The percent of women in executive-officer positions at Fortune 500 companies has stagnated at less than 15. As more women "lean in" and we collectively continue to fight sexism, there’s another barrier to progress that hasn’t been addressed: Many men who would like to see more women leaders are afraid to speak up about it.
In the conversation about women in leadership, male voices are noticeably absent. Of Amazon’s 100 top-selling books this week about women and business, a grand total of four were written by men, and the first one doesn’t appear until far down the list. In the media, the most vocal advocates for women are influential women, including Sheryl Sandberg, Condoleezza Rice, Arianna Huffington, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Christine Lagarde, Sallie Krawcheck, Beyoncé, and Michelle Obama. Why aren’t more men stepping up to support gender parity in the upper echelons of organizations?
The traditional explanation is sexism. Psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske have eloquently highlighted two different kinds of sexist ideologies that cause men to justify gender inequality and resist sharing their power and wealth. "Hostile sexists" believe that men are superior beings who deserve to rule the world. "Benevolent sexists" are more pro-women—just not in leadership. They view women as beautiful, fragile creatures who ought to be protected by men, not be followed by men. And, of course, some men are comfortable with the status quo: They'd like to preserve hierarchies—particularly those they benefit from—rather than destabilize them.
Although there’s little doubt that these reasons prevent some men from being better advocates for the women around them, a more subtle cause has been overlooked. Some men want to voice their support, but fear that no one will take them seriously because they lack a vested interest in the cause.
Is this just an excuse, an elaborate self-deception designed to disguise sexist beliefs? I don’t think so. There’s evidence that when a cause seems inconsistent with our self-interest, we fear that we’ll incur a backlash, so we hold back. Research by a pair of psychologists-turned-business-professors, Rebecca Ratner at the University of Maryland and Dale Miller at Stanford, shows that such fears are not without reason. Across a series of studies, when men took action to promote women’s rights, people responded with surprise and anger. Both men and women were shocked and resentful toward the men: What business did they have speaking up for women?
I saw this happen recently when I facilitated a conversation for a group about gender and leadership. A man raised his hand to share his support for bringing more women into leadership positions. I expected enthusiastic reactions from his female peers, but instead, his comment was greeted with skepticism. One woman directly questioned his intentions: What was his ulterior motive? Was he trying to ingratiate himself with women to improve his dating prospects?
I have experienced this backlash myself. In the past year, I have written two articles covering evidence on the benefits of women in leadership—one how women can make men more generous and another on teaching girls to avoid bossy behavior. In both cases, readers have asked, “What business do you have writing about women?” As a man, it is true that I will never know what it is like to be a woman. As an organizational psychologist, though, I feel a responsibility to bring evidence to bear on dynamics of work life that affect all of us, not only half of us.
Research reveals that when women take the same actions to advocate for women, people respond less negatively. “These findings point to a novel account of people’s reluctance to act on behalf of causes for which they have sympathy,” Ratner and Miller explained. “Without a stake in a cause, people … perceive that it is not their place to act.”
If we want men to support women in leadership, we need to challenge this perception. In one experiment, Ratner and Miller invited male and female Princeton students to write a statement opposing a policy change that would harm either men or women. When the students were invited by an organization called Princeton Opponents of Proposition 174, half wrote the statement to support their own sex, but only 22 percent voiced support for the opposite sex.
That support more than tripled through a simple change of phrase. Instead of sending the request from Princeton Opponents of Proposition 174, Ratner and Miller altered the name of the group. When the request came from Princeton Men and Women Opposed to Proposition 174, instead of 22 percent, 72 percent of participants advocated for the opposite sex. Now vested interest didn’t matter at all: Men supported a women’s cause, and women championed a men’s cause, as passionately as they supported their own causes.
According to Ratner and Miller, the language worked because it served to “legitimate the participation of non-vested individuals.” When the group was titled as an alliance between men and women, men no longer worried that it would be inappropriate to fight on behalf of women.
For women to achieve equal representation in leadership roles, it’s important that they have the backing of men as well as women. As Sheryl Sandberg wrote in Lean In, men need to “become part of the solution by supporting women in the workforce.” That support depends not only on breaking glass ceilings and attacking overt sexism, but also on dismantling the fears that prevent men from being better allies.