Three Ways to Activate Young Men for Workplace Gender Equality

Tens of thousands of American men enter the workforce every year. What can they do to combat gender inequality? (5 minute read)

My next door cube-mate was a woman in her late-20’s. I’ll call her Frances for the purpose of this essay. She’d earned a degree from a prestigious 4-year college and had a half-decade of experience in the sector we worked in. All of this made her job title very confusing.

“Frances!”, yelled our boss, Steve, as he barged in through the office door and stomped over to the cubicle next to mine like King-Kong in a button-down shirt. “I have some slides for the conference tomorrow. The content is solid but they need some formatting.”

Some formatting was an understatement. I’d seen these slides before. They were crammed with so many distorted images and run-on sentences that without extensive editing, an audience member might wonder whether our company were real or a complicated embezzlement scheme.

Steve said, “I need you to fix ‘em. Can you do it before tomorrow?”

“Sure thing, Steve,” Frances replied.

“Great. Knew I could count on you.” He stomped backed out of the room.

Frances was in her cubicle late that night. I saw her methodically replacing fuzzy pictures with sharp ones, removing unnecessary commas, and tweaking the formatting. It wasn’t work at a level commensurate with her experience, but it fit nicely under the title Steve gave her: Intern.

That same night, I pounded away on a new strategy for one of Steve’s projects. I was a recent college grad with few relevant work experiences, but my job description didn’t include any of the dirty work.

Frances and I talked about it sometimes. “Before this job, I had one kinda like yours,” she would say. “I wonder why Steve hasn’t asked me to work on more of your projects.” I never asked myself how Steve allocated work, but another co-worker of ours, Linda, had a theory that she divulged over lunch one day.

“Steve’s a sexist,” she told me in a blunt monotone, her brown eyes shooting lasers into my forehead as if the truth were as obvious as the sky is blue.

Linda had worked in the cubicle adjacent to mine for almost a year. She was an accomplished professional already, with a decade of experience and a Masters degree. But when our company won a shiny new project, Steve (also her boss) dumped it on my desk.

“Make me look good, Nelson,” he told me.

Linda continued, “If he weren’t a sexist, why else do you think you got to manage the project? No offense to you or anything, but you don’t have any professional experience. You’re a baby.”

I nodded sympathetically in response to her, but my internal monologue started spinning.

You’re just jealous, I said to myself, retreating into an emotional shell like a threatened gastropod. …The project fits squarely into my role. That’s ridiculous.

But Lisa’s question stuck with me long after we left the table that afternoon. Why did I get to manage the project over her? Why didn’t I start out as an intern like Frances did? I certainly wasn’t more qualified than either of them. What was actually going on?

Photo Credit: LiCheng Shih

The Invisible Wind

When the Sociologist Michael Kimmel writes about male workplace advantages, he says it’s like having an invisible wind at your back. He says, “we rarely, if ever, get a chance to see how we are sustained, supported, and even propelled by that wind.” The implication is that things seem just a little easier than they should be, like the friction that’s supposed to be there has disappeared in a wondrous miracle of physics. I’m no physicist, but even I could identify little resistance to my advancement at this job.

Back then, I believed Steve gave me all of the important work because I understood what he demanded and did just that. But this reasoning wasn’t universalizable. Frances and Linda cranked out high-quality work too, but they encountered a headwind.

This early work experience gave me some anecdotal insight when I later researched why America’s labor inequality between men and women was as bad as it is. Preferential treatment by male bosses toward men is one of the many reasons why women comprise 47% of the labor force but only 26% of private-sector executive positions and 5% of Fortune 500 CEO’s. Hiring discrimination is common and can drastically alter women’s career trajectories. Payscale, a compensation research firm, wrote a study showing that bosses who share the same gender as their direct reports are more likely to give them more responsibility, and as a result, those employees get promoted more often.

When reflecting on my experiences, I’m struck by the ways in which they were representative of larger American labor equality issues. It also hits me how unaware I was of what was going on. I didn’t even think of myself as the beneficiary of inequality, much less a posterchild for America’s gender equality battles.

My obliviousness isn’t unique. There will be tens of thousands of young men like me entering the workforce every year, similarly unaware. In an age when American women are pushing powerfully for equality in the workforce, it’s a problem for young men to enter workplaces without awareness of the gendered power dynamics at play there.

Since founding a men’s group dedicated to discussing issues of gender inequality and building better and more inclusive workplaces, I’ve worked with dozens of young men around the country to remove this “awareness gap,” a blind spot that I believe is preventing men from being stronger advocates for gender workplace equality.

