As we launch our Male Allyship survey, we wanted to present a male point-of-view on the topic. We turned to one of our diversity partners, Eric Ratinoff, to share his view of Male Allyship, and what he thinks men can do to support women in the workplace.
Ready to Be a Male Ally? Try Looking Through These “Ally Lenses”
By Eric Ratinoff
If you’re ready to become a better ally for women in your workplace, the Internet is loaded with recommendations of specific actions you can take.
But rather than offering situation-specific suggestions or ally best practices, I want to zoom out and propose an all-purpose framework that can help make you a more effective ally in any setting.
One of the things that keeps men from being effective allies is simply not recognizing opportunities for allyship.
Most women are highly attuned to gender dynamics at work, because quite often their ability to get things done relies on their skill in navigating these dynamics—which first requires awareness of them.
Most men, on the other hand, are less attuned to these gender dynamics, because they can often do just fine without being aware of them. In traditional workplace environments, male leadership styles are the default. If you identify with the default, then it’s easy to miss the gender dynamics—because to you, they just look like workplace dynamics.
That’s why a key step to becoming a more effective ally is becoming aware of when allyship might be welcome. Adopting the habit of asking the following questions can help heighten your awareness.
Whose voices are being heard?
In a lot of workplaces, the voices that dominate are men’s.
Sometimes that means an airtime imbalance, where the percentage of those speaking or percentage of words spoken tilts heavily male. Sometimes it’s spotlight-stealing, where men interrupt or talk over women. Sometimes it’s men getting credit for the same point that was ignored or discounted when a woman made it. Sometimes it’s just good old-fashioned mansplaining.
In all these scenarios, men get their voices, ideas, and perspectives heard, whereas women don’t get their voices heard, have to fight to get their voices heard, or fight to be heard—and still don’t get heard.
You can gauge whether you’ve spotted an allyship opportunity by asking yourself, “Whose voices are being heard?”
Pay attention at your next meeting. Are there women at the table sitting quietly, actively taking notes but not speaking? Giving non-verbal cues that they have something to say, but not finding an opening to say it, or being invited to contribute by the meeting leader? Do women have to work harder than men to get an idea considered? Is a woman’s statement received as “pushy” when the same thing said by a man is received as “assertive” or “decisive”?
Pay attention beyond meetings, too. Evaluate the chatter in your Slack channels. Observe the informal discussions in the break room and at the water cooler. Listen carefully on conference calls.
If you notice in these arenas that you aren’t hearing women’s voices enough, or that women’s voices are being drowned out or downplayed, you may have identified an opportunity to be an ally.
And of course, if you hear women explicitly express frustration with meeting, team, or organizational dynamics, in any context, listen to them.
Does this add up?
When women’s voices are not being heard, you can sometimes observe that dynamic as it’s happening.
But for other inequities, you may notice the outcome—gender imbalance in who gets recruited, hired, and promoted, or in who keeps getting assigned desirable projects—before you see what produced it.
You can start to address these imbalances by asking yourself, “Does this add up?”
For example, my firm, The Mouse and the Elephant, worked with a company whose total workforce was more than 50% women—but the higher you looked in the organization, the fewer women you found, with women making up just 11% at the VP level.
When the leaders looked at gender data for each employee tier, with pink and blue bars representing the numbers of women and men, the gender imbalance became immediately clear. Once leadership saw that disparity in black and white—or pink and blue, as it were—they said, “This just doesn’t add up.” Seeing it motivated them to do something about it.
Look at the gender breakdowns for recruitment, hiring, promotion, and high-profile project leadership in your organization. If those numbers aren’t readily available, track them down, and disaggregate the data. Then ask yourself: Do these numbers add up, or do they look skewed?
If they just don’t add up, you’ve spotted an opportunity for allyship.
What power do I hold?
This third question isn’t about what’s happening externally, but rather what’s happening internally. What kind of power do you hold in the organization? On the team? In the room? In what situations do your colleagues defer to your expertise and authority?
When you become aware of your own power, you can begin to see where you might leverage that power to support women.
Ask yourself, Where and when can I amplify women’s voices? How can I use my authority to help my co-workers appreciate women’s insight and expertise? Sometimes this can be as simple as saying, “I agree with Jane’s point” before adding your own. That may seem like a small thing, but it communicates clearly that what Jane has to say has value, and affirms that you heard what she said. That matters.
Applying your new “ally lenses”
Once you see an opportunity for allyship, then what?
Keep asking questions, but now, ask them out loud.
But be mindful that even if asking yourself those questions helped you see a problem clearly, declaring loudly that there’s a problem may make others defensive. Instead, try to guide them through the same discovery process you experienced when you asked these questions of yourself.
For example, if you notice meetings are monopolized by men’s voices, you can leverage your male voice to interrupt the pattern and say, “Seems like there are perspectives we’re not hearing in this conversation. I’d like to hear some other views.”
Before a meeting, you might say to a colleague, “I’ve noticed that in a lot of these meetings, it seems like you have something to say, but aren’t getting an opening to contribute. Any way you want me to support you in getting some airtime?” If she says yes, then in the meeting, you might create a space for her to speak by saying something as simple as, “Jane, what do you think?” (Note: Always check with the person whose voice you’d like to amplify in advance—do not put her on the spot without warning.)
If you notice gender imbalance in your organization’s numbers, you could simply ask if others have noticed, too—“Have you noticed it seems like men always get assigned the most important projects?”—as a way to start a conversation. Or you could ask about the process producing those numbers: “I’ve noticed women rarely get assigned the most important projects. What’s our process for determining how those assignments get made? Can we look at it to see if any gender bias might be baked into it?”
Applying these simple questions—Whose voices are being heard? Does this add up? and What power do I hold?—can give you a set of “ally lenses” to see more clearly those situations where allyship might make a difference, and help others to see those situations more clearly, too.
As you apply these lenses and take action to be an ally, be sure to also ask for feedback—Are my actions helpful? How can I do better? Because while applying these lenses can help you see familiar situations with fresh eyes, they don’t make you an authority on what the women in your workplace want or need. Even the most well-meaning allies can benefit from practice and feedback.
Ultimately, these questions can help you see organizational dynamics more clearly, and provide a way to leverage your influence, authority, and power to create a more inclusive, equitable workplace. If we’re going to create gender-balanced organizations, that’s the kind of allyship we need more of.
Eric Ratinoff is a co-founder of The Mouse and the Elephant, a firm that takes a contrarian approach to achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion at work. To learn more, subscribe to their newsletter at mouseandelephant.com, email Eric at email@example.com, or follow on Twitter at @Mouse_Elephant.
Help us discover what gender bias and gender equity mean for organizations by taking our research survey on Male Allyship in the workplace. The 6-8 minute survey is aimed toward men and women professionals.