The head-hunter Joanna Moriarty has a wonderful turn of phrase. She says it’s great that men are appointing women to senior roles, but now that women have finally made it into the boardroom, she reckons the men still need to ‘budge up’ to accommodate them. I know quite a few men who struggle with this, because it seems that whatever they do it’s never quite right. It either feels patronising, or it’s not supportive enough. And it’s in everyone’s interests that women perform well, particularly in the boardroom, not just in service of better results but also to be role models for those coming up behind them. So how might men budge up, exactly? Here are 7 golden rules:
1 Avoid Dominating
First, some obvious physical things. Do watch your body language and tone, and of course the appropriateness of what you say and where you let your gaze fall. Her neckline may be a response to the weather or the fashion, not an invitation for scrutiny. In meetings if your power casts a long shadow think carefully about seating plans and how to ensure that the women in the room are best placed to participate. Keep a score on meeting contributions, and if the women aren’t contributing, tactfully invite them to. Take care in Q&A not just to select the men, who will tend to ask the first questions, and to explicitly invite the women present to ask questions too [I know, we should just get on with it: we’re trying!]. When women do contribute, use your body language and attention to encourage it: turning to your notes or your phone sends out a too-obvious signal to the other men present that they too should feel free to switch off when a woman talks.
2 Avoid Mansplaining
Social media is rife with examples of embarrassing situations where eminent females have suffered the indignity of a confident man authoritatively correcting them about a matter on which they are frankly expert. But this kind of ‘mansplaining’ occurs routinely in situations where women are still in the minority and men are used to being in charge. There is prevention, and there is cure. The first is about research. Most women I know go into meetings armed with a google search so they know who they’ll be meeting so as to avoid faux pas. Then they listen carefully to pick up cues, and adjust their pitch accordingly. Call it years of social conditioning if you like, but it’s this finely honed intuition that has kept the social wheels turning for generations. But if your male antennae fail you, you’ll find the basilisk stare your ally in remedying the problem. If you do find yourself in full flow, keep your eyes peeled for this vital clue. If you spot it, stop talking, and apologise.
3 Avoid Manterrupting
Numerous studies show that women are more prone to be interrupted than men. It’s more likely they’ll be interrupted by a man, but women are also more prone to interrupting other women than they are to interrupting a man. So apart from letting her finish, you might also use your power in the room to ensure everyone gets to finish. Granted, there are the office bores who will always require interrupting, but if that does not apply, practise active listening to keep you from breaking in, and keep an eye out for anyone else who may need your support to ensure their contribution is heard.
4 Avoid Hepeating
Hepeating is when a male colleague takes the credit for making a brilliant intervention that had in fact already been made earlier in the meeting by a woman. It seems that those men who do hepeat are often unaware that a female colleague has already made that point. Perhaps they don’t quite hear female voices as authoritative, or are poor listeners. If it is conscious bias, stop it. The theft of ideas is not acceptable in any walk of life. If it is unconscious bias, watch out for it, and again check for basilisk stares if the room suddenly goes chilly after you’ve made a particularly brilliant remark.
5 Avoid Rescuing
In the National Gallery there’s a wonderful picture from c1470 of St George and the Dragon by Ucello. Enter St George, on his charger, with his enormous lance! But the damsel who was supposed to be in distress is perfectly calm: she already has the dragon on a leash. Chivalry is not dead, but it’s often misplaced at work. Please check before you rescue. She may not have said or done what you would have, but she may indeed have thought long and hard about it, and may even be right. It may feel risky to you to let her lead, but it’s terminally undermining to be corrected in public, particularly when it’s rare that a ‘mistake’ has actually been made.
6 Avoid Auto-competing
Many men have been raised by their families and their schooling to strive to win, both on the field and off. Competition is viewed as such a wholesome discipline that it is enshrined unassailably within our economic system. But Shelley Taylor’s research shows that men and women have different biological responses to stress. It turns out that a competitive ‘fight or flight’ response is typically male, whereas women under pressure are more likely to reach out and communicate, a response she has dubbed ‘tend and befriend’. While this finding has much broader ramifications, in this context it means that while it feels entirely normal for men automatically to compete in stressful contexts, for most women this does not feel like a normal response, and can in fact feel hostile when she is on its receiving end. Male working environments tend to reek of the accumulated effect of generations of men competing with each other, and in extreme environments like trading floors this can magnify operational risk. But even in ‘normal’ working environments with male-dominated cultures, the endless cut-and-thrust that feels like sport to men feels wearing and unnecessary to women. Always reacting to a perceived challenge with an attack is unlikely to be a productive strategy, and will tend to shut down your female colleagues rather than get the best out of them. And beware: any ‘tend and befriend’ responses they suggest when the pressure is on might feel weak and foolish to you, primed to triumph in a zero-sum game. Keep your cards close to your chest and don’t give the game away! But they have the maths on their side: the game theorists have proved that co-operation is a superior strategy in most interactions.
Finally, thank you for your help in getting us this far, and for your help in securing more representative boardrooms in the future. We know it’s incredibly fraught, trying to avoid the extremes of avuncular patronage on the one hand and political-correctness-gone-mad on the other. So it may be that it’s simply easiest for you to ask. Could you risk asking your female colleagues for feedback on how supported by you they currently feel, and whether there’s anything else you might do to help them be at their best in the workplace?