Women's Male Allies Can Contribute to #MeToo Solutions

November 8, 2018 John Rossheim

Couple Shaking Hands in Business Setting

One message from #MeToo is clear: When it comes to sexist treatment and harassment of women, men are the problem. There will be no solution to the ugliness brought to light by the #MeToo movement without men’s active participation.

But what does it mean to be a male ally to women? How can men put the theory into practice at work? What potential pitfalls should you look out for?

We’ll examine experts’ answers to these complex problems with the working relationships that are key to the success of American business. But first let’s take a look at some numbers behind #MeToo, and what they show about the divergent views of women and men in the workplace.

Data supports the need for men to become involved

For starters, it’s important for men to acknowledge that “sexual harassment remains prevalent,” says the Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey and LeanIn.org. Some 35 percent of women overall and 55 percent of female senior leaders report that they have been sexually harassed.

The survey also reports differences in how men and women view their employers’ handling of alleged misconduct. Whereas 70 percent of men believe a sexual harassment claim would be fairly investigated and addressed by their company, only 52 percent of women think so, the survey says.

When it comes to taking action against harassment and related misconduct, a Boston Consulting Group study reports that men can be key contributors. In gender diversity initiatives, the study found that only 30 percent of companies that do not actively involve men report progress. When men participate, positive results jump to 96 percent.

One last point before we dig deeper into the work of male allies: For business organizations, working on solutions to #MeToo is more than a legal or ethical issue. “Smart leaders make the business case that genuine gender inclusion has a positive effect on the bottom line,” says W. Brad Johnson, professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy.

What are male allies?

In an October 2018 article in Harvard Business Review, Johnson and David G. Smith, write: “We define male allies as members of an advantaged group committed to building relationships with women, expressing as little sexism in their own behavior as possible, understanding the social privilege conferred by their gender, and demonstrating active efforts to address gender inequities at work and in society.”

Male allyship is a way to reframe #MeToo. “This isn’t just a women issue, it’s a human issue,” says Michelle Lee Flores, a partner in the labor and employment law practice at Akerman in Los Angeles. “Men in a workplace can have a very strong voice if they recognize that they can be an ally.”

What can male allies do to support women at work?

Male allies are key to showing other men how their sexist or harassing behavior can harm women – and they can make the difference in curbing the misbehavior.

“The idea of facilitating male allies is to increase awareness among all constituents about unconscious and conscious biases that keep women from fulfilling their potential,” says Diane Richard-Allerdyce, chair of the Humanities & Culture Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at Union Institute & University in Cincinnati. “Since men have traditionally had disproportionate privilege in the corporate world, it’s incumbent on them to level the playing field, to support people with lesser privilege, including women.”

One of the most immediate actions that women’s male allies can take is bystander inventions – which can mean, for example, a man calling out another man for inappropriately interrupting a woman in a meeting.

“We need to recognize that we won’t have to wait until misbehavior rises to the level of a legal claim,” says Flores. “We can act on the smaller stuff that leads up to it.”

A next step is to initiate a conversation about company policy, and how it can be effectively implemented. “Men can strategize with everyone, including women, on how to deal with micro-aggressions, which can take the form of insults and jokes at the expense of a woman, references to body shape, physical appearance, clothing and so on,” says Richard-Allerdyce.

Look out for these potential pitfalls

No doubt, men must tread carefully when they approach the fine line between being helpful to their female colleagues and overstepping. As Richard-Allerdyce puts it: “Male allies should be careful not to usurp the ability of a woman who’s being interrupted to speak for herself. Men need to leave room for women to intervene for themselves.”      

A simple but powerful technique for male allies engaging in any forum that includes #MeToo issues: Hear women out – at length – before speaking. “If guys attend an employee resource group meeting on women’s career advancement, or a women’s conference, a best practice is to listen and understand what the concerns are – then ask questions like, ‘How can I best contribute given my role?’” says Johnson. “If the issue is promotion or pay equity, maybe you’re in a position to ask questions about that, or to ask for an audit.”

Consider offering training in male allyship

Yes, being a successful male ally is tricky business. So it may help to bring in an expert to show men how it’s done, and how to avoid the pitfalls.

“Trainings are usually best done when people are allowed to interact on a personal level within a structured environment,” says Richard-Allerdyce. A workshop exercise on gender bias, for example, might put men on the receiving end, so they see how it feels to have privilege used against them, she says.

Training is also a great opportunity for male managers to set an example. “Top leaders should participate in the male ally training themselves, very publicly,” says Johnson.

If you’re interested in diving a bit deeper on this topic, consider attending WorkHuman 2019, March 18-21, in Nashville, Tenn., where there will be a breakout track dedicated to Empowering through Diversity & Equality. One session, led by Jessica Childress, managing attorney and founder of the Childress Firm, will specifically cover “HR’s Role in Responding to #MeToo: Creating a Culture of Anti-Harassment and Inclusion.”

About the Author

John Rossheim

John Rossheim writes about healthcare, diversity, recruiting and human resources.

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