Even though the majority of recent press reports on the state of gender relationships—especially in the workplace—have been disheartening, there are still more than a few good men in the world. A lot of good men. Men who don’t just pay lip service to being pro-woman; they genuinely like and admire women and will invest whatever effort lies within their power to help see women succeed.
What I’ve discovered, however, is that if you are that sort of man you sometimes find yourself at a loss.
You might be thinking –
I know I occupy a place of privilege in the world. If I participated in a privilege walk I would finish at the front of the room. I would like to give back by helping someone less privileged move forward. I want to be supportive, but it seems that when I try, I often find myself bungling, and feeling that my attempt has gone badly.
It doesn’t need to be this way – especially when all you want to do is help.
I’ve been in the workplace for decades and shortchanged on privilege—it turns out I’ve been a female my entire life and I’m religious; two strikes—though more privileged than others: I’m white and grew up middle class with college-educated parents. I’ve had many experiences and learned a thing or two; here are some suggestions for how to truly help:
1. When you work with, or meet someone new and you think to yourself, “Wow! This person is the bomb – how can I help them?” take a mental privilege walk.
If they aren’t ahead of or keeping up with you but rather lagging behind, you may subconsciously categorize and slot them into a box, and then introduce them to someone else in the same box. It’s a nice gesture, but it doesn’t much help. Trust me, I’ve done it (to everyone I’ve done this too, I apologize). The gesture is more about what is easy for us than it is about finding a way to provide an advantage to the person we aspire to help. While sometimes it’s fun to meet someone in the same caste, it can actually just generate busy work. When we are introduced, to be courteous, we feel obligated to connect even if there’s no obvious reason why we should be talking—beyond the fact that we’re both women, for example. This is a gesture you can stop making.
2. Instead, be a sponsor. Because we have a caste system that we like to pretend doesn’t exist, there are doors that people of lower castes can’t walk through and rooms they can’t enter. That certainly has been the case for me. On more than one occasion, I know that men (sometimes my peers but, in terms of experience and accomplishments, sometimes not) have wondered about me, “Why don’t you just walk through that door? Sit down at that table?” I didn’t and don’t, because I couldn’t and can’t. When I first left Wall Street I was II-ranked. Highly successful. And wondering why I didn’t get any calls, while several male colleagues had moved on to CFO jobs at high profile, publicly-traded companies. The most helpful thing a more privileged man can do to help a woman is to seriously consider who you could connect them to that would really make it possible for that woman to get more done in the world. Be their sponsor. Open doors for them that they cannot open on their own. And once they get in the room, have their back.
For example, when there’s a woman in your company that is really top-notch being considered for promotion, advocate for her. It may be more difficult than you think—unconscious bias is rampant. Women are judged on track record, not potential, so you may have to engage in the hard sell. If you aren’t sure if you are being biased, do what Roche Diagnostics HR executive Kristen Pressner advises, #flipittotestit. When someone of lower status is even being considered for a position, it can indicate that their qualifications are exceptional. What they lack is advocacy—be an advocate for them. A committed sponsor can be a huge game changer.
Also, when making introductions for a woman, introduce her INTO your network. This is one of the most powerful things you can do. The distinction may seem small but it’s critical to recognize and observe it. Once you do, they will need different kind of support to succeed to function within this culture.
Here are some recent practical examples from my own career—and kudos to the men who’ve made them happen:
• Marshall Goldsmith has invited me to be in the room with people, like Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford, that I wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. Importantly, I’m not just in the room as an adoring fan (although I am one) but he’s sponsoring me to stand in front of the room—as an expert. He recommends that people hire me, diverting business in my direction that I would not have been considered for without his seal of approval.
• Taavo Gotfredsen made a call on my behalf—pounded the table on my behalf, really—to speak at a major industry-event. They are in the process of booking me.
• Russell Moorehead reached out with an offer to make a connection with a high-profile journalist regarding my upcoming book.
• Peter Sims invited me into the Silicon Guild; we have mutual friends, so I could have asked for an introduction. But it’s much more meaningful that he has invited me, providing access for me to people that will help me do more things.
• Tom Peters offered, without my asking, to provide an endorsement for Build an A team.
Here’s the common denominator: these men opened doors that on the merits I should be able to open for myself. But I can’t necessarily. If you want to give a woman you know and admire a hand, open the door for her. It’s how anyone with greater privilege can help even the playing field of opportunity for those with less.
Many may know you are a good man, but to that person you helped—like me—you aren’t just a good man, you’re a great one.
Want to harness the disruptive power of change for yourself or your team?
You want to be a great boss and create a place where people want to work. You also have tight deadlines and budgets to meet. The two often seem at odds. But they don’t have to be.
When you let your people learn, leap and repeat, you will not only meet your performance goals, because people are happy and all-in, you will become a talent magnet — a boss people love.
Learn more in my upcoming book Build an A Team with Harvard Business Press. Download the first chapter for free at — https://whitneyjohnson.com/ateam
Former award-winning Wall Street equity analyst Whitney Johnson is an expert on disruptive innovation and personal disruption.