By Emily Kestel, Fearless editor

David Smith and Brad Johnson present at the 2021 Women Lead Change Central Iowa Conference on Oct. 27. Photo by Emily Kestel.

In 2016, David G. Smith and W. Brad Johnson published their first book, “Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women.” A year later, the #MeToo movement dominated the headlines and Smith and Johnson found themselves being pulled into conversations about how men can be allies in the workplace. That’s when they realized they needed to write another book. 

Published in 2020, “Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace” details 61 actions that allies can take. For the book, Smith and Johnson interviewed 59 women and 29 men about successful and unsuccessful ally behaviors and practices. 

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Tell me about your book. Why did you decide to write it? 

Smith: We both have connections to the work around gender equity. As a sociologist, I’ve done all my research in the areas of gender, work and family. Brad is a clinical psychologist and has done all of his research in the area of what makes for great mentoring relationships. We noticed an overlap in our research in terms of how career development resources look very different for women. Initiatives to eliminate gender inequities in the workplace are often labeled as women’s issues. So men look at that and go, “Hmm, I’m not really sure that’s for me.” It’s about reframing that and making it more of a leadership issue where men and women have roles in working toward creating equity in the workplace. 

Johnson: People often ask Dave and I our “why,” just like you did. Women in particular want to know that, because they can be confronted with performative allyship in the workplace – guys who just talk a good game but aren’t actually doing it. As a mentoring researcher, I’ve always been concerned about the data showing women not getting the same level of sponsorship or quality of mentoring and men often not leaning into mentoring junior women. So that’s the business side of it. The personal piece for both of us comes from women that we know well and care about. Dave and I were both officers in the Navy. My sister entered the Navy shortly after I did and she’s now a captain. We’ve talked a lot over the years, and she experiences things every day in the workplace that never happened to me. Men often tell her that she should smile more, just out of the blue. She’s been shamed for running fast on the physical fitness tests because she beats all the guys who then feel bad. 

What does being an ally in the workplace look like? 

Johnson: We kind of boil it down into two big categories. The first is the interpersonal side of it. This is how you hold yourself accountable in showing up in the workplace through relationships with women every single day. This is everything from being collegial to mentoring to being a great friend. Some of the things that men can do that really illustrate excellent allyship on the interpersonal level starts with listening. Apparently men are not good at listening at all. We’ll listen to a woman just long enough to hear what her problem is and then try to jump in and fix it. The second thing is to not make assumptions about women. Women told us that men assume things about them, without actually checking in with them to find out what their ideal career trajectory looks like. Show up and pass the friend test. Show up with a genuine curiosity and learning orientation. Do the self-education and read about gender and experiences of women in the workplace and check in and see if it’s congruent with their experience. 

Smith: Interpersonal allyship is just the beginning. We have to develop an awareness of how women experience the workplace differently. It’s hard to fix the problems if you don’t have the understanding and awareness. The next step is the hard part, and that’s public allyship. This is where we have to become better publicly at disrupting the status quo of what’s going on around us. We can’t just sit there and be susceptible to bystander paralysis. Now, when we’re looking around and we hear that comment or sexist joke, we have to recognize it and do something about it right there in the moment. We have to own it. It can’t be, “Brad, you can’t say that because Emily’s in the room.” You need to say, “I’m deeply offended by what you just said,” or “I didn’t find that to be funny,” or “I don’t think that’s who we are and what we do here. I’d like you not to say that again in front of our female colleagues.” Beyond public allyship is systemic allyship and beginning to understand as we see where bias operates and how it creates inequity.

In your book you detail several different ways male leaders can set an example. One of the ways you mentioned is to share personal stories and put imperfections on display. You also mentioned in the book that making mistakes is part of the journey. When was a time that you weren’t an ally or didn’t exhibit ally behaviors when you should have? 

Johnson: Dave and I have been working in this area diligently for seven years now, and we still blow it. Often it’s an error of omission. Most recently, there was a big military group in Germany that asked us to do a big virtual webinar for International Women’s Day on male allyship. Dave and I didn’t pay attention to who the moderator was going to be – we just knew it was a general. We got an email from a women’s group that was sponsoring the panel and they said that they were getting pushback from women in their network. They sent us the ad that they sent out to advertise it, and pictured was Dave and I and then this old, crusty white guy general. So International Women’s Day, and there’s three guys. It was absolutely the wrong optics. We call that a man-el – an all-men panel. We didn’t think to ask who was going to do the interview. Normally we remember to do that, but we just missed it. We led off the panel that day by saying that we blew it. 

