Saturday, May 12, 2018

Men stepping up to be stronger allies

Over the last year I've been struck by how hard it can be for us all to move from good intentions to being able to act around issues of diversity. How can we all do our part to build a better place to work for everyone? One phrase I have heard again and again from men (including in my own head) is "I don't know what I can do." Here are a few tips on gender that I've heard in the conversations I've had during Engaging Across Difference (a 2.5 day diversity workshop at The Nature Conservancy) and some subsequent workshops I've been co-leading at my office.

First and foremost, take the time to get better educated and prepared to act. For TNC staff, Engaging Across Difference is a fantastic workshop that will provide the tools necessary to work more effectively across differences. Challenge yourself to read books or articles, or watch movies / videos that can expand your perspective on gender. Let me know if you want some suggestions. You may want to set yourself a monthly reminder to keep yourself honest. Through hearing stories, you will likely be surprised how differently women often experience the workplace compared to men, and how much experiences vary among women.

Next, ask your friends and colleagues about their experiences as women. When have they felt possible gender bias or uncomfortable due to gender, especially at work? What, if anything, do they wish was different at work? It could be systemic (policies) or individual (what people do). Take the time to truly listen, ask questions, and thank them for being honest (even if it's difficult). Remember that the goal is just to listen and understand – to hear and validate their experiences, and that to work you need a foundation of trust and authentic curiosity. Everyone I have spoken to has emphasized that they want to be engaged as an individual, not lumped in with others based on characteristics, so don't just do this with one person and assume it will apply to others!

Third, if you're able to do so with an open mind, you can ask your colleagues specifically for ideas about how you can be a better ally. That can include making yourself available for support and discussion in the future, or talking about situations to watch out for in the future (e.g. I've had a few women request that when they get interrupted in meetings, I should say something like "hold on, I want to hear what ___ had to say"). Whatever feedback you get, thank them for their honesty, take time to reflect about it, and ask questions seeking to understand (but not to agree / disagree / fix). It's important to realize that even when our intent is good, we can still have a negative impact on others without meaning to. I plan to do this for the upcoming annual review cycle, and welcome input from anyone reading this.

Finally, and this one is likely the hardest: speak up when you see problematic behavior (even when it feels awkward, which it almost always will). If you notice the youngest woman in the room is often asked to take notes despite having a similar position to others, volunteer to take them yourself or ask for other volunteers. If someone makes a sexist joke, call it out. You can do this in a lighthearted way so that you are diffusing tension and still setting a positive example (Active Bystander training has ideas), and if it feels best you can do it 1:1 after the fact. Emphasize your positive intent, and that you're trying to alert them to unintended impacts of their behavior rather than criticizing them. I have found that I struggle the most to speak up in a group of all men, but in a way, this is the most important time to do so. It sets norms of what gets men a high five and laughs, and what gets a more awkward and critical response.

If that sounds too abstract, here are a few examples of how you can speak up that I've seen work well. Especially for people who are probably clueless why their behavior is problematic, you can talk to them one on one and say something like "I know you're a nice person and wouldn't want to make anyone uncomfortable, so I wanted to share with you that what you said could be hurtful." If they don't buy it, you can share examples of when people have mentioned how similar behavior made them feel. Another is when a group of men is going on about how hot an athlete / actress / colleague is, you could say something like "When can we start valuing women for their accomplishments and not just their looks? This woman is an amazing athlete, can't we talk about that?" Finally, for low-grade clueless and inappropriate behavior I sometimes just say "Wow, gross!" or "What's wrong with you?" in a semi-joking tone (but if they don't let it drop, I make it clear it's uncool).

If you only take one thing away from this- take the time to actively listen with a real sense of curiosity and a desire to improve. While this blog was written about gender, I've heard the same themes consistently in discussions on race, sexual orientation, and other related topics. I'm still surprised sometimes when my wife calls me out on something I've done (or not done), but that just means I'll keep learning (she also helped to make this blog better). The fear of looking ignorant by asking questions is the biggest enemy we have to learning how to support each other better.

What has your experience been?

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