10 things men can do to support gender equality
1. Call out microaggressions
The LeanIn.org study found that women are more likely than men to face everyday discrimination – or ‘micro-aggressions’ – such as having to provide more evidence of their competence, being interrupted or having their comments dismissed, being subjected to demeaning comments, being expected to take notes or make the tea, or being mistaken for someone much more junior.
For 64% of women – and 71% of lesbian women – micro-aggressions are a workplace reality. Such behaviours can deter women from wishing to advance their careers and can also reduce their belief that career advancement is possible.
Men can help by:
- Stepping in when a female colleague is interrupted. Explain that you’d like to hear her finish. Openly ask women to contribute to the conversation and help ensure people get equal airtime.
- Stamp out sexist jokes: don’t politely laugh, which is in effect a silent endorsement of the behaviour, but instead be sure to tell the person this behaviour isn’t acceptable
- Create ground rules for meetings, and have the team hold itself accountable for following these
2. Ensure women get credit for their ideas
All too often I hear examples of women who explain how they make a suggestion in a meeting without much response, only for the same suggestion to be made by a man later in the meeting which is then met with a positive response and the idea incorrectly attributed to that man.
Men can play a huge role in addressing this by:
- Ensuring women get credit for their ideas: Beware of ‘stolen ideas’ and be sure that the credit goes to the right person.
- Offering ‘air cover’ for women’s ideas. “Offer “air cover” to defend and support female colleagues’ ideas and suggestions.
3. Refuse to participate in all-male panels
As the adage goes, “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”. Studies have found that the availability of role models increases career commitment and satisfaction. When conferences and events have a mix of men and women it helps to show more junior women that there is a path to the top for them too.
Men can help level the playing field by:
- Asking the event organiser before you sign up how balanced the panel is
- Paying attention to the gender balance in the speaker line up at conferences and events you attend – how diverse are they?
4. Watch your language for double standards
Society conditions us to expect women to be nurturing and men to be dominant and assertive, and when a woman displays the attributes associated with a man, such as being outspoken or forthright, she is often subtly (or not so subtly) penalised. As a leader, the language you use can have a powerful impact on others.
Men can help correct these distortions by:
- Paying attention to when different language is used to describe men and women. For example, when you hear a woman called “aggressive” or “political” because she stands up for herself or promotes her ideas and thoughts, challenge the language and ask for specific examples. Ask the person “Would you describe this behaviour the same way if this were a man?”
5. Share the office ‘housework’
Office housework is described as “non revenue-generating work that’s low risk and low reward, but can require a substantial time commitment”, such as taking notes in a meeting, making the coffee, and organising events. Disproportionately women find themselves either offering or being assigned these responsibilities, for which they get little credit, and find themselves unable to fully participate in other, more visible activities.
Men can help address this by:
- Paying attention. Who is it that volunteers for different types of work? Who gets asked or coerced? Actively work to ensure office housework is fairly and equally distributed.
6. Ensure team events and networking opportunities are inclusive
Various studies have shown that informal networks are often segregated by gender and race, and as such women are less likely than men to have the strong professional networks, workplace support, insider information, and social ties to elites that are critical to promotion. Access to these informal networks is therefore key.
Men can help address this by:
- Thinking about the event, timing and location of informal gatherings – do these work for women as well as men? For example, drinks at the bar on a Friday night might suit men but are far more likely to negatively impact women, who disproportionately have child ‘pick up’ responsibilities after work. Similarly, sporting events won’t appeal to all women, and might dissuade women from attending as they feel unable to participate in the conversation.
7. Walk the talk
Actions speak louder than words! As a leader the actions you take, or don’t take, convey a powerful message about how willing you are to stand up for gender equality.
You can actively show your support for equality by:
- Ensuring you don’t make assumptions about what roles or challenges a woman is up for. For example, never assume that mothers aren’t mobile or willing to take on a high-profile assignment. Never factor a woman’s personal life into professional decisions.
- Actively soliciting diverse views. Consider, who are your ‘go to’ people when getting input? How diverse is this group? How many women do you seek input from? When you look for talent is it always the same names that come up or are you searching more broadly across the organisation?
- Challenging yourself when making judgements of people. Reverse the gender of the person and consider whether it would change your thinking.
8. Sponsor women
Studies have found men receive greater sponsorship from their mentors than women. Without a sponsor’s influence to advocate for the ‘sponsoree’ in the most senior executive circles, women don’t get the same visibility and are not always equally considered for openings during those closed-door career and succession discussions.
Men can help redress this by:
- Advocating for women and helping to open doors for them. This is particularly important at critical career points, and during promotion rounds, succession discussions and allocation of high profile assignments.
- Ensure women are considered equally as men for high profile assignments and roles.
9. At home, share the second shift
Equality in the workplace starts with equality at home. A global study by the International Labour Organization found women perform 76% of the total amount of unpaid care work, 3.2 times more time than men. In the UK, the study found women spend an average of 3 hours 52 mins a day on domestic tasks, and men 2 hours 11 minutes. This ‘second shift’ for women can be difficult to reconcile and has been identified as a key barrier to career advancement for women.
Men can help redress this by:
- Sharing the domestic load with your partner. For some couples this will mean a 50/50 split of responsibilities, for others it will mean adjusting the split to a balance that works for you both, and allows your partner to invest more in their career (should they wish to).
10. Take parental leave, and flexible working and encourage other men to do the same
Research into the ‘maternal wall’ describes the pushback women often experience around maternity leave. This can include the need to ‘prove themselves’ all over again, having their competence questioned, being assigned lower level tasks or less responsibility than before, and seeing their performance evaluations drop. As primary care for a newborn baby falls disproportionately more to mothers than fathers, this bias effects women more. However, increasingly men want to play an active role in their children’s birth and upbringing and want to ‘share the care’. By both men and women participating in parental leave this bias will start to evaporate.
Men can help redress this gender bias by:
- Taking parental leave during the birth and early months of their child’s life.
- Working flexibly and encouraging others to do the same. This means ensuring a focus on productivity and results rather than presenteeism.
- Normalising work-life balance. I love the example set by Paul Pomrey, CEO of McDonalds UK&I, who says: “I leave the office “loudly” at 5.30pm each evening and I say goodnight to everyone; with so many working mums and dads, we don’t want a culture of working late”.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article. What other ideas do you have for how men can help women in the workplace? What positive examples have you observed in the workplace?
Sharon Peake is the founder and CEO of Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.
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