Smith: To be an ally, you have to embody some of that humility; that I’m not perfect and I’m going to make mistakes. And when I make them, I’m going to learn from them and share what I learned. With our first book, the working title was not “Athena Rising.” It was “Guiding Athena.” Brad and I thought it was perfect. Our thinking behind the title was that guiding is a great synonym that’s often used for mentoring, so we thought that was appropriate. Our editor, who was a woman, came to us at one point and asked, “Have you ever thought about how that might land with women? In particular, that women might need to be guided by a couple of guys?” We missed that, and we thanked her for saving us from ourselves. 

Sometimes men ascribe to a “What’s in it for me?” mentality. I hate that I have to ask this question, but what are the benefits of gender equity in the workplace, and why should men be allies? 

Smith: The purpose of allyship is to advance women and level the playing field in the workplace. The evidence and the research around the benefits for organizations is becoming more widespread. But we don’t often talk about what’s in it for men in particular and as leaders. Men who are better allies and have more diverse networks and work relationships have access to different kinds of information that makes them better leaders. They have better communication skills. But really, the one we think is the most important is the enhanced interpersonal skills. More empathy, better [emotional intelligence], better communication skills – all of which makes you a better colleague and leader. And you get to take that home, so that makes you a better partner, parent and person overall. 

Brad, you mentioned the notion of performative allyship earlier. Oftentimes, men say that they’re supporting gender equity, but in reality they’re not. Could you explain the difference between passive and active responsibility? 

Johnson: There’s a great study by Promoundo that we often share. They asked men, “Are you doing all you can as an ally in the workplace?” Almost 80% of men said, “Yeah, totally. I’m doing it.” And then asked women in those same companies [if men were doing everything they could] and the number was 41%. So we have a big perception gap. Sometimes men are just not aware of what women experience at work. If men aren’t self-educating or don’t have a woman in their lives who shares these experiences with them, it’s easy to ignore it. The other issue is overestimating. Men overestimate their competence in almost every area. There’s a corollary here because Dave and I talk about how allyship begins at home. If you really want to be a male ally and you have a partner, this is where it begins. You need to ask yourself, “Am I really doing my fair share of unpaid labor at home? The cleaning, the child care, the home schooling.” Chances are, you’re not and you have room for improvement. Until men start sharing fully at home, women are never going to be able to share fully in the workplace. This is especially crucial in dual-career couples. Men really have to work on their gender awareness. They have to get humble and they have to ask their partners whether or not they’re sharing fully. And then they’re going to need to be open to feedback. Otherwise they’re going to continue with this inflated sense that they’re getting it right all the time when they’re not. 

I’m glad you brought up the idea of being an ally at home. I think there’s growing recognition about how important it is for men to take parental leave as well. Why is that important, and how does that affect work?

Smith: When your child is born, if you’re the father at work, you need to do your 50%. You need to do your fair share. That means you need to be taking parental leave. There’s a stigma around it for men because it’s not seen as men’s work. Yet most men, and especially younger generations of men, are looking to be more involved fathers and be more involved in the raising of their children. We have to overcome that stigma about taking parental leave and using all of it, not just some of it. When we as men step up and do our fair share and take parental leave, that allows her to do the same thing in terms of her career. The other part of this is that it normalizes this in the workplace. The same thing goes for paid sick leave. If we as men are not taking our paid sick leave when our kids are sick and not doing our fair share of taking them to the doctor, that’s left the mother to do those things. Again, that doesn’t create a level playing field for her in the workplace. Going back to public allyship, this is a way that we as men can be better allies in the workplace. When you take your parental leave, make sure everyone knows about it. On your email auto-reply, say, “Hey, I”m going to be out for the next four months on my parental leave.” When men have caregiving or domestic responsibilities, they kind of slip out the back door, real hush-hush, because they don’t want anybody to know. You need to leave loudly and make sure everybody knows why you’re leaving. This normalizes it for women but also for more junior men who look up to you. This is a great opportunity to role model this behavior in the workplace. 

Sometimes men exhibit gaslighting behaviors when women confide in them about a sexist comment or experience. They’ll say, “Oh I’m sure so-and-so didn’t mean anything by it. That’s just the way he is. Don’t take it personally.” Explain how that could be perceived as being harmful or damaging. 

