Men, This Is How to Become True Advocates for Women




Originally published on LinkedIn Influencers on February 27, 2015

On the front page of yesterday’s New York Time’s Business Section was an article called “Vivek Wadhwa, Voice for Women in Silicon Valley, Is Foiled by His Tone” by Farhad Manjoo, and needless to say, the headline caught my attention. It also raised immediate concern. The fact that there was a male voice for women in Silicon Valley? Awesome. He was foiled? Decidedly less awesome. Particularly because I have been waiting for a headline like this for forever. Not the foiled part, of course, but the part about male voices standing up for gender bias. I’ve dreamed of the day when I open the newspaper and find headlines proclaiming that male CEOs are standing with women en masse as allies to fight the gender biases that are pervasive in nearly every sector of industry. If this voice was foiled, how much longer am I going to have to wait for those headlines? I read on.

The opening line states that, “Silicon Valley has lately come to the realization that it is not the meritocracy it has long pretended to be — at least not for women and most minorities.” So true. As a woman who was once a senior professional in the financial services industry, the “myth of the meritocracy” is something I have spoke about and written on a lot. You just have to look at the numbers in both sectors to know that this is fact. I continued to read.

The article immediately posits this question: “What should we make of the fact that one of the most out-spoken voices for women in tech has been — rather oddly – a man?” I think you should make two things out of it. One, isn’t it interesting that we live in a world where men’s views, even those on women, are generally held in higher regard than women’s views? Too often, credibility is simply assumed of men, while women not only have to earn credibility, but continuously justify it. This could explain how his voice is considered so important, when there are many outspoken women who continue to champion diversity in Silicon Valley. Secondly, why is it that in an industry where the overwhelming majority of the leaders are men, so few are willing to take a stand against gender bias? Most likely because of the issues brought up in this article, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The article goes on to identify the foiled man as Vivek Wadhwa, and although I have never heard of him, on the surface, it would appear that he has tried to be an advocate for women in tech. However, the article continues with this: “Men who would like to become allies in the fight for women’s equality in tech will find in this story a lesson on how to conduct themselves: Look at the way Mr. Wadhwa behaved when faced with criticism from female technologists. Then do the opposite.” Ouch. According to the article, Mr. Wadhwa’s reported transgressions include clumsily articulating women’s causes, calling women in tech “token floozies”, refusing to be held accountable for his stupid comments and blaming them on his poor English and lack of understanding of “web slang” instead, positioning himself as an expert on women in tech when he is not a woman in tech, and telling women that all they need to do to survive in tech is to act more confident, despite studies that show the detrimental effect this has on women’s careers. All of these items would definitely be on my list of what not to do as an advocate for women’s causes. Unfortunately, the article spends little time examining what he may have done right or what he could have done better, and without research on my part to read any of the dozens of articles and op-eds he has written or listen to the many interviews he has given, I’m more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that his heart was in the right place.

Unfortunately, it would seem that Mr. Wadhwa has called it quits on his campaign for more diversity in Silicon Valley, in part because of the criticism he has received from feminists in the industry. Criticisms that if the above list is any indication, were well deserved. However, instead of listening to the criticism, learning from it, reaching out to women leaders in an effort to be better in his campaign, and adjusting his approach, he’s simply walking away, claiming that he’s “not needed anymore.” Apparently, when it comes to gender equality in Silicon Valley, Mr. Wadhwa adheres to the “my way or the highway” approach, which is certainly not conducive to achieving any form of long lasting change on any issue. We all have to be willing to listen to each other, to hear all of the unique voices at play, and be willing to learn from them. I don’t have all the answers for how to solve Silicon Valley’s diversity problem, nor does Mr. Wadhwa, but if we all work together, we just might have a chance.

Looking at the bigger picture, I deeply worry that by highlighting Mr. Wadhwa’s story in the way it was done, the message to any man waiting in the wings to help champion women is, “Don’t go there!” People, ladies, we need men to go there. We need to encourage and support males leaders to come forward to help uncover the inequities that exist not just in the tech world but everywhere, and we need everyone’s help to work to find solutions that will level the playing field. So while we absolutely have the right to respectfully criticize statements/voices that don’t help our cause, our efforts should be centered on helping men to be better as allies, and hopefully, unlike Mr. Wadhwa, they will be receptive to listen.

So what does that help look like? The leading researcher on the topic of engaging men is Catalyst, a leading nonprofit organization with the mission to expand opportunities for women and business. When I searched “engaging men”, there were 47 reports and tools that popped up. I have included a “list of actions men can take” below from their tool, First Steps to Engaging Men. I also invite you to check out the organization Men Advocating Real Change (MARC), a community created especially for men committed to making real change in the workplace.

So men. If you are genuinely interested in helping to create a more inclusive work environment for you, for your female friends and colleagues, for your mothers, and for your daughters, please engage. Below are some tips to get you started. And please tell us what we can do to be champions for you.

  1. Listen to women colleagues when they attribute certain work experiences to sexism without being defensive, offering alternative explanations, or otherwise invalidating what they say.
  2. Pay attention to the subtle ways in which some men may unconsciously cause women colleagues to feel diminished. Avoid these behaviors, and encourage male peers to do so as well.
  3. Be attentive to whether and how men and women colleagues are judged by different standards. Speak up if you observe gender bias.
  4. Use work-life flexibility benefits, if you have them (e.g., paternity leave, family leave, and telecommuting), to manage your work and personal responsibilities, and communicate your support for male colleagues who use these policies/benefits.
  5. Don’t interrupt women when they speak, control their space, or assume they need your protection. Focus on the effect of your actions, rather than on the intent.
  6. Be the kind of father you always wanted to have.
  7. Listen, believe, and be accountable to women and their stories. When confronted about your own sexism (or racism, homophobia, etc.), listen instead of getting defensive.
  8. Don’t condone, laugh at, or tell sexist, racist, or homophobic jokes or stories.

A few selected reports from Catalyst and other sources:

  1. Engaging Men in Gender Initiatives: Stacking the Deck for Success (Catalyst)
  2. Engaging Men in Gender Initiatives: What Change Agents Need to Know (Catalyst)
  3. Moving Mindsets on Gender Diversity: McKinsey Global Survey Results
  4. Bringing Men on Board with Gender Equality (Business Digest)

If you are looking for other organizations that convene male champions of women’s rights and gender issues, please visit the National Organization for Men Against Sexism, MenEngage, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Men Stopping Violence, Oxfam GB’s Gender Equality and Men Project, EuroPRO-Fem, Fostering Caring Masculinities (FOCUS), and Men For Change.

Finally, please consider attending a conference, coming soon in New York City, on men and masculinity, running March 5-8th. Details can be found here.

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