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What Does It Mean for Men to Be Allies?

by Victoria Mattingly

What does it mean for men to be allies?Barry Stern and I have been working together over the past few months to build a cutting-edge course, Men As Allies, the latest edition to our Ignite Your Impact: Women in Leadership℠ series, which equips men with the awareness and behaviors for helping women advance their leadership careers.

Over that time, Barry, senior vice president in DDI’s product management function, has become a valued mentor to me—the kind of mentor women need now, more than ever, as he provides coaching, insights, and career advice, and models positive leadership behaviors.

Barry and I recently had the following conversation (which I’ve edited down for publication), during which we covered a number of key topics addressed in the Men as Allies course, and discussed why it’s more important now than ever for male senior leaders to partner with, and advocate for, women in leadership.

Victoria: Have you heard about the backlash from the #metoo movement about senior men being less likely to mentor and sponsor junior women in fear of their actions being misinterpreted as inappropriate workplace behavior? As a C-suite executive who’s been mentoring me, an early career woman, for the past year, what’s your take on this?

Barry: I totally get it. I think that many of us are thinking about that pretty much all the time nowadays. At least in the back of our minds, unfortunately. Yet, we need to step up and mentor women now more than ever, to lean into the issue and leverage the heightened sensitivity around it, rather than shy away. We have here a unique moment in time to work towards activating the untapped potential of women leaders. Women are less likely to have formal mentors, less likely to be sponsored, and, therefore, less likely than men to rise up the leadership ranks. Which, then, contributes to a less gender-diverse leadership pool.

Victoria: Come to think of it, I’ve had more male bosses, mentors, and sponsors throughout my career than women. There is no way I would have had the early career success I’ve had to date without the men who have intentionally and consistently helped me along the way. It’s not that I don’t prefer working with female leaders, but it’s more of a numbers game. There are simply fewer women in leadership positions, in general.

Barry: Especially at the higher levels, which, as it turns out, is bad for the bottom line. Our research shows that having more gender diversity across the leadership pipeline is strongly correlated with better financial performance. We are not doing enough to unleash all sources of organizational talent. We owe it to ourselves, to our organizations, and to women in general to become better at addressing gender inequality in the workplace.

What does it mean for men to be allies?Victoria: Yes, I completely agree! That’s why I was excited to work with you when I took on the role as lead designer to build the Men as Allies course. A primary purpose of the course is to bring men to the gender equality table by intentionally and explicitly asking them to brainstorm and enact solutions to accelerate women in leadership initiatives.

Barry: As men, we all too often treat this as a women’s problem rather than an organizational one, and we too often eschew our critical role in advancing women into senior levels in our organization. We have good intentions, and typically only mild passion about the topic. But if we put our minds to it, I have found men have terrific ideas. The fact that we don’t have the urgency to own the responsibility to execute on these possible solutions is a huge problem.

Victoria: And one of those solutions male leaders can start now is mentoring and sponsoring more junior women in their organization. For example, we know that a mentoring best practice is to provide just-in-time coaching. Do you remember that time you gave me that pep talk after that stakeholder meeting during which I questioned my ability to lead a high-profile project? You reminded me that I wouldn’t have been given this opportunity in the first place if I wasn’t qualified and how my experience navigating challenging situations would only build my resiliency and make me a better future leader.

Barry: Yes, but that wasn’t all that was going on with that project. I saw that you were running into some organizational barriers that I recognized. They were familiar patterns to me, but not to you. I’ve simply been here longer, know the players better, and have made all the mistakes myself. I think the trick, though, like with any attempt to coach and run organizational interference, is to keep the ultimate responsibility in the hands of the individual being coached, be it a man or woman, and not take charge of the situation. That does not develop people and actually might hurt, rather than help over the longer haul.

Victoria: Something else that is detrimental to any aspiring leader is a lack of targeted feedback. You’ve provided specific feedback to me on many occasions, like when you told me I had positioned something well in an email I crafted to other executives, or the time you gave me explicit advice on how to navigate an emotionally charged political situation. Learning what I had done right and what I could have done better are essential for my development as a future leader, especially when you consider that women are less likely than men to receive such feedback.

Barry: Mentoring alone is not enough, though. Aspiring leaders also need sponsorship, such as when a senior leader ‘goes to bat’ for a junior employee by increasing her exposure and visibility and vouching for her potential. Remember that time you attended a senior leadership meeting and I encouraged you to speak up and ask questions?

Victoria: I certainly do. I remember feeling out of place, being the only non-leader in the room. But knowing you had my back helped me to quiet my inner critic and feel comfortable sharing my perspective. Your encouragement was also a confidence booster, which was especially important when you consider how many women in the workplace experience a confidence gap compared to their male counterparts.

Barry: I’m glad that helped. As we’ve discussed, mentoring, sponsoring, and building confidence are important levers we can teach men to pull to progress the cause. And the most effective guidance and support require an ongoing dialogue rooted in respect and trust.

Victoria: And building such a rapport would not be possible if senior leaders aren’t willing to meet with potential proteges in the first place, due to unfounded concerns associated with professional relationships between men and women. In fact, if male leaders are confused about how to work with women in the workplace, they should be more apt to engage in one-on-one conversations, ask questions, and listen. Senior male leaders may even learn a thing or two by engaging in mutual dialogue and being reverse-mentored by a female employee.

What does it mean for men to be allies?Barry: Frankly, this has been an eye-opening process for me, as a man. I’ve learned I have to curb my reflexive responses and really listen intently to what the women I work with are saying about their experiences as women on their professional journeys. To question myself and realize that unconscious bias is not something that applies just to others, but to me, too. That I’ve been all too often more passive on this issue than I should have been. Sometimes it’s a bit painful, but it keeps going back to the fact that taking action is simply the right thing to do, both for the company and for women. They can’t do this without people in positions like mine taking a much more proactive stance on this issue.

Victoria: Here’s to our ongoing alliance to combat gender inequality across the leadership pipeline. Together.

Learn how DDI can help your organization accelerate and advance women leaders to ignite impact.

Learn more about how to unleash potential in your organization and download the new eBook, The Revolutionary Guide to Rethinking Leadership Potential.

Victoria Mattingly is a consultant at DDI and a Ph.D. researcher with expertise in training and development. Victoria also works extensively with DDI’s Women in Leadership practice. Aside from promoting gender equality in the workplace, her other main passion in life is live music. Like a great musical performance, great leaders inspire others with a well-executed and heart-felt delivery, meticulously developed over time.

Posted: 24 Jan, 2018,
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