It’s one thing for men to talk about women.
It’s another thing for them to talk about women’s issues.
And it’s an entirely different thing for them to actually sit down and try to put themselves in women’s shoes so they can suss out what their female coworkers may really be experiencing on the job.
I know because my cofounder, Daniel, did it. And what he learned was pretty surprising–at least to him. In fact, it was so revealing that he ended up quitting his job and dedicating his career to building InHerSight, the company we started together to improve workforce gender equality.
It started when the two of us were working together at a midsize financial tech company. The company we worked for was one of those rare gems that had an obsession, albeit a healthy one, with making sure its employees are happy and feel supported.
They offered just about every employee benefit you can imagine: unlimited paid time off, a game room, free food, yoga and exercise classes, as well as lactation rooms for nursing moms and some pretty sweet paid parental leave benefits.
It was awesome.
One of the ways the company made sure it was doing a good job supporting its employees was by constantly asking us for feedback on various aspects of our work and the office environment.
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Most of the time, it was a standard all-employee survey. But one questionnaire was specifically focused on women’s experiences at work. It explored issues such as whether leadership really listened to its female employees and if they were well represented in the company.
When Daniel sat down to take the survey to actually evaluate the company’s support for women specifically, he realized that not only had he never really thought about it before but that he had taken for granted his own experiences as a man.
I think you can guess what happened next. After he took the survey, he compared notes with me and several of the other women at the company and unsurprisingly learned that his assessment of our experiences was totally off.
From how often ideas were acknowledged in meetings to inclusion in deskside conversations to the enjoyment of the regular office Nerf wars and beyond, his own experience was not consistent with those of the women he worked with.
Shocker! Well…not really.
Working women know that men have long had a leg up at work, earning more money for doing the same job, nabbing better promotions, and securing many more positions in top leadership.
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Let’s just say that my coworker had an awakening after taking that survey and talking to me and other female coworkers about it. It was a turning point in his career.
He now spends every day building tools to help women achieve respect and equal treatment at work, which means understanding the issues women are facing better. It involves a lot of listening: to conversations around the office, to the latest statistics and news about women in the workplace, and to what the data and comments we collect from working women tell us. Then it’s necessary to make a conscious effort to notice when women are having a different experience than their male colleagues.
So now when we’re at a function and businessmen introduce themselves and offer their cards to Daniel without acknowledging me, he redirects their attention and lets them know that I am the CEO. When he notices a woman being ignored or not getting adequate credit for her ideas, he moves the conversation back to her–over and over, if necessary. He’s more mindful about his use of pronouns and in making assumptions about who works in what roles. And of course, he cofounded InHerSight.
This is one, perhaps extreme, example of a man “switching on” to the issues women face at work and changing his behavior to become a better male ally, someone who associates with, cooperates with, and supports women.
It’s no secret that women want more allies. We polled 1,200 women in the InHerSight audience in hopes of determining how many women feel like they have male allies at work. The responses show that 42% of women think that they don’t have any male allies or are unsure if they do.
There are many simple yet mighty ways to help reduce the number of women yearning for allies. In fact, many of the women who responded to our poll offered examples of how men can better support them in the office. Here are some of the ways women told us how they want to see men do better:
- Acknowledge that there is still a problem.
- Ask women about what they are experiencing, listen to their responses, and echo and amplify their concerns.
- Be open about your opportunities and salaries.
- Bring more women to the table as peers.
- Speak up and say something when you know something isn’t right,
- Be respectful and call out anyone who isn’t.
- Back up women at work when we are passionate about something.
- Pay it forward. If there is an area where you excel and your coworker, on the other hand, needs help or has too much on her plate to focus on, offer your assistance to help her accomplish her goals. Be supportive of her success by giving her the tools needed to be successful.
- Don’t expect women to act like men. Stop perceiving feminine strengths as weaknesses (e.g., diplomacy, training/teaching, flexibility, etc.).
- Stop focusing on our physical appearance. Trust that they have the skills and more to do the job they were hired for.
- Give credit where credit is due.
- Share your salary information. Women lose out on a daily basis because they don’t know their worth.
At InHerSight, we have a lot more data detailing how companies support women. Although most responses come from women, men chime in, too. What we’ve learned from our various surveys is that what Daniel experienced is pretty common. In general, men rate companies and their perceived support for women higher than women do. And men’s biggest blind spots are consistently centered around women’s access to equal opportunities and management positions and their satisfaction with women’s representation in leadership.
So, men, go rate your companies’ support for women and then take a look to see how your female coworkers have ranked their own experiences.
Like Daniel, you may be surprised by the results.
Ursula Mead is founder and CEO of InHerSight.