Careful male allies can ease sexism at work

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A new study on sex-based discrimination toward women in the workplace documents the plusses and minuses of male allies.

They can play a powerful role in combating chauvinistic behavior toward women, according to the study, but they can also unintentionally contribute to sexism.

An increase in the number of sex-based discrimination charges filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in recent years prompted the research, says Eden King, an associate professor of psychology at Rice University and the study’s senior author.

“A lot of research has already been done about how women can fight sexism in the workplace,” King says. “What we were interested in studying was how men play a role in this.”

King and her fellow authors evaluated 100 women of varying ethnicities, ranging in age from 19 to 69, with total work experience ranging from 1 to 50 years. These women took an online survey about male ally behavior in the workplace and were asked to recall situations when they thought their male allies were effective or ineffective in helping them fight sexism.

The researchers found that men can effectively act as allies in a number of ways, including doing things to advance a woman’s career (such as offering special projects or promotions), putting a stop to bad behavior by peers, or simply lending support when asked.

The women surveyed described a number of positive side effects from having male allies, including feeling grateful, happy, confident, empowered, supported, and more comfortable in their workplace.

“The ally’s behavior made me feel valued and ‘heard,'” one participant wrote.

However, the women answering the survey also pointed out situations where male allies did more harm than good. Women most frequently described allyship as ineffective when it had no impact on sexist behavior or organizational culture, or when they or their ally experienced backlash over their actions.

Some women also described situations where male allies’ behavior hindered their careers. One woman described how a colleague with a negative reputation tried to promote her, but his support ultimately led to her contract not being renewed.

“When we did this study, we were concerned that not everything people do believing they are acting as an ally is actually construed that way,” King says. “And we discovered that this is very true.”

A less common experience the surveyed women reported was when male allies exhibited a “savior complex,” when a male ally steps in to help or intervene on behalf of a woman who doesn’t want or need his help.

“The participants indicated that this type of behavior made them feel less confident in their ability to fulfill their job responsibilities,” King says.

Ultimately, the researchers say that male allies should take cues from their female colleagues about how to be an ally. Some common forms of allyship that participants described as helpful were listening and being a confidante behind the scenes, in addition to taking steps that ensure women get the same opportunities as men, including promotions and raises.

“While we found that allies can have a very positive impact, we encourage these individuals to confer with their female colleagues to see if help is wanted or needed,” King says. “If the answer is yes, then allies should keep doing what they are doing. If the answer is no, they should respect that.”

The study appears in Personnel Assessment and Decisions.

Source: Rice University