Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

Are men allowed at women’s events?

If you’re a progressive male, and you’ve ever wondered if your presence was welcome at a women’s event, read this.

Late last year, when the early #MeToo stories were first blowing up, I was looking for something productive to do with my rage. I suggested to a few other women in my coworking space in Madison that perhaps we could host an event for the Madison community exposing the reality of sexism in the local startup scene.

Overall, the response was: “It’s a great idea. But how do we get any men to show up?”

My coworking space had held an event about women startup founders a few years before, and women attendees outnumbered men 10 to 1, even though the membership of the coworking space was less than 25 percent women at the time.

Preaching to the choir doesn’t cause change. But how do you get men to show up? First, we have to address the widely held misperception that events that explore the perspectives of marginalized groups are only for those groups.

“It’s a great idea. But how do we get any men to show up?”

In the past year, I’ve started going out of my way to invite the men in my circles to events where they will hear from women leaders and have the opportunity to engage with their perspectives.

But too often, my invitations were declined or ignored completely, with one memorable exception. I brought a male member of 100state to a Doyenne Connect event in Madison. He told me later that he had a great time, and that he wished more men would attend events like that, because Doyenne was saying the shit that needed to be said.

I asked the leaders of Madison Women in Tech to chime in on this issue. Hilary Stohs-Krause, one of the organizers and a software developer at Ten Forward Consulting, said her organization has seen the same trend.

“While it’s definitely empowering and gratifying to be reminded that your experiences are valid, I do find myself looking around the room at these kinds of events and thinking, ‘Where are the white dudes?’” she said. “You can’t learn if you don’t show up.”

The official policy of Madison Women in Tech is that men are allowed as guests of women or gender nonbinary members unless the event is explicitly marked as only for women and gender nonbinary folks. Public events, like workshops held at the central library, are open to all.

In response to a small rant of mine on this subject on LinkedIn a few months ago, Sreenath Pillai, a custom software developer in Madison, responded with his own frustration about being the only man at WiT events when he attends with his wife and fellow software developer, Jaya PIllai.

“When I ask other men about it, they legitimately think they ‘aren’t supposed to be there’ or ‘aren’t allowed,’” he wrote. “I don’t think I’ve been able to convince anyone else to go. I just get uncomfortable stares if I push the issue.”

This perspective is so widely held that I even felt the need to ask permission to invite men to Doyenne events, even though, as a member of the communications committee, we had often discussed how we could engage more men in our mission and programming.

“Where are the white dudes? You can’t learn if you don’t show up.”

I checked in with Codecinella, another Madison organization promoting women in tech. Their policy is as follows, according to co-organizer Andrea Roenning:

“Men are encouraged to attend Codecinella events. Because our mission is to promote women, only those who identify as female are encouraged to lead our events such as giving technical talks or being part of a career panel. It is important for men to show up at Codecinella events to hear the stories and knowledge that women are sharing at this event. By supporting our events, men can learn more about how to support their female peers in the workplace and in the tech community.” (emphasis mine)

OK, so it looks like we all agree: Men who want to help eradicate sexism need to show up for women at events about women and led by women. But it’s not just about showing up — it’s also important how you behave when you do show up, says Dr. Amy Gannon, co-founder of Doyenne.

“A man entering a space that is designated ‘for women’ needs to realize that there is a different code of conduct from the typical default spaces he is used to,” she said. “You’re going to interact on women’s terms. Women will speak their truth without fear of retaliation from male leadership. You will hear things that you don’t hear in male-by-default spaces. Come to hear and celebrate that.”

Amy said men often have a lot of unconscious behaviors that they need to leave at the door when they enter professional women’s spaces — and ideally, they won’t put them back on when they leave — like dominating conversations, trying to prove their intelligence through unsolicited explanations, and asking women out on dates.

“We want to build spaces where women can be their full selves, and we want it to include men,” she said. “They need to experience spaces like that so that they can start recognizing how toxic other spaces are, for both men and women.”

“You will hear things that you don’t hear in male-by-default spaces. Come to hear and celebrate that.”

The problem of men behaving inappropriately at conferences is so rampant that the organizers of a JavaScript conference in 2012 got together to create an open-source Conference Code of Conduct that spells out what kind of behavior is inappropriate, including:

  • sustained disruption of talks or other events
  • unwelcome sexual attention
  • deliberate intimidation

…and a bunch of other things that I didn’t think needed to be said until I started reading the hordes of #MeToo stories. It’s worth noting that the conference organizers were one man and one woman.

If men want to take action to rebuild their entrepreneurial communities and workplace cultures to be more inclusive, here’s a great step-by-step guide to attending women-led and women-focused events, courtesy of Hilary and Madison Women in Tech:

  1. Make sure your presence is welcome. If you’re unsure, just ask an organizer (I promise, they won’t be mad, and they’ll probably view the question as a sign of respect).
  2. Listen and reflect. Engage respectfully, but don’t center your experience.
  3. Keep this in mind: We’re genuinely glad you’re here, but this still ain’t about you.

Altruism and the desire to align with feminism and visibly support women are all well and good, but they will only get us so far. To the men who are deciding between the women’s event and the networking event for your developer friends, or your gaming night, or any other male-dominated event in your routine, keep this in mind:

Men have so much to learn from women about leadership, about overcoming adversity, and about community building. If you care about your growth in your career and your growth as a leader, you will find that the time you spend learning from women will be a great investment.

What if you have crippling social anxiety, and events aren’t your thing? Or maybe you’re a stay-at-home dad and you can’t leave the kids. Maybe you just think there’s no way to add another event to your schedule.

There are still many ways to support women-centered spaces apart from being physically present.

“A little financial or in-kind support goes a loooooong way,” Hilary said. “Offer to sponsor snacks or drinks, or let us know if you have space available to host events. Provide scholarships for your women and gender nonbinary employees to attend women-centered events. Promote them on your company blog or in a company newsletter.”

So stop sitting around waiting for an invitation. Check out the event listings for women-focused groups in your city. If you’re in Madison, check out Madison Women in Tech, Codecinella, Doyenne, Maydm, The Progress Center for Black Women, colorcoded, and Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Wisconsin Conference. If there’s another organization or event you think should be on this list, let me know!

If you know a man who has asked these questions and might appreciate this post, please share it with him!

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