Breaking Out of Your Silo

This is the fourth blog post of the AI Research and COVID: Journeys to Gender Equality and Inclusion series. This blog series emerged from the “writeshop” organized by Gender at Work as part of the Data Science and Artificial Intelligence Research Program to Combat COVID-19, also known as AI4COVID, financed by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). The initiative was part of the final Gender Action Learning workshop held in Nairobi, Kenya in February 2023.  

July 28, 2023

In this blog post, Jim Todd questions his own positionality as a white privileged male academic who becomes a mentor to a younger female academic of colour. In narrating this experience, he challenges himself and others to listen and learn from our differences and avoid thinking in ‘silos,’ that perpetuate discrimination and biases within academic and research environments.

How does understanding the ‘lived experience’ of others enable one to break out of the silos we all live in?

In 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and soon after the explosion of concern about discrimination highlighted by Black Lives Matters (BLM), I was asked by my head of group to mentor a young Asian woman named Amina.

Amina was a contract officer, a second-generation immigrant and a devout Muslim. She had experienced racism and Islamophobia and was not afraid to call out injustice. She had joined BLM in the university and had found a way to project her voice. She knew what she was talking about. She was prepared, with reams of evidence to back up her arguments, and fearless in taking up every instance of racism or criticism of her religious beliefs. But sometimes she upset people with her outspoken accusations. The chair of my caucus described her as passionate, fearless and committed, but also suggested some of her characteristics were ‘difficult.’

Everything about Amina was different.

Her background, career discipline and expectations did not conform to my previous mentees as she was not working under me or for my projects. We could only meet by Zoom and I did wonder how I could help, but was determined to be an ally and to support people of colour (POC). I did not realise that I had to reflect and change my attitudes if we were to be successful.

I had lived in a silo all my life

Without realising it, I had lived in a silo all my life, as a white boy born in the 1950s to an Empire-supporting, conservative, religious family. I attended grammar school and then Oxford, with an initial desire to be a missionary, before starting work with the police and then becoming an academic, where my work took me to health research in Tanzania.

I enjoyed my work, both research and teaching, making me feel I was the one who knew what was needed, what to teach and how we should do academic work. I used my experience to develop biostatistics courses, supervise students and mentor new researchers. I sympathised and supported development, but everything ― my work, friends and networks ― reinforced my privilege, position and sense of what was right.

Traditionally, mentoring is defined as patronage, influence, guidance or direction given by a mentor to a mentee. In my work, I used my experience to mentor junior staff and other researchers, offering advice on their career choices, specific training on soft skills, and introductions to other projects and groupings where they might find suitable work. My students and mentees came from diverse backgrounds, with a common interest in science, research and biostatistics. My mentorship followed a successful template, but it had not caused me to reflect on whether that was appropriate or even right.

My experience with Amina would cause me to question the success of that template.

@ Awuor Ponge

The initial mentorship

We started our discussions going over events, setting short-term goals and working out what the next steps would be ― all traditional mentorship activities. After six months, we had some successes leading support staff who managed to have their employment rights recognised by management for the first time in 20 years.

However, her uncompromising, unconventional, feisty language had divided opinion, upset many people, and caused many of my colleagues to question what I was doing. She was right in what she said, but the way she said it was unconventional and contravened the rights of others. She was a leader who recognised (and experienced) injustice. Perhaps I was the only one to listen and realise that it would take a long time to achieve her goals and make changes.

The conflict with colleagues and other workers, along with the pressure of work, took a toll on her mental health and she took sick leave. This would have been an easy way to give up our mentorship. I could say, with an easy conscience, that I had done my bit. Unsupported, she could drop out of work, retreat into her community, and nurse her victimhood. My employing institution could continue listening only to the predominately white senior researchers, comfortable that POC had been given a chance, ticking the boxes for equality, diversity and inclusion, but not changing the standards used to define success.

I was not satisfied with that. I needed to step out of my silo and explore the world she lived in.

