United States: Women's History Month And The Need For More Male Allies

I am pleased to share my latest post to the SHRM blog.

This month, we focus on the contributions women have made, including in medicine, law, business, and literature.

But we must do more than recognize these contributions. We must acknowledge that, at least in the business world, the talent women offer is grossly under-utilized and painfully undervalued.

Late last year, a study on gender and leadership conducted jointly by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co. was published. According to the study, women account for only 19% of the C-suite executives (based on responses from 132 companies).

The numbers are even more distressing if one focuses narrowly on Fortune 500 companies. The percentage of female CEOs dropped in 2016 to only 4-percent. Yes, 4% (even though women are approximately 50% of workforce).

Needless to say, women are grossly underrepresented at the top. And, that hurts women more directly but men too, because companies indisputably do better when there is gender (and other) diversity at the top.

On the same day as the study was released, the Wall Street Journal published an article written by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg "Women Are Leaning In—but They Face Pushback." As almost everyone knows, Sandberg wrote (3 years ago) the ground-breaking book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.

When Sandberg wrote Lean In, she acknowledged the obstacles women who want to lead face. She chose to focus more heavily on how women can navigate these obstacles.

In her WSJ article, Sandberg focuses on the wall women hit when they lean in (a meme for "go for it if you want it.") Citing the McKinsey/LeanIn study, Sandberg states: "women who negotiate are 67% more likely than women who don't [negotiate] to receive feedback that their personal style is "intimidating," "too aggressive," or "bossy," and they are more likely to receive that kind of feedback than men who negotiate."

This is consistent with what Sandberg wrote in Lean In:

  • "She is very ambitious is not a compliment in our culture."
  • "Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty."
  • "When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women.  When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less."
  • "But since women are expected to be concerned with others, when they advocate for themselves or point to their own value, both men and women react unfavorably."

 Sandberg's article is a clarion call for companies to do more. In this blog, I want to narrow the focus: men must do more. And, women's history month is a great time for men to kick into action.

Too often the burden of eradicating gender bias is left to women. This is wrong in so many ways.

Women and men alike are hurt by gender bias. Why should women alone tackle the problem?

Mentoring and sponsoring is essential, yet, in many organizations, the responsibility as it relates to women is placed almost solely on women. This investment in others diverts women in or near leadership from their own goals. Why should women bear this responsibility alone?

Also, men have a perspective that is needed to tackle the problem. Gender diversity is a "plus" and that includes in tackling gender bias.

We need more male allies. Of course, that means at looking at systemic issues. For example, men need to acknowledge the gender pay gap and work to close it. Denying the gap is as credible as denying labor pains.

But, guys, you can't do that in one day. But there are a lot of things you can do every day "in the moment." Here are but a few examples:

  • Continue to call out successes by men who work for and/or with you.  But make sure you do the same for women and with the same enthusiasm.  If you are aware that unconsciously this may not be your proclivity, you can consciously overcome the bias.
  • If you begin to think that a woman is too assertive, pushy, bossy (get the picture?), focus on what she is doing and then ask yourself:  how would I react if Jim rather than Jane were engaging in this behavior?  Again, with conscious awareness of the potential unconscious double standard, you can overcome it.
  • Use your voice to speak loud and often about the business benefits of gender diversity.  Yes, it is a moral issue, but money talks so talk money.
  • Speak up when you hear assertive women called "bitch" or worse.  To ignore is to condone.  There is no such thing as a passive bystander if you are a leader.
  • Engage in cross-gender sponsorship and mentorship.  Where men hold disproportionate power, this is necessary for women with potential to have access to power. Plus, you will learn as much as you impart. Don't wait for a formal program. Time is of the essence.

 Women's history month is about men, too. It is an opportunity for men to commit to do more to increase equality, and with that, the profitability of their organizations.

Pal, will you make this commitment?

Disclaimer: This Alert has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm's full disclaimer.

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