Thanks to the recent and highly public surge of sexual harassment reporting, more women are feeling empowered to speak up about workplace inequality than ever before. And yet, working women’s issues ultimately won’t make much progress if we continue to see them as just that — women’s issues.
In order for equality to truly become the new workplace status quo, the role of men is paramount. And one need look no further than the numbers put forth by researchers at The Boston Consulting Group to get a sense of how crucial male allyship really is.
Earlier this year, the firm released a sweeping workplace gender diversity study involving more than 17,500 participants in 21 countries. According to its findings, in companies where men are actively involved in gender diversity, 96% of women report progress, compared to only 30% at companies where men don’t take an active role in championing diversity. Such a wide gap is telling, and got the research team at BCG (where supporting — and hiring! — female talent is a true priority) thinking.
“That piece of data got us thinking two things,” Katie Abouzahr, Principal and BCG Fellow, said. “First, how do you involve men? Because a lot of the men in our organization were saying ‘how can we help?’ and we wanted to have really specific answers. Secondly, it got us thinking about not just all men, but specifically the next generation.”
After running a second analysis of their data points, the team quickly realized that for millennial men in the workforce, allyship to female coworkers seems second nature. When asked to rank 39 corrective measures companies can take to guard against gender inequality, young men’s answers aligned most closely with their female peers’ — much more so, in fact, than the answers older men gave.
As one example, millennial men — like their female peers — ranked parental leave and child care within their top six measures that companies should prioritize to improve gender equality. For older men, both measures ranked more than 10 points lower. This pattern held true regardless of whether respondents were parents, something Michael Tan, Partner and Managing Director at BCG, found significant.
“My hypothesis going into the research was that men who had become parents and seen for themselves firsthand some of the challenges women face in juggling work-life balance would have their perceptions affected and want to do more,” Tan said. “But what came out of the research was that whether or not (millennial) men were parents, they still had the same generational perception that was much more aligned with young women.”
From those perceived needs, as well as internal campaigning and surveying within BCG, the team produced five actionable items men can use to be allies to women at work. Here’s what they found:
1. Support flexible work policies.
Supporting flexible work policies — including things like part-time employment, remote work, and parental leave — was determined to be the No. 1 intervention in BCG’s research, making it a key thing men can do to promote gender equality. And Tan was quick to point out that supporting these types of policies doesn’t benefit women alone.
“Having more flexible programs, getting more men involved, and destigmatizing some of these flexibility policies will be helpful for both men and women,” he said. “I think oftentimes the narrative is that men need to be more career focused and career oriented and that taking part in these flexible policies isn’t supportive of their longer-term career development. We want to challenge that.”
The best way for men to challenge stereotypes and support workplace flexibility is by actually taking advantage of these policies themselves. The more men who do this at the senior level, especially, the more empowered all employees will feel to follow their example.
2. Model the right behaviors.
For Ant Roediger, Partner at BCG and head of the company’s Public Sector Practice in Asia-Pacific, modeling the right behaviors means serving as a sort of “sense check” that everyone at your company is treated fairly.
“What’s the current practice in your firm or workplace? Understand the way things are.” Roediger said. “Are all people being paid the same and getting the same opportunities for promotions, travel, or special development? And then once you’ve got that fact base, if something doesn’t seem right — what ought to be the practice, and what should be normal?”
Another component is being mindful of the work environment you’re creating and its inclusivity, Abouzahr added.
“When I started in the workplace 10-15 years ago, it was normal to have the team dinner at the steakhouse and go golfing for the off-site event and to assume that everyone ate steak and everyone played golf,” she said. “And it’s not to say I don’t like either of those things — I really do — but it’s a question of basic manners to check.”
3. Communicate fairly.
Is one of your female coworkers not being given a turn to speak at a meeting? Make space for her to do so. Are you giving a performance evaluation to a female employee? Focus your feedback on actions, not personality traits.
For Roediger, communicating as an ally also means making it clear that female colleagues can turn to you for support.
“I think everybody at work needs some small group of people — it might be one person, it might be a few — who they can have private conversations with that are neutral, safe, and confidential,” he said. “Part of being an ally is about being a sounding board for decisions people need to make about their career and about issues they’re facing in their work… I try to reach out formally and informally to offer that.”
4. Sponsor a high-potential woman.
Abouzahr pointed to BCG’s own sponsorship program for senior women as an example of what this looks like in practice, calling it one of the “biggest things for us.”
“Sponsorship is advocating for someone; it’s when you’re sitting in a meeting and people are discussing promotions and you stick your neck out to say, ‘I think this person would be great,’” she said. “It’s more than mentorship. It’s taking accountability to advocate for someone.”
Roediger said this type of allyship is especially critical for women in and above middle management.
“Oftentimes, career paths and job roles are more structured at the junior level and not as complex to navigate as they are at the more senior levels,” he said. “There’s the explicit way an organization runs, and then there’s also some things that aren’t written down… so just helping people navigate through that is important.”
5. Get involved with company-specific initiatives.
As spoken to in the study’s central data point — that company diversity initiatives where men are involved are 66% more effective than those that aren’t — men’s participation in these programs is crucial.
“Diversity programs become much more effective when both men and women are part of them, and having men be co-sponsors goes a long way,” Tan said. “The glass ceiling can be shattered with more help from everybody.”
And when more men recognize that diversity initiatives don’t simply benefit from their support — they require it — is when true change will occur.
“When you think about it as a topic for women alone to chart their own way forward and say, ‘It’s HR’s role to champion that,’ you’ve got far less chance of being successful,” Roediger explained. “Supporting senior women and supporting women in the workforce is a topic and issue for everyone, men and women alike.”
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