Why Men Need to Play a Bigger Part in the Gender Equality Conversation

Here are three simple steps to counter gender bias at work.

Courtesy of tomertu / Shutterstock
Courtesy of tomertu / Shutterstock

So, a few years ago I was on a plane ride to Des Moines and I found myself sitting next to a businessman. We got into this lovely conversation, and he’s telling me about his kids and their sports teams and then he says to me: “So why are you going to Des Moines?” And I said, “Well, I’m going to speak at a Women’s Leadership Conference.”

And suddenly, this otherwise lovely man just freezes and he gets that deer in the headlights look. Finally, he just throws up his arms and he goes, “Sorry I’m a man.” He proceeds to tell me that he has just been through diversity training at his bank, and it was the worst thing ever. He said it was like being punished or sent to the principal’s office, and at the end of their training he took away just one message: “It’s all your fault.” And I thought, OK, that’s a shame, right? These are the guys we need on our side and, instead, they’re feeling alienated. 

The next day, I’m in a ballroom full of women talking about the issues we face at work. I’m not just talking about the “Me Too” headlines about sexual abuse, but about the everyday indignities of being marginalized, overlooked, ignored, interrupted — simply not taken as seriously as the guys sitting right next to us. As I watched as the sea of female heads nod in recognition, I stopped in the middle of a sentence. I said, “You know what? We already know this. We need men in the room to hear this instead.”

That was a real “Aha!” moment for me because when we get together, women talk all the time about the issues we face at work, but what we don’t do is talk to men. And I really came to realize that women talking to each other is only half of a conversation. It gets us at best to 50 percent of a solution. We need men to join us. 

I’ve spent my career as a journalist surrounded by men. I spent 20 years at The Wall Street Journal, I was the editor-in-chief of a business magazine and USA Today. All of my mentors were men. My colleagues were largely men. They were great guys, but because we have been cutting them out of our conversations, we end up unintentionally demonizing many of these perfectly good guys who could, and should, be our allies. And what’s more, a lot of them are surprisingly clueless about: “What are the issues that women face at work?” In fact, the Pew Research Center did a survey in which the majority of men said they believe obstacles to women’s careers success are gone. Sexism is solved! But the majority of women in that same survey said significant obstacles remain. Now, that’s why I spent three years seeking out and interviewing men who are trying to close that gap. And I also dove into the research. 

Now the data is crystal clear — adding women to your organization makes you more successful. Companies that have gender-balanced leadership are more financially successful. Their employees are happier, but the research also shows that my seat mate on the way to Des Moines had a point, because diversity training has failed. There’s a professor at Harvard, Frank Dobbin, who looked at 30 years’ worth of diversity trainings at more than 800 companies. He found that for two groups (women as well as black men and women), diversity training actually made things worse. There were a variety of reasons for this, but one was resentment on the part of white men who were the primary recipients of the training. It made them feel bad about themselves, which by the way, turns out was the point. I spoke to a veteran diversity trainer and he said “Hey, what we used to do is basically bang white guys over the head with a two-by-four. We wanted them to feel guilty. And if they cry, even better.”

So, perhaps it’s no surprise we’ve been using the wrong strategies for decades, which explains why, for example, women still earn just 80 cents on the dollar. And for black women, that’s 61 cents; for Latinas that’s 53 cents. And meanwhile, even though women earn more than half of all college degrees, we make up only 5 percent of CEOs of major companies. The Rockefeller Foundation did a survey and found that one in four Americans believes we will literally invent time travel before women run half of Fortune 500 companies. 

So what’s going on here? Well, it turns out none of this workplace bias actually starts at work. It starts way earlier, at home in infancy, and it’s because of this unconscious bias that’s buried so deeply inside of us that we don’t even realize it exists. 

I’m the mother of a daughter and a son. The research tells us that mothers of infants routinely overestimate the crawling ability of their baby sons, but underestimate the crawling ability of their baby daughters. Then, when a kid turn 2 years old, parents who type into Google “Is my child a genius?” they’re more than twice as likely to type that in about a boy two-year-old than a girl. Then, these kids get into school, their teachers are biased. In one experiment, students were given two sets of math tests. One graded anonymously, one graded with names on top. When graded anonymously, the girls outscored the boys. When graded with names on top, the boys suddenly outscored the girls in math. Now, this pattern repeats all the way up until college, where a female college student needs an A average to be seen as the equal of a male college student with a B average.

That means, by the time these now grown kids, now young men and women, enter the workforce, they have already internalized that women are worth less. And when we value women less, we also value their contributions less. So, for example, researchers have found that women are interrupted three times more frequently than men. Northwestern University found that even female Supreme Court Justices are interrupted three times more frequently than male justices. And then when women — when we make up less than a third of a room — our voices are literally not heard. 

When I speak with groups, I very often ask for a show of hands among the women who have experienced the following scenario: You say something in a meeting, and nobody seems to hear it. And then two minutes later some guy repeats exactly what you just said, and everybody turns to him and they’re like “Hey Bob, great idea you had Bob.”

