Gender inequality at work is not only an ethical issue, but a bottom line issue. Companies that had gender balance in leadership tended to outperform companies that did not, in average growth, price/book-value multiples, and return on equity.
Given that the majority of senior leaders in today’s business world are still men, and thus in the best position to influence cultural and organizational change, how can men help support their female colleagues in the workplace?
Here are ten ways that male colleagues can become allies for women at work
1. Be on the lookout for (and rectify) unconscious bias
There is quantified data to prove that no one is immune — all of us are biased, shaped by our experiences and our culture — and those biases can create inequities. One of the most prevalent is what Biola professor Dr. Leanne Dzubinski and her colleague termed role incredulity — such as, when a man and a woman enter a meeting together and sit at the head of the table, the unconscious bias is that the man is the boss and the woman is his admin.
Unconscious bias training is crucial to helping men realize that they aren’t necessarily “bad guys.” But because it rarely affects them directly, men in leadership may either turn a blind eye to gender dynamics, or consciously ignore women’s concerns. Dzubinski and her colleagues have provided steps to combat unconscious bias.
2. Call out (and stop) conscious sexism and harassment
Sometimes inequality isn’t hidden or subtle at all. If “boys will be boys” was ever acceptable, it isn’t anymore. In your workplace, is condescending or patronizing language openly and regularly used? Are sexual innuendos or inappropriate humor frequently heard? Are the women in the office visibly uncomfortable with what’s being said or how it’s being said? Step up and stop it. And apologize if you yourself have been inappropriate. Jeff Barth of Catalyst’s Men Advocating Real Change program says that “silence about injustice is interpreted, by both men and women, as support for that injustice.”
3. Raise the issue
Once you become aware of conscious and unconscious gender bias, be open to learning more — the whys and hows — and to educating others. Sometimes it’s easier for men to bring up gender issues because they are less likely to be perceived as speaking in their own self-interest. But be conscious of not dominating the topic — the goal is to hear women’s voices telling their own stories.
4. Recruit women differently than men
Men and women in the job market look at the “requirements” section differently. One study found that men will apply for a job if they meet only 60 percent of the hiring criteria, while women will not apply unless they meet all of them. Finding high-quality female candidates will therefore require recruiting — via LinkedIn, through references and internships — and not just waiting for them to apply. Be sure hiring committees look for women and other diverse candidates.
However, it is important to point out that simply hiring more women will not solve inequality issues. As Dzubinski and her colleagues point out,“[Women] make up 53.5% of the workforce in law, 55.3% in higher education, 63.8% in faith-based nonprofits, and 77.6% in health care. Though women are the majority in these industries, we found they still experience a multitude of biases … their workplace often still had a boys’ club mentality where decisions were made mostly by men.”
5. Be a mentor
Women often seek out other women as mentors, but research shows that women who also have male mentors get more promotions and make more money. Mentors can give general advice, but also specifics, such as negotiation advice.
“A mentor can be someone within the organization or outside of the organization,” says Crowell associate professor Laureen Mgrdichian. “They listen and give guidance, using their experience to pass on and help their mentee navigate the road ahead of them. Often there are mentorship programs set up within an organization to help newer employees thrive.”
Men in a position to do so can also take the next step and actively sponsor a woman. As managers and influencers, sponsors also provide advice and support but have the ability to create tangible opportunities for the other individual and have a vested interest in the protégé’s success. As Mgrdichian notes, “A sponsor is someone within the organization who recognizes the potential you have and offers your name when a project arises that could give you more visibility. They give of their own social capital to help you excel. Female executives who have risen within organizations can pinpoint one or two people along the way who saw their potential and provided opportunities for them to showcase their talent.”
6. Raise the number and visibility of female leaders
Research shows us that one of the reasons women’s aspirations dwindle early in their career path is that they don’t see female role models ahead of them in the pipeline. Unfortunately, data supports this view. While women enter the workplace in equal numbers as men, that decreases step-by-step up the ladder and falls to about 19 percent by the time they reach the C-suite.
According to Dzubinski and her colleagues, “a recent study of the 33 biggest multilateral institutions found that of 382 leaders in their history, only 47 have been women. And the percentage of women running Fortune 500 companies has only just recently crested a meager 10%.”
Women who negotiate for a promotion or compensation increase are 30% more likely than men to receive feedback that they are “bossy,” “too aggressive,” or “intimidating.” Additional data suggests that if a woman leader is considered competent, she is often rated as “not nice enough,” and conversely, if she is described as “really nice,” she is often also rated incompetent.
“There was no personality trait sweet spot,” says Dzubinski, “as introverted women were not seen as leaders and extraverted women were viewed as aggressive. Virtually any characteristic can be leveraged against a woman in a discriminatory fashion. The clear message to women is that — whatever they are — they are ‘never quite right.’”
Just as men do, professional women need honest feedback and practical advice about getting ahead. Encourage women to apply for jobs with more responsibility, even though they might not currently meet all requirements. Research demonstrates that women get promoted based on their accomplishments, while men get promoted based on potential.
7. Support alternative work/life strategies
Obviously gender inequalities stretch beyond the workplace, but even here, being a work ally can help. Women are more likely to utilize their company’s work/life benefits because they are nearly always the primary caregiver of children and the primary carrier of household duties. However, if men also use these work/life benefits, like remote work, maternity/paternity leave, family-sick time, and others, you prevent them from being seen as “women’s benefits.” As Liza Mundy writes in The Atlantic, “The true beneficiaries of paternal leave are women,” because it normalizes taking time for your children, regardless of the parent’s gender.
8. Don’t “mansplain” or “manterrupt”
Research tells us that men interrupt women in conversation far more often than they interrupt other men. Likewise, women get less credit for their contributions than men. One study found that women not only speak less often than men in meetings, but when male executives speak more they are rated as 10 percent more competent. But when female executives speak more, both men and women give them 14 percent lower ratings. The obvious solution for men is simply listening more than talking, but even better is to openly solicit ideas and questions from women at meetings, and then affirm them. And if a female colleague gets interrupted in a meeting, interrupt the interrupter and say you’d like to hear her finish!
9. Share the load, share the praise
Flatten the day-to-day playing field at the office — in an office full of equal-rank employees, stop assuming that women should do the note-taking at meetings, organize and decorate the office parties or orient new hires. These are known as non-promotable tasks — they don’t add anything to your resume or your promotability — but women do them 48% more often than men do. If you raise your hand and take on some of these jobs, you’re also being an authentic role model for other men.
Research demonstrates that male performance is often overestimated compared to female performance, and gender-blind studies show that removing gender from performance-based evaluations improves women’s chances of success.
10. Ask and listen
As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest issues is awareness. The assumption many men have is that there’s no problem and thus nothing to fix. One of the best ways to find out for sure is to ask women, and then listen attentively (not argumentatively) to their stories. Harvard Business Review has examples of good questions:
“I’m curious about some of the things women in this organization find most challenging day-to-day, things that a man might not notice.
If there was one thing you wish men who work here were more aware of, what would that be?
If there was something I could start doing every day that might make the workplace better for you and other women — what would that be?
If a guy were asking how he could really show up as a male ally, what would you tell him?”
One international study found that such exposure to the real-life repercussions of gender inequality can help men overcome their gender-blindness. As one male leader noted, “once you put on the lens [of how women see things], you can’t take it off. The world never looks the same.”
Image by Freepik, used under license