Author InterviewsLeadership

Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace

Women are at a disadvantage. At home, they often face an unequal division of household chores and childcare, and in the workplace, they deal with lower pay, lack of credit for their contributions, roadblocks to a promotion, sexual harassment, and more. And while organizations are looking to address these issues, too many gender-inclusion initiatives focus on how women themselves should respond, reinforcing the perception that these are “women’s issues” and that men—often the most influential stakeholders in an organization—don’t need to be involved.

Gender-in-the-workplace experts David G. Smith and W. Brad Johnson counter this perception. In this important book, they show that men have a crucial role to play in promoting gender equality at work. Research shows that when men are deliberately engaged in gender-inclusion programs, 96 percent of women in those organizations perceive real progress in gender equality, compared with only 30 percent of women in organizations without strong male engagement.

Good Guys is the first practical, research-based guide for how to be a male ally to women in the workplace. Filled with firsthand accounts from both men and women, and tips for getting started, the book shows how men can partner with their female colleagues to advance women’s leadership and equality by breaking ingrained gender stereotypes, overcoming unconscious biases, developing and supporting the talented women around them, and creating productive and respectful working relationships with women.

Tell me a little about your new book “Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace”

Too often, gender diversity and equity initiatives are labeled as “women’s issues” and that sends a signal to men that they don’t have a role or doesn’t include them. When in fact, gender equity is a leadership issue that includes women and men. In our research for Good Guys, we found that most men support gender equity, but are unsure of what they need to do. Our book provides a manual for men on how to be better allies for women in the workplace. It’s full of actionable strategies men can start employing right now and no matter what level of leadership or experience. The book is organized around the two parts of how we define allyship. First is the easy part, interpersonal allyship—how men hold themselves accountable for how they show up at work in their relationships with women. The second part, public allyship, is more challenging because it demands that we take public action to eliminate gender inequities. Not only do we provide the ally actions, but we also give readers examples and stories of how others have implemented these into their own personal leadership brand. There are examples in every profession and industry including the military.

What is the backstory behind your book?  

Four years ago, we published our first book together, Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women. We wrote Athena Rising after discovering the research evidence that women often receive less mentoring and sponsoring—especially in male-centric organizations like the military where there are fewer and fewer women as you go up the chain of command. As we were traveling around giving talks and workshops on how men could be more deliberate and effective mentors to women so that fewer women fell through the cracks and went un-mentored, we began getting pulled into more conversations about how men could show up in the workplace more generally as allies and collaborators with women to push the needle on gender equity. So, two years ago, we set about gathering all the research evidence we could find on what excellent cross-gender allyship looks like. We then conducted close to 60 interviews with high-ranking and successful women across disciplines and professions and asked them what male allyship looks like in behavioral terms, that is, how guys can really show up as excellent colleagues for women and also as public and systemic change agents, disrupting sexism and promoting a workplace that works for everyone. Good Guys is the toolbox for men about how to really execute allyship every day.

Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?

We interviewed Dr. Regan Lyon, Air Force Major, and a trauma surgeon of the elite special operations surgical team, while she was deployed in Afghanistan. She told us that on a previous deployment, her team faced a mass casualty event with nearly thirty wounded Afghani nationals. After about six hours, a medic approached Lyon, concerned about one patient’s vital signs and a steady drop in blood pressure. She recalled, “As I walked into the trauma bay, an interpreter, a local man, said he was going to get the patient some water. I told him to wait until I had evaluated the patient. He pushed back and said, ‘It’s okay. I’ll get him some water.’ I replied, ‘No. I need to see if he needs surgery.’ He said, ‘I know what I’m doing. I’ll get him water.’ I turned to the interpreter, looked him squarely in the eye, and responded, ‘I said no!’ The no was stern; the medics all froze. The interpreter became defensive and said, ‘You didn’t have to yell!’” She tried to briefly explain that the patient couldn’t have water until she confirmed whether he needed surgery. The interpreter left the room.

Later, the interpreter stormed into Lyon’s supervisor’s office (another surgeon and a more senior man) and complained stridently. Although she had already briefed her supervisor on the event, he called her into the meeting anyway. The interpreter yelled, “She shouldn’t talk to me like that. I won’t stand for it! Women don’t talk to men like that. If she talks to me like that again, I’ll punch her!” To her astonishment, Lyon’s supervisor then said, “Now, you see, even in the US, women doctors have to raise their voices more often in order to gain respect from those they work with.” Lyon was floored. “I thought, Excuse me!? Here I thought my supervisor was going to stick up for me, and then I get undermined right in front of him. He asked me to apologize to the interpreter. I refused. So, he said he’d apologize for me later.”

Later, as her team finished up the last casualty, two men, another surgeon, and the team sergeant asked her what was wrong. She shared the story of the interpreter’s threat and how their supervisor had asked her to apologize. “These guys lost it. When the supervisor walked in, my surgeon colleague said, ‘I think I can speak for the whole team when I say that [the interpreter] isn’t ever invited back here.’” When the supervisor attempted to deflect the discussion to the following day, her colleague continued, “We can discuss it whenever you want to, but he’s not welcome back. No one threatens one of our team members, regardless of the circumstances.” Her team sergeant blew up. Things got very heated. Both allies became more adamant, and the supervisor had to finally agree to never allow the interpreter back under any circumstances. Lyon said, “Part of me wanted to cry. I had been needing this kind of allyship for the previous three months. To this day, those two men from my surgical combat team are the guys I’ll call in the middle of the night if I’m having a combat flashback or need help with a difficult case. I know they’re there for me.”

What is the biggest takeaway that you hope a reader will learn from “Good Guy”?

