As I looked out into the crowd at a recent conference where I was speaking, I saw a sea of women ready to develop their leadership skills, hone their assertive communication, and invest in their professional advancement.
Sitting in the far back right of the room was a lone white man, who throughout the entire weekend sat quietly, listened attentively, and took notes. At the very end of the weekend, as I was about to roll out to the airport, he thanked me for the insights he had gained – not only from what was presented but also from the experience of sitting in a room full of people who identify as women, from all walks of life, sharing their experiences, frustrations, and triumphs in a world where women leaders still face gender bias in all it’s overt and covert forms.
“I’m really working to become a better ally to women in my workplace,” he told me, as he listed off some of the take-aways he was going to start implementing immediately.
I knew then I needed to flip my lens and focus on the practices men can embrace to advocate for gender equality. I so often find myself addressing crowds of women, that I have fallen into the habit of focusing on how women can “lift as we climb,” and forgetting to also ask for actionable support from those who benefit the most from historical systems of oppression: the white guys.
Still today, despite the many strides women have made in attaining more degrees than our male counterparts and serving as the majority of middle managers in the US workforce, men still account for 75% of all S&P 500 executive and senior-level officials. Men hold 80% of S&P 500 board seats, constitute 94% of CEOs, and hold just about 80% of the seats in Congress.
For the men who also want to make a more equitable world a reality, here are 5 simple steps you can implement right away:
As the women of the Obama White House exemplified, amplification can be a powerful tool in combatting unconscious bias at work. Regardless of malintent, women are much more likely than men to be interrupted, and many women report having their ideas only taken seriously when reiterated by a man in the room.
But male allies can help give credit where credit is due. When you hear a woman at work being talked over, interrupted, or worse — having her ideas co-opted by someone else — speak up to help pass the mic back her way.
“Hey, I don’t think Tamika was finished getting her point across. Tamika, did you want to add to that?”
“You’re right, that’s a great idea. I believe it was Marnie who raised this earlier, right? Marnie, what were you saying about this originally?”
“I feel like we’ve heard from everyone in the room on this except Allison and Renee. Did you want to chime in?”
Use your privilege like a spotlight to highlight the words of women who might otherwise fall on deaf ears.
- Mentor & Sponsor More Women
Countless amounts of research has found that establishing an ongoing mentor relationship with professionals on the rise is critical for providing the kind of valuable counsel and support needed throughout a woman’s career. But sponsorship can be even more critical.
Serving as a sponsor is like being a power broker: sponsors connect women with the substantive opportunities and networks of power needed for continued career success.
In a Catalyst report called Sponsoring Women to Success, researchers found that having a sponsor can be a career accelerator:
“Good sponsors can supercharge a woman’s career by providing her with access to essential networks, bringing her achievements to the attention of senior-level executives, and recommending her for key assignments,” said Ilene H. Lang, President & CEO of Catalyst. “Effective sponsors also provide career coaching and guidance that enable protégés to make broader and more strategic contributions to their organizations.”
Even the most well-intentioned professionals are likely to find themselves more often mentoring and sponsoring young people who remind them of themselves at the start of their career – it’s simply how we’re wired to be biased towards liking those who seem like us. But that’s a problem — one that perpetuates the systemic underrepresentation of women and people of color in leadership.
- Call It Out
Everyday sexism can take a toll on women’s professional reputations and internal sense of confidence. Microaggressions – those statements, actions, or incidents that reflect indirect, subtle, and sometimes unintentional discrimination against women and other marginalized minorities – are commonplace in the workplace. And when you take an intersectional approach to understanding gender inequality, it becomes clear that when combined with discrimination based on race, class, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, women living at those intersections face even more microaggressions than others (ahem, we white women).
So what can a dude do? Call it out. When a colleague calls a woman “aggressive” or “shrill,” explain how that negative framing might gloss over the fact that she’s being assertive — a key skill all leaders need. If women are the ones asked to fetch coffee or take notes in every meeting, question the practice or volunteer yourself. If a colleague makes a sexist joke, speak up to let them know why it’s not okay.
- Listen to Women
It’s so simple, but so profound. We spend countless hours focusing on how to become better speakers in our culture, but rarely to we exert the same effort to hone our active listening skills. In a world where little girls are praised for being quiet and still and little boys are expected to be loud and rambunctious, it can be a radical act to practice reversing those roles.
Believe women in your office when they come to you with concerns. Allow women to be the experts on their own gendered experience in the world. Validate women’s experiences, even if you’re feeling called out or are tempted to get defensive. Practice empathically putting yourself in their shoes and trying to understand their experience.
This might even include being proactive about asking the women in your office how you can be a better ally. Get curious about what women need to feel valued, safe, and respected as equals – even if that requires soliciting anonymous feedback.
- Advocate for Fair Workplace Policies
When it comes to hiring for new positions, is your company embracing research-driven practices that reduce bias? Does your employer embrace pay transparency or other accountability measures for providing equal pay for equal work? Do you have on-site lactation rooms? Gender-neutral bathrooms? Equal parental leave policies that enable all working parents to thrive?
When men’s voices join women in advocating for these policies on the corporate, state, and national level, we double our collective power.
How else are you stepping up to be an ally for women at work?
This list is by no means exhaustive, and I want to hear from more men on how we can all be stronger advocates for women in the workplace.