How to become a male ally

How to become a male ally

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Dan Pitt is the president of Palo Alto Innovation advisors. He has some advice on how men can become successful male allies.

Women continue to be underrepresented in technical and leadership roles in the tech and telecom industry.

Finding comrades who share the same struggle is empowering for women, but men have a role to play too, especially men in leadership positions.

What can men do if they want to help remove the barriers to women advancing in our industry?

Advice for men in a senior role with female reports

Let us begin by considering what you as a man can do for women who work under you, whether directly or further down. This is a luxurious situation because while you might need permission to do some things, you generally do not need to convince someone else to do something for which they have responsibility.

Step one is to gather information to determine the experiences of women who report to you. Look at the numbers of women and men and where they are in the hierarchy. These tasks are easy. The next task is not so easy.

Talk to the women. Meet with them one on one. If they report to men under you, let those male managers know you will be doing this but do not let them join you in these conversations; you don’t want the women to feel it is two against one. Tell the men why you are doing this. We will say more about what to do with men who report to you later.

Do not make the women stay late or work extra hours to have this conversation. If a woman has her own office, meet in her office, not yours. If she works in a cubicle or open office, meet her at her desk and together walk to a conference room. It is best if wherever you meet has a window so that others can see what is happening in that room.

Begin by thanking her for having the conversation. Ask if you may take notes, then take notes, but assure her that what she tells you will remain confidential. Ask her about her career, her ambitions. Ask her how she feels being in a female minority and how being a woman has affected her status and effectiveness in your company. Do a lot of listening. Practice active listening.

Step two is to analyse what you have heard. Have you found structural problems preventing women from advancing, like inflexible work hours, over-demanding travel, or inadequate facilities for nursing mothers? Have you found cases of sexual discrimination by some of your male managers? Have you found promotion practices that favour men, whether by design or not? Write down what you have learned and share that with everyone who reports to you but do respect confidentiality and avoid using anyone’s name.

Step three is to act on what you have learned. This is not so easy but you should have numerous options available. You could organise one or more lunches for all the women, to get to know each other. You do not need to attend except perhaps to welcome them. You can find mentors for those who would like them. You can offer training opportunities to those who seek training. You and your managers can support women in advancing roles, encourage them to apply for openings as growth opportunities (which men mostly do) rather than as rewards for already having done what the new job requires (which women do too often). Support them in their growth roles so they know that you want to see them succeed, not fail.

You must fix structural problems. And ask everyone for their suggestions on how to improve things for women.

If you do these things, you will set an example for other men who report to you, which is the subject of Part II.

How to support other men in becoming a male ally

The most important thing you can do is to make the advancement of women in your unit a goal of your unit. You are not asking for their approval or consent. You are, however, asking for their help in realizing this goal.

Explain the importance of this for your unit and for the company as a whole. You can read many studies on why this is so, but the main points are easily understood and accepted:

  • Including more women in your hiring pool grows the size of the pool, which increases the likelihood of a good hire.

  • The cost of losing any employee (in this case, women) is high, so when women are happy with their careers and advancement opportunities, they will remain with the company longer.

  • Bringing in the viewpoints of more women will better enable the company to serve its customers, which typically include a larger percentage of women than we see inside our industry.

How specifically you define and measure progress toward this goal you will have to determine; it might be quantitative (say women in management or technical leadership roles) or qualitative (based on surveys or interviews). Where this gets tricky is what to put in the performance plans of your direct reports. This will probably reflect consideration of specific women already in the unit and should certainly influence hiring opportunities. Much has been written about how to avoid gender bias in recruiting; this will be helpful education for you.

If you are fortunate to have women managers in your unit, seek their counsel on success measures and actions. This will automatically empower them beyond their existing responsibilities, and the more they are seen within your unit as leaders in advancing women, the more the women in your unit will be inspired and encouraged.

I strongly encourage you to inform your manager and the HR department of your plan. If you receive pushback, consider whether it is because there is already a program in the works, in which case seek to contribute to this program. If there is some other objection and you find the reason distasteful, consider whether this reflects a values misalignment between you and the company.

If you do not manage people, or wish to influence men who do not report to you, there are still many things you can do, and this is the subject of Part III.

How to influence other men who do not report to you

Let us first distinguish between men in your company but not in your management chain and men not in your company. This section also applies if you do not hold a management role.

For men in your company but not in your management chain (or if you are not a manager), your job becomes one of influence, persuasion, and inspiration. Blogs and postings get your story out (and often invite responses, hopefully constructive ones). Especially for other managers, let them know the problems you have discovered in your interviews and analysis.

Do not be afraid to admit to problems specific to your unit. Demonstrating vulnerability like this will not only make it easier for these men to look critically at their own units, but it will also diminish the competitive bro culture that often chases women away from long-term careers in a company.

You probably know whether the best way to influence peer managers is directly to them or indirectly by going up the management chain. You don’t need to shake up management practices; what you are advocating is itself sufficiently disruptive.

For men outside your company, you can gain prominence in your industry and profession by speaking out on the problem and its solutions. Blogs and postings are particularly effective here, but speaking at professional gatherings often makes a more lasting impression.

Consider proposing sessions or panels at industry meetings. If you serve in a governing role for any industry body, raise the issue for the governing body to discuss, and do so as an open question rather than as a confrontation. Do what you can to be seen as an agent of positive change.

Finally, consider attending an event dedicated to advancing women and populated mostly by women (provided the event permits male allies), where men usually comprise less than 3% of the attendees. I have attended numerous events hosted by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, and the Society of Women Engineers. I have attended these to support women I work with, to serve in some volunteer role, or to listen. These provide me with two remarkable experiences.

One is to see how women respond when they gather with so many other technical women. It is a revelation and a thrill for many of them. The other is to know what it feels like to be in such a minority. When I attend these events, many women look at me wondering what I am doing there. (Some inquire politely.)

This makes me uncomfortable, which helps me understand the experience of women. This is how many women feel every day, being often the only woman in the room, in the group, or in the division.

To serve as a male ally provides personal and professional rewards. You can start small and local. Just start with something.

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