If you’re a male leader, are you aware of your male privilege and what it affords you? Most men aren’t.
Many men inside companies have little sense of the role their language and behavior play in what women experience. That is because silence (or tolerance) has permitted these behaviors and language to continue. Most guys just keep being guys without giving much thought to the experiences of those around them because those are not their lived experiences. Too often, they get a pass and give a pass. It’s all unspoken — and I’m not saying that most men have done anything wrong. But to do nothing when the misbehavior of other men impacts the people around you isn’t okay either.
Instead, learn to be an ally and inclusionary leader. Understand that there’s much more going on than just sexual behavior or violating a non-fraternization policy. It’s what you do or don’t do when someone else — a guy — makes a sexist or derogatory comment, either in the company of a woman or not. It’s all about choices.
You can choose to use your position as a leader to invite a woman’s voice into the conversation at a meeting when she is the only woman in attendance. Choose not to ask a woman to set up the meeting space with coffee, and instead, do it yourself. Choose to recognize the issue with having no women candidates in the talent pipeline or during an executive search. These are all choices — and making them certainly requires commitment and a leap of faith. But, they also require one fundamental decision: that you’re going to acknowledge and face your male privilege.
Here are seven essential steps you can take to start:
1. Face your defensiveness. Being a male leader, manager, or individual contributor in today’s current social and political narrative means having the spotlight on what you say and do. But this attention from others on your behavior is rarely a motivator to change/adjust one’s behavior. I don’t know about you, but this type of attention puts me on the defensive, and I’m less apt to change. Maybe you feel powerless to change; perhaps it seems easier to look the other way or blame someone else. One thing is for sure: If you take this approach, you are inviting a personal wake-up call. The other option is to consider this a growth opportunity.
2. Get out the microscope. A big part of being an ally and inclusionary leader is proactively shining a light on your behavior, language, and power. How do they impact others? This isn’t something you can do alone. Everyone (including you and I) has gaps in their ability to see themselves. Enlist others to “help you see” what you cannot — that’s an invaluable and necessary action.
3. Replace your self-judgment with curiosity. Declare for yourself an intention to learn more about what drives your language and behavior— without self-judgment. This is all about mindset, and it will serve you throughout your journey. The positive effect of this intention is that you will begin to understand why you do what you do, as well as what is holding you back. When you get curious about what drives your behavior and language, especially when they produce less-than-desirable results, you can rewrite your own narrative—and act and speak as an ally and inclusionary leader.
4. Seek a female mentor/partner. Get curious about her experiences and how men’s behaviors impact her. There are numerous positive effects to doing this. Inviting a woman colleague or partner (or both) to give you feedback demonstrates a willingness to learn, be better, and be an ally — in her eyes. Second, your intention to be curious about her experiences as a woman will help you develop your empathy muscles. This is not about putting the burden of your learning on women mentors. Instead, it’s about creating both personal and business trust that contributes to a beneficial relationship.
5. Seek and secure a male support accountability partner. Men predominantly fill leadership positions, and there are numerous times when women are not present — yet behaviors that are unbecoming of an ally and inclusive leader still may be. By partnering with a man as a supportive accountability partner, you can develop your ability to give and receive feedback in support of your growth and his. Having an accountability buddy ensures your continued growth. Your organization benefits as more men become woke.
6. Understand power differentials. Learn about and understand the concept of power differentials and how others may experience your power and position. Your leadership position at your company yields power over others — even when it’s not what you intended. You must understand how this power can influence others, despite good intentions.
Power differentials (which are felt most keenly by the person with the least amount of organizational control) are composed of two ingredients: the actual control over others granted by your position/title and an individual’s own past experiences with authority. It is important to learn that women and marginalized people feel it, even when they’re not aware they’re feeling it. They live with it every day.
7. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Whenever we’re in a relationship with someone who has power over us, we do what we need to do to keep ourselves safe. Imagine the shoe being on the other foot to the extent you can. The woman you report to, your female superior, makes a suggestive advance after hours while on a business trip. She possesses the ability to promote or demote you. Can you feel the lose-lose tension if you say no?
Male privilege traces back to long-held social norms that we all need to leave behind — especially leaders. When you take the time to acknowledge your privilege and truly understand power dynamics, you can use your leadership — and your power — for good. And when women and marginalized people can feel safer and more valued, that contributes to their ability to bring their whole selves to work and focus on their roles. All organizations and leaders benefit when employees feel free enough and safe enough to be truly effective.