Male allyship is not an onerous obligation, it is really an untapped opportunity, for men, for women, and for our military organizations. In a real way, men are the missing ingredient and the secret weapon when it comes to erasing bias, sexism, and harassment in the military workplace. Not only are gender diverse teams more creative and successful, but organizations with more gender balance also achieve better mission success. Finally, there’s a lot in this for men too. We find that guys who have more female friends and colleagues, more female mentors and mentees, are just better in a lot of ways! We get better at communication, we develop strong emotional intelligence, and we become more collaborative team leaders, all things that make us better at our jobs and better in relationships outside the workplace.

What lessons can a Junior Officer take from your book?

First, you don’t have to have all the answers. Your career and development as a leader are a journey (as is allyship) that is based on learning. This means that you will make mistakes along the way—we all do. It’s more important what you do with those mistakes to improve and grow.

Second, allyship and leadership are about caring for and taking care of your people—all of your people. Especially if they don’t look like you or come from a different set of experiences. This requires some specific traits and skills. Work hard at becoming a generous listener. Listen with an intent to learn about how others experience the workplace and how their needs may differ from your own. It helps to approach people with a learning orientation, not making assumptions about who they are and displaying authentic humility.

Finally, purposefully develop a diverse network of peers, friends, confidants, mentors, and mentees. This is your inner circle that you trust to provide important feedback on how you’re doing as a leader or ally. Without this diverse inner circle, you are likely to fall prey to blindspots and miss out on the personal and professional benefits that come with this group.

What are you reading now?

I recently read Eve Rodsky’s Fair Play. Her message is about unpaid work at home is actually fundamental to creating gender equity at work. Women have long endured being the primary caregiver and doing the majority of household responsibilities, despite also having their own paid work careers. In over 40% of US households, mothers are the primary breadwinner. Without men and fathers being all-in equal allies doing their fair share at home, gender inequities will continue and adversely affect family financial stability, business profitability, and national economic prosperity. Her book lays out in a practical and eye-opening manner how we can make the invisible labor of running a household equitable for both partners.

Writing a book is tough, were there any surprises as you set out on that journey?

We’ve learned a few valuable lessons as authors. First, book-writing is indeed tough, so you’d better select a topic you feel passionate about, something you’d be reading about if you weren’t writing about it. Second, you’ve got to write nearly every day once the research is done and the process begins. Getting away from it for a while can cause you to lose focus and momentum so that when you return, you’ve got to waste time refreshing and getting back in the grove before you start typing. Finally, we’ve learned to be more humble! For both of our books together, first Athena Rising, and now, Good Guys, we had different working titles (which we, of course, believed were brilliant). In both cases, our experienced and wise editors helped us see the error of our ways and find titles that really sang! We’ve learned that a great editor will save you from yourself.

What advice would you give to an aspiring military author?  Is there any advice they should ignore?

You may be really interested in a specific topic but before you settle on something and start writing, ask yourself two questions. These are questions that a good acquisition editor at a publishing house will ask you when you pitch your book idea (usually after you’ve completed a detailed prospectus and a couple of chapters). First, who is the audience? Think carefully and honestly about whether your excitement is genuinely likely to be shared by a wide readership. Who are you writing for? Is the topic likely to be widely interesting and appealing to a general readership or is it a niche book requiring a smaller publishing house or a self-publishing approach? Second, what is your platform? By this, we mean, how are you (based on jobs held, experience, credentials, network) in a position to be the natural subject matter expert for the book, and someone others would find quite credible as an author on the topic? A thoughtful editor or literary agent will probably ask you both of those questions so be ready!

Purchase “Good Guys” Here

W. Brad Johnson is a Professor of Psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law at the United States Naval Academy, and a Faculty Associate in the Graduate School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. A clinical psychologist and former commissioned officer in the Navy’s Medical Service Corps, Dr. Johnson served at Bethesda Naval Hospital and the Medical Clinic at Pearl Harbor where he was the division head for psychology. He is a recipient of the Johns Hopkins University Teaching Excellence Award and has received distinguished mentor awards from the National Institutes of Health and the American Psychological Association. Dr. Johnson is the author of numerous publications including 14 books, in the areas of gender in the workplace, mentoring, cross-gender allyship, professional ethics, and counseling. His most recent books include Good Guys: How Men Can Become Better Allies for Women in the Workplace (Harvard Business Review, 2020, with David Smith), Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women (Harvard Business Review, 2016, with David Smith), The Elements of Mentoring (3rd edition, St. Martin’s Press, with Charles Ridley), and On Being a Mentor (2nd edition, Routledge Press).

David G. Smith is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the US Naval War College; a gender, work and family researcher; author and speaker.

Through his research and experience leading diverse organizations, he has established his value to organizations looking to improve gender relations. Dr. Smith is known for facilitating challenging topics about gender relations and brings this skill to his consulting, writing, and speaking.

A sociologist trained in social psychology, he focuses his research in gender, work and family issues including cross-gender mentoring relationships, gender bias, retention of women, dual-career families, military families, and military women. In his speaking, consulting and teaching, he explores gender in leadership settings focusing on social science research illuminating the difficulties women experience attaining and being seen as effective leaders. Emphasis on gender and leadership styles, traits, and effectiveness is integrated with domestic responsibilities and organizational cultures and how they differently impact women and men. Dr. Smith engages audiences and clients in challenging conversations about stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination that contribute to women’s underrepresentation in elite leadership roles. As a practitioner, Dr. Smith provides evidence-based best practices and strategies for promoting parity in top-level leadership.

Dr. Smith is a frequent presenter on gender relations topics and best practices in mentoring relationships, co-author of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women and authored numerous articles across his areas of expertise.

Dr. Smith received a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Maryland, an MS in Global Leadership from the University of San Diego, and a BS from the U. S. Naval Academy.

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