David Smith
research
October 12, 2021

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More Listening, Less ‘Mansplaining’ Make Men Better Allies to Women Co-Workers

Why it matters:

Carey’s David Smith finds in his research that diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces are more successful than those that aren’t.

Article Highlights

  • Harvard Business Review Press has published two books co-authored by Smith on this topic.
  • Smith was surprised by key finding in his research that men are perceived generally by women as poor listeners.
  • It’s ill-advised for men to label themselves as “allies” or “feminists.”

The Me Too movement has brought attention – most would call it long overdue attention – to men’s behavior towards women in the workplace.

Unwanted physical contact might constitute the worst transgression a man could commit against a woman colleague, but the list of offenses doesn’t end there. Many male workers have begun to realize that behaviors they have taken for granted, if they were even conscious of them, when interacting with women – such as “mansplaining,” poor listening, and interrupting – are transgressions in their own right.

David Smith, an associate professor of practice at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, has studied and written extensively about this issue, and he has noted that such behaviors have a detrimental effect not just on individual women but also on organizations. Conversely, workplaces that are diverse, equitable, and inclusive tend to be more successful than those that are not.

With W. Brad Johnson, a professor at the United States Naval Academy and a faculty associate at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, Smith has co-authored two books published by Harvard Business Review Press, Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women (2019) and Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace (2020).

In the following Q&A, Smith discusses topics including allyship, mentorship, gender issues in the military (in which he served as a U.S. Navy combat pilot), and why it’s ill-advised for men to proclaim themselves “allies to women” and “feminists.”


QUESTION: Would you describe why this is an issue that needs to be addressed – not just in terms of the negative ways individual women are affected in their professional and personal lives but also how it harms the overall cultural and financial well-being of an organization?

DAVID SMITH: Gender inequities are systemic to workplaces and impact everyone. One of the challenges in addressing gender inequities is that these are often labeled as “women’s issues,” and solutions typically target women — women’s mentoring programs, women’s leadership conferences, women’s employee resource groups. Instead, workplaces need to change, and that means we need men and women leaders engaged in creating more equitable workplaces. More diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces have better decision makers, and are more successful, innovative, creative, and profitable.

The evidence supporting these results cuts across industries and professions as well as countries and cultures. For years this evidence was only correlational, but recently there is research evidence that there is a causal relationship for businesses with higher percentages of women in senior leadership teams outperforming competitors with fewer women leaders. All of these beneficial outcomes are related to better workplace cultures where diversity of all kinds is valued and creates a work environment where employees experience more belongingness and connection.


How do well-meaning men who seek to be allies and mentors to women avoid the appearance of being “mansplainers,” as if they’re reaching down to do their women colleagues a favor rather than relating to them as equal colleagues?

Ultimately, excellent allyship and mentorship are based on reciprocal and trusting relationships that avoid power dynamics. Healthy doses of humility and a learning orientation are needed to understand how women may experience the workplace differently. One of the challenges is understanding how effective allies’ actions are in achieving the desired results. There can be a strategy-execution or knowing-doing gap in allyship. We see evidence of this in research that shows most men believe in gender equity and think they are doing everything in their power to create gender equity. However, most women say that is not their experience. As it turns out, men may not have the needed awareness or understanding of women’s workplace experiences to effectively provide the appropriate support. These misguided actions are done with the best intentions but unfortunately can be experienced as mansplaining.

Talking Point
“Women told us that what they most appreciated in their male mentors and allies was their listening skills. They described these listening skills as generous listening with an intent to understand and not fix her or fix her problem.”
- David Smith

Both you and your colleague Brad Johnson have backgrounds in the military. Can you discuss how workplace issues encountered today by women in the military compare with the issues women face in the civilian workplace?

The military is still a male-dominated and hyper-masculine culture. There are other professions, industries, and occupations that are culturally similar. One of the key differences for the military is that until 2016, it was allowed to legally limit women’s participation in particular roles such as ground combat and Special Forces. With the change in law, military women are essentially contending with similar “second generation” bias as women in the civilian workforce are. Many of these biases are related to perceptions about women’s competence, agency, and traditional gender roles.