Could I understand where she was coming from, and enable her to become a more effective communicator? What metric should I use to define the success of our mentorship? She was right in her views, but could she use that to become a leader in her field? I knew she would need to change. Although I did not know it at the time, my confidence in the rightness of my power and privilege, as well as my views, would change.

Listening and learning

The mentorship started the weekly Zoom between the two of us, to understand our different upbringings. We included other people from a range of backgrounds, to build trust and to develop short-term goals. We heard from other second-generation immigrants on their experience of activism, opportunities for activism and about one becoming a Member of Parliament in the UK. We reached out to other POC leaders about how they built networks for support of those who had no voice. My experience with the Gender Action Learning (GAL) project, exploring similar themes in Africa, helped me to listen and reflect on what I heard, and how to tackle discrimination in the UK and elsewhere. Part of the learning was opening my eyes as a privileged, white male academic from a Northern ’silo’ who had never seen and experienced the evidence of discrimination.

In other one-to-one meetings with Amina, I listened to her accounts of how she felt when she travelled on the Tube under the gaze of strange men. I understood how difficult it was for her mother to go to hospital about her mental health when she had no English to describe her experiences. I felt the distrust and powerlessness her siblings and cousins experienced from the persecution they experienced at university. I sympathised with her father who wanted to ensure his family conformed to the traditional expectations of their background and religion, despite living in a country that was hostile to his culture.

Influencing people and changing behaviour is something I knew how to do, by controlling emotions and building the right responses. There were dangers in this, as it required honesty and trust by both of us. I realised to enable change in my mentee, I would need to explain my background, my actions and the way I had conducted my life. Some of my actions have been commendable and some despicable, but they show that white, privileged people have the same range of actions as others and have no monopoly on solutions. I told her about things I said to people and regrettable actions I had taken, which had caused harm or even serious harm to others. I told her about how I expected and accepted better treatment from all strata of society in the UK, in other high-income countries and in the African countries where I had worked.

Would this honesty repel? Would it destroy the trust we had built up? By putting my mistakes and dishonesty on the table, would that help Amina change her behaviour? Would it help me to change my future behaviours? Or would this honesty change nothing? Would it reinforce our own intransigence? Could we learn how to listen to each other and accept these negative views of our lives as things we each must overcome? Or did we think we are perfect in our own silo, which enables us to put all the blame on those in other silos?

End points

After two and half years, she and I had learned how to accept our different personal experiences, backgrounds and points of view, and to understand how this influenced our behaviour.

Amina learned about acceptance of alternative sexuality and other intersectionalities. Amina also learned how to think through alternative viewpoints, to accept some and resist others incompatible with her Islamic values. She had learned how to listen, how to speak to crowds, and how to deal with critics without lashing out. She learned how to build networks and relationships to support her positions, which enabled her to lead discussions and actions. She met with leaders and was able to explain clearly the needs of her community. She was nominated to a national committee to understand the needs of POC in the workplace and supported colleagues to speak out about their experience.

For my part, as a mentor, I learned about institutional racism, misogyny and religious intolerance. I too had learned how to listen, become less tolerant of privileged behaviour and more angry at the injustices that are a consequence of systemic support for the privileged elite. I became determined to change these in my life, but also to highlight the way society condones and encourages institutional injustices. This requires me to become passionate, fearless and committed, and to develop ‘difficult’ characteristics that may make people uncomfortable.

For the first time in my life, I had learned how to see the world from someone else’s point of view. I am not asking privileged and powerful groups to give up their nice houses and good jobs, but I am asking you to get out of your silos and find out about others with different lived experiences.

This blog post was written by Jim Todd, Professor of Applied Biostatistics, based in Tanzania and senior researcher with the INSPIRE PEACH project under AI4COVID, and is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2023 Jim Todd.

Curious to read more reflections on AI, gender inequality and exclusions? Read the first blog posts from this series here: Amelia Taylor’s Can AI have its cake and eat it too?; Michelle Mbuthia’s Cook, Clean, Plan: A case for more gender-responsive policymaking, & Meghan Malaatjie’s Are women programmed to think less and do more?.