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?
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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.