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09 Dec. 2013 | Comments (0)

Over the past few weeks, I have been talking — a lot — about the themes of women and work.  About how women haven’t even come close to reaching the heights of professional power that many of us once predicted would shortly come to pass; about how women today remain oddly chained to an expanded and wholly unrealistic set of expectations. And I have also been talking, more than I had imagined I might, about what men can do to address this set of issues.

The good news here, I think, is that there is a lot of good news. Once upon a time — say, maybe 50 years ago — there was undeniably a mindset among many men who, for a variety of reasons, firmly believed that women could never make it in their world.  They were men (joined usually by a supportive chorus of women) who thought that women were not competitive or strong enough for the world of work.  They claimed women didn’t have the inner fiber and inherent smarts; that a woman’s job was to be home taking care of the children.

These days are now long past.  Most men — or at least most of the ones I encounter — are firmly committed to advancing the careers of women around them.  They want their wives to succeed; they want their daughters to succeed; they want their female friends to succeed; they want to reap the rewards of investing in the trajectories of female employees and co-workers.  The problem is that they just don’t know how.  And why should they, given that women themselves are having so much difficulty identifying possible solutions to their plight?

So here, humbly submitted, are five simple things that men can do to help women advance in their careers and their lives.

Do your part on the “second shift.”  The home front remains a critical piece of the problem facing working women.  So do the laundry.  Or the grocery shopping. Or the scheduling of dental appointments.  Seriously.  Studies (like this one) make clear that while men are doing an increasing amount of work on the home front, they are still leaving the bulk of that work to women, burdening them with the well-known problem of the “second shift.”  Men need to increase their share of the daily, mundane, chores.  The dishes.  The carpools.  The packing of lunches and scheduling of play dates. And they need, critically, to take responsibility for whatever tasks fall upon them.  Action driven only by nagging isn’t good for anyone.

Take a female colleague to lunch. One of the subtle problems that confront many young female employees is that their male colleagues are scared of them.  Scared, that is, that being seen with them will constitute some violation of policy, or at least propriety. The result is that women are often left out of the casual social interaction that provides the bedrock for many professional relationships.  Invite women for lunch, or golf, or whatever outings constitute the norm in your organization. And if all your office socializing takes place after-hours, try to come up with activities that fit other schedules, like alternating after-work drinks with before-work breakfasts. Behave appropriately, of course, and make junior women part of a larger group, if possible. But don’t ignore the social side of workplace relationships.

Don’t be afraid to criticize. This, too, is a problem caused by fear.  All too often, men in positions of power are afraid to give their younger female colleagues tough feedback.  Instead, they waffle and demur, resorting to vague niceties rather than specific criticism.  Which means, of course, that the women aren’t getting the advice they need to improve and, eventually, succeed. This doesn’t imply that male bosses should make a habit of yelling at their female subordinates, or that they should rush to give negative feedback. But they should be careful to give young women the same kind of feedback — honest, fair, tough, and specific — that they provide to their male counterparts.

Show up and ask questions.  One of the best indicators of an organization’s commitment to diversity is who shows up at diversity-themed events.  All too often, only women engage in conversations about balance or family or flexible modes of work. And if the discussions do not extend beyond this population, and outside the realm of women-only functions, then nothing will ever get done.  Men who want to help need to be part of the dialogue, and present at those conversations.

Give credit where it’s due – and check if you’re not sure. Every working woman has faced this situation:  she offers a point or suggestion in a meeting; watches the conversation move on without notice; and then hears her precise point being echoed five minutes later by a man, whose views are then repeated and praised by the others. So pay particular attention to who is talking during a meeting, and who gets credit for these words.  Try to call women participants out by name (“As Sally said just a few moments ago …”) and reference them later in the conversation (“Joe, your idea reminds me of the argument Sally was making earlier…”).  Go out of your way to call on quiet people — regardless of their gender — and take the time to learn who really contributed to joint projects or presentations.  These practices aren’t just good for women.  They are good management, too.

By themselves, of course, these five suggestions will not fix the “women’s problem” that continues to plague our organizations and our society.  Bringing men into the conversation, though, and engaging their skills and energies, is an important part of the puzzle.

 

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 11/8/2013.

View our complete listing of Diversity & Inclusion and Leadership Development blogs.

  • About the Author:Debora Spar

    Debora Spar

    Debora Spar is president of Barnard College and the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection (to be published in September 2…

    Full Bio | More from Debora Spar

     

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