Calling All Male Allies
Smith, Johnson Advise Men to Advance Women's Equity
The women’s equality movement is missing one crucial component: men.
Dr. W. Brad Johnson and Dr. David Smith, researchers, co-authors and professors spoke recently at the 2023 NIH Research Festival in a lecture, “The Power of Allyship and Gender Partnership,” sponsored by the NIH women scientist advisory committee.
Johnson and Smith have written two books together: Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women and Good Guys: How Men Can be Better Allies for Women.
“You may be wondering how two middle-aged, majority-white guys got involved in this work,” Johnson joked in the beginning of the talk. The dynamic duo came together when they were teaching at the United States Naval Academy.
As a psychologist (Johnson) and sociologist (Smith) interested in gender equity, they shared a passion for creating true gender equity in the workplace. But too often, the focused gender equity initiatives and events seemed to include only women. However, Johnson said, this can “send the unintended message that men aren’t [necessary]” for making equitable workplaces.
Their solution? Encourage men to go out of their way to mentor and build opportunities for their junior female colleagues.
What Do Women Want?
“We are not going to spend the next hour mansplaining what women need in the workplace,” Smith assured the hybrid audience. He and Johnson based their books on countless interviews with women in corporate workplaces.
What does male allyship look like to women? What can men do to advance gender equity?
Being a loud supporter is a great way to start, Smith shared.
In a large survey, women were far more likely (96%) to say their organization was making good progress toward gender equity if their male colleagues were loud supporters. Conversely, if men were quiet on topics of gender equity, only about 30% of women thought their workplace was supportive.
In addition to men who were vocal advocates, Johnson and Smith found that women also valued men who were good listeners. “Generous listening” is a technique in which the listener seeks to understand the other person’s experience, rather than try to problem solve.
Johnson and Smith found that, while many male leaders prize their listening skills, some of their female colleagues still don’t feel heard. So, even though those men may feel like they are doing a good job already, they should still seek out constructive feedback from female colleagues.
The First Step
Most men do believe in gender equality, even if they may not actively demonstrate it at work or at home. This is what Smith calls the “allyship gap.”
What can men do to close the gap? The work begins at home, said Johnson.
He recommended starting with a “domestic audit,” particularly for men in heterosexual, dual-career relationships. Not only does it help men begin to show up authentically, but it also provides good examples of equitable behavior for children in the home.
“Chances are, women in heterosexual relationships are doing double the work at home,” Johnson shared. “We’re never going to close the gender pay gap, never going to elevate more women to leadership, until men start sharing more equitably here.”
Doing the Work, at Work
When it comes to being an ally for women at work, the first step is self-education, Smith said. “Awareness is the underpinning of all of this.”
Self-education might begin with attending lectures or reading books, or in more informal settings such as speaking with trusted female colleagues.
“Ask to ask” when approaching female colleagues about their experiences in the workplace, Smith cautioned. It may not be something every woman wants to speak about.
Also, men should be alert to common workplace gender biases. Ninety percent of women who outperform their peers receive some sort of pushback—an experience called “Tallest Poppy Syndrome.”
Men can mitigate gender bias against ambitious and successful women by “being [their] loyal and raving fan[s],” Johnson said. Talk positively about female colleagues and their work, especially when the women in question aren’t around.
Smith and Johnson also believe that a big portion of advancing women’s equality can come from male-female mentorships. Senior women may seem like the go-to mentors for their more junior colleagues, but in most workplaces there simply aren’t enough female mentor figures to go around.
“If men aren’t leaning in,” Johnson said, then “the net effect is a lot of talented junior women are slipping through the cracks.”
There are also plenty of other ways for men to show up for women outside of mentoring.
The co-presenters discussed the three levels of allyship: interpersonal (holding yourself accountable), public (how you publicly advocate and hold others accountable) and systemic (creating systems that work for everyone).
Mentoring is a type of interpersonal allyship. Public and systemic allyship necessitate a bold, outspoken approach.
Ouch! and Other Interruptions
Smith asked male attendees to imagine being in a scenario where they hear a senior man make a disparaging remark about women. What would you do? he asked.
Turns out, most bystanders stay silent. “Bystander paralysis” kicks in within about three seconds, Smith said. If no one speaks up immediately, then chances are no one will speak up at all.
Women who do are more likely to face backlash from calling out a sexist remark, while men who make a stand are rewarded. “Men need to participate in the disruption,” urged Smith.
He and Johnson advocated for a very simple disruption: “Ouch!”
Any short exclamation will work, Smith said, as long as it gets everyone’s attention. It will also buy the “oucher” some time to collect their thoughts. An alternative version, “care-frontation,” is a good way to educate coworkers while ensuring they know you are looking out for them.
Men can also participate in everyday disruptions, such as taking on “office housework” like planning events and team-building exercises—non-promotable tasks that women often feel pressured to fulfill.
How Does This Work in Practice?
Johnson cited JP Morgan Chase, which devised the “30-5-1 Pledge” as a way to retain talented junior women in the organization. The company asked men to set aside 36 minutes a week to uplift junior female colleagues: 30 minutes a week to have coffee with a talented woman, 5 minutes congratulating a female colleague on a recent success and 1 minute to praise that woman to senior colleagues.
“In five years, they saw a huge turnaround in retention and advancement of women,” Johnson said.
There are four actions every organization can take today to advance gender equity, Smith said:
- Provide programs tailored for men. About half of men surveyed said inclusive leadership training is important for men to succeed.
- Explicitly link diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to examples of “best in class leadership.”
- Be transparent and specific about DEI goals to build trust in both employees and people you are trying to recruit. “Men need metrics and motivation,” Smith quipped.
- Hold everyone accountable for DEI, from senior leadership all the way down to frontline management.
- Smith and Johnson want to see more men step up and become active male allies or “open-minded citizens of the world, of the male persuasion, who serve as allies to women on issues of gender parity.”
“Show up and do the work,” Smith said. The whole workplace will reap the benefits.
For an archived version of the talk, visit https://videocast.nih.gov/watch=52456.