How can male allies support their female colleagues? Here are 5 suggestions to get started with…
At the time of first writing this, I organised a series of Diversity and Inclusion Q&A sessions at work, and in one session the speaker and I were asked the question: “Is there something that we, as men, could do to help bridge the gap in representation of women at higher levels?”. The audience was made up largely of engineers, as opposed to senior managers, and I found myself struggling to think what these men could do to help their female peers. This has bothered me enormously, as what can these sessions be said to achieve if we have people going away wanting to make a difference but having no idea how; so, having since put some thought into it, here are a few suggestions:
Many, arguably most, women experience issues being heard in meetings and discussions. We are often interrupted, spoken over, or simply ignored — only to have our ideas later posited by, and credited to, someone else. Be aware of this, try to make sure you make space for your female colleagues to speak, ensure that they are heard, and that their ideas are credited to them. Women in Obama’s Administration developed a strategy to help them do just this — they called it ‘amplification’:
“When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” (Washington Post, 2016)
Just think how powerful it would be if the men in the room also used this strategy to amplify the women!
I’m not actually talking about formal promotion to more senior roles here (although if you have the means by which to do this, please do). Instead I’m talking about how hard it is for women to self-promote. Studies show that women are likely to experience a backlash when they do self-promote, and so have learned to avoid doing so.
“Self-promotion may be instrumental for managing a competent impression, yet women who self-promote may suffer social reprisals for violating gender prescriptions to be modest.” (Laurie A. Rudman, Self-Promotion as a Risk Factor for Women)
So do it for them! If one of your female colleagues does good work, make sure it’s celebrated — mention it in standup; bring it up in conversation with managers; tweet about it; provide written feedback detailing the achievements/qualities you’ve observed, and make sure you cc their line manager in.
Check your bias
We ALL have unconscious biases. It doesn’t matter how woke you are; society has some long held prejudices and sadly these are pretty pernicious. Try taking the Harvard Project Implicit test. I consider myself an ardent feminist - I’m a woman, a member of the Women’s Equality Party and the Fawcett Society, and I’m passionate about working to break down the barriers facing women in tech; I’m also, according to the results of the test, a latent misogynist. This doesn’t undermine what I believe or what I’m trying to achieve, and it doesn’t make me a terrible person; but it’s worth recognising that sometimes we hold biases we’re completely unaware of — and these can affect our decision making. We know that men are more likely to secure VC funding than women, even where the pitch is exactly the same. Similarly, we know that performance ratings are likely to be higher for men than for women — one study shows that in an online class, the teacher was rated higher by students who were told they had been taught by a man, than by those who were told they had been taught by a woman. We can’t fix this overnight, but in acknowledging that you are likely to hold these biases, you can try to make sure these don’t play a role in your decision making. Next time you’re asked to give feedback for your peers, do a quick comparison of the feedback you give your male colleagues and that you give your female colleagues — how might biases play into this? Gender bias has been shown to play a massive role in performance reviews — women are more likely to receive critical subjective reviews and are less likely to get constructively critical comments. Bearing this in mind when giving feedback can have a huge impact on your colleagues ability to progress into more senior roles, as well as affecting pay rises and bonuses.
Next time an opportunity comes up — why not suggest one of your female colleagues? Be this for a new role that’s come up; leading on a project; presenting a showcase; attending a meeting with senior stakeholders; or giving a conference talk; these opportunities can often open doors, and lead to career progression. Or if there’s something you’re involved in, why not suggest they collaborate — could the conference talk you’re preparing be a joint effort? Could you pair on that high profile piece of work? Fewer opportunities tend to land in the laps of women, and when they do, imposter syndrome (which tends to affect women disproportionately) often prevents women from grabbing these by the horns — you can help your female colleagues by both putting them forward for opportunities and encouraging them to make the most of them.
If you’ve started reading this article, moreover if you’ve got this far through it, you are an amazing ally and I applaud you. Unfortunately, a lot of people still don’t really understand what we’re harping on about when we talk about the challenges facing Women in Tech. Some people even resent discussions, talks and events focussing on Women in Tech. One of the most powerful things you can do as a male ally is to advocate for these. Next time you hear someone complaining about a Women in Tech initiative, join the conversation — please don’t be antagonistic, but maybe suggest grabbing a cup of tea so that you can hear their thoughts and talk about why you believe it’s important to support such initiatives. When you do see Women in Tech events being advertised, come along — and bring your male colleagues with you. The more people get on board, the more progress we can make.
I hope some of the above is helpful. These suggestions are far from exhaustive, so please contribute your own in the comments below or let us know what you’ve found helpful in your experience.
Software Engineer turned Product Manager