This story isn’t going to begin by defining or describing what it means to be a “male ally” to women in the workforce. It will start by clarifying what it is not.
A male ally is not a super hero. He certainly doesn’t wear a cape or a ribbon advertising his contribution to a cause. A male ally shouldn’t get applause because he doesn’t do all that much to deserve it. Being a male ally is not a very difficult thing to do. It requires small efforts and large doses of empathy.
We often imagine discrimination in its most ugly forms, and for good reason: The discrimination we see in headlines is typically grossly unacceptable. But the reality is that these issues are usually grounded in a foundation of smaller institutional practices that create an uneven playing field. Women face slights of bias and inequality commonly. It exists outside of the traditional office, too. Entrepreneurs and freelancers aren’t immune to it. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean they don’t feel it. Just because you don’t think about it doesn’t mean you don’t perpetuate it.
I’ve probably fallen under the category of a large demographic of men who would like to think of themselves as being allies to women in the workforce. But a good rule of thumb to remind yourself is that you probably can’t claim to be something if you’re unable to articulate what it entails. Condemning the worst offenders of sexism is a bare minimum tactic. I’ve collaborated with and worked for and alongside many women. Obviously, my career has benefited from crossing paths with so many of them.
And yet I wonder. Have I done anything besides passively sympathize with the pervasive biases they might have to shoulder at various points in their careers? What more could I have done?
To find out, I read the research and talked to women (on and off the record) in different industries as well as women who are experts on the subject. I asked questions, listened and took notes. This story will divide what I learned into four broad categories: Perceptions (real and imagined), Circumstances, Mentorship, and Defensive Walls. None are universal to every man, woman or work environment. But they are common and there is anecdotal and statistical evidence behind all of them.
If this article’s tone implies it is speaking to men, that’s only because I think it’s possible many women are already acutely aware of much of what is discussed here. This story is about being conscious. The best excuse any man could claim is being unconscious of how he could counter gender inequality while navigating his own turbulent career.
This is an exercise in beginning to eliminate that excuse.
Perceptions (Real and Imagined)
Success is all about confidence, right? Storm into a meeting or interview and own the room. These clichés are based on perceptions. We’re trying to be perceived as competent. We’re trying to exude leadership qualities.
But perceptions are tricky, because we can’t control them. The confident woman in the workplace has a history of being perceived as something else; “bossy,” “brass,” or “cold.”
The idea of perceived modesty came up with most of the women I spoke to. Sarah Kessler is the author of Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work, about the rapid growth of freelancing and careers without salaries. “If you’re a creative professional freelancer, promoting yourself or being a personal brand is a big deal,” Kessler says. “There’s a tendency for women to be more modest.”
But women are not genetically predisposed to think this way. Those impulses come from societal experiences that tell them to be wary of how they are perceived. “I’ve talked to a lot of researchers who have talked to me about the idea of the double bind,” says Jeannie Yandel, co-host of the podcast Battle Tactics for Your Sexist Workplace. If they are too assertive, women are often seen as bossy, or worse. “But if you’re not assertive enough or too nice, you’re seen as a pushover or not having leadership qualities,” Yandel adds.
“Something that a woman says might be interpreted as bragging or interpreted differently than if a man says it,” Kessler notes. A Hewlett Packard internal report found that women apply for jobs only if they meet 100 percent of the qualifications while men will apply if they meet 60 percent.
So where can a man chip away at these perceptions if he wants his female colleagues or peers to succeed? Ground zero could be the meeting room. It’s a setting where ideas are implemented, where projects begin. “It’s a place where, by and large, it’s more acceptable for you to be cut off. It’s a place where it’s easier for someone to build off your idea and get credit for it,” Yandel says. Timidly bringing up an idea in a meeting is almost teeing it up for someone louder to get credit.
Everyone wants to climb the ladder of success, but stealing ideas or credit is always a bad move. The point of meetings is productivity, and you will rarely be able to implement an idea with the thoroughness of the person who conceived of it. But experience tells us that men are more likely to do this to women. Perhaps subconsciously they feel that a woman is less likely to call them out on it.
The solutions are simple. Make sure credit goes in the right direction. You don’t have to be in a position of power to do this. “Recognition of colleagues is always good,” Kessler says. You can also brag for a woman who you know to do great work, but who rarely pats herself on the back. It’s not necessarily insecurity that’s preventing her from touting her own ideas; it’s a form of self-preservation. Opening up the environment for her talents to be recognized can go a long way.
