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Wanted: Male Allies in the #MeToo Era

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By April Townsend 
May 18, 2019

Legislation requires that government employ a diverse workforce, yet men hold 70 percent of the most powerful and influential roles in government organizations. When the administrative leadership of state, local and municipal governments have few (or no) women in their ranks, it sends a message about the limited roles women can expect to fill. This, in turn, impacts the opportunities women have to contribute to and influence public policy. In an environment where representation is claimed to be core a value, women’s voices and experiences are being effectively muted.

Benefits of a Diverse Workforce

As government organizations face increasing challenges, incorporating solutions that consider a variety of experiences and perspectives can become a valuable tool for government leaders. Research shows the benefits of diverse leadership teams include making better strategic decisions, increased capacity for problem solving, more resilience, increased innovation and an increased capacity to adapt to change. Some agencies desiring the benefits of a more diverse leadership team have adopted initiatives to advance women.

Although well-meaning, such efforts often focus on women and what they need to change—ranging from how they communicate to the way they lead. This approach not only frames the advancement of women as a woman’s issue instead of an organizational issue, but also unintentionally sidelines men and restricts their ability to contribute to the solution.

The Role of Male Allies

Historically, research on allyship focused on social justice or men’s antiviolence work. However, more recent research has examined male allyship in the workplace. While definitions vary, the main concept is that an ally is someone considered a member of a majority group who supports members of a disadvantaged group, even when a member of that group is not in the room. Within the context of the workplace, men who assume the role of male allies are part of the dominant group who are willing to draw upon and leverage their social capital to support gender inclusion efforts.

Research has repeatedly found that when men publicly challenge the sexist behaviors of other men, they receive less backlash than women who challenge the same behaviors. When male allies point out gender bias and prejudice, they are more likely to be perceived as expressing an appropriate response because confronting sexism does not directly benefit them. As male allies confront sexism, they contribute to changing workplace attitudes and create a domino effect where others are empowered to confront inappropriate actions or comments.

The Need to Include Men

Unfortunately, men’s voices have been markedly absent from conversations that actively support women’s advancement. Because men are the largest and most influential stakeholder group in public administration leadership, their involvement and promotion of gender-parity is critical. This is supported by research conducted in 2017 from the Boston Consulting Group. Their research shows that when companies actively involve men in gender diversity efforts, 96 percent of those companies show progress in their efforts. In comparison, when companies do not involve men in the solution, only 30 percent experience progress.

In the era of #MeToo, some men have expressed reluctance to sponsor or mentor women, concerned they may do something that would be misinterpreted as negative or harassing. Yet other men feel they have gained insight and a deeper understanding into the issues women face and have worked to clarify expectations and mentoring relationships. During this time of uncertainty, organizations can play an active role by acknowledging men’s concerns while also encouraging male engagement.

5 Steps to Action

Actively involving men in the advancement of women leaders encourages those who have the power and standing to make a difference. Male allies who are willing to confront bias and support the advancement of women can play a pivotal role in influencing organizational change while ensuring a more representative and diverse leadership. The following 5 Steps to Action provides ideas both men and women can use to support the advancement of women leaders.

  1. Commit: Establish a tone from the top that is firmly committed to supporting and advancing women, particularly women of color. Ensure gender equality is embedded in the behaviors, attitudes, culture and goals of your agency and is reflected in your messaging.

  2. Take inventory/measure: Collect data to assess the percentage of women in leadership positions within your agency and the overall organization. Use internal structures, policies and procedures to support the advocacy and promotion of women in leadership.

  3. Create targets and metrics: Include women on interview panels with a goal of having half women and half men. Also, work with leadership to appoint women to all committees and taskforces, aiming for 50 percent female representation as well as 50 percent females chairing committees and task forces.

  4. Establish an action plan and accountability: Offer training to staff, particularly hiring managers, in recognizing and minimizing unconscious bias.

  5. Highlight results and areas of opportunity: Mentor and sponsor emerging women leaders within the organization and be willing to speak out publicly on issues of concern to professional women, such as the gender wage gap, discrimination and the relatively low numbers of women in top levels of leadership.

Author: For over 30 years, Dr. April Townsend worked in local government where she held top leadership and management positions. As a practitioner and a scholar, her focus has been on organizational effectiveness, financial accountability, and leadership development. Recently retired, she continues to research and advocate for the advancement of women leaders in government. She can be reached at [email protected].
Twitter handle: @AprilT2014

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