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How Men and Women Can Work Together To Better Workplace Gender Equality Our base instinct is programmed to fear or distrust those who are different from us, and it takes time and effort to reprogram it

By Shavon Lindley

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Large-scale progress toward gender equity should not be a battle of the sexes. In fact, it can only be accomplished with an enthusiastic alliance between men and women. In today's reality, men still operate with the vast majority of the decision-making positions in our workplaces, so any progress will necessitate allies in positions of power who want to see a more just and equitable world. The discussion does not have to pit genders against one another, rather it should focus on how they can align to improve circumstances overall.

As far as diversity and inclusion are concerned, a common challenge for women is that they want men to get involved. The problem is, all too often, women expect men to speak up on their own, to stand up for equity because it's the right thing to do, and they are disappointed when they don't engage.

The interesting thing is men want to be involved, but are uncertain of how to go about it. Though the bylaws of women-led groups usually explicitly state that men are welcome, sometimes men still feel unwelcome in those spaces, or that they won't be able to do or say the right thing, so they avoid the situation altogether. Many simply need reassurance that their participation is wanted.

The Disconnect

This disconnect is a common occurrence between different groups, in both social and professional contexts. Our base instinct is programmed to fear or distrust those who are different from us, and it takes time and effort to reprogram it. Men and women may not naturally come together because of this fear, even when it's the only way to make meaningful steps forward.

Women fear being disbelieved, gaslit, talked over or otherwise silenced in a space meant to lift their voices and experiences and advance their rights. Men fear being rejected, vilified and/or displaced, even when it is their best intention to work alongside women for equality. Even if the established systems are inherently safer for men, there are still career and social risks to deviating from social norms. Right now the social expectations of men are changing from an absence of negatives ("I don't harass women") to a presence of positives ("I stand up for women").

Listening Actively

To be effective allies, men will need to let women drive the discussion and actively listen to voices that are different than theirs. That they will sometimes feel discomfort, but it is not because they are being judged and found wanting; it is because they are learning to understand the experiences of people not like them.

We know that blame and shame do not work as invitations to a common purpose, so women need to find another way to make room for men to come to the table with respect, accountability, and commitment to action. So many men are unaware of their privilege, or at least the extent of it, and are unwittingly, not maliciously, upholding the oppressive systems built by a patriarchal structure. Many have simply never been given the language or tools to challenge their preconceived notions in a productive way. Properly equipped, and given the space to do so, men can develop the psychological safety they need to be a force for equality in their own personal spheres.

What Does Equipping Men to be Allies Look Like?

It looks like welcoming collaboration with them, whether that is by implementing a practice of consent for men to join women-centric spaces, or by establishing new spaces for men and women to connect and work together toward meaningful change. It also means communicating needs and wants in a particular way.

For example, instead of tasking men with the broad concept of advocating for gender equality, women should make finite, specific requests. Men are socialized from a young age to be "fixers," and it can be frustrating when they cannot see a path toward a solution because the problem is seemingly insurmountable. But by seeing the impact they can have just by contributing to the solution for a specific, finite problem, they can be motivated to engage further.

Here are a few ideas women can leverage as finite requests of men:

  • Ask them to attend a women's employee resource group event
  • Ask to have lunch together to collaborate on a particular challenge you are experiencing
  • Ask for an introduction to another colleague you want to work with in the future
  • Ask for them to put your name in consideration for a big assignment or promotion
  • Ask them to help get you involved in being a part of a diverse interview slate for the hiring team

These are things that any male colleague or leader could easily accomplish, and it requires little effort. The introduction to the supervisor who assigns them to the right project can set a whole career in motion, and it matters to women who aren't always given those opportunities by default. The man who makes that introduction is being a meaningful ally with that simple action, one that signals to other male leaders that women's perspectives and input are valued.

Identifying commonalities is how diverse groups initially build trust so they can gradually create an environment of inclusivity, where everyone feels valued not despite but because of their uniqueness. So instead of immediately considering men the "other" while simultaneously expecting them to come forward in support, women need to welcome men and acknowledge that our perspectives are different and we might need different styles of guidance and communication.

There is a saying: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." Men and women, in general, need to give each other the benefit of the doubt and realize that though there are sometimes opposing viewpoints, overall, both want a more equitable workplace and a just society. Then perhaps we can self-identify as a diverse and inclusive group of humans, all working together to disband unequal systems and advance gender equity for the benefit of us all.

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