Being an ally in the workplace

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters.

What interventions do you recommend pro-feminist male geeks make in their workplaces? If you could get the guy geeks on your side to agitate for the cause and to provoke change, on what specific issues do you think they should focus? How could they best lend support?

I ask because I get this question a lot from decent guys who aren’t sure what to do. Feel free to list things they should read and areas about which they should inform themselves.

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About Mary

Mary is a women in tech activist, a programmer, a writer, and a sometime computational linguist. She writes at with occasional appearances at Hoyden About Town and her previous projects include co-founding the Ada Initiative and major contributions to the Geek Feminism blog. She's @me_gardiner on Twitter.

13 thoughts on “Being an ally in the workplace

  1. Teaspoon

    Just speak up. If you know there’s something that happens frequently, rehearse your response in the shower or on your commute, so it feels more natural when you’re in that situation.

    To a harrasser:
    “That’s pretty sexist, you know.”

    “Look, she doesn’t need me to defend her, but when you say things like that, you make the rest of us guys look like jerks by association, and I don’t appreciate that.”

    To the target of the harrassment:
    “Hey, I wasn’t sure you’d want me to interrupt or if you’d rather handle that sort of thing yourself, but I want you to know that I heard/saw that, I think it was inappropriate, and I’ll back you up if you want to go to HR about it. Let me know if you’d rather I spoke up right away if it happens again.”

    Simply being willing to name sexist behavior for what it is and to calmly state that it’s unacceptable can go a long way toward making a hostile working environment less hostile.

      1. kittyfood

        Definitely agree. Silence from a bunch of dudes after a sexist comment just seems like approval. Worse, it’s as if everyone believes that the onus of objecting to a sexist comment is on you as a female.

  2. Mary Post author

    Gosh there’s any number of things.

    When hiring, get the word out to the most diverse groups you can think of that are likely to be interested.

    If able to influence hiring decisions, at least keep in mind and where possible explicitly review whether your “social fit” criteria for candidates are all necessary. Even where not designed to explicitly make it less likely to hire diversely, they often achieve this effect. You don’t want someone who will be a hindrance to your team’s cohesion in the long term, but explicitly hiring criteria that starts out trying to achieve that too often ends up trying to hire good ol’ boys.

    If able to influence salary, promotion or project assignment decisions, take a look at Women Don’t Ask and consider how much you’re relying on self-promotion as a sign of readiness for new responsibilities and roles.

    How important is your office socialising and is it coded masculine? Plenty of women (especially geek women) love pubs, beers and pool, but nevertheless it’s important to check that work socialising isn’t full of “for manly MENZ” signals, as women are for obvious reasons sensitive to this. Offer some alternatives.

    1. Yatima

      I came here to say most of this! Hire women. Promote women. Don’t condone sexist speech or divisive behaviour: call other men on their crap.

      Just asking the question puts you way ahead of the game.

  3. Eivind

    I can say what I’ve done. It’s not a lot, but I try. (it makes it a lot easier that the work-market here is such that everyone involved knows the employer needs me a lot more than I need my employer)

    In Norway, in organizations with more than 30 employees, the employees have the right to elect a representative for the board, in our company that’s me. (until next month, thereafter the task changes to a female co-worker of mine)

    I’ve insisted that average pay for females should match average pay for males in the same role, which it now does. I’ve suggested to the board, and gotten trough, that people (in practice most often females) who are on maternity-leave should generally get a raise equivalent to the average raise in society. (previously, people in maternity-leave tended to get zero raise during that period) Similarily, we now pay a proportional bonus to those employees who are absent part of the year for which the bonus is paid. (previously nobody considered it, so the tendency was that if you wheren’t actually at work at the time the bonus is paid, you’d get zero)

    *And* I’m searching as hard as I can for a qualified -female- to fill in a free place on the board, sadly that’s not been easy this far. (if anyone by a pure chance of luck knows females in south-western norway with knowledge of internet-publishing and/or marketing, please holler, yes ?)

    1. Jon Niehof

      Wow, those are some serious pay-equality steps, the type that are both fairly basic yet rare to see. I’d be interested in hearing about how you achieved them, if it’s not sensitive information. Is it “simply” a matter of someone in a position with some influence insisting on them?

      1. Eivind

        Easier than that actually. It mostly took pointing it out. Nobody felt like standing up and saying any variant of “I for one, think we should continue to discriminate women.” that’s just not PC to say. So there was no real opposition.

        We ain’t -got- so many women anyway, sadly, so it’s not as if these things where expensive. (the paygap wasn’t huge before either)

  4. TesserId

    In what I get to see, the issue of equal pay for equal work is not about the pay part–but on the recognition of equal work–particularly the day-to-day work that leads to promotions. That is to suggest that an alternate catch phrase might be “equal promotion-building activities for equal work”.