Right — usually 100 percent of hands go up, including mine because what we’re experiencing is a respect gap that researchers have documented between men and women, and I saw this most vividly when I interviewed transgender professionals. These are the only people who have lived on both sides of that divide. One of them was Ben Barres. So, Ben Barres was this neuroscientist at Stanford University. He was born as Barbara Barres and he transitioned in middle age after already establishing a successful scientific career. He told us how after his transition he went to a conference, he delivered a paper, and in the audience, one scientist turned to another scientist and said, “Wow, that Ben Barres, he is so much smarter than his sister Barbara.” 

So, it turns out there are a whole bunch of communications disconnects that exacerbate everything we’re talking about. So, for example, women do use more hedging language — the “I hate to bother you but…” or “This might be a stupid question but…” and we use that ‘up speak’. We say it as a question when we really mean a statement, and also women — we apologize all the time, and we are not sorry. We are also highly aware of all of these verbal tics; we try like crazy to curb them. I’ve met women who have sorry jars on their desks — every time they apologize. they have to throw a buck in. I’ve met women who have taken acting classes to appear to be more confident to the men with whom they work, or who have fired vocal coaches to lower the pitch of their voice to sound more like the men they work with. We women, we are leaning in so hard to fit into this world that was created by men for men, that we’re just about fallen over. It is about time that men lean back in toward us.

Now, the challenge there is that even men who want to be part of the solution often aren’t sure quite how, and one obstacle, it turns out, is fear. 74 percent of men in one survey cited fear — they were afraid of other men’s disapproval, afraid of loss of status, and afraid that they would say the wrong thing to us women and we would chop their heads off.

Now in my travels interviewing men, I found another type of fear, and it was fear of tears. These were men in positions of authority. They said they were afraid they would inadvertently say something to a female subordinate that would hurt her feelings and make her cry, but the research tells us that when women do cry at work, it is not because our feelings were hurt, it is because we’re pissed off. We’re frustrated. We’re furious. A woman crying at work is an awful lot like a man yelling at work, but the men don’t know that, and this actually has really serious consequences for women’s careers.

79 percent of men in one survey said they were afraid to give women the candid feedback they need to be successful. And we see this in studies of performance reviews. In one study, the men got very metrics based on cut-and-dried feedback. The women, however, ended up getting personality critiques with words like “irrational,” “strident,” and “abrasive.” Now, the good news in all of this is that there are actually simple steps that any one of us can take that actually will counter those biases. They come down to awareness, and I’m just going to mention three really easy ones.

  1. Interrupt the interrupters. Anybody should feel empowered to say, “Hey Darlene was speaking, I would actually like to hear her finish.” Some companies now actually have ‘no interruptions’ rules for their meetings.
  2. Amplification. Now this is when one woman says something, and then somebody else — it could be a man, it could be a woman — repeats her point giving her credit and giving her credit for her idea by name, thus amplifying her voice.
  3. And then ‘brag buddies’. This is my favorite. This came from women at a consulting firm, and they came up with a strategy where one woman recounts her awesome achievements to another, and vice versa. And then each goes to the boss and brags about the other one.

The bottom line here is be an ally. Right? Whether you’re a man or a woman: Call out bad behavior when you see it, and notice your own behavior. Are you the person who snaps to attention when a man is speaking, but suddenly you want to kind of check out your email or your Facebook on your phone while a woman is talking? Put down the damn phone. Right?

Now, I realize none of these steps are cure-alls, and clearly we need systemic change. We need family leave. We need gender wage gap analyses to ensure men and women are being paid equally. But, these steps, they’re a start. And if we take them, what might the world look like? Well, it turns out that the World Economic Forum ranks countries by gender equality, and number one for the past decade has been Iceland. So I went to Iceland.

Here’s what you need to know about Iceland:

It’s the most macho country in the entire planet. You go to Reykjavík, the capital, and in the middle of it the Church of Iceland has the most phallic spire you have ever seen. True story: The hotel clerk shoos me outside saying, “It’s a lovely day for a walk!” So I walk outside, and it’s raining ice. And the ice is coming at me sideways. So, I duck into the nearest museum to get out of the ice and, I kid you not, this is the world’s only penis museum. Hundreds of specimens, and one hell of a gift shop. This is a country that values its masculinity, and yet when I sat sown with the men of Iceland — these big, burly fishermen and farmers — they would say things like, “Of course I am a feminist!” There were no political connotations to that word whatsoever. It was sort of like saying, “Of course I’m human.” And I realized that the reason Iceland is number one has very little to do with the women, and everything to do with the men because the men realize that gender equality is not a female issue, it’s not a “girl” thing, it’s about all of us.

It’s a humanitarian issue. We all need to work together to close that gender gap. That’s the idea that we need to get into the rest of the world, and certainly here in the United States. And, I have to say I know this is hard, but I am cautiously optimistic. I have heard from hundreds of men over the past year, who want to be part of this transformation. One of them was a management consultant and he had written an article about gender equality. He said to me it was one of the hardest things he had ever done in his life. He said, “Men worry do I know enough? Do I have the right to talk about this issue?” And my answer to him, and my answer to all of you is: Hell yes! Hell yes! That is how we will close the gender gap because when men and women work together we can — and we will — change the world.  

This piece originally appeared as a TedX talk on YouTube.

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