It’s 2019, and there’s no more denying it: hiring women is a good business decision. But keeping and retaining women is not only a matter of adding more family-friendly policies or flexible work hours. Leadership (often male) also needs to foster a workplace culture that shows women they are valued and will grow at the company.
Men may find themselves wanting to do better (well, not all men—a 2016 survey by compensation-focused website PayScale.com found just one in five men said gender disparity was a problem in their workplace). They are to be commended for that. But sometimes, they just don’t know how. From calling a female colleague “dear” to explaining something to a woman that she clearly already knows, even the best-intentioned of men can sometimes do things that slight the women around them.
Matt Wallaert, a behavioral scientist and cofounder of getraised.com, a free site that helps women ask for raises at work, has a simple recommendation for men who want to know whether they’re on track: They should ask themselves if a woman in their lives is able to tell them when something they’re doing is bullshit.
“They literally have to be able to say the word ‘bullshit’ to you,” Wallaert says. “No matter who that emotionally close other is that gives you feedback about your behavior, if they are not empowered to call bullshit, they’re not empowered to give you honest feedback.”
Just being close to a woman doesn’t cut it. The woman can’t be the man’s subordinate at work—because she may not be able to freely speak her mind without fearing for her job. Better candidates for the “calling bullshit role” include wives, girlfriends, friends, or colleagues at the same level.
“Many powerful men don’t create space for an emotionally close gender confidant,” Wallaert says. “Sometimes they just don’t want to hear it or don’t have the emotional fortitude to be corrected.”
Wallaert knows that asking men to make sure a woman in their lives will call them out when they’re behaving badly also means asking women to do a lot of extra work. It takes empathy to invest the time and energy into helping men behave better. One long-term solution: start gender education early. By befriending and being an ally to women throughout their lives, men can develop this awareness on their own, relieving women of at least some of the burden of educating them.
“We’ve made a lot [of noise] about how to make strong women. How do we make men able to handle feedback? Hey dads, if you think you’re woke, go raise better sons,” Wallaert says.
Even if they’ve missed the boat on being brought up alongside strong women, men can be better allies to women by just being a little more aware of what they say and what they do. “The irony is that for men, anything is better than what we’re doing right now,” Wallaert says. “Honestly, even just heightened consciousness would help.”
This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.