The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear what is needed to make more progress toward workplace gender equity. Spoiler: it’s men.
For too long, the conversation about gender in the workplace has focused on telling women how to navigate a landscape that disadvantages them. That’s all well and good, and has surely boosted the careers of some individual women. But this approach, as it pours energy into “improving” women, leaves intact the factors that make such advice necessary in the first place.
The pandemic has laid bare how inadequate it is to focus on fixing women; you can’t productivity-hack or confidence-boost your way out of a system stacked against you. Changing the status quo requires men — whose actions at work and at home affect the women around them every day — to do more than merely endorse the notion of gender equality.
During the pandemic, professional women with children, for example, faced something much harder than the glass ceiling — effectively, they hit a brick wall that shut down their careers. Society expected women to shoulder the lion’s share of the massive caregiving burden thrust upon working parents. And they did. Mothers reduced their work hours exponentially more than fathers, and many of them threw in the towel altogether. Those that that have hung onto their jobs are worried that they’re one missed Zoom call away from being branded a poor performer or, worse, fired.
Decades after the implementation of laws and policies mean to level the playing field, the current crisis has revealed — and compounded — the obstacles that continue to block women’s career paths. We’ve surveyed and interviewed hundreds of working professionals at all career stages to better understand why gender inequities persist. Our data make two things clear: First, women, from recent college grads to senior executives, still confront biases and limitations that derail or stymie their advancement, and second, men are the key to transforming these conditions. Research has shown that when men advocate for gender equity, their efforts are taken more seriously. We need to mobilize men to use their power to flatten barriers that leave women’s aspirations unfulfilled and potential unrealized.
What does it mean for men to be full participants in the fight for gender equity at work? Men, keep reading. Here are six actions that will make a difference to the women around you:
1. Reject the notion that women don’t want to be on the leadership track: Research has shown that most women who exit the professional workforce don’t willingly opt out after having kids, but instead leave in frustration at having their careers derailed by managers and companies that see mothers as less valuable than other employees. Don’t “protect” women on your team by not offering them tough assignments or high-profile projects. Instead, give them meaningful opportunities to stretch, grow, and shine and let them decide how high they want to aim.
2. Put time into nurturing your relationships with female colleagues: The same myths about women’s lack of commitment to work that lead to them receiving fewer development opportunities also discourage men from mentoring, sponsoring, and networking with them. Some of our own past research on the financial services industry found that men didn’t see women at their firms as worth investing their time into — making it hard for women to access information and insight needed to do their jobs. Recognize that your female colleagues are there to add value, just like you are. You might even benefit from knowing them better — our research discovered that women analysts developed unique skills that men could learn from.
3. Take your full allotment of paternity leave: And if you’re in a leadership position set the expectation that men on your team do the same. Gender-equal parental leave policies mean little if they exist only on paper. A recent report from New America found that when men have the opportunity to be caregivers, they become more invested in care and share the burden more equally with their partners, easing the strain on working mothers.
4. Speak up when you hear problematic comments: In a 2019 study, women were pessimistic about the extent to which men in their workplaces were willing to confront other men about biased beliefs. Yet men calling out sexism can have huge impact on their workplaces — because men aren’t perceived as acting out of self-interest when they advocate for equity, their words have greater weight. Every time you speak out, you shift the culture toward equality.
5. Use your power to fix a broken process — even if you’re not in charge of it: Men sometimes hesitate to go beyond simple endorsements of the idea of gender equity, because they aren’t sure it’s their place to do more than that. But passive support means missed opportunities. For our forthcoming book, we spoke to a young finance professional who was dismayed to see that there were no women on a list of 50 candidates selected for interviews at his firm. When he got little response from the HR department, he and another colleague took it upon themselves to recruit women in the pool. If he had stopped at expressing dismay, the list would have remained all-male.
6. If you’re a leader, go bigger: Make structural changes. Because of gender inequality, men are the people most likely to be in positions of formal authority. CEOs and other senior leaders have the opportunity to make systemic change across all aspects of talent management, from hiring to promotion to retention. Educate yourself about the practices that debias interviewing, performance assessment and development, and then update your organization accordingly. Collect data on attrition and promotion and investigate disparities. Hold your managers accountable for implementing these practices and commit to continuous improvement — just like you would for any other business priority.
Women’s activism and advocacy have resulted in enormous progress toward gender equity in the workplace — the results of the #MeToo movement being only the most recent example. But there’s still work to do and it’s time for men to suit up.
Colleen Ammerman is the director of the Harvard Business School Gender Initiative. Boris Groysberg is Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and a faculty affiliate of the Gender Initiative. They are coauthors of the forthcoming Glass Half Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, April 13, 2021).