Eighty four. That is the percentage of women who say “men need to step up,” according to theSkimm’s 2023 State of Women Report, conducted by The Harris Poll. Which indicates that men, at least in the eyes of women, have not been all that active recently in the fight for gender equity.
There are lots of assumptions you could make about that number. Are men fine with the status quo because it benefits them? (After all, they did not become the pandemic’s default unpaid domestic laborers overnight.) Are they incapable of understanding what life is like for women right now?
Men want to be allies, but there are obstacles, namely anxiety. “Picture the inner monologue going something like this: ‘I don't want to step in it, don't want to say the wrong thing, that seems risky.’ So I just don't. I don't engage,” says W. Brad Johnson, co-author of "Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies For Women In The Workplace." Often, men fear the “wimp penalty,” the idea that if they are seen as advocating for women, other men view them as feminine and respect them less.
Recent research contradicts that assumption. “The ‘bro culture’ and other hyper-masculine cultures reinforce these mythical sanctions by threatening men that they will lose their ‘man card,’” says David G. Smith, Johnson’s co-author. “The reality is that most men do not accept or condone this behavior, and … when one male says something and disrupts, suddenly other men come unglued and say, 'Oh yeah, that's right. That's not appropriate." Because they were feeling it, too. They just didn't have the capacity to disrupt themselves. And when they have a role model do it, they suddenly join in.”
One step toward becoming the guy who speaks up is to arm yourself with the language to do so. Here are some specific instructions for men about what to say — and do — to support women in scenarios where gender discrimination is all too common:
When male colleague talks over a female colleague at work
“Research [shows] that men assume other men have a high level of acceptance of sexism and bias and are thus less likely to confront other men's biased behavior,” Smith says. But this assumption is wrong — and there’s value not only for your colleague being talked over, but for yourself in disrupting a microaggression. “Men who advocate for others and for DEI initiatives are not penalized — and in some cases may be perceived more positively.”
Afraid of being a mansplainer? Think of your response not in terms of rescuing your female colleague or echoing what she already said Susanne Althoff, author of "Launching While Female: Smashing the System That Holds Women Entrepreneurs Back" and an associate professor at Emerson College., says you should imagine yourself passing a baton — taking it from the person talking over your female colleague and handing it back to her. A simple, “Oh, that sounds like what Jane was just saying. What were you saying again, Jane?” is perfect. In doing so, you’re passing the baton back to Jane. “You are not restating what Jane said,” says Althoff. “You are giving the floor to Jane, letting Jane speak up.”
When a man repeats a woman’s idea as if it were his own
Again, addressing the microaggression doesn’t have to turn into a big confrontation. You can simply say, “Hey Dave, that's a good idea, but how's that any different than what Jane said?”
“Just ask that Socratic question,” Johnson laughs. “It reminds everybody who had the great idea at the beginning.”
Althoff offers a slight variation: “That was an idea that Jane already shared at the top of the meeting. Let's hear Jane describe it again?”
When a colleague or client keeps directing questions to you and not your female colleague
“Often women's competence expertise is devalued, dismissed, or overlooked in some way,” Smith says. “As older white men, for example, the focus comes to us, and we're not the leader, we're not the expert in the room. But if you recognize that happening, right in the moment you can say, ‘I'd love to share my ideas here, but Jane is the expert. I'd like to hear what she has to say about this.’”
“Very quickly, you’ve kind of disarmed the whole thing,” says Smith. “It's not confrontational at all.” This kind of decentering strategy, the authors say, is a form of advocacy in overcoming bias.
When someone makes a sexist remark or “joke” in the workplace (or anywhere)
Johnson sets a scene: “There you are: that egregious comment lands on the table in the meeting. Everyone heard it. We all feel uncomfortable, but we found in our bystander research that after about three seconds, if you don't call it out, you've lost the opportunity. Paralysis sets in.” So what often happens is… nothing.
Instead, work on getting yourself into gear within two seconds. What do you say? Start with, “Ouch.”
“The beauty of the ‘ouch’ technique,” says Smith, is that “everyone in the room is gonna look at you like, ‘Hey, what's your thing?’”
