You’ve probably heard the word “ally” getting tossed around in the last few years, referring to the support of a marginalized group that is not your own. The reality of allyship isn’t like what you’ve seen in the movies. It typically doesn’t involve grandiose gestures that everyone notices and appreciates. In fact, some men experience backlash for aligning with their women colleagues, usually due to unconscious biases.
That doesn’t change the fact that 50% of the global workforce isn’t given space to achieve their full potential. This directly impacts every company’s business outcomes, including the all important bottom line.
Here are five things you can do to improve gender equity for the women you work with.
1. Openly acknowledge gender privilege.
Discussing gender equity is a great first step, but we still have a lot of work to do. For every 100 men promoted to entry-level manager, only 85 women are promoted. Women of color fare worse: only 58 Black women and 71 Latina women are promoted. Women are consistently passed over for promotions and positions of authority within their organizations.
So what can you do?
Openly acknowledge your understanding of gender inequities and talk honestly about your desire to change the status quo. Seek out your women colleagues and ask them how you can support them. Listening is often undervalued. As the advantaged party in an inequitable system, listening and learning where your colleagues need support is better than assuming you already have the answers.
Your colleagues may not immediately open up, but consistently restating your intention and taking action will build their trust.
2. Take an active role in inclusion programs.
Gender inequity is a core leadership issue that affects business outcomes. Positive outcomes of gender diversity in organizations include a wider talent pool and increased profitability. Some people struggle to see the benefits of a gender equitable workplace because they’ve never had one. They don’t realize what they’re missing.
When men are actively involved in inclusion programs at work, 96% of organizations see progress. On the other hand, when men aren’t involved, only 30% of companies make progress. Men are also 12% more likely to assume their company is making more progress in gender equity than their women counterparts.
For too long, gender inequity has been viewed as a women’s problem. You might experience some anxiety or reluctance to step into a space you believe isn’t for you. But sexism doesn’t just control women’s actions—it also dictates what’s considered acceptable from men. Actively participating in your company’s inclusion programs can help establish you as an ally, giving you more influence to create change.
3. Know when to step up or step back.
One of the best things you can learn as an ally is when to step up and when to step back. Allies often have privilege that allows them to create waves when women can’t. But don’t try to save the day.
If one of your women colleagues is being talked over during a meeting, don’t explain her point for her. Instead, get the attention of the room and invite her to elaborate on her point. Lead by example and give her your full attention.
In most cases, allies aren’t “empowering” anyone. Allies often help create a more equitable environment where every voice can be heard and all talent is appreciated.
4. Step into the awkward silence.
Discriminatory or biased behavior at work causes a lot of tension, but not usually for the offending parties. Comments that explicitly or implicitly tie any type of inferiority to any one gender are problematic. For example, using terms of endearment for women that aren’t used for men (“sweetheart,” “honey”) can negatively shift the view of women teammates.
Finally, the women you work with are not “girls.” They are adult women, and everyone should refer to them as such. No one says “The boy down in HR told me to fill out this form.”
When you hear or read these comments, communicate that this behavior isn’t acceptable. When you say and do nothing, you reinforce that this behavior is okay.
5. Sponsor your women colleagues.
When you’re offered an opportunity for training, committee seats, or project leadership, consider recommending a just-as-capable woman colleague for the opportunity. Women are often passed over for more responsibility at work based on assumptions their managers make about what they want.
Being a mother doesn’t make someone incapable of handling additional responsibility at work. Still, a manager might make assumptions about mothers that they would not make about fathers on their team.
These assumptions can harm men in the workplace, as well. If a certain position is demanding, people with less dominant personalities may not be considered capable. If we can shift the focus to actual results, we will begin to uncouple dominant masculine tendencies from perceived talent.
When you recommend a woman coworker for professional advancement opportunities, you take a step towards changing biased company culture.
Allies like you can make or break gender equity initiatives.
Allies are constantly learning how to better support their colleagues in the workplace. You may never know what it’s like to experience microaggressions at work. But you can use your own experiences of otherness and feeling passed over to empathize and take action.
Actions like listening and changing your language might seem small, but you never know who your actions will inspire or what change you’ll make until you try.