The Hardest Part of Being an Ally

Routine confrontation of other men may be the hardest part of allyship. Going against your gender tribe’s long-standing bro code to promote an equitable and inclusive workplace is where the cost of allyship quickly gets real. We worry that we’re the only guy in the room who objects to something that was just said, when, in fact, research shows many other men recognize and don’t appreciate sexism; they simply remain silent until an ally like you breaks the spell. Or we’re concerned that offenders may use their power to undermine us at work. Confrontation demands that we overcome self-doubt, marshal courage, and vanquish anxiety about having our masculinity called into question.

When it comes to the challenges (and sometimes discomfort) of challenging other men’s behavior, we can personally relate: One of us (David) was in a small academic team meeting with about 10 senior people to discuss curriculum development for a new course in the department. David was from another department and invited to participate based on a particular area of expertise. There were three women in the meeting, one was a Black woman, and the rest were white men. At one point in the meeting, the Black woman contributed an innovative idea on how to approach the curriculum from a different perspective that David and others found intriguing.

how men can be better allies for women in the workplace

Before she could finish her thought, one of the men interrupted, talking loudly, and refocused the attention on himself and the person running the meeting. At that moment, David felt irritated and shocked that this guy was so arrogant. Being an outsider to the department, David had no relationship with the guy. Although they were peers, thoughts of how the guy might react negatively or how others in the room may even find this behavior acceptable went quickly through David’s mind. Knowing in his heart that this guy was out of line and that no one else was going to speak up, David looked incredulously at the man and said, “Wait a minute, she wasn’t finished with her thought and I’d really like to hear the rest.” The man kept talking and became even louder to drown David out too. David reiterated his statement and the meeting organizer finally took over the conversation. In this case, it took two men to confront this manterrupter!

Why is it so important that men stand willing and ready to confront other men when—intentionally or not—they demean, offend, or harass? First, research on persuasion reveals that how a message is received is less about how a confrontation is worded and more about the in-group identity of the speaker. A confrontation intended to change attitudes and behavior has more impact when it comes from someone perceived to be similar, in this case, another dude who can claim, “That’s not who we [men] are” and “That’s not what we [guys] do.” Second, when a male speaks up and confronts sexism, people—men and women—are often surprised and more prone to take note and listen. Third, there are typically a lot of good guys around.

Confrontation demands that we overcome self-doubt, marshal courage, and vanquish anxiety about having our masculinity called into question.

Confrontation is a loaded word. We use the term confrontation to connote “bringing sexism and exclusion of women to the attention of men who instigate or perpetuate these attitudes and outcomes in their comments and actions.” How to most effectively confront another man is the million-dollar question. The answer is different in each situation and requires genuine wisdom, emotional intelligence, and some hard-earned ally experience. But one general rule is that most men won’t respond well to being humiliated, shamed, or angrily or emotionally confronted. Research confirms that hostile and accusatory confrontation that simply labels a guy “sexist” tends to harden defenses and render the confrontation moot.

While we’re at it, let’s strike favorite insulting terms like curse words, jerk, and idiot from our confrontation lexicon. Travis McReady, CEO of Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, offers some excellent wisdom: “I try to presume good intent and see a guy’s inevitable failings as an opportunity for him to learn. My approach is, ‘Here, let me suggest what you should have said or done there.’ That way, every confrontation doesn’t take the matter to DEFCON 5 or presume the guy is the enemy.”

Here are some specific ally strategies to add to your arsenal; keep them within reach and ready to deploy.

Use personal experiences or relationships

At times, confrontation through self-disclosure can be particularly effective. Sharing how bias or sexism was harmful to you or, more often, a woman close to you can cause other men to do an informed double take, seeing their own problem behavior through a new lens. Rachana Bhide shared that “I’ve seen guys say to a group of men, ‘My wife experienced this at work and it’s really f—d up. I don’t want women to experience that here.’ This kind of personal story, with connection to women you care about, can be deeply influential for other men.”

Sometimes, humor helps

Sheryl Sandberg shared that “[i]n an earlier job my boss kept calling me by my last name in a demeaning way. He’d shout, ‘Sandberg!’ Or, ‘Sandberg, get over here!’ He would never do that to my male peers. So, a couple of my male ally peers started publicly and loudly calling each other ‘good-looking Sandberg’ and ‘Asian Sandberg’ to level the playing field and make the boss aware of what he was doing. It felt really good to have them take my side and show support.” Particularly when you’ve got an existing relationship with a guy and if humor is part of your brand in the workplace, try a short humorous observation as an intervention. So, when that guy implies that women belong at home caring for children, try, “Come on, man! Time to stand upright and stop dragging those knuckles!”

Show an offender some empathy when you call him out

Hilary Jerome Scarsella, a theological studies researcher, provided another example of ally confrontation. She was sitting at the airport, working on her laptop, near a guy she had just met at a conference. They were both invited speakers. Another man sat down across from them and started talking—a lot. He found out they were speakers at a conference on theology, trauma, and sexual abuse. He learned they had graduate degrees and thought this was really interesting. Launching into an explanation of his belief that everything happens for a reason, he droned on and on. She listened and asked him questions, letting him know kindly that she disagreed. He worked hard to show her he was right. She told him she understood his perspective but disagreed. He reiterated his points again and then said it was great talking with her but he’s going to catch his flight.

Then, her new friend leaned forward as the man was about to walk away and said, “Dude, you missed an opportunity. You had an expert in theology and trauma sitting in front of you. You didn’t ask her a single question. You didn’t try to learn anything from her. You know she has advanced degrees and is published, but you just tried to show her that you know more about her work than she does. You missed out! Big fail, man.” The man got uncomfortable, sat back down, and asked her to teach him for five minutes before he had to board his plane. Her new friend wasn’t having it. He said, “No, you have to live with the consequences of your mistake. Time’s up.” That is how to be an ally.

Adapted from Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace by David G, Smith and W. Brad Johnson. Published by Harvard Business Review Press. Copyright © 2020 by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.