For aspiring male allies, showing up at gender equality and inclusion events is the easy part. The tougher challenge and more important question is how you show up. Doing this right requires your best ally mojo. You'll need a combination of courage (to get yourself in the door) and epic humility (to remain quiet and mindful so that you can truly listen and learn).
Women are sometimes justifiably skeptical when a man attends a women's employee resource group (ERG) meeting or event, for a number of reasons. First, these gatherings have historically offered women a sense of community and camaraderie, a safe space for sharing experiences and formulating strategies for achieving equality in the workplace. Second, sub-tracks and breakout sessions for men at women's events often have labels such as Manbassador or Male Champion, terrific for drawing guys in, but in truth, rather grandiose to the ears of women who may sigh and ask, "Really, dude? We have to call you a champion just to get you to be fair, respectful, and inclusive?" Third, some men who engage in women's initiatives benefit from the pedestal effect and are given shout-outs for even minor displays of gender partnership. Stephanie Vander Zanden has witnessed this firsthand: "The women's group at Schreiber Foods has a male and female co-chair. I've seen people call him out and praise him for his leadership, right in front of his female co-lead, but nobody ever singles her out for praise." Fourth, overfocusing on men may paradoxically undermine women's autonomy and leadership of their own equity initiatives. After all, we men - especially white men - are socialized to rush in, take the lead, and take control (versus taking the back seat and supporting marginalized groups). Finally, there is the problem of the fake male feminist. You know this guy. He slings on feminism like a superhero cape when his boss is watching, to impress - or worse, seduce - women, or to avoid being labeled as sexist despite his pattern of sexist behavior. Whatever you do, don't be that guy.
You probably had no idea engaging in women's events and initiatives could be so tough. We've got some rules of the road for you. Follow these and you'll do just fine.
Show up with a genuine learning orientation. Listen, decenter, learn as much as you can about the experiences and concerns of the women around you, and don't move on to the following rules until you've mastered this one. Annie Rogaski shared how much she appreciated the example of Frank Bernstein, partner at Squire Patton Boggs LLP, who would attend a women's leadership group: "Frank came to almost every event that was open to men. He came in and just listened. He was clearly there to learn. He didn't come in and take over and say, 'Let me explain things to you.' It struck me how rare it was for a man to come into a women's space and not be the expert but just embrace a position of supporting us."
Respect the space. Large events and local affinity groups have afforded women a powerful platform for sharing experiences, providing support, and strategizing equity initiatives. Tread respectfully into these spaces, and before you utter a word, revisit the previous recommendation.
Ask what you can do. The best male allies at women's events seek true partnership in promoting gender equity. But don't assume what your role should be. Ask the women around you. They've been doing this longer than you have.
Park your steed and put away the armor. The women leading women's initiatives certainly don't need the cavalry. If you act like a "white knight" for the "damsels in distress," they'd be right to toss you out. Autonomy-oriented support that affirms women's competence and leadership-versus efforts at rescuing that reinforce dependency-is the order of the day.
Don't call yourself an ally. You are an ally for a woman when she calls you an ally and never before. Do the work. Listen, learn, and ask how you can be an accomplice to gender equity efforts. Let women decide how to frame your efforts.
Male allies consciously and deliberately show up for women in the workplace. They strive for inclusion, listen generously, and assume that the women around them are more than competent. Allies look for ways to level the playing field by encouraging them, offering feedback, validating their experiences, and practicing transparency. And all-in allies show their support and eagerness to learn by participating in inclusion events and women's initiatives. Each of the ally strategies we've described bear upon the general attitudes and behaviors men should aspire to in their interactions with women throughout the workplace.
[Related: Diversity & Inclusion Workplace Survey]
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from from Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace by David G. Smith and W. Brad Johnson. Copyright 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
David G. Smith, PhD, is a professor of sociology in the College of Leadership and Ethics at the United States Naval War College. W. Brad Johnson, PhD, is a professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy and a faculty associate in the Graduate School at Johns Hopkins University. They are the authors of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women. Their most recent book is Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace.