How men and women can work together to achieve equality in the workplace

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Women’s equality is a huge problem in the workplace. But instead of blaming men, men and women must work together to level the playing field.

 

Women have been talking amongst ourselves for years about the obstacles we face, including being marginalized, interrupted, underpaid, and not given the same level of respect as their male colleagues. But what they haven’t done is talk to men about it. Women talking to each other is only half a conversation, which, at best, can only solve half the problem.

 

Q. Why should men concern themselves with leveling the playing field for women? What’s in it for them?

A. At a time when all of our industries are in radical transformation, it’s never been more important to have the very best minds and the most creative breakthrough plans, and the research overwhelmingly shows that organizations with women at or near the top are more successful. For instance, companies whose top management is at least half female post returns on equity that are 19% higher than average, and firms with the most female board members outperform those with the fewest by almost every financial measure. Then, there’s the fact that adding women to work teams has been shown over and over again to lead to better and more creative problem solving, and tempers risky behavior like the financial gambles that crashed the economy in 2008.

Q. What can women do to encourage their male peers, and bosses to work toward equality?

A. It takes honest communication. In researching the book, I searched out many men who are trying to reach across the gender divide—the good guys, the majority who are not sexual predators. A recurring theme in our conversations was that women need to speak up and point out inequities at work but keep the conversation positive. Whenever possible, acknowledge good intentions.

Another thing women can do is cop to our own biases. For instance, I took an unconscious-bias test myself, of the kind that lots of U.S. companies now offer. These tests are designed to uncover prejudices buried so deep in our psyches that we’re not even aware we have them. I’ve often admitted publicly that even I came out as “moderately” biased against working women! The point is, acknowledging your own blind spots helps get rid of the stigma of men admitting theirs, which can be the first step toward real change.

Q. Your book is packed with day-to-day, practical strategies for men who want to help their organizations make full use of female talent. Could you tell us a few?

A. One persistent problem is that women are interrupted three times more often than men, so their ideas are often just not heard. One study showed that even female Supreme Court justices get interrupted at three times the rate of their male peers! So, if you hear a woman being interrupted, call it out. Say something like, “Olivia was making an interesting point, let’s let her finish.” Another thing men can do, especially male managers, is avoid deciding a woman wouldn’t be interested in a bigger job without even asking her first. I’ve often heard senior executives shoot down a woman by saying she has a new baby at home, or she wouldn’t want to relocate, or whatever. Don’t assume! Ask her. Even if she declines, present the next opportunity she’s qualified for, and the one after that.

Something else that well-meaning men may not even realize is that women are often subjected to “compliments” that, intentionally or not, belittle them.  This happens a lot, and it has a simple solution. Before you speak, ask yourself, would you say that to a man? If not, you probably shouldn’t say it to a woman, either.

Q. We often hear that Millennials are much less burdened by old gender stereotypes than previous generations. As they start moving up into management roles, will progress for women speed up?

A. It’s certainly true that Millennials are the most equality-minded generation we have ever seen. However, some researchers have found that, as young men get married and have children, they become more conservative. That is, they start believing that their jobs are more important, that they should be the primary breadwinners while their wives take on more responsibility for childcare. So, while my hope is that this generation will hold on to its equality-minded ideals, it’s really too soon to tell.

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