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.