It is no secret that women face measurable disadvantages in the workplace. The gender wage gap in the United States has remained stagnant at 81% for nearly a decade, and women’s representation in executive leadership positions hasn’t changed in two decades. The 2020 global pandemic and its economic fallout has only widened this gap, with the World Economic Forum now predicting that by current estimates, we may have to wait another 257 years before achieving full gender equity in the workplace. And it’s not just about money; women also report encountering all manner of sexism, bias and discrimination at work. In the worst cases, they are harassed or even assaulted. Women of color, even more than white women, report feeling invisible, unheard and disrespected on the job.
A persistent and vexing question on the minds of many women in the workplace is, “Where are all the men — guys who could lean in as genuine advocates, accomplices and full conspirators in removing obstacles to gender equity?” Far too often, gender diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts are framed as women’s issues instead of core leadership issues, giving men a free pass and a reason to tune out. Yet, until men — the vast majority of managers and executives in most industries — begin to own gender DEI objectives, tie them to business outcomes and hold others accountable for achieving them, progress toward gender equity will remain stalled.
In truth, many men recognize the costs that gender inequity exacts from women, their families and corporate bottom lines. They understand that failing to recruit, retain and promote half of the smartest and most creative people in the talent pool is a recipe for maintaining the substandard status quo and, in the worst case, failure. They find it abhorrent when women they know and care about encounter systemic sexism or egregious harassment. They just aren’t sure what to do or where to start to become a more effective ally for women at work.
With that in mind, here are seven actionable gender ally strategies for men. They will help men show up interpersonally as a better colleague and friend to women while also committing themselves to be a public ally, willing to put some skin in the game and advocate for systemic change.
1. Include Women
Combat belonging uncertainty among women on your team by inviting them to all work-related gatherings. Don’t allow a woman to be left off an important invite list. During a meeting, if a woman’s ideas are being shared or her clients being discussed, push back and ask for an adjournment until she can be present.
2. Listen Generously
Listen to women with the intent to understand, demonstrate empathy and validate their experience — not fix their problems for her. Be a patient, willing and reliable sounding board.
3. Assume Women Are Capable and Competent (Then, Stop Assuming)
Scrutinize your automatic — often false — assumptions about women, including what they might want (or not want) to pursue in their personal lives and careers. Then, deliberately signal clear assumptions that your female colleagues are talented and competent, and make these assumptions transparent in the workplace.
Intentionally step out of central roles; make physical space for women in meetings; and, when invited to lead or participate in a high-visibility committee or other opportunity, consider whether a talented female colleague would be a better fit and then recommend her. Stepping out of the spotlight, handing women the mic, and calling out their expertise and publicly asking for their input is an excellent way to ensure that more women are included and heard.
5. “See Something, Say Something”
Practice vigilance in sifting the workplace environment for sexist comments and behavior; then, be clear and decisive in shutting it down. Remember that bystander paralysis sets in within seconds following a harassing comment or sexist joke. Break this paralysis by immediately noting what didn’t land the right way with you.
6. Sponsor Talented Women Loudly
Women don’t receive as much sponsorship as men. Talk about talented women publicly — even when they’re not around — and call out their talent, achievements, and preparedness for promotions and opportunities. And, be willing to share your own social capital in recommending women for stretch assignments on the basis of potential, not experience.
7. Engage in Women’s Initiatives and Inclusion Events
Attend and participate in gender inclusion events and women’s conferences. When you do, show up with a genuine learning orientation, and ask how you can most effectively support efforts toward gender inclusion and equity in your organization.