That’s good! You’ve interrupted. Now you can employ what Smith and Johnson refer to as “own it statements” — statements that focus on how the sexist remark landed with you, rather than speaking for the women in the room. “It's not OK as an ally to say, ‘Hey, you shouldn't be saying that because Jane’s here in the room,’” explains Smith. “No, you're doing it because of you. You have to own it and say, ‘Hey, I didn't appreciate that comment. That's not cool. That's not funny.’”
When you observe sexual harassment at work
This can be tricky. “Be cognizant of whether the impacted woman feels comfortable talking about what she’s experienced,” says Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, a nonprofit organization that advocates for safe workplaces. If the woman doesn’t want to be approached, bringing it up with her could make her feel even more attacked, unsafe, or stigmatized.
At the same time, it is not advisable to go to HR without first speaking with the woman being harassed.
So, what can you do?
Pull the offender aside and be direct. “I’ve witnessed this behavior … That is not the culture here.”
Speak with someone whom you know to be a friend of the woman about how you can work together to support her.
Work to build a relationship with the woman such that she knows she can talk to you about this or any other sensitive issue, and you will truly have her back.
If you think she would be OK with you bringing up the harassment, Goldstein-Gelb suggests these openers:
“I’ve noticed that…”
“You’re not alone…”
In the meantime, keep a record of the behavior – dates, times, specifics. “Documentation is key,” says Althoff. If the woman goes to HR, submit your own report to corroborate her account “so HR is not just hearing from the person who is the target of the harassment or the target of the discrimination, but also hearing from others who have witnessed the harassment,” Althoff says.
When a female colleague is being paid less for the same work
Speak up! “This is a perfect scenario where you should approach the woman in question and let her know the salary numbers that you know,” says Althoff. White people can also do this for people of color.
“You don’t have to reveal your own pay,” Althoff clarifies. “People may not feel comfortable talking about their own salary, but would be willing to say something like, ‘The pay range for that job is from this figure to that figure.’”
When your female partner is exhausted by her domestic responsibilities
“Here we are, in 2023, and the research on dual career heterosexual couples shows that even when both are working full-time, chances are really good that she's doing double, if not more, of the domestic work,” Johnson says. That’s not even counting the ways in which the burden of childcare during the pandemic disproportionally fell on women.
Johnson and Smith encourage men to initiate a “domestic audit.”
“Go home, especially if you're partnered with a woman, and ask her, ‘Am I really pulling my weight?’ And then don't get defensive.”
Stepping up at home will have repercussions beyond your relationship and family, Smith says; it will get us one man closer to gender parity at work, too. How?
“As long as men are expected, socialized, and normalized to be primary breadwinners in a workplace that is designed for them (not women), and women are expected, socialized, and normalized to be primary caregivers, the workplace will not change to support any other ways of of doing paid and unpaid work,” says Smith. “Why do we need paid family — parental, paternity, maternity — leave, increased childcare access, flexible work arrangements, etc., if men are only breadwinners and not sharing equally in unpaid work? We need to create the demand signal to employers and our government that men want and need to be equitable partners and parents.”
When you notice a female colleague being penalized for parenting or family obligations
Talk about your family obligations — not in a complaining manner (hate to say it, Dads, but the women in the room really aren’t going to feel that sorry for you), but a matter-of-fact way. For example, “I’m moving this meeting up to 3 pm, so I can make it out in time for my daughter’s recital,” or, “I’ll be taking a half day so I can get my mom to a bunch of appointments.”
Putting your domestic obligations out there not only diffuses the stigma for current female colleagues, it gives more junior men permission to do the same, Johnson says. “A lot of the junior men that we've talked to said that it was helpful when they found more senior men who would role model what it looks like to combine work and family in a way that works for them.”
The good news? All of this works. Smith and Johnson’s research has shown that when men are deliberately engaged in gender inclusion programs, 96% of women in those organizations perceive real progress on gender equality, compared with only 30% of women in organizations without strong male engagement. Men, what are you waiting for?
Sign up for the Daily Skimm email newsletter. Delivered to your inbox every morning and prepares you for your day in minutes.