From Allyship to Sponsorship: 6 Roles to Turn #MeToo “Fear” into “Action”

Much has been written recently about how #metoo impacts the way men interact with women in the workplace. More specifically, some men have shared a growing fear about doing the wrong thing during this time of heightened sensitivity. As others have written, now is not the time for our male colleagues to become afraid and withdrawn. Now is the time for men in the workplace to become enlightened and involved.

#MeToo Mentors

Reduce the fear by making it clear.

I do not blame our male counterparts for being a little confused by the growing list of terms being used to describe how they should act. I have spoken with dozens of male leaders over the past 18 months who have been told they need to become a better mentor or sponsor or coach or ally or advocate, or a (good) bystander…wait, what?

For those of us in HR, these terms may seem well differentiated. However, if you spend your days in any other business function, the important nuance between these six roles can easily be lost, contributing to the fear that many of our well-intended male colleagues may be feeling. Rather than criticize these feelings, we encourage our clients to break down the important differences between these roles and focus on how to become more effective at each of them.

Six Roles for Building Safe and Inclusive Cultures

Despite the long list, all of these roles contribute to one important objective: building and maintaining a safe and inclusive culture. As it relates to gender, I recommend clients break down the mandate into two big buckets:

1. Build gender equality from top to bottom, and

2. Prevent and address sexual harassment across the board.

Building Gender Equality From Top to Bottom

It is nearly impossible to eradicate sexual harassment in the workplace if men have, or are perceived to have, more power than women. As I have said in many other blogs, sexual harassment is often more about power than sex. As long as our leadership teams have a gender imbalance, there is increased opportunity for sexual harassment to fester in our organizations. Unfortunately, changing the profile of our leadership teams is not an overnight fix. Along the road to gender equality, our male colleagues can contribute to women’s advancement by being better mentors, sponsors, and coaches:

1. Mentors

Mentoring is not new, but it can always be improved. According to Glassdoor, “mentorships help professionals learn about their fields and roles from senior practitioners.” Mentors serve as advisors, helping mentees shape their ambitions and plans. While I encourage companies to create formal mentoring programs, I also encourage individuals to take charge of their own opportunities as a mentee. One diversity expert shared some great advice, “Find someone that you feel comfortable with who is like you. Then find someone who is totally different from you, and also find someone who will just shoot from the hip and give it to you straight.”

Harvard Business Review shared a fresh perspective on mentoring, encouraging reciprocal mentoring. “Cross-gender reciprocal mentorships are essentially partnerships in which men and women play complementary roles leading to career and personal development for both parties, and ultimately, greater gender equality in the workplace.” With less than 5% of corporate CEO spots filled by women, there appears to be a lot of room for male leaders to serve as mentors based on these guidelines.

2. Sponsors

Mentorship is an important start, but sponsorship has been described as “the ticket” to women’s advancement, as it involves a more proactive level of commitment. According to Harvard Business Review, “sponsors not only advise…they promote, protect, prepare and push.” Sponsors are critical to propelling women into leadership positions. While sponsorship is often a formal relationship, it does not have to be. Any male leader can serve as a more proactive advocate for women in their organization. A 2010 HBR study indicated that “high-potential women are overmentored and undersponsored” and this is likely still the case. I encourage organizations to critically look at who they are formally “grooming” for leadership roles with gender balance in mind. In addition, we need to encourage women to seek out true sponsorship when they are having career development conversations.

3. Coaches

Coaching has come a long way. Once viewed as a stigma, coaching is now considered a career boon and a vote of confidence. This should come as no surprise. The pressure to perform has never been greater and executive coaching has been proven as an effective performance enhancer. According to The Center for Creative Leadership, 61% of coaching participants and their raters found that substantial progress had been made towards their goals. As it relates to the gender imbalance among leaders, there is a lot of room for improvement. According to one study, “men are more likely than women to have established team coaching in place, 44% to 27%.” If we invest less in women leaders, it should come as no surprise that we also produce fewer women leaders. I advise organizations to evaluate the balance of coaching resources across gender to ensure the allocation supports the leadership outcomes they are looking for.

Preventing and Addressing Sexual Harassment

With a long-term plan to achieve greater gender equality in motion, we need to partner with our male colleagues down a parallel path – preventing and addressing sexual harassment. This is where allies, advocates and bystanders come into play.

4. Allies

We increasingly hear about “men as allies.” According to Webster’s Dictionary, to ally is to “unite or form a connection or relation between.” As a first step, we are asking our male colleagues to become aware of the treatment of marginalized groups in the workplace and start to take ownership and responsibility when their own actions may be contributing to the problem. The Guide to Allyship shares another important point. “Being an ally doesn’t necessarily mean that you 100% understand what it feels like to be oppressed. It means you are taking on the struggle as your own.” In addition to avoiding blatant gender discrimination, we are asking men to increase their awareness of their own interactions and begin to model the right behavior. For example, I work with one CEO who takes pride in being a supporter of women professionals. Despite having the right idea, he mistakenly referred to two female executives as “girls” in a meeting. Rather than glossing over this insensitive choice of words, he addressed it head on at the next meeting to make it clear that he is an ally and strives for continuous improvement.

5. Advocates

As an ally, you are making it clear that you support the safe and equal treatment of women in the workplace. As an advocate, you are taking your support one step further by proactively promoting the interest of females at work. As one male leader shared, “an ally will offer verbal support up until the point that they are putting themselves at risk. Advocates take action in the face of risk.” He recounts how he once listened and served as a sounding board for a female colleague who disclosed that a male executive was making uncomfortable, romantic advances. He supported her and advised her to speak with HR about it. He played the part of an ally well. At a group outing over drinks, he acknowledged that he failed as an advocate when he uncomfortably left the room, knowing he was leaving her alone and vulnerable with this male executive. He looked back and wished he had been a more proactive advocate on her behalf.

6. Bystanders

Learning to be a good bystander is critical. We do a good job of teaching our kids how to be good bystanders in the face of school bullies. Why not apply the same rigor regarding sexual harassment in the workplace? In December 2017, as the #metoo movement was unfolding, The New York Times published an article that delineates the responsibilities of a good bystander in three clear steps. If you are witness to any form of harassment, your first step is to disrupt the situation (i.e., perhaps let the victim know she is needed by her supervisor). Second, and perhaps the most uncomfortable, is to confront the harasser. Be as direct as possible (i.e., I heard what you said to her, why did you do that?). And finally, check in with the victim to make sure she/he is OK. It is common for victims to blame themselves. Acknowledging what you saw will go a long way in helping the victim process what took place.

Plug-in, Plan, and Practice

I welcome all professionals to turn any #metoo-related fear into action by focusing on the six roles required for building safe and inclusive cultures. Start with awareness – get executives and leaders plugged into the importance of building this capacity throughout the organization. True progress will then require a deliberate plan. And finally, practice. It is one thing to know what is right. It is quite another to be practiced at what to do and say when confronted with an uncomfortable situation. To learn more about how Inspire works with clients to prevent gender harassment and discrimination, contact me at [email protected] or (917) 612-8571.