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Want to support your female colleagues — particularly in a male-dominated field? Do this one thing

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By Meera Jagannathan

Use your voice.

That’s the conclusion of a series of experiments on how men can support their female colleagues, and published in the latest edition of the peer-reviewed journal Social Psychological and Personality Science . Male colleagues can do so even when there’s no blatant sexism afoot, the researchers say. Just voicing a commitment to gender equality and allyship can go a long way.

The presence of an “equality-supportive male ally” decreases women’s anticipated workplace hostility and isolation, and boosts their anticipated respect, support and perception that gender equality is seen as “normative” at their organization, the study’s authors found.

This was true for both general samples and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, where men far outnumber women , the researchers discovered in three separate experiments involving more than 1,000 participants in total. 

“We found that women who had a male gender-equality ally were significantly more likely to feel that they would be respected and valued by their colleagues in male-dominated contexts than women who did not have an ally,” Charlotte Moser, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. student at the University of Kansas, told MarketWatch in an email. 

In other words, she said, “allyship from men increases women’s sense of belonging in male-dominated fields.”

Moser and her co-author, University of Kansas psychology professor Nyla Branscombe, conducted three experiments in which participants were asked to imagine receiving a job offer at a company.

Participants were assigned at random to view a slideshow of their future coworkers, who were either all male or gender-balanced. Some saw slideshows with an “ally” scenario (a male coworker expressing support for gender equality), while others saw a “no ally” scenario (no coworker mentioning gender equality).

How to be an ally

An ally in the study would signal allyship by saying, “One of my biggest aims working here is to make an inclusive environment. I am passionate about gender equality and work to ensure that everyone is treated equally. If you take this job, I promise that you can count on me to be your ally,” when meeting the woman participant, Moser said.

“In practice, I think simply saying something like, ‘I really care about gender equality and make it a priority to ensure that everyone is treated equally’ would be effective as well,” she added. “Men can also show allyship through amplifying women’s contributions — ‘I think what X said was a great idea and we should look into that.'”

And of course, calling out a perpetrator’s sexist behavior in a work environment that’s overtly hostile to women — with a simple “Hey, that was sexist,” for example — “can increase women’s feelings that they are valued within an organization,” Moser said.

The study found no differences in Black or white women’s responses to allyship from either a Black or white man, Moser added. “Simply the presence of a male ally led women to anticipate more support and respect at the organization and decreased women’s expectations of workplace hostility and isolation,” she said.

Moser said she was currently studying how men responded to male gender-equality allies, to see whether these allies set norms for other male coworkers or lead them to support gender equality. And though this study highlights the positive effects of men’s commitment to allyship, she noted, men would likely need to follow through on allyship behaviors to yield long-term effectiveness.

Women, and particularly women of color , have long been underrepresented in STEM careers. In 2020, for example, women made up only 25% of people employed in computer and mathematical occupations, 21% of computer programmers and close to 17% of those in architecture and engineering, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics . STEM careers, meanwhile, are among the most lucrative .

Obstacles faced by women in male-dominated workplaces can include scarcity of mentorship and career development opportunities, elevated stress and anxiety levels, stereotypes “such as that of the ‘caring mother’ or office housekeeper,” societal expectations about women’s leadership capacity, and sexual harassment, according to 2020 research by the women’s leadership nonprofit Catalyst. 

“Male-dominated industries and occupations are particularly vulnerable to reinforcing masculine stereotypes that make it even more difficult for women to excel,” that report said.

Many men also “overstate their allyship,” according to a national 2019 survey by the gender-justice organization Promundo. While about three in four men surveyed said they were doing everything they could to promote workplace gender equality, only 41% of women actually agreed that men were doing so. 

Moser said a key takeaway from her study is that men can have “a huge influence” — through use of relatively subtle cues, like communicating their commitment to gender-equality allyship — on how much women feel they’re valued in the workplace.

While previous research has demonstrated allyship through calling out sexist interactions or confronting sexism, “our work shows that men do not have to wait for something overtly sexist to happen to be an effective ally,” Moser added. 

“Simply communicating that you care about gender equality and intend to act as an ally for women can make a difference for women’s feelings of inclusion in male-dominated spaces,” she said.

What’s more, this type of allyship can set “norms of equality” for a company, Moser said, and provides “an important means that men can harness their privileged status to make these contexts more welcoming for women.”

Related:

Sexual harassment at work can cost survivors up to $1.3 million over a lifetime

How men can be part of the solution in the #MeToo era

On Equal Pay Day, 3 ways men can stand with their female colleagues

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