The Tricky (And Necessary) Business Of Being A Male Advocate For Gender Equality

Two researchers from the National Center for Women & Information Technology offer their ideas for getting men involved in gender diversity efforts.

The Tricky (And Necessary) Business Of Being A Male Advocate For Gender Equality
[Photo: Flickr user David Goehring]

In the past year, a virtual firestorm of controversy has erupted regarding the role of male advocates in technology gender diversity efforts. Having released a study on this topic two years ago, we are both encouraged and concerned by this turn of events. On the one hand, it’s exciting that people are paying attention. On the other hand, we also worry that if the controversy runs amok, it may confuse and thwart what would otherwise have been exciting opportunities for moving forward. We would hate to see this happen.


Being a male advocate–or any diversity advocate for that matter–can be a tricky business. But rather than scare folks off, we hope this fact inspires a desire to rise to the challenge. We have some research-based suggestions that can help. Some of these are particularly relevant for men who want to take on this role but aren’t sure how; other suggestions are relevant for anyone interested in working with, or encouraging, male advocates.

Why Male Advocates?

The answer to this question matters more than one might think. To be successful, advocacy efforts should involve explaining why male advocates are important. Here are two reasons to help lay a solid foundation:

Reason 1: Increasing diverse participation is not a women’s issue (or an issue relevant only to other underrepresented groups). Diversity and inclusivity are business issues, and they are human issues. We know that businesses profit from the many benefits that diverse perspectives bring to innovation and company competitiveness.

In addition, majority group members (e.g., men, white people, able-bodied people) also stand to benefit from increased diversity. For instance, in the case of gender diversity, men, not just women, are held to restrictive gender standards that limit their potential and the kinds of things they are able to do (e.g., spend more time with family). Since these are issues that affect everyone, everyone should be working on them.

Reason 2: Men currently hold a majority of formal and informal positions of power in tech, so they are able to have a great deal of influence on the current climate–whether it be in subtle everyday moments or in changing larger systems. In fact, men in tech are often in a better position to influence these dynamics compared to most women. The importance of using one’s formal or informal power is also true of other advocacy efforts.

What Exactly Should Men Be Advocating For?

1. Advocate for changing the environment. In general, male advocacy is not about men advocating for or helping specific women. While advocacy efforts might sometimes involve supporting specific women, this should not be the primary focus. In fact, making this the main focus is an almost surefire recipe for disaster, as it leads to approaches that can seem condescending or patronizing, even when well-intentioned. Women in tech do not generally need extra help, but the current environment in which they work does need help.


2. Advocate for individual and systemic change. First, there are lots of fairly simple or straightforward ways individual men can interrupt biases they see happening in the moment. And one could start doing these immediately. For example, if you know a woman (or anyone) who deserves a promotion and is being overlooked, or if you see that someone is not being heard in a meeting or not getting credit for her (or his) work, by all means, intervene! Talk to the person with the promotional power or make a (diplomatic) comment in the meeting.

But altering or intervening in these individual instances is not enough. Also advocate for altering systems. This involves eliminating subtle biases in job descriptions, interview practices, performance evaluation criteria, task assignment patterns, and flexible work policies and practices. These systems understandably developed over time around the needs of the majority group, but they are now subtly disadvantaging employees for whom those systems were never really intended. Of course, this type of change can be more daunting. Don’t let that discourage you. For ideas on how to implement systemic changes, check out these resources or see how some of the men in our study made systemic changes.

Other Things To Consider

From our research, we also found some additional concrete things that men (and others) should know and do to avoid negative reactions and foster success.

1. Listen. In our study, listening emerged as one of the first and most important ways to be a male advocate. Men we interviewed talked about how critical it had been for them to listen to the experiences of their female colleagues, early on and throughout their advocacy efforts. Doing so was important for developing a deeper understanding of the issues at play and for figuring out how to go about addressing them. Without this level of understanding, it is easy to jump to one’s own conclusions about how best to fix the problem, which can then come across as giving ill-informed and misguided advice, however well-intentioned.

2. Don’t assume all women want to participate in diversity efforts. Being a minority in a majority environment is a tricky proposition, so underrepresented individuals develop different strategies to survive and even advance, against significant odds, in these environments. One such strategy is to, consciously or unconsciously, distance yourself from the minority group to which you belong. This is one reason some women resist participating in diversity efforts: They feel they already stand out enough.

And there are other reasons as well; it can be exhausting to always be asked to participate in these efforts, especially if the organization does not reward them (or may even subtly stigmatize them). So don’t be alarmed–or even confused–if some women refuse, resist, or react negatively to your initial interest. Instead, recognize that this is an understandable, even logical, reaction to longtime experience as a minority in a majority environment. Recognize that it might sometimes take a while to build trust, and some women may never want to participate.


3. Reframe negative reactions as valuable opportunities for developing empathy. If you do encounter negative reactions, stop to consider why. Unconscious violations of any of the above points could provide a clue. Even if a negative reaction seems unreasonable or unfair, we suggest reframing this as an incredibly valuable opportunity for experiencing what it’s like to be a woman in tech, or any minority in a majority group environment. In other words, if such an experience makes it feel like you’re walking on eggshells or makes you worry about being misunderstood, imagine feeling like that much of the day, every day, at work. This temporary experience can help foster empathy and help you make sense of why these negative reactions might occur.

4. Realize that stereotype threat can apply to male advocacy. Stereotype threat is the fear that we will confirm a negative stereotype about a group to which we belong. More than 350 studies with different kinds of populations illustrate how this fear (even when unconscious) can reduce performance and confidence. While we most often talk about how this phenomenon affects underrepresented groups, studies also show that men experience stereotype threat when it comes to tests of “social sensitivity,” fearing that they might confirm a negative stereotype about men’s abilities in this area. Certainly, this anxiety can extend to male advocacy; indeed, in the past year, we have seen these dynamics play out in the controversy over male advocacy efforts. Understanding that mistakes can stem from stereotype threat can help both women and men reframe these mistakes as a normal part of becoming an effective advocate.

5. Approach advocacy with a “growth mind-set.” Research shows that fostering a “growth mind-set” helps overcome the effects of stereotype threat. A growth mind-set stresses the fact that things like intelligence and ability in all areas–even male advocacy–are not innate, but improve with effort and practice. This seemingly simple shift in viewpoint can go a long way towards changing how both men and women engage in the conversation. We need to create spaces where it is safe to talk about gender diversity issues and make mistakes.

6. Be aware of the limitations of the male-female framing of this conversation. First, not everyone identifies as male or female, so the current conversation continues to significantly marginalize those individuals. Second, it tends to set women and men apart as distinct groups, exaggerating their differences. In fact, women and men actually share more similarities than the public rhetoric usually recognizes, and we differ within gender more than we differ across genders. In many contexts, it can be useful to mention these facts or to simply acknowledge that the male-female frame is imperfect.

While disparities in access, representation, and participation in tech remain, we want all hands on deck working on the problem. Of course it’s not easy to work together when there’s a historical sense of distrust, fear, unconscious biases, and even cultural differences at play. It may not be easy, but it is very possible. It is our hope that the considerations and tips provided here can help build increased understanding so that we all can tackle the diversity issue as advocates together.

Catherine Ashcraft is a senior research scientist at the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). She conducts research related to gender, diversity, and technology, and directs reform initiatives for NCWIT’s Workforce Alliance, a consortium of leading global technology companies and departments.


Wendy DuBow is a senior research scientist and the director of evaluation at the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). She conducts primary research, creates practical print and multimedia resources, and evaluates the effectiveness of programs and materials related to gender, diversity, and technology.