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A co-worker makes a racist or sexist comment. Here’s what to do

A new book looks at why women are not mentored as often as men, and why men don’t often take a role in that.

Studies reveal that skinny women and brawny men receive better pay in the workplace. Pictured: Barbie and Ken dolls. A new book explores how how men can be better allies for women in the workplace. (AP Photo/Tina Fineberg)
Studies reveal that skinny women and brawny men receive better pay in the workplace. Pictured: Barbie and Ken dolls. A new book explores how how men can be better allies for women in the workplace. (AP Photo/Tina Fineberg)Read more

It’s a rare workplace office that hasn’t witnessed this scene: At a meeting, or just in the hallway, somebody says something that’s sexist, racist or some other form of unacceptable. There may be hearty or nervous laughter. There may be uncomfortable silence. And speedy exits.

Increasingly, though, there are allies: people who stand with all their colleagues and against practices that try to hold them back.

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For David Smith and Brad Johnson, coauthors of Good Guys: How Men Can be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace, positive action in those moments of “bystander paralysis” is what defines “allyship,” a buzzed-about concept that these military veterans and scholars know a lot about.

A Navy pilot-turned-associate-professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, Smith led combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trained in military sociology and social psychology, he now focuses his research on gender, work, and family issues. Johnson, who served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy’s Medical Service Corps, is a professor of psychology at the U.S. Naval Academy. He specializes in mentoring, professional ethics, and counseling.

They also co authored Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women (2016). They recently spoke about allyship in the workplace, the surprising benefits of generous listening, and why humility can be a leader’s greatest asset. You can hear more of this conversation at The Visible Voices, a podcast dedicated to trends in health care and equity.

How would you define allyship?

Johnson: Number one: How do I hold myself accountable [at work] in my relationships with women? To be friendly, collegial, supportive, collaborative. How do I establish friendships? How do I mentor? How do I receive mentoring and feedback? Number two is the public side. How do I hold other people accountable? So when there is some sexism or bias in the workplace, how do I disrupt that? How do I hold other men accountable for appropriate collaborative behavior in the workplace? And then three, how do I advocate for policies and procedures that are good for everybody?

How can men confront other men about sexist behavior in the workplace?

Smith: One way is just kind of fun: If you hear something, within about the first two or three seconds, that’s when we’re really going to make a difference. If we wait, we’re probably not going to do anything.

So just say “Ouch.” And that’s gonna buy you some time. Then everybody kind of looks at you awkwardly. And now you can decide what you want to say. … We don’t have to create some sort of a huge conflict right now. But we do have to point it out and [say], ‘I’m not comfortable with that,’ or ‘that was offensive to me,’ or ‘I don’t appreciate the way you demean our women colleagues here today,’ or ‘that’s not who we are.’

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How did your two books evolve?

Johnson: Dave and I began looking at why women are not mentored as often as men and why men don’t often take a role in that. Athena Rising is focused on mentoring and sponsoring. It is sort of our toolbox. But after that was published, about a year later #MeToo went widespread. And Dave and I found ourselves getting pulled into these broader conversations. Women were telling us they don’t feel supported, and we’re finding this in the research.

When you look at the data on the big pay equity gap, for example, we’re never going to close that unless men are engaging … What does it look like interpersonally, publicly and systemically when a guy really shows up as an equity collaborator and co-conspirator with women? What are those behaviors? What role can we men play? That was really the impetus for Good Guys.

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When men say ‘I’m not going to meet with a woman one-on-one, I am not comfortable, I’m going to get in trouble,’ how do you respond?

Smith: We remind guys that #MeToo was about women asking to come to work and not be harassed or assaulted. So as men in the workplace, we can do a lot better because that’s a very low bar for us to get over.

Back to men not offering the same resources like mentoring and sponsoring, we say if that’s key for what you do, then you’ve got to provide equal access to women and men. And as a leader if you can’t do that, then you need to step aside and find something else to do. Men often ask about closed-door meetings or closed-door counseling sessions. Our response is if you’re not comfortable with that with women, then don’t do that with men, either.

Johnson: My counsel is, look, if you have anxiety about engaging with women, you need to own it and take responsibility. And there’s only one cure for anxiety. And that’s exposure therapy: More interaction, more conversations, more coffee meetings, but men need to take responsibility.

What has surprised you most about your research for the books?

Johnson: Listening. I had no idea how bad men are at listening. Women do not experience men as generous listeners. It was a real epiphany for me: If there’s one thing I can do every day, it’s not try and fix women or fix their problems. It’s actually to be a good listener. Ask curious, honest questions and listen, and then you know, occasionally ask how I can help or contribute but I’m primarily just wanting to listen.

Smith: With Athena Rising, we had countless senior women share stories and examples of their experiences in meetings. For example, they had an idea and the pitch would kind of land flat. And then 30 minutes later, some guy would repackage it as his own and take credit for it. And I just remember thinking to myself, ‘I can’t think of a time that’s ever happened to me.’ [But] I’ve seen it so many times now that I’m aware of it.

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Tell us about a time you discovered you had something wrong and had to pivot?

Smith: So here’s a big one, Athena Rising was not the original working title of the book. It was Guiding Athena. Brad and I loved the title. Because guiding, it’s a great synonym that’s often used for mentoring. And Athena is a great metaphor for women that we worked with around the military and national security.

Our editor came to us, and she said, ‘have you thought about how women might react to being told they need to be guided by a couple of dudes? This had not even crossed our minds: an epic fail.

Johnson: A few months ago, Dave and I were doing an event for a huge national international security organization in Europe honoring Women’s History Month. Dave and I were going to be on a panel. And unbeknownst to us, the person they selected to be the host and the moderator was an old military guy.

About a week before the event, we get this message from the organizers sharing that they are getting a lot of push-back on the event. And she sent us the flyer: three white guys for the International Women’s History Month event — it’s a manel (all men panel) and a whanel (all white panel). And we just missed it because we didn’t ask enough questions. Now if we’re going to be on a panel, there has to be diversity, or we have to be interviewed by a woman. We just don’t like the optics otherwise.

What kind of push-back do you get as men from people cynical that you can know what women face at work?

Johnson: I think sometimes people make some assumptions that “this is a mansplaining fest,” or “oh, these guys are telling women how to do gender equity.” People who actually read the book recognize that all of our research is based on interviews with women, and asking about their experience, and trying to understand that and come up with best practices for men.

I think when men enter into these conversations, we have to watch ourselves and do some generous listening. We need to not speak for women. We do not want this framed as men rescuing women.

How much of becoming an ally is truly altruistic? And how much is: it’s good for the team, it’s good for business, it’s good for return on investment, and it’s good for your personal brand?

Johnson: First, we love to tell men that you are not an ally, unless a woman calls you that, and you need to just show up and do the work. And if a woman calls you that, maybe feel good about that. But remember, you’re only an ally to her, you’re not an ally to all women. So we need to walk humbly.

The performative guy only does this stuff when the boss is watching or when women are watching that he wants to impress. And as soon as he gets in a group of men, he’s back to all the sexist banter and joking. Our experience is that women figure out very quickly who those guys are.

Smith: The other part that you’re getting at is men’s motivation for doing the work: How much of it is altruistic? Or is it for business? Or is it for your personal brand? All of those motivations are out there, and some people actually will talk about several of them at once.

Senior men can get a lot of pushback when they stand up and say, I’m all for gender equity, now that I have daughters. But … (if) this is what has started their ally journey, it doesn’t mean that’s where they’re going to finish. It will change over time.

Resa E Lewiss, is an emergency medicine physician at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, frequent Inquirer contributor, and creator and host of The Visible Voices podcast.

The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.