More than half of women and men say it is rare to see men speak up against women discrimination. More than three quarters of men don’t see gender discrimination as a problem.
Two men related this story to me. They were both in a work meeting when another older and more senior man in their organization commented about the woman's physical appearance in the room. There were only four people there at the time, and the interaction was over in a few minutes. Both the men thought the comment was inappropriate but were paralyzed at the moment to react. Self-conscious, the woman changed her outfit later in the day.
Confusion and Fear
Sometimes men don't speak up because, in the moment, there is no chance to consider what the appropriate response should be. Sometimes it is not knowing what to say or do because men are afraid of making mistakes when standing up for a group they are not a part of. While making mistakes in these situations is possible because they are not familiar, they should be seen as learning opportunities. See each other as dynamic (rather than static labels of good and bad); how can we help each other grow?
Some don't take action because they believe that they are not sexist or unaware of the assumptions behind their own statements. Statements such as "I think she'd be great in Human Resources" without knowledge of the person's background or skills assumes the woman has certain traits and reveal unconscious biases.
Because they are not aware of the problem or believe they didn't create it, these men don't feel responsible for taking a stand. Even they are aware of the problem, discrimination can feel like too big a problem to solve, like climate change. "What can do, I am only person, I can't change anything" mindset often leads to inaction as well.
Other times there is fear of moral repercussions. Being the only man in the room to object to an offhanded comment or sexist joke requires courage. Anxiety about being undermined at work or seen as "soft" could stop someone from standing apart from the rest of the pack. Someone in a less senior position in the organization may find it hard to challenge the behavior of someone senior because this could impact their career. I've also heard men being criticized for virtue signaling—an attempt to show others your good character by expressing the moral high ground. Because they don't want to be criticized, they stand aside and observe.
Fairness and Justice
Gender bias and discrimination exist. It does not matter whether we have a wife, sister, or daughter who has experienced bias to take action. Standing up against bias is about standing up for the values of fairness and justice. It is about the way people should be treated.
Do we each have what we need to reach our fullest potential? Do we have equitable access to opportunities, networks, resources, and support, to succeed?
Intervening or taking a position about this global problem is not about a particular woman or individual (the same applies to all other forms of discrimination—racial, sexual orientation, age, disability, etc.). Each of us plays a role. The suggestions below range from increasing our awareness of the issues to taking an active stand. Some, if not most, apply to all types of bias and discrimination that can help us be better allies.
Attention and Awareness
The first step is to increase our own knowledge and cognition of the inequities. We should not wait until something bad happens to someone we know before we start learning about the problem. Start reading and listening—Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace by a former Navy pilot and The Wake Up: Closing the Gap Between Good Intentions and Real Change—are good places to start.
Investing the time to understand and pay closer attention to what is being said will help you notice when biases occur. Some you may have seen in the past but did not recognize as subtle discrimination before.
Non-verbal language is just as important as what is said. Observe the mood in the room and when that shifts, who is avoiding eye contact or not laughing along, who seems uncomfortable, and who is not engaging in the conversation. Noticing these cues can inform you of unconscious biases that occur.
Mentorship and Sharing
I am a strong advocate for mentorship—in this instance, cross-gender mentorship. The sheer exposure and getting to know another person individually increases understanding and reduces social barriers and confrontation. For both individuals, mentorship provides opportunities for personal and professional growth.
Within the mentoring conversation, male allies can ask the woman to share their experience and how they can help. Ask to be called out on biases that you may be unaware of. Try, "I am open to hearing what you have to say to help me understanding or see things differently" or "you may challenge me on the things I say and I will be grateful to you helping me learn".
Some conversations may become uncomfortable. But these should be taken as opportunities for learning, rather than taken as self-blame or anxiety.
Find ways to share opportunities to let others shine, whether it is a project at work or a speaking engagement. Is this something I can pass on to someone who wouldn't usually get asked? Observe who is taking up air time, speak less, and invite others to share the floor during meetings.
Women tend to be allocated or spend more time on unpromotable work compared to men. Unpromotable work includes organizing the holiday party, taking notes, low visibility work such as serving on low-ranking committees, and diversity work. While these tasks benefit the organization, they don't contribute to career advancement. This results in different career trajectories for women and men. Be aware of these less visible tasks and take on your fair share.
Humor and Empathy
"Could you be a sweetheart and get us some coffee?" Try humor to point out the situation. How about responding, "Could you be a sweetheart and bring some cupcakes?". This is not about being paternalistic—men protecting women—but pointing out the inequity of the situation.
Recall comments that have been made in the past and think about potential responses. This could help to prepare you for the next time it happens.
Be kind in addressing the behavior and show empathy in your response. Shaming does not help the situation and can lead to defensiveness. For example, if a woman is interrupted in a meeting, interject and say, "I'd like to hear more about what she has to say on the topic". Or question the assumptions behind the statements: "Why do you think she'd be good in Human Resources?"
Commitment and Practice
Breaking bias and discrimination is like breaking a bad habit—it can't happen in a single day. It requires ongoing understanding and practice and a multi-year commitment. Understanding that this is not a zero-sum game—men are not worse off when women are promoted. To be better allies, we can educate ourselves, increase intergroup interaction and address biased behavior with empathy.