Johnson: We saw that happen with Andrew Cuomo recently. People said, “Oh, he’s a good guy. He means well. He doesn’t understand.” That happens too often. Men who are behaving badly in the workplace get a free pass when we give them one of those endorsements – that he’s a good guy who means well. “I think you misread that.” “He didn’t really mean that.” “I think you’re blowing this out of proportion.” All of those things cast doubt on her perception. Women told us that those comments are deeply undermining, and that it makes them question their own sanity and makes them wonder if they’re blowing things out of proportion. We recommend that the first comments that come out of a man’s mouth should be, “I believe you.” Number two: “Can you tell me more about what happened so I really have a sense of this?” And ultimately, “I’d like to get to know how I can collaborate with you to make sure this doesn’t happen again. I know you don’t need me to come running in and rescue you, but I do know that I have a role to play in coming alongside.” If you’re going to be a good public ally, you need to be listening. If you’re in a meeting and a woman registers a concern and the first comment out of a guy’s mouth is something gaslighting, you need to say something in real time. “No, I don’t think she’s blowing that out of proportion. I think that’s a valid concern, and I’d like to hear more about that.” 

Men in hiring positions have a unique change and responsibility to be allies. What are some ways that they can promote gender equity within their roles? 

Smith: From a recruiting perspective, we need to be thinking about whether or not we have an applicant pool that’s diverse. It’s hard to hire women if there are no women in the pool. The research is clear that in male-dominated industries, if there’s one woman in the applicant pool, there’s statistically a 0% chance that she’s actually going to get hired. But the minute you put two, three or four women in the pool, it goes up dramatically, because now they’re not seen as an anomaly. 

Johnson: Dave and I champion the idea of men not allowing secrecy to persist in the workplace about things like salary. We encourage men who actually want to be genuine allies to share their salary with their female colleagues. Women too often get cut out of that intel. That’s part of why the pay gap persists. Our favorite example of this came from a dean at a university in California. She got hired at the same time as her male colleague. They were both professors for about seven years, produced exactly the same number of articles, same teaching evaluations. They shared a dean job for five years. The president of the university asked them to come to his office individually to negotiate their salaries. Her male colleague found out when her appointment with the president was and deliberately scheduled his for the day before hers. He came directly from that appointment to her office with a piece of paper and said, “This is what I just got offered. I want you to know this because I feel that as a woman, you’re going to get lowballed. If you’re offered anything less than this, you need to push back.” She goes to the president’s office the next day and gets offered $10,000 less and she was able to push back because she was informed by her colleague. Occasionally, when Dave and I are speaking, lawyers and HR people get upset by that recommendation, but we really don’t care because we’re never going to get to parity if we allow secrecy. Lawyers need to get over that and need to figure out a way to be transparent about who’s making how much. One way to do that is to have clear pay bands around different job levels.

You wrote the majority of this book before the pandemic hit, back when the world looked a lot different. Knowing what the world looks like now, what are some additional insights or context that you would want to add? 

Johnson: As you know, in the U.S. alone, more than 2 million women were forced out of the workplace. A lot of this was because we as a country rely on women as our social safety net. When somebody has to leave the workforce, it’s women. Right now, we’re entering a moment where we’re going to witness a pretty epic war for talent. You think about the millions of talented women who had to leave the workforce. You think about all of these companies who have been working really hard to get a better gender balance. There are a lot of women out there on the sidelines. This is going to be that telling moment. Smart companies are going to use this as an opportunity to onboard a lot of women who felt forced out of their jobs. If I was a forward-thinking scout or talent manager right now, I would be going to women in my company and asking if they have friends who have had to leave the workforce and if they could connect me with them. I think a lot of traditional companies, unfortunately, are saying, “Well, these women didn’t want to work.” These are the companies that are going to lose out on all that talent. 

Smith: My one big takeaway from the pandemic is that we knew from before that things like parental leave, paid sick leave, remote work, flexible work … these programs were often labeled as women’s programs. There was a stigma against men being able to use them. The pandemic has opened our eyes to all of these things. We know the advantages of these things now. With the war for talent, the people that are going to win that war are the ones who are restructuring their work arrangements and advertising it and talking about it. They’re being very creative about “How do I get the most out of my workforce and take care of them and meet their needs at the same time?” You can do both.