The Role of Men

My friend Andrew considers himself an ally and is one of the very few men who regularly shows up at his company’s monthly women’s leadership group meetings.  He started going to these meetings after the group’s leader told him, “Of course you can come.  Come to all of them!”  At the meetings, Andrew wants to participate but is conflicted about speaking up because he is concerned that it might not be his place to speak at a women’s group meeting.  He wonders, What if my participation, or even my presence, silences certain conversations or makes some participants uncomfortable?  The other day, he told me that the group was asking for applicants to help plan events and that he wanted to help:  “Should I apply?  Would that be a dickish thing to do?”

These dilemmas are not unique to Andrew.  In an Atlantic article titled, “Why So Many Men Don’t Stand up for their Female Colleagues,” Adam Grant observes that many men who genuinely care about and want to support gender equality are afraid to speak up for the cause.  One explanation is that we hesitate to take action for a cause when we do not have a perceived stake in it.  The norm of self-interest makes it such that when we take actions not obviously in line with our own self-interests, others perceive our behavior to be non-normative and even inappropriate.  The fear that our actions will incur social disapproval often stops us from acting on certain issues that we support. 

For example, research shows that people are less comfortable going to a meeting in support of funding research for an illness when only the opposite sex is at risk of the illness compared to when their own sex is at risk, even when they see themselves as equally in favor of the research funding regardless of which sex is at risk.  They believe that others will be more confused by their attendance at a meeting if the opposite sex rather than their own sex were at risk for the illness and that others will be less receptive to their input when the opposite sex rather than their own sex is at risk.  Moreover, these fears are not just perceived; they are justified.  When a man supports a cause like a government plan offering abortion coverage as strongly as a woman, both men and women react with significantly more confusion to the man supporting the abortion coverage than to the woman.  

Given the fear of – and sometimes actual – social repercussions for men who participate in women’s group meetings, do guys have a place at workplace women’s group meetings?  What is the role of men in taking action to support increasing the number of women leaders?

Going to a workplace women’s group meeting as a man can be intimidating.  You might not be welcome, you might be a source of confusion and discomfort, and you might be risking social impropriety, but I will venture that we need to switch the default around:  the default assumption should not be that these are women-only spaces that men are not welcome or encouraged to be a part of. 

One experiment in the set of studies described above suggests that one way to change the default assumption is to label these groups and other efforts to specifically include men.  In the experiment, students were invited by a group called “Princeton Opponents of Proposition 174” to write a statement in support of funding research to cure an illness.  When students were told that the illness affected only the opposite sex, less than a quarter of them volunteered to write the statement (when students were told that the illness affected their own sex, half of them volunteered to write the statement).  But when the same invitation came from a group called “Princeton Men and Women Opposed to Proposition 174,” almost three quarters of – triple – the participants advocated for the opposite sex.  The relabeling legitimized the participation of non-vested individuals and removed obstacles inhibiting their participation, such as whether their supportive action will be seen as inappropriate. 

If we want more men to be a part of workplace women’s groups and other efforts to increase women leadership, one strategy is to call our groups “Women and Men in support of Women Leaders” or “Women and Men for Gender Equality” and the list goes on.  But most workplace women’s groups, including those that welcome men, are not yet called “Women and Men in Support of…”  And men should not let the mere lack of explicit inclusion deter them from participating. 

I’m not saying that men need to be a part of every workplace women’s group or should be a part of each meeting or event; I’m saying that at the risk of appearing brazen, men ought to presume, absent confirmation to the contrary, that these meetings and other gender equality efforts welcome and value the supportive action of men – because men are valuable to the cause, men can play a role in creating a more equal workplace for women, and men are in an especially privileged position to speak up and take action. 

For example, McKinsey and LeanIn.org’s Women in the Workplace 2016 study points out that “senior leaders have an important role to play, from talking more often and openly about gender diversity to modeling their commitment in their everyday actions,” and the majority of senior leaders are men.  In Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent article titled, “Advice for Living,” she writes about her late husband who did everything he could to help her rise to the Supreme Court bench: 

Marty coached me through the birth of our son, he was the first reader and critic of articles, speeches and briefs I drafted, and he was at my side constantly, in and out of the hospital, during two long bouts with cancer.  And I betray no secret in reporting that, without him, I would not have gained a seat on the Supreme Court.

Ron Klain, then associate White House counsel, said of my 1993 nomination:  “I would say definitely and for the record, though Ruth Bader Ginsburg should have been picked for the Supreme Court anyway, she would not have been picked for the Supreme Court if her husband had not done everything he did to make it happen.”

That “everything” included gaining the unqualified support of my home state senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and enlisting the aid of many members of the legal academy and practicing bar familiar with work I had done. 

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay, We Should All Be Feminists, she identifies opportunities where men can fight for gender equality, no matter how small:  for example, “If you are a man and you walk into a restaurant and the waiter greets just you, does it occur to you to ask the waiter, ‘Why have you not greeted her?’” and she argues that men need to speak out in “all of these ostensibly small situations.” 

Men are in an especially privileged position to speak out because women often have to pay a price for exercising voice, especially in male-dominated organizations:  when women offer suggestions for improvement, managers judge them as less loyal than men and are less likely to implement their proposals, and male executives who talk more than their peers are rewarded, whereas female executives who behave the same way are devalued by both men and women. 

So advocate for a policy or improvement that supports women, do everything you can to help a woman get to a position of leadership, speak up in all the ostensibly small situations, and go to the women’s group meetings so you can become more aware of these issues and identify opportunities where you can take action.  The worst that can happen to you is some degree of social disapproval.  But all of us take that risk when we speak out – and women more so than men, every time we speak up at work.  The question is whether this cause is worth the risk.  I hope your answer is Absolutely.

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