For example, the “prove it again” bias that women often experience questions their competency by having them continually prove that they have the experience and ability to perform. Most men do not experience this bias as it is usually assumed that they are competent, and they are advanced more often on potential. One of the nuanced differences for some military women is that this competence is in the context of their physical strength and abilities, in addition to other key leadership and managerial abilities.


Do you see generational differences among men in terms of who is and who isn’t willing to engage more positively with women colleagues?

Overall, the evidence shows that younger generations of men and women entering the workforce have more egalitarian attitudes about gender roles — who is doing paid work and unpaid work and how it is shared. Their expectations for combining work and family roles are more equitable with both men and women expecting to be actively involved in caregiving and domestic responsibilities. The challenge is that they are entering a more traditional workplace that has not adapted as fast to more women doing paid work and more men doing unpaid work. In this case behaviors haven’t changed as fast as attitudes.

There are pockets of exceptions where hyper-masculine cultures have become worse. The venture capital and tech startup industries continually make the news for some of the extreme misogynistic behaviors that surface. Emily Chang’s book, Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, highlights this phenomenon.


One of the primary findings of your research is that women want men to listen better. What can men do to become better listeners? And what might the result be in the workplace?

This was quite a shock to us in our research — that men are often perceived to be generally poor listeners. On a more positive note, women told us that what they most appreciated in their male mentors and allies was their listening skills. They described these listening skills as generous listening with an intent to understand and not fix her or fix her problem. As it turns out, many of us as leaders are socialized to be problem solvers. We listen to a colleague until we discern the problem and then tell them how to fix it.

Women told us that they didn’t need allies or mentors to always fix a problem or fix her. While everyone is prone to imposter feelings, women are especially susceptible to these in male-dominated workplaces. Sometimes they just wanted to be heard, valued, or validated for what they were experiencing. Other women found it helpful when men acted as sounding boards for ideas. This type of listening leads to developing empathy and better emotional intelligence, and makes us better leaders — and more successful. I think the best part of these outcomes is that it transcends the workplace to home and also makes us better partners and parents.

What to Read Next

Discussions of these issues generally focus on the traditional, man-woman, binary concept of sexual orientation. How are the discussions affected when we consider the concerns of people who don’t identify in these strictly traditional terms?

Interestingly, the term allyship originated in the LGBT community in the 1950s/60s. People who identified as LGBT at that time recognized that heterosexual and cis-gender allies were necessary to create equality and opportunity in the traditional workplace. We find that gender allyship skills from our research translate well across other dimensions of diversity. In many ways, gender allyship skills are really gateway skills to other forms of allyship.

We address this specifically in our research from an intersectionality perspective because people are not one-dimensional. We really need a broader perspective on allyship that doesn’t always privilege majority perspectives.


In your work, you and Brad Johnson use terms such as “allies” and “good guys,” but you’re opposed to men self-identifying in those ways or as “feminists.” Can you explain why that’s something men should avoid doing

Women are rightly skeptical of a man who self-labels, because their experience tells them that if he has to proclaim a title, he probably isn’t doing the work. Self-labeling can invoke a sense of privilege by highlighting majority identities that are inherently privileged.

It can also be perceived as performative or virtue signaling. Actions and results are fundamental to allyship. There’s nothing to be gained by self-labeling as an ally. We encourage men to do the work, and if a woman calls you an ally, that’s great. You can feel good about acting in a way that aligns with your intended work. But we also must remember that we’re only an ally to that one woman, not all women.

Associate Professor of Practice

David Smith, PhD

With expertise in social psychology, inclusive leadership, and gender in the workplace, David Smith focuses in his studies on gender, work, and family issues including allyship, inclusive leadership, inclusive mentoring/sponsoring/advocacy, bias in performance evaluations, retention/advancement of women in professions, and dual career families. He is the author of numerous journal articles and book chapters on the topic of gender in the workplace and is a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review. Before joining the Carey Business School, he was a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, College of Leadership and Ethics; and the U.S. Naval Academy, Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law. Before his academic career, he led diverse organizations of women and men culminating in command of a squadron in combat and flew more than 3,000 hours over 30 years including combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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