Forbes recently reported on “masculine anxiety” at the workplace, based on the findings of an April 2021 Catalyst report, “Masculine Anxiety and Interrupting Sexism at Work.” The report stated that 94% of men experience some degree of this distress at work “when they do not think they are living up to society’s rigid standards of masculinity.” As a result of this anxiety, 28% responded that they would “likely do nothing” if a colleague were to make an overtly sexist comment at the workplace.
This is troubling news, since there has been so much talk about the importance of diversity and getting more women and people from marginalized groups into the engineering/technology profession. We know that diversity and inclusion matter deeply to IEEE, which in 2019 created an ad hoc committee on diversity, inclusion and professional ethics, and in June of this year launched a new IEEE Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion website with information and resources for members, volunteers and the broader community.
Diversity can be a thorny issue, one that divides rather than unifies, so that leaves us with a big question: what role can we all play — especially men, who make up the vast majority of the engineering and technology workforce — in making our workplaces more inclusive in a way that isn’t forced, but rather creates a desirable outcome for all involved?
In search of an answer, I reached out to communications consultant Matt Davis, who recently shared a thought-provoking post on LinkedIn. It had more than 20,000 views and 80 comments, and focused on his personal efforts to learn from past mistakes and to move toward a position of inclusivity. Matt wrote that being a male ally to women in the workplace “is about GROWTH. Not perfection. But that’s why we should talk more about it. Even though it’s hard.” Matt was kind enough to expand on that idea below in his own words:
“To start with, there are a bunch of cringeworthy things I’ve done over the years. And I’m not proud of them. They included calling female colleagues ‘darling,’ telling a female colleague that she was being ‘shrill and aggressive’ when she challenged me on something, adopting a patronizing attitude of wanting to help women colleagues (meanwhile competing with male colleagues), along with not speaking up and asking for help when I needed it ‘because guys don’t ask for help.’ The list doesn’t even stop there. It also includes letting colleagues and friends talk about the attractiveness of other colleagues without challenging them on the behavior, or taking the conversation in a different direction, and relying on other people to challenge me when I stepped off the tracks on this stuff, rather than investing in myself and doing the work. That’s the definition of privilege, right?
“Jacquelyn asked me what prompted my Linkedin post. Having made some mistakes and trying to learn from them, it’s important to me to model the behavior that I and other guys might consider adopting if change is going to happen. And to start a conversation. I’m not proud of any of this behavior, but to be honest, it takes time to realize you’ve done it. Then you must feel bad that you’ve done it. Then you must think about speaking up and admitting to it, and that’s hard. And then you can be more conscious about trying to behave differently, as part of the conversation with other guys about what’s going to help. Right now, the emphasis is on women to start these conversations, but it’s guys who are making the workplace more difficult.
“While a lot of the comments I received on the post were positive, there are also a few people who pushed back. They ranged from telling me that my post was a distraction from getting on with their jobs, to one guy who even accused me of being a Communist!
“It’s important for us to discuss these things and be able to agree to disagree. And while I do disagree with the guys who get angry about talking about this stuff, at the same time, I’m glad they’re coming along and being part of the conversation because then we can talk about how they’re not necessarily making their women colleagues’ lives any easier. That’s a good starting point for change. Right now, most guys, it seems, tend to think it’s on somebody else to lead the conversations about making our workplaces more inclusive. But it’s on us, at least some of the time, to own up to where we’ve gone wrong in the past and think about how we can encourage ourselves and each other to do better.
“One place to start is by taking the Harvard Implicit Association Tests. They can help us delve more deeply into our own biases. Because we all have biases. Whether we’re male or female, no matter what our race is, it is true. And a good starting point to overcoming those biases is to figure out what they are. For example, I didn’t realize, but the test showed I have a strong bias towards seeing feminine characteristics and family as linked, and a strong bias to linking male characteristics to career-related topics. If I see careers as inherently male, how am I going to open the workplace for more women without facing and talking about my own bias first?
“Above all, my goal is to get a conversation going about ‘seeing masculinity’ in the workplace. It’s not just a grey background to everything. It’s an active part of working life. And much of it is toxic.
“Do I worry about being ‘cancelled’ for talking about this stuff? Honestly, it’s a consideration, but as a consultant, I’m aware that I can be a little more direct about it than many people who are worried about saying the wrong thing in the workplace. I think that’s why employers have a responsibility to foster healthy conversations about workplace culture, too. It shouldn’t all be on individuals to bring this stuff up without getting the support they need.”
Matt’s willingness to confront and share his own flawed past, and his commitment to making himself an ally to his women colleagues shows us one path forward toward a more inclusive and diverse workplace. We don’t all have to air our missteps on a platform like LinkedIn, but each of us can make a difference in how we respond to bias and sexism in the workplace. Which brings the charge back to us, as the leaders in our fields. It is time to face our own biases and behaviors as we strive to make the workplace more inclusive for all.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and interview subjects and not necessarily those of IEEE or IEEE-USA.
Jacquelyn Adams is a storyteller and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, vlogging about the future of work… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.