    For the average worker, the thing to do is to make sure that all are encouraged to participate in the work that contributes to promotions. That means that opportunities to work on projects should be equal, and the tasks that are handed out on projects should be equal. Where tasks are handed out according to recognized abilities, effort should be made to ensure that recognition of abilities in all participants is not neglected. This would be a place to speak up if you see a worthy candidate passed over.

    In more day-to-day operations, ensure that all are sought out as a resource, rather than only focus on those that are most socially convenient. That is, your closest buddies aren’t the only interested parties, and it pays to remember that ideas can be shared with a wider group.

    Make a habit of interacting on a technical level with everyone, and don’t hesitate to offer challenging tasks. A rapport for technical exchange will develop best where challenges are offered. And, the enthusiasm for technology can also be shared. The door should be wide open to encourage that kind of sharing.

    The stereotypes (as I read elsewhere today) still suggest that career is a key source of pride for men, which includes concepts of self-esteem and fulfillment. But, I don’t see why this can’t also apply to women, whether a career is the central pursuit or not. To address this among the general working population, the thing to do is encourage sharing the enthusiasm for technical proficiency across gender boundaries. I think that this kind of activity will do the most to expand the view that affects promotions.

  5. Quill2006

    1. Don’t hire, promote, or otherwise encourage sexist employees. That’s number one and the most important in my mind. I got my start in a geeky field with a boss who made it clear to all the employees what was acceptable behavior. He did so by reacting calmly but negatively to sexist (and racist) jokes and behavior, and making it clear that he considered our behavior and social skills when making promotion decisions. This frustrated some of the men I worked with, who previously had been promoted based solely on their skills in the field; while that may seem fine, it often places people in managerial positions who are completely lacking in managerial skills.

    While I definitely see the value in promotion based on skill, including social skills and professional behavior in the equation of who would be the best in a position often ended up with those with slightly lower technical skills but higher social skills in higher positions. As the people with poor behavior caught on, they began to realize that their behavior and professional demeanor was important, and several of them actually improved.

    If you aren’t in a position where you have power over hiring or promotion, you can still react calmly and negatively to sexist and racist behavior. It’s difficult to work in a hostile environment; your quiet support and “unbiased” negative reaction to sexist behavior makes the work environment a better place.

    2. Hire and train women. (Duh.) I got my first geek job because my boss thought I was trainable, despite having only a little previous experience. Several of my coworkers had far more experience when hired than I did, but within six months I was doing work on the same level. Women frequently experience enough sexism throughout their lives that they do not have the same opportunities for training, which is reflected in some women’s resumes. Obviously, some positions require a certain level of experience. However, hiring and training allows you to frequently pay less at first (though you should definitely give a promotion once they have learned more!) and gives opportunities for people to break into a field.

    Also, don’t give training opportunities based solely on seniority or previous training. I’ve had coworkers protest my selection for training with the claim that because they have already done x, y, and z, they should be the one to go, despite the fact that the training opportunity doesn’t build on x, y, or z. Some training opportunities are based on others, certainly, but all too often I see people being passed over for training opportunities because they haven’t had many training opportunities before. This is true for men and women! If you only train your best employees, you’re at a loss when those employees find new, better-paying jobs with the training you’ve provided them.

    3. Examine your hiring and promotion policies closely; pay close attention to how they may reward supposedly masculine behavior for men while punishing women who display supposedly non-feminine behavior. Women frequently are forced to walk a very thin line; we cannot self-promote without being seen as bitchy and obnoxious, but without that self-promotion we end up doing the same or more work as our male peers without the same raises and promotions. This affects our starting salaries because women are not taught to negotiate salaries and frequently are stigmatized for doing so; it affects our raises and promotions because our work goes unnoticed or is seen as simply doing our jobs, while men who self-promote are seen as going above and beyond even when they are doing the same amount and quality of work as others. This hurts everyone who is not skilled at self-promotion; unless self-promotion is a quality you see as necessary for your business, it shouldn’t be what people are promoted on.

    4. Speaking of behavior, I’ve noticed that many men will interrupt women without thinking, while they do not interrupt men. My family went through a period while my brothers and I were living at home where my mom and I would have to stop conversation at the dinner table several times each night to say “You just interrupted me, let me finish!” This behavior is obnoxious and demeaning. In meetings and discussions, it’s an impediment to useful conversation. Once again, women who respond to this by interrupting back are often seen as rude and bitchy, despite displaying behavior that is less impolite than the behavior they are reacting to. Women who are angered by being silenced are seen as hysterical and whiny. It’s a no-win situation for women; be silenced or be disrespected in another way. If you notice someone interrupting someone else, be they male or female, call them on it! Say that you wanted to hear the rest of what that person was saying, and would the interrupter please let them finish.

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