This isn’t charity. It’s decency. Perceptions can be crippling. They slow people down. They take money out of people’s pockets. I’m a freelance writer, and something I’ve never discussed publicly is my constant anxiety with how my editors perceive me, not out of social anxiety, but because, without a salary or a contract, they hold my earning ability in their hands. You might be shocked at the time I’ve spent triple-proof reading the smallest emails to avoid coming across any number of ways. As a man this is largely an excessive reaction by me. But history and research show these precautions to have, many times, been necessary for women.
It shouldn’t take courage to promote one’s self.
Equality isn’t as simple as treating everyone the same. Sometimes it’s about giving equal consideration to every person’s circumstances.
Brittany Cobb is the founder and CEO of Flea Style, a Dallas-based lifestyle brand representing makers and small businesses, that, over the course of the last nine years, has expanded from a biannual trade show across Texas to include popular brick-and-mortar, e-commerce and podcast platforms.
Cobb is, by any typical definition, a success, and she would include her 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son in her own definition.
“My husband and I both run our own companies, and mine is a lot more complicated and time-consuming, and yet I still do everything at home,” Cobb tells me. To be clear, Cobb says that her outsized parental responsibilities are something she chooses to take on. It’s dangerous to assume that women are or should be the primary caretakers for children, but personally Cobb finds herself packing all the lunches, buying all the Christmas gifts, and taking the children to school.
There are great moms out there and great dads out there, but fathers are rarely shamed for putting a high priority on their careers the way mothers are. Cobb calls it mom guilt. “My husband has no dad guilt,” she says. “That’s not a thing. I think that’s the case for a lot of men.”
Reversing these stereotypes might seem too big for any one person, but actionable ways to consider any individual woman’s circumstances is to be conscious of scheduling. Flea Style has been expanding for years, and this growth has meant meeting with lenders, accountants, construction teams, lawyers and fellow entrepreneurs. “A lot of time men can just meet for drinks after work or go to these boujee dinners,” Cobb says. “And I can make that work from time to time, but I can’t just go on a whim. So being considerate of how far you schedule out [would go a long way].”
The outside-the-office meet-up can be far less available to women, and that goes well beyond factors like motherhood. “A lot of these supposedly casual gatherings often exclude women,” said Ruchika Tulshyan, author of The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace.
“Hey, want to grab a few drinks at 5 p.m.?” is rarely asked with the intention of discussing work. It’s usually just an attempt to blow off steam, but that doesn’t mean career advancement never comes out of that very thing. Relationships are forged over a series of “a few drinks.” What’s new on Netflix or how the local football team is playing only fills so much conversation. Work is the common ground that people who work together share. Eventually ideas are discussed.
No one is telling you who to spend your personal time or lunch hour with, but if the co-workers you bond with outside the office are almost exclusively men, it suggests something, whether you’ve noticed it or not. Excluding people is a passive act, one that you might not be conscious of, but it’s worth asking: How much do you enjoy inviting yourself to something?
The beauty of being off the clock, though, is no one holds authority. You don’t have to be the organizer to invite someone. You certainly don’t have to be the boss. “Anybody can say ‘Let’s get lunch,’ ” Yandel says.
People go with the flow. If you organize or take the slightest initiative, you can create more inclusive experiences. “I’d like to see more men step up and say things like ‘this is the third get-together we’ve had at the bar this week, shall we do breakfast next time?’ ” Tulshyan says. “Men have a lot less to lose when they bring it up.”
It’s hard to reach any level of success in any field without the help of a mentor along the way. It might not be an official title—I don’t think any of my mentors would call themselves such, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t taking mental notes every time they made the effort to share some of their wisdom.
Casual mentorship is great; why not share what you’ve learned along the way when you see someone about to go through the same experiences? Unfortunately, in the workforce, men tend to mentor other men more often than women. Yandel explains that it’s not necessarily intentional. “There’s research out there that talks about what happens when we have a gut feeling about somebody, and a lot of time the gut feeling is about people who are like us,” she says. “We don’t necessarily see the potential in people who don’t remind us of a younger version of ourselves.”
If men hold more positions of power, more seats at board meetings, more capital in startup funding (all true in the United States), and they are generally mentoring other men, then it creates a cycle. “I do think a great way to sort of reach across the aisle would be to offer more mentorship as more and more women are taking over businesses,” Cobb told me.
