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How to Engage Men as Allies in the Workplace

Did you know that, at our current pace, estimates suggest it will take 257 years to achieve economic gender parity?

Furthermore, almost three in four women report experiencing bias at work, yet only one in three employees challenges biased behavior when they see it. With more than 75% of CEOs including gender equality in their top ten business priorities, it seems like we should be making faster progress on this issue. What’s up?

When it comes to gender equity, much of the focus has been placed on equipping women with the skills needed to succeed in a male-dominated workplace. Unfortunately, without the active participation of men, these efforts will have limited results.

Men hold the majority of C-suite positions, and are therefore in an optimal position to affect organizational change by setting policies, establishing accountability and acting as role models. Additionally, research from McKinsey and Lean In found that men are promoted at 30% higher rates during their early careers and that entry-level women are significantly more likely than men to have spent five or more years in the same role. This demonstrates that men at all levels of the organization play an important role in shaping the future of women’s careers.

As the statistics above make clear, good intentions aren’t enough. In this article, we’re going to explore how organizations can translate a top-level commitment to gender equity in the workplace into meaningful change by engaging men as powerful allies.


1. Begin by Exploring the Current Attitude of Men In Your Organization Towards Gender Bias.

Before you can create an inclusion strategy in which the men in your organization take an active role, it’s important to first understand the current attitudes of your male employees towards gender equity.

Are they aware that gender bias exists in your organization (because, let’s face it, no organization is perfect)? Do they acknowledge gender bias but feel it’s outside of their control or not their responsibility to intervene? Do they want to lend their support but don’t know how?

The best way to get a pulse on the overall sentiment of your male employees is to start listening. Solicit honest feedback by hosting confidential, men-only listening sessions or by asking them to complete an anonymous survey. Ask open-ended, non-judgmental questions like:

  • What’s your view of initiatives geared towards women’s advancement? What are the benefits and potential pitfalls?
  • What barriers do you think prevent men from engaging in gender initiatives?
  • What can we do as an organization to equip you to be an effective ally?

Some men may feel labeled as the “bad guy” and get defensive when discussing these issues, so be sure to convey that there is no blame and to validate differences in perspectives and experiences. Emphasize how important it is to your company that men are partners in co-creating solutions that result in a better environment for all.


2. Overcome Objections & Barriers to Change

Based on your findings from collecting feedback, it’s time to meet your male employees where they are and begin to provide support that empowers them to take action. There are countless reasons why men may feel disengaged from gender equity initiatives, but these are some of the most common:

“I don’t believe that gender bias is a problem at my company.”

A survey conducted by Artemis found that only 33% of men believe there is gender bias at work and only 10% believe their own workplaces display any kind of gender bias.

Men who lack a general awareness of gender bias will benefit from foundational training that explains important (but often misunderstood) concepts like diversity, inclusion, unconscious bias and what it means to be an ally. Address any objections or questions that surfaced in the feedback by sharing research and data that shed light on the reality of the status of gender equality.

Where possible, also use anecdotes or stories that illustrate how unconscious bias affects women in the workplace. This will help men understand and connect with the challenges faced by women in more concrete terms and make it easier for men to recognize bias and take action to combat it.

At this stage, it’s important to explain that we all have unconscious biases (including women) and to take a solution-oriented, “we’re all in this together” approach.

“I want to help but I feel uncomfortable or unsure how.”

Many men recognize that gender inequity is an issue and want to provide support but feel so worried about saying or doing something wrong that they default to doing nothing instead.

As a company, it’s your job to equip men with the tools and training they need to feel confident being an effective ally and change agent. This can come in many forms such as dedicated workshops or employee resource groups that create space for ongoing, open conversations.

If you’re not sure where to start, Lean In offers an excellent free digital program, 50 Ways to Fight Bias, that includes everything you need to run a successful workshop that will empower employees to identify and challenge bias head-on.

Research has found that this type of training can be particularly effective. For example, at Chevron, men were twice as likely to speak up when witnessing exclusive behavior after a workshop than they were before it, and women were 3.5 times more likely.

In addition to hands-on training and coaching, encourage men to speak up and take action by publicly recognizing the men in your organization who advocate for gender equity and elevating them as role models.

“If women advance, there’ll be less opportunities for me.”

Often men fear that initiatives to advance women will restrict opportunities for them, even if they are the more qualified candidate. For men in this category, it’s most effective to appeal to their self-interest and clearly illustrate the business case for prioritizing gender equity.

Gender equity doesn’t just benefit women – it benefits everyone! Gender-balanced workplaces experience better financial results, greater employee satisfaction and retention, increased productivity and innovation, and navigate economic downturns better and at a faster rate. Additionally, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. A Peterson Institute for Global Economics survey found that increasing the number of women in the C-suite from 0% to 30% results in a 15% increase in profitability for a typical firm.

If the above data isn’t compelling enough, make sure senior leadership highlights that gender equity is and will remain a top priority of the organization. This reinforces that a commitment to creating an inclusive workplace will be crucial for advancement to higher-level leadership positions.

When it comes to addressing barriers to change, the best organizational approach will be forming a multi-faceted strategy that meets male employees where they are and addresses their concerns and objections head-on.


3. Leverage the Influence of Respected Leaders in Your Organization

Senior leaders play a critical role in fostering inclusive environments. When leaders, especially men, demonstrate a visible commitment to supporting and advancing women, it has a ripple effect throughout the entire organization.

Men at all levels of the company will begin to recognize that it’s in their best interest to align themselves with the same values for the sake of their own advancement and reputation within the company. In addition, women will feel safer raising their concerns without fear of repercussions.

Being an effective and inclusive leader will rely heavily on maintaining open channels of communication with employees at all levels, so be sure to equip your leaders with the skills needed to engage in candid conversations regarding how gender or race has shaped employees’ experiences.

Encourage influential leaders to take an active role in gender equity initiatives by openly showing vulnerability and sharing the challenges and learning experiences they’ve faced in their own journeys as allies. To boost engagement, consider having a senior leader in your organization extend a personal invitation to male employees.


4. Make Gender Equity an Integral Part of Organizational Values, Culture, and Operating Procedures.

To maximize the impact of your gender equity efforts, pair actions that support individual shifts in attitudes with broader organizational policies that demonstrate gender equality is a core component of the company’s values and future. Examine your hiring processes and talent pipeline and consider:

  • Are you advancing diverse slates of candidates?
  • Are you setting your female high potentials up for success by providing them with the resources, support and opportunities needed to advance now? (Our HNS bootcamps are a great way to help women get ready for their next career step.)
  • Have you completed pay equity reviews?
  • Is your panel of interviewers diverse?
  • What is the composition of your talent planning team? What perspectives are not being represented adequately?

It can be difficult to see your own blind spots, so consider appointing an objective inquisitor to check for bias in talent discussions. Hold leaders at all levels of your organization accountable for diversity and inclusion by linking measurable progress and behaviors to performance reviews and bonus compensation.

Also, take a look at your company policies and look for opportunities to make work conditions more conducive to the challenges that disproportionately impact women. An example is offering flex work options to all employees, allowing them to choose when, where, and how they work. This benefits women who may be juggling professional and home life responsibilities and also enables men to take on a larger share of these responsibilities, benefitting their families and ultimately challenging gender stereotypes.

Remember that creating an inclusive and equitable workplace for women is a continuous process with no end point. However, by empowering both women and men to take an active role, you’ll be creating an environment that allows all employees – and as a result, business success – to thrive!

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