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Allyship Profile: Dr. Roland A. Owens

Dr. Roland Owens

This year, the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) is highlighting the importance of allyship in the workplace. Roland A. Owens, Ph.D., Director of Research Workforce Development, Office of Intramural Research (OIR), is an ally to women in research at the NIH.

While his primary duty is to facilitate and enhance principal investigator recruitments within the Intramural Research Program, he also serves as the Executive Sponsor for the Women’s Engagement Committee in EDI. Dr. Owens shares what allyship means to him and his thoughts on the importance of empathy, the value of commitment to diversity and inclusion in our organizations, and how to take small steps from being a bystander to becoming an ally.

What does allyship mean to you?

I’m always questioning:

  • Why are women not present in expected numbers in senior ranks, seminar series, and boards, etc.?
  • What are the barriers that cause this underrepresentation?
  • Who is qualified to be at the table, but is not at the table?
  • Where are the centers of excellence in recruiting, mentoring, and supporting women to be successful?
  • How can these successes be replicated?
  • If not now, when?

At what point in your career did you realize the importance of being an ally? Was there a pivotal moment you can recall in your life when you identified as an ally for women in the workplace?

In my first research job, as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, I was mentored by a female graduate student. I literally owe my career to her. In every place I have ever worked, there have been strong, talented women, including the late Dr. Nancy Nossal, my former Lab Chief at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). I did not realize at the time how unusual my workplaces were until I got to see the numbers as part of the Senior Staff at OIR. I felt that I owed all the women who had supported me to pay it forward.

Do you think most men recognize the challenges women face in the workplace? What might prevent some men from showing up as an ally?

People vary in their ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. I have sometimes been accused of being too empathetic to people with different perspectives. What stops many men from acting is not realizing what they are missing by not having women as full partners.

How has or should NIH encourage men to be allies in the workplace for women?

We need to place a higher value on committing to diversity and inclusion when selecting people for positions, especially leadership positions. As described in my recent review article in Human Gene Therapy, the best practices for the creation and management of racial-/ethnic-/gender-/ability-diverse teams are applicable to managing the multi-disciplinary teams required to tackle the most complex problems. These practices include valuing mentoring and co-mentoring; actively reducing barriers to communication; respectful questioning as an expectation, even for routine procedures; thoughtfully evaluating differences of opinion rather than automatically rejecting different opinions; and looking to extract “the best of both worlds” rather than trying to declare one approach superior and another inferior.

What small steps can men take in the workplace to transition from a bystander to an upstander or ally?

Keep an open mind about who can best contribute to the NIH mission. Do not schedule important meetings outside of normal business hours. Point it out when the list of nominees for your prestigious lecture series is missing the Nobel prize-winning woman in the field. Point it out if there are differences in resources or salaries for no apparent reason. If you see a talented person who should be moving up the career chain, give them a nudge.

As a mentor to so many, what would you say are the dos and don’ts in attempting allyship for the first time?

Do not be discouraged if people do not take your advice. Some people need to hear the same good advice many times before it sticks. Be kind to everyone. Establish a baseline of civility. Listen first, then talk.

Do you believe men have a duty to address negative behavior toward women in the workplace? Why or why not?

Yes. Any act that demeans women diminishes us all. If you do not feel that you can intervene directly, I recommend contacting The NIH Civil Program.

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