Related: How to Excel as a Mentor or Mentee
And so ending this trend is important, but male to female mentorship (or sponsorship) actually provides a few unique opportunities in battling gender inequality as well. Creating the kind of dialogue and transparency that allows your female peers to ask questions about things that don’t always come up might be a big tool for them. Yandel suggests for her female listeners in freelance to approach men who do similar work and tell them the pay rates they are offered and ask whether they think it’s a good rate.
Kessler noted to me that navigating rates in the YouEconomy can have little rhyme or reason and knowing what your work is worth is difficult. Salaried employees can more easily do the research on the market rates of their positions. “We definitely live within a society where talking about our pay is rude, and that needs to change,” Tulshyan says.
“If you’re on the receiving end of those conversations, answer those questions as honestly and transparently as you can,” Yandel advises men. Women have no negotiating leverage to fight pay inequality if men aren’t honest with them. To them, it’s valuable information.
Perhaps the tendency for men to mentor and advise men seems totally organic, but that means the solution is as simple as being aware of those trends and acting. In the past few years, we’ve seen various powerful men defend their poor behavior by referencing that they have a mother, a wife, a daughter, or a sister. It’s a hollow defense; having a mother or a sister isn’t something you have a choice in, and how you treat your wife or daughter says nothing of how you treat anyone else.
Cobb suggests that it shouldn’t take a scandal for men to be thinking of those women in their lives. “Not to be soft or anything, but kind of keep in perspective, would you want your daughter to be treated that way?”
We would all go out of our way to provide honest mentorship to the women in our family if we had wisdom to impart to them. But those women you love might need it from the men in their fields. Everyone is somebody’s son or daughter. Are you doing your part to start a better cycle?
Take Down Those Walls
Buying into the notion that gender inequality exists in the workplace means nothing if you aren’t able to have conversations about it with an open mind. One of the problems with only discussing the most blatant forms of sexism is that it puts a much heavier weight on what could be productive dialogue about slights and biases. We’ve discussed a handful of simple actions you can take that probably sound reasonable. But what’s especially vital is that you consider such advice reasonable when it’s coming from a woman. Will you have the same reaction when a female colleague brings it up to you specifically? “I know the idea of being called out is terrifying,” Yandel told me.
“It’s really hard not to get defensive when someone basically says, ‘I feel like you’re doing something wrong, and I feel like you’re doing it because you can get away with it.’ But that’s a good opportunity to stop and listen to this person and see what kind of actions you can take. Nobody’s perfect. We all screw this up.”
It might seem scary to be called out for something that didn’t even cross your mind, but this is where you need to exercise some empathy. “It takes a tremendous amount of courage for people from underestimated groups to speak out against bad behavior, especially if the other party is clearly not intentionally trying to hurt or discriminate,” Tulshyan says.
Yandel agrees. “It’s not easy to say to somebody, ‘I feel like this is happening to me and I feel like you’re part of the problem,’ ” she says.
A woman coming to you with an issue isn’t the same as calling for your firing. Sadly, many women would rather live with whatever form of discrimination they are facing than be treated like they are wielding pitchforks or risk being labeled a problem person in the office.
You’re going to have to listen, and it might be harder than you think. In transcribing the interviews I conducted for this story, I noticed that I was occasionally interrupting the women I spoke to before they finished wrapping up their points. There was nothing intentional about it; I was likely just trying to flesh out ideas that I could later outline for the story, but it’s still an incredibly rude thing to do. And it speaks to what women go through regularly. I was talking to these women specifically in order to let to them educate me on these issues and I still acted as though I could swoop in and finish their points.
Nothing bad happens when you admit these things. It’s actually the beginning of a good thing. Dialogue without defensiveness solves a lot more problems than you might think.
Keep in mind that women and people from any historically marginalized group can face much harsher forms of discrimination than what we’ve discussed here, which come down from people in positions of power. Pay rates, hiring practices, unequal funding, unpaid maternity leave and rampant sexual harassment are real problems. You may very well feel that you aren’t complicit in these issues or that you aren’t in a position to do much besides sympathize with them. But inequality doesn’t end there.
There is plenty to be conscious of. There are plenty of actionable responses to bias. Being a male ally means listening, understanding and trying.
The good news is that those are three things we’re all capable of.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of SUCCESS magazine.