Life

Allies, not saviours: how men push back at workplace sexism

Posted by
Anna Brech
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Workplace colleagues

An intriguing new study spotlights the role of men in fighting sexism against women in the workplace: and the results show exactly how nuanced their contribution can be. 

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, so it requires every member of a workforce to stamp out grains of endemic sexism.

So it should come as no surprise to learn that men can play a powerful part in combating prejudice against women in the workplace. A new study delves into exactly how that contribution takes shape, and its impact on women facing prejudice.

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In the paper titled Helping or Hurting?, researchers from the department of psychology at Rice University Houston surveyed 100 women to find out what happens when a male colleague intervenes or advocates on their behalf in a discriminatory context. 

Their data showed that men can offer vital support in certain work situations, and effectively become an ally by doing so. This includes helping to prevent toxic behaviour by peers, creating opportunities for promotion or growth, or merely being willing to listen and help when required. 

“The ally’s behaviour made me feel valued and ‘heard,’” one woman noted.

A woman in the workplace
Sexism is still rife in the workplace

However, in other scenarios, the behaviour of male “allies” was less welcome, the study found. Examples given included when the support of male colleagues was ineffective, or resulted in a backlash against them or the women they were trying to help.

Researchers also noted references to a “saviour complex,” whereby men stepped into help their female colleagues when such support was not welcome or needed. This response typically undermined confidence, the study’s authors said.

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“A lot of research has already been done about how women can fight sexism in the workplace,” Eden King, an associate professor of psychology at Rice University, tells the research news site Futurity. “What we were interested in studying was how men play a role in this.

“While we found that allies can have a very positive impact, we encourage these individuals to confer with their female colleagues to see if help is wanted or needed,” she added.

An office setting
With the right kind of support, men can play an important role

Workplace sexism is still a major problem in the UK. A study last year found that almost a quarter of women in England and Wales aged between 16 and 30 had experienced sexual harassment at work. 

Over a third reported gender discrimination while job-hunting, and nearly half of mothers said they had experienced maternity discrimination.

The effect of this discrimination takes hold in a slew of damaging ways. As well as stymying women’s progression to the top level of management and exacerbating the gender pay gap, it can also have a toxic effect on mental health.

A previous study found that men with daughters are more likely to hire women at senior management level, and are more aware of the impact of invisible gender barriers than those without female children.

Images: Getty

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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