Men as Allies

Published: 21/01/2014

January 17th, 2014, The

In a piece by Maria Shriver called “The Unfinished Revolution” for Time Magazine, a man was quoted as saying, “We haven’t thrown some switch to go from a man’s world to a woman’s world. It’s more like we’re finally, for the first time, in a position where it’s no longer only a man’s world. Now what does that mean?” In just a few words, he was able to articulate the question that is lingering over every workplace: what does it mean that dynamics have shifted? And perhaps more importantly: how do we move forward?

Recent studies suggest that mixed gender alliances can be complicated and plagued with tension. The Sponsor Effect reported that low availability or unwillingness to follow through on promised support (31 percent), apparent sexual tension (30 percent), insufficient guidance (27 percent), and fear of talking openly about appearance (20 percent) greatly diminished the quality of women’s partnerships with senior male executives.

More telling is the reason the women sought out such alliances: 75 percent elected to have male sponsors for their “perceived influence and ability to leverage among their networks” vs. 18 percent for “knowing how to succeed.” As the researchers themselves attest, while women are generally adept at building long-term and supportive relationships, men are far more accustomed to converting those bonds into favors, opportunities, and trust-enforcing obligations.

This style of leveraging or converting social bonds, however, often seems distasteful—if not altogether secondary—when compared to deeds and merits. This sentiment was echoed strongly by respondents featured in Catalyst’s “The Pipeline’s Broken Promise”, one of whom stated that “Women need to get more assertive” regarding rewards and compensation. “If it doesn’t come to you, ask for it. Men do,” she continued.

Which leads us to the question of what men should be doing, particularly when evidence suggests that we’re still far from the parity that we should want (and the dividends that we stand to gain from it). If we’re not using power and influence as our measures of support, for instance, then how should we define reciprocal alliances between men and women in the workplace, at home, and in life?

Defining Reciprocal Boundaries
A mentor once explained how “I have a favor to ask…” is a powerful statement, one she and her husband use to barter for all those niceties that keep a relationship sound. The power lies in its implicit nature, in the assumption that by asking, you are just as willing to hear and follow through on a similar request at that point in time. It requires trust.

And let’s be honest, what you’re entering into when you mentor, sponsor, or ally with someone is a social contract: there are obligations, stakes, rewards, and compensatory risks to be allayed.

To begin with, we need to recognize, as men, both our privilege and the ability to provide women with career- and company-building opportunities. As recently illustrated by Gerald Lema, corporate vice president and president of Baxter International’s Asia Pacific region and member of Catalyst’s board of directors, when a woman candidate expressed concerns about her recent pregnancy and potential promotion to China, the best approach is often the most direct and honest. Lema said, “We, as a company, saw her as someone we wanted to invest [in] for the long term, and we will overcome all the obstacles.” This included employment for her husband in Shanghai and the job transition during maternity.

Even on a smaller scale, when presented with a woman candidate for a project, position, or promotion, we can begin by asking ourselves how willing we are, as men, to wager our own social capitol and careers on her ability to succeed. And while such vocal, public, and open support can occasionally instill conversations about what’s fair in reciprocity, the impact of highly proactive and early identification can be quite notable—as seen in the recent appointment of General Motors new CEO, Mary Barra.

Described by an associate in the industry as someone whose potential was acknowledged early on in her career, Ms. Barra served as GM’s senior vice president of product development until Dan Akerson, the outgoing CEO at the company, announced that “someday there will be a Detroit Three that’s run by a car gal.” He added, “I think a part of good leadership is to make sure people have an opportunity. No gifts, no guarantees, just a chance.”

It’s a remarkable thing to say, given how as recently as 2012, a McKinsey study found that only 40 percent of the men surveyed believed gender diversity to be “an important driver of company performance.” In actuality, it will be crucial.