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Studying male allies for more than five years has clarified the challenges for men – particularly white men – with regard to supporting gender equity at work. While on the surface, it seems a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t men who believe in gender equality want to identify as male allies, especially given the substantial research documenting the business case for diversity (profitability and innovation to name a few)?

But the truth is, it’s not as straight-forward as it seems on the surface.

Many men are highly aware of the need to support women’s career growth in their organizations. They also receive regular messaging, from many sources, that white men are to blame for the lack of women – and other diverse individuals – in roles of power and influence. While surely some men are indifferent, even hostile, to organizational efforts to strengthen gender diversity, GenderWorks believes there is a far larger group of men who believe in equality, and want to make a difference, yet struggle to do so.

Let’s unpack the myriad reasons men don’t behave as – nor see themselves as – male allies.

Many men don’t know how to effectively develop women – Men have been socialized to perceive leadership as being in charge and knowing all the answers. Yet many men don’t understand how their approach to developing men may need to look different for women. Men feel frustrated when their approach doesn’t work and women leave, refuse promotions and any number of other behaviors that don’t make sense to their male bosses. The proof is in the pudding that men aren’t getting it right, with few women populating the leadership pipeline beyond the middle management ranks.

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To add to the confusion, many women who successfully rise to senior leadership roles are mentored to reflect male norms, which perpetuates homogeneity rather than diversity, and reinforces for emerging women leaders that the cost of entry is behaving like men. Many women conclude the cost is just too high!

Men struggle to ask for help, fear embarrassment and feel most comfortable on the diversity side lines:

Admitting confusion is perceived as vulnerability, even weakness, and is something men have been trained to avoid. The difficulty for men to admit they need help and guidance is compounded by their fear of looking stupid and saying or doing something that makes them look ‘out of touch.’ A young male ally captured it perfectly when he said, “Nobody wants to be THAT guy.”

Men’s sense of walking on eggshells is the opposite, from a neuroscience perspective, of what enables people to learn and grow. Feeling on the spot triggers a fight or flight response which leads many men to conclude that not getting involved is the best strategy.

Men overestimate the acceptance of sexism by other men:  Research shows that men are far more likely to be male allies in private than in public. A key reason for this dichotomy is men’s unsubstantiated belief that ‘other’ men are more accepting of sexism, which is untrue. Men worry that being seen as a diversity advocate, potentially diverging from the group norm, could put them at risk for not being accepted by their male peers at work.

Men question their right to play a role:

We’ve heard many times that men are concerned it’s not their place to get involved in gender diversity work. Social scientists use the term psychological standing, which translates to men feeling as though they don’t have the right to interfere. Some men have found their fears confirmed, reaching out to the women’s network at their company – or another group working on D&I issues – only to find a cool reception and their desire to get involved as suspect.

A male executive shared his concern that HR may negatively interpret the request for a coaching and mentoring program, equipping men to move effectively develop women, as further evidence of men’s entitlement.

 A confluence of factors result in men’s lack of involvement – Many factors collectively contribute to men keeping their distance and then feeling regret, even shame, at not playing an active role in helping solve the problem of so few women (and other diverse employees) in senior leadership roles. Many men are animated when they talk about the importance of gender equity in relation to important females in their lives yet their reaction at work is quite different, seeking to avoid conversations about, or involvement in, gender diversity.

Failure for men to meet their own ideals or standards in strengthening gender equality at work could manifest as shame, often confused with guilt but there’s a central difference between the two. We’re far more likely to talk about guilt, a situation in which we demonstrated “bad behavior” versus shame which the brain interprets as “bad self.” We fix guilt, but hide shame.

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In order to unlock the potential engine of change that men can become, we first need to listen to men, and this includes hearing their concerns and frustrations. We need to provide safe spaces where men can ask questions, make mistakes, learn and grow without judgement or shame. We need to provide resources that build men’s gender competence and we need to be clear that men’s involvement is welcome, actually vital, to realizing gender equality in the workplace.

By trading judgment for support, men will be far more able to build their comfort, knowledge and skill with regard to managing gender – and other forms of diversity – unleashing a formidable lever of change for progress.