entitled to an answer. Even worst, they act like we have to prove to them that we are, indeed, discriminated.

I'm not making judgments here, I'm just saying that, from experience, if you act like that, you will be seen as being part of the problem.

So when asking such a question to someone, you have to make it clear that you are not such a person and that you know that you are not entitled to an answer.

The way of doing so can vary but I will suggest that you ask if they don't mind you asking before actually asking your question. For example:

Since you are talking about that, do you mind telling me more about specific examples where you encounter such a behavior? It's okay if you don't want to, I'm sure google would have plenty of example for me.

The second sentence here is to insist forward on the fact that they don't need to answer if they don't want to.

Receving the answer

Now, this is a good start but, from experience, the tricky part isn't so much about asking the question, but about receiving the answer.

When hearing the answer to such a question, people on the privileged class tend to become really defensive and try to justify the bad behavior and/or minimize it and/or doubting it so that the answer wouldn't be "true" anymore.

Don't do that.

Whatever the other person tell you about their experience, do not doubt it and do not try to argue. You might feel personally attack by there answer but remember: this isn't about you, this is about an unfair system that creates discrimination.

If you don't act in a defensive way when receiving the answer, then the other person won't feel the need to act in a defensive way either.

However, if you do that, ask other questions and then notice that the other person is acting more and more defensive, stop the questioning. You may have crossed a line without even realizing it and a good discussion can't happen if one of the people is feeling defensive (as a vegan, I had those. They never ended well).

I hope I have provided enough backup here. Feel free to ask for more if needed.

  • 6
    I agree that they are obviously free to not answer my question (as you said, I am not entitled to an answer), and that I must make this clear. I would however have serious concerns about the idea that there is absolutely no "burden of proof" (not towards me on that precise day, but towards... people in general) for issues that call for necessary, but very deep changes in the way all our interactions are shaped. Just like justice cannot expect citizens to "prove they did not do anything wrong", a social movement cannot expect change without pointing to specific, objective issues
    – Mowgli
    Feb 5, 2019 at 22:52
  • 4
    @Mowgli Remember that these people didn't sign up to be part of a discriminated class and didn't sign up to make the world a better place. The burden of proof isn't on them as individual and they have nothing to prove to you as individual. However, I edited my answer to make myself clearer in addressing your point.
    – Ael
    Feb 6, 2019 at 10:03


I am a cis white straight male. I won't pretend that I know a lot about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc... What I do know a bit about is asking questions about things that I don't understand. I've had a lot of experience asking about the experience of my friends who have different sexualities and gender identities than I have. In particular, I have a good friend who is transmasculine and I've been asking them questions about their experiences being trans for several years. I've never had them get upset with me for asking questions. When I asked one day if my questions made them uncomfortable, they said that I was fine to ask questions specifically because they knew that I genuinely cared about them.

How I ask

The most important part of asking questions about the issues that others face is that you genuinely care about the other person and the issues that they face. The best way I've found to convey that you genuinely care is to approach the issue with humility. Explain that you are uneducated on the subject, but want to know more.

Being male, I don't really understand the challenges that you face. Can you provide some examples of issues that you've had to help me understand better?


I debated including this next paragraph, so I'd like to make a disclaimer about it now. The next approach can be quite personal, and may come across as insensitive if you don't know the person well. I would only recommend using it if you have already established a pattern of talking to them about the issues they face.

If you are very familiar with the person, it might be ok to ask about specific experiences. For example, I'll often phrase a question to my friend by pointing out a specific situation and how I experienced it as a cis man. Then I follow up by asking them about their experience of that situation. Again, I didn't start doing this until we'd been talking about their experience as a trans person, so please use it carefully.


I know exactly how OP feels. While I am technically a member of several marginalized groups, I have never felt this way and, like OP, I have never witnessed any sort of negative act against me or anyone else in my non-academic career.

I have however on many occasions, been told (lectured really) on how I should feel or I just don't notice any effect on me. Which has put me in the position of wanting to know exactly what they're talking about because, as noted above, I've never seen it.

TL/DR - this rarely ends well.

The lecturer usually get even more offended that I'm challenging their worldview and them lumps me into the 'part of the problem' category. This is OP fate if not properly handled.

I can recommend 3 possible approaches and two Interpersonal Skills.

Do nothing. While OP's academic curiosity may be very compelling, it's quite possible the person is just seeking empathy for their situation leveraging a current opinion thread.

The first Interpersonal Skill here would be Scientific/Academic Inquiry. This works because OP is also an academic. This is more about tone and demeanor than anything else. Accept the premise and in the most detached, academic way OP can muster, just ask

How does that manifest itself? I'd like to know some additional ways to identify it in my Department.

The second Interpersonal Skill would be Sympathy. OP may not be able to use this one as it's something that's difficult to lie about, so don't. OP can use a personal attribute, even if it's less impactful, to solicit further conversation. This is risky because if the person is merely an empathy seeker, they're not going to be interested in OP's struggles unless they're somehow greater then theirs.

I can only begin to understand how you feel, even I get dismissed because of my accent.

In any path OP chooses, they need to be very sensitive to a negative reaction by the other and immediately switch to empathy.

Oh, that's terrible. We all need to do better.

This presumes OP doesn't want, in any way, to escalate from casual to confrontational.


My answer only relates to sexism I have experienced, but I think this is a great question worth exploring.

In my experience, it is important to preface any conversation of this nature with a little back story. If you want information like this, I am not sure that asking through the course of a normal conversation is the way to go. Giving people an opportunity, instead, to read it as they do here and then respond could allow you do to more of an empirical analysis and also give you more valuable leads to follow up on - perhaps messaging you their contact information if they are comfortable with follow up questions. Maybe that could be a good course of action, rather than trying to have face to face conversations with people you are not close to. Since you mention you are in academia, perhaps approaching it like an experiment and partnering with another colleague from a different demographic could be a good starting point.

I am a woman in a STEM field, both currently working in a corporation and also getting my master's degree in the field, so that is my basis for the suggestion. I experience some of the issues you allude to pretty regularly, and it is not something I would talk about outside my closest circle. It is, as you worry it is, very sensitive which is why my response takes a different approach to getting answers.

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