Ben Foster

@fosterinnovation

What “Good Men” Can Do to Create a Better Working Environment for Women in Tech

Like many readers, I was appalled and disheartened by Fowler’s account of sexism at Uber. The tech world, including satellite regions outside of the Bay Area, such as Washington, DC, suffer from sexism in the workplace. It is of course disappointing, but also paradoxical given that tech companies so often boast about being the most forward-thinking, the most progressive, the most welcoming and inclusive. If half the “dog-friendly” companies took as many steps toward being woman-friendly, we’d have serious progress.

In my career, I’ve personally served in an operational role at 7 tech startups, and as a hands-on advisor over the past 3 years have been deeply involved in another 26: enough to see some meaningful patterns. I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid any environments that echo Fowler’s account; in fact, many of them have stood up to some very high standards and benefited from active ongoing efforts from the executive team to create a strong working environment for everyone. What I frequently see, though, is an implicit and genuinely unintentional male-centric culture. The impact of this phenomenon can range from being harmless or even humorous in some situations to downright immoral and illegal in others. At times, I’m sure I’ve also created uncomfortable situations for the professional women around me, despite my best intentions.

The absurdity of the events recalled by Fowler showcase the severity of this issue in the tech world, but simultaneously shed light on the unfortunate reality that many of the men (and in some cases, women) she interacted with don’t even realize that their actions, decisions, and communications are sexist or, at a minimum, counter to the values their companies have claimed are part of their culture. To properly address sexism in tech, it will take more than just “bad men” behaving better. “Good men” have a critical role to play in fixing a work environment that’s unwelcoming and unfair to women.

Let’s first break it down to the 3 types of possible interactions between the genders: women interacting with women, men and women interacting with each other, and men interacting with other men.

We must make strides on all three. However, I don’t pretend to be qualified to speak about women’s interactions with one another, and there is already plenty of content written about appropriate interactions between the genders.

Men-to-men interactions

Not enough attention has been paid, though, to the significance of men-to-men interactions as they pertain to women in the workplace. Due to the overrepresentation of men in the tech field, an outsized number of interactions exclusively involve men. Thus trying to create a more equitable workplace requires special attention to the expectations men have of one another.

Through my interactions with thousands of employees across dozens of tech companies, when it comes to gender bias, I’ve found men can be broadly divided into three personas:

  • Bad men who are sexist by choice (a very small minority, probably under 5%)
  • Clueless men who are sexist to varying degrees without realizing it (the majority, perhaps as high as 2/3)
  • Good men who act (or at least make a strong attempt to act) with a bias against sexism (the remainder, about 1/3)

Fortunately, every one of these groups can be influenced by the “good men”.

Almost all the clueless men believe they are actually in the “good” category. The overwhelming majority of men in the tech workplace wouldn’t earn a passing grade in Gender Relations 101, but think they would get an A. They simply don’t realize they are being sexist or they don’t realize that the “little things” are in fact a big deal because they are never on the receiving end. Good men can help clueless men through coaching and feedback in private. Both good and clueless men tend to appreciate feedback on the matter, but they pay particularly close attention when it’s provided by another man. Any critical feedback creates cognitive dissonance for the recipient — they will look for reasons to justify ignoring it so as to maintain their perceptions of themselves. But when the feedback comes from another man, it removes the excuse men might otherwise resort to, like, “she’s just a crazy feminist extremist”. The feedback must be taken to heart.

The few truly bad apples won’t listen to women at all (remember, they are self-aware sexists), but their behavior can be strongly influenced by men who are willing to be assertive or appropriately confrontational on behalf of their female colleagues. Most “bad men” defend their sexism to themselves and others through their own misguided definition of masculinity, associating it with characteristics like dominance and egotism. 1-on-1 coaching won’t get through to them because they can discount the feedback as coming from a weak or overly “corporate” individual. However, when faced with a wall of opposition from the men surrounding them, whom they look to when measuring their status, they will either get in line or feel ostracized and leave. Either is an acceptable outcome.

How “good men” can help women more

Men represent a strong majority in the tech industry. With numbers come power, and with power comes responsibility. The issue of providing an equally welcoming workplace for women won’t be resolved simply because women demand it from men or because the few good men consistently respect their female co-workers. It will be resolved when men begin insisting that other men do the same.

For the male readers: If you feel you are a “good man” doing your part to resolve sexism in the tech industry, it is not enough to simply act accordingly when interfacing with women. Have the courage to give direct feedback or even confront your male colleagues about their inappropriate actions. Here are several specific actionable steps you can take.

  • When seeking a job at a new company, ask what specific steps they have taken to ensure the work environment is woman-friendly. If they can’t give a satisfactory response, don’t take the job. Cite their lack of attention to that issue as the reason.
  • Before you say, write, or present anything, ask yourself whether it would likely be any different if it were produced by a woman, recognize your bias, and adjust accordingly. (For example, I recently authored a PowerPoint presentation using movies as visual aids and realized my selections were primarily action films, so I edited them to include a more gender-neutral cross-section. And, it’s far better as a result.)
  • Ask women what they think the company could be doing to create a better work environment for them. Don’t scrutinize or cherrypick their responses. Champion them instead. (Imagine how different Fowler’s experience would have been had 2–3 men spoken up about about her manager’s improprieties beforehand.)
  • Spread the word, force the conversation. Provide solidarity for the women you currently — or have previously — worked with. Share this article with your colleagues. Tweet it or post it on LinkedIn. Or instead, write your own version and share that.

Most importantly, in interactions that end up being male-only (and there are likely many), apply the same unwritten social rules you would if a woman were present. Take exception to anything you hear that would be offensive to women, and call it out as such. Don’t be afraid to be confrontational if you have to. Remember that the women you support aren’t there to assert themselves. If you truly are a “good guy”, you will be assertive on their behalf.

A final anecdote

On January 21, 2017 I attended the Women’s March on Washington, DC. I carried a sign that read “If anyone ever said that to me in a locker room, I would punch him in the face.” When I made the sign, I was uncertain of the reaction I would get from women. Was I going too far? Would women reject this as an antiquated, perhaps patriarchal, chivalry? However, I was relieved to find that it was overwhelmingly appreciated by women young and old. Hundreds of women took pictures of me with my sign, and hundreds more stopped me in my tracks to thank me for making that statement, acknowledging the importance they placed on men holding other men accountable for their treatment of women.

Since then, I’ve considered how I could better apply this lesson in the workplace. Being mindful in this way has helped me on multiple occasions be an ever-better citizen within the tech scene, hopefully establishing a more welcoming workplace for women, or any underrepresented group.

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