You may be saying to yourself, “Awareness? We don’t need men to be aware, we need them to act!” I agree. Awareness is no substitute for action. The reason why I’m writing about awareness, however, is that there are so many valuable resources already that are focused on specific actions that men can take to make the workplace more equitable for women. These resources include reducing bias in hiring, creating equitable and flexible work-life policies, advocating for companies to build inclusive infrastructure like lactation rooms for new moms, creating an inclusive culture with gender-neutral social outings, and assessing whether your company has a gender-based pay gap and removing it. There are relatively fewer resources that focus on building the necessary awareness so that working men make these aforementioned actions a high priority in their day-to-day.

You may also say to yourself, “What if someone identifies as a black or Latino man, or a transgender or gay man? Being a man doesn’t automatically mean someone is free from issues of workplace inequality or that I don’t experience discrimination and bias in other aspects of my identity.” This is 100% true. Identities intersect and people have written extraordinary pieces about being, for instance, in the gender majority and the racial minority at the same time. “Young men” is a broad category that has the potential to erase those distinctions, and yet I still think there are certain levels of privileges largely shared by people who are male-identifying that this series of three articles will delve into.

Okay! Let’s dive in, to the ways that men, especially young men, can investigate and reflect on the ways in which gender inequality manifests in their workplaces.

Tactic #1: Discuss Your Workplace

The men’s group I led was a part of Venture For America (VFA), an entrepreneurial training and apprenticeship Fellowship program of which I’m both an alum and former team member. Every year, over 150 recent college graduates join Venture For America to begin their career in entrepreneurship, and of the Fellows, around 50% are men. Over the past two years, we’ve led or hosted discussions during our 4+ week preparatory bootcamp about healthy masculinity in the startup world with these young men. This year, we also set up an online webinar after they started their jobs that was focused on building awareness of gender inequality in their workplaces.

I kicked off the webinar discussing my experience with Steve and asked the young men, “in what ways do you see or have you seen gender inequality manifest in your workplace?” When people started talking, stories arose that sounded far too familiar: The all-male software development team… The all-male executive team… A male employee referring to a woman he knew as a “fat bitch” in a public space where female coworkers could hear him… Male managers stating their preference for “strong employees” who could focus solely on work instead of “outside commitments,” like family.

The second question I asked them was, “what do you gain from gender inequality at your job?” One participant mentioned not having to worry about code switching because the dominant workplace culture talked about subjects like sports and beer. He also mentioned not having to worry about being the target of sexual misconduct in his workplace. Another said how he believes his deep, loud voice is more readily listened to. He also stated that, “My mistakes are more easily forgiven and co-workers don’t question my authority even though I’m entry-level.”

Asking reflective questions like these are essential for young men entering the workforce because they provide a space where they can reflect and digest layers of unearned advantage they may be experiencing. It’s a similar exercise to Peggy Macintosh’s Invisible Knapsack. Whereas she identifies, “the daily effects of white privilege in my life… [which] my African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances…cannot count on,” the questions young men should be discussing focus on revealing privileges related to gender and work.

Young men should be guiding themselves through exercises like these at every workplace in the United States. The objective isn’t to guilt them or humiliate them, to say they’re bad people, or even to convince them that the preferential treatment they might be experiencing is only experienced by men. The main reasons are twofold.

If young men build awareness of the systemic gender inequality they benefit from early on in their careers, it raises the likelihood that as they rise in the workforce, they won’t unconsciously replicate past behaviors. Research has shown that biased behaviors “can be caught” like a disease and transmitted from person to person, generation to generation. Behavior in the workplace is no exception.

Research also says that awareness of biased behavior and discussion about it are two of the best ways to prevent it from being caught and spreading. Most young men I’ve worked with don’t want to unconsciously catch and be vessels for this intergenerational disease, and mention this as one of the reasons they participate in men’s groups. In acknowledging, exploring, and discussing these issues, these folks are much less at risk of perpetuating workplace inequalities than those who are not doing the work.

The second reason is that by identifying their own unearned advantage, young men can identify which benefits they receive that others don’t. From my own personal experience and talking with other men who have done similar exercises, awareness of these realities often leads to a deep desire to change things in the name of equality and fairness. It is a powerful foundation that can lead to action.

In the Next Article…

In the next article, we’ll focus on the ways in which workplace gender inequality manifests through the unconscious, exploring a phenomenon called Implicit Bias.


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