This story is featured as part of #GlobalDevWomen, the ongoing Women Working in Global Development Campaign, through a partnership between Devex and Quantum Impact.
I had dinner with a friend recently. He, a white man, had just taken on a role as in-house counsel at a global nonprofit and asked me for a crash course so he could be more “PC” on topics of diversity and inclusion. He asked because I’m a white man who works with other white men on cultural humility and self-awareness. I offer intensive coaching and workshops — real equity work is deeply personal and ongoing — but after suggesting some deeper commitments he could make to his ongoing development, I agreed to share some language and frameworks to get him started.
Our conversation covered a lot of territory — race as a social construct, the importance of stating your pronouns and not assuming everyone knows you identify as a man, how to avoid confusing your read of someone’s identity (racial, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or otherwise) with how they identify, and more.
See more #GlobalDevWomen stories:
Men in America, especially white men, learn very young a culture of rugged individualism, can-do attitudes, and a focus on hard work and self-sufficiency. When we start to see that perhaps our accomplishments haven’t been entirely a result of our own efforts — that we’re benefitting from larger systems that advantage us — it can be really hard to process. It changes our sense of who we are.
As dinner concluded, I asked how he was feeling.
“I’m tired, kind of overwhelmed. Like, why do I have to think about all of this?” He paused. “I guess a lot of people have to think about this all the time. Like, it’s their reality.”
He also acknowledged that confronting these things is a professional necessity. As a leader, he’s expected to inspire and manage people of many more experiences and backgrounds. Learning to be more self aware will increase his credibility and influence. And by doing so proactively, he’ll get to direct the course of his team, rather than be called out for insensitivity.
Many white men like my friend seek to more deeply understand their own identity and their impact on others only when they realize it as a professional necessity. But, many quickly find a deeper reason. They find that the work is essential to their sense of themselves — the way they use their power is a question of their integrity, of their humanity. In international development, we know that people with more social and economic advantage live at the expense of those with fewer advantages. Global development demands that we consider equity issues at scale, but how do we practice these values at home and at work?
We can start by looking more closely at the impact our actions have on our closest personal and professional relationships. At that level, there are really two ways to think about it — your personal and interpersonal work.
How are you working to grow and more deeply understand yourself? And how are you working to be a better partner, friend, and colleague to the people in your life?
This is a hard one for most men. We value action and results. We also want to be the good guy, so we avoid making mistakes and instead say what we believe to be “the right thing,” thereby avoiding the learning opportunities that make us better colleagues and humans. But some of the most important work we can do is simply to reflect and more deeply understand our own culture and biases. For my friend, in order to keep him onboard, it was important to remind him that it wasn’t about “being a good person” or not. We have been good students of a toxic cultural curriculum. The question isn’t about our character, but about commitment to seeing ourselves clearly, and continuing to grow.
Here are three ways to work towards this growth:
1. Adopt a growth mindset.
Growth mindset research has a good application here. When we have a growth mindset, we think of ourselves as a perpetual student of this work, humble about what we don’t know and eager to learn more.
Start with Joanne Lipman’s That's What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together. It’s a man-shaming-free catalogue of all of the challenges women face at work with tactical help and advice for men who want to support them. Time Magazine shared an excerpt here.
Perhaps even more important is to look at the way men are socialized to think about masculinity and how it hurts or helps us. Start with checking out the The Good Men Project and following @GoodMenProject.
3. Take care of yourself.
Often our mistakes around race and gender come from tired brains and bodies. When we are physically and mentally tired, we are less able to be present and attuned to the experience of others. Get sleep, eat well, develop a meditation practice. You can’t be good to others if you’re not good to yourself.
White male culture — i.e., remember “rugged individualism,” “can-do attitudes,” and “self-sufficiency?” — pushes us to prove our masculinity by working harder and pulling longer hours than we would if we weren’t trying to prove ourselves. This makes men stressed. In the case of men who have families, it also prevents them from contributing more at home. Research has shown that married couples with more equitable approaches to housework are happier and have better sex. Equity isn’t just “for women.” We all benefit when we defy our gender norms.
Most men consider themselves good guys. We respect women and want to help them advance in the workplace. I often hear men ask, what should I be doing differently? Beyond your personal work, there are a number of things you can do directly to support women in the workplace.
To research these, I spoke with Sarah Grausz, co-founder of diversity and inclusion nonprofit Quantum Impact, and this is what she and I came up with together:
1. Go easy on the compliments.
Unless you are close friends with someone at the office, refrain from commenting on female colleagues’ clothing and makeup. This behavior focuses attention on women’s appearance and personality instead of on their performance and capacity.
We know this isn't intuitive. For example, in the process of writing this article together, I pushed back on Sarah. “What if a colleague has a cool new shirt? Or a new hairstyle? What if I compliment men on fashion as well?” The psychological pressure on women of having their clothing and makeup commented on by men can have real, material effects on their confidence and their careers. As it is, the average woman in the U.S. spends $15,000 over the life of her career on makeup alone. Again, unless you are close friends with someone, you can help to neutralize this pressure by focusing less on their appearance and more on their work product.
2. Help out!
One of the most pernicious ways that sexism functions in the workplace is around the additional unpaid work, emotional labor, that women do, and that men expect. The gendered assumption is that men are the practical problem solvers because women are better at managing emotions. Men, leaning in here is one of the easiest ways to help.
Similar to emotional labor, is the additional clerical and house work women do, and are not compensated for. Think about women planning the annual staff retreat, office parties, taking notes in meetings, etc. Think about that all the times you, or men you know, stood by in the kitchen wanting to help, but being unsure how. “Tell me what I can do!” At home and at work, men often default to women to delegate tasks to them.
Start by paying attention and listening to female colleagues — when they offer to get coffee, pass out handouts, or circulate the happy birthday card for co-workers. Then, offer to take on those tasks instead.
3. Equal air time, and giving credit where credit is due.
Men tend to dominate conversation at work and elsewhere, both by interrupting women and sometimes by appropriating their ideas. This phenomena is a little easier to combat and there are a lot of little strategies you can start using right away: “Amplification,” which was made popular by the Obama White House, encourages you to chime in when you hear an interruption (“let her finish”) or when you hear an idea you like or see it being co-opted (“I really like what Cindy said”). Pretty straightforward.
4. Mentor a woman!
Just because there have been toxic mentoring relationships between men and women doesn’t mean we stop having them. We don’t stop supporting malaria prevention when we find out that the bed nets we’ve been distributing are being used as fishing nets instead. We learn from the mistake and try again.
Mentoring relationships are critical to any person’s growth and when we avoid mixed gender mentoring relationships, women can lose access to some of the most important relationships in an organization.
The Lean In website has some great resources to get you started mentoring a woman.
For the buddy I had dinner with, his biggest hurdle in being a good ally will be to manage the stress associated with the work. As men, we’re taught to pride ourselves on our stamina at work, sports, and elsewhere. But what about the emotional stamina required to consistently work through our own discomfort and tune in to others? The reality is he will never “ace this test.” None of us will. But that’s not what it’s about. True allies get things wrong all the time. The goal is to stick with it, power through the discomfort, listen, learn, own the mistakes, and continuously build our capacity to support others.