We were blindsided and demoralized by news this September that a substantial group of male Marines had posted unauthorized and compromising pictures of female colleagues, ostensibly their sisters-in-arms, to a Facebook page where other men, including thousands of current and former Marines, made derogatory and harassing comments. Some of them made allusions to sexual assault and rape.
As U.S. Naval Academy professors who spend our days educating and championing women for careers of service as officers in the Navy and Marine Corps, we feel heartsick and angry about this. Yet, as disturbing as it is, even worse is the steady drumbeat of such news coming out of organizations of all types. In the Navy, several of the first women to volunteer for service on U.S submarines were surreptitiously filmed in the bathroom. Last year the Harvard men’s soccer team saw its season terminated when news leaked that team members were posting, rating, and discussing, in explicit and derogatory terms, unauthorized photos of players on the women’s team. Multiple sexual harassment lawsuits have been lodged at Fox News over the past year. Most recent, Uber has come under fire for allegedly tolerating a culture of unbridled sexism and sexual harassment.
There are two common threads through all of these stories. First, a few men are objectifying, disrespecting, and harassing female colleagues. Second, and far more troubling, lots of men are bystanders, silent and impotent in the face of a toxic workplace.
It is no secret that sexual harassment remains widespread across professions and around the globe, especially in sectors that are predominantly male. Women who become targets of harassing, demeaning, or disrespectful workplace behavior often experience a range of negative psychological, health, and job-related outcomes. Their organizations also suffer, in the form of direct costs (employee turnover, legal fees) and indirect costs (diminished morale, damage to organizational reputation). Marginalizing and alienating 50% of the nation’s talent is a script for failure.
In recent weeks, commentary regarding who should shoulder the blame for the shameful behavior of male Marines in the Facebook scandal has focused on either the absence or inadequacy of male leadership at the top. We concur that strong leadership can set the right tone for genuine gender inclusion. This includes being purposeful in creating a workplace environment where women feel they belong and are accepted as full members, and are not intentionally or inadvertently excluded, objectified, or sexualized.
We also agree that leaders, through overt actions or tacit silence, have profound influence on the organizational climate for women and men at work, and are accountable. For instance, it is infinitely more challenging to hold men in the military accountable to standards of dignity and respect when the commander-in-chief dismisses his own boasts about sexual harassment as mere locker room banter. On diversity and inclusion, leadership matters.
Here is the problem. When women are marginalized, disrespected, and harassed in an organization, focusing only on the guy at the top is a mistake. An exclusive focus on senior leaders as culprits causes us to miss a problem that is often far more serious and pervasive: everyday guys in the trenches who are missing in action when it comes to having the moral courage to stand up to such behavior.
It is flat-out not enough for male mentors to do their best to avoid gender stereotypes and implicit or explicit bias against women. Sorry, gentlemen, but that’s the easy part. Female colleagues, in particular the women whom men mentor, also need them to be watchdogs for gender disparities, boldly saying and doing something when discriminatory, disrespectful, or harassing behavior arises. And it is just as important that young men see their male mentors stepping up to confront and call out this kind of behavior.
In our view, there is a profound distinction between passive gender inclusion (attendance at diversity and gender workshops, working to avoid harassment and bias in one’s own relationships) and active gender inclusion (demanding respect and equity for women, in both word and deed, especially when no woman is watching). It turns out that many men are abysmally inaccurate at assessing the extent to which they are active allies for women and minority groups at work. For example, Greatheart Consulting’s huge national survey of white male leaders revealed a significant effectiveness gap between the way white men see themselves as promoting diversity and inclusion and the way women and minority group colleagues rate them: While 45% of white men said that white men in their company had a positive effect on diversity efforts, only 21% of women and minorities agreed.
Real male allies for women have to accept the inescapable connection between championing the careers of women and being a deliberate, public role model for other men. A man’s legitimacy as an ally to women is only fully expressed when he is an intentional exemplar and fierce watchdog for the behavior of other men. This assertion finds support in the voluminous research on the bystander effect. Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley discovered that bystanders who stand idly by when others are harassed or even assaulted are not necessarily morally indifferent or sociopathic. Rather, when other bystanders are present, human beings fail to feel much personal responsibility to intervene. One powerful antidote to this effect is to observe a respected role model jumping in to help. Enter the male ally. Legitimate male allies consciously engage other men, first demonstrating respect for women and then holding other men accountable for the same.
What does this sort of male advocacy look like? Consider the experience of Dana Born, a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general who now lectures at Harvard’s Kennedy School. She told us this story when we interviewed her for our book:
Earlier in my career, as a professor at the Air Force Academy, I recall a meeting in which a speaker was addressing all the key professors and leaders in a large conference room. I was the only woman in the room. During the briefing, the colonel (a man) referred to one of the aircraft using profane slang that was derogatory toward women. I sat there thinking, “He didn’t just say that, did he?” I knew I had to say something. By the end of the meeting, I felt my fight-or-flight response kick in, anxious that I was going to have to be the one to say something. Then a senior colleague stood up and said, “Some language was used today that has no place in the current or future Air Force. The word _____ should not be used again, either in or outside of this room.” I was relieved, knowing a male colleague “got it.” It is so helpful when “the woman” in the room doesn’t have to address things that are denigrating and dismissive of women.
Passive gender inclusion is cheap. It costs a man very little to give a nod to the rights of women to feel safe and respected at work, just before he goes online to rate offensive photos of female colleagues — or looks the other way when his cubicle mate does. When men get mired in the passive stage of gender inclusion, never daring to become active watchdogs for respect and inclusion, we see a failure of both moral imagination — how a dignified and respectful workplace for women might look and how it might benefit women, men, and the organization’s bottom line — and moral courage. It may come as a surprise that we question the courage of U.S. Marines who stood by while men they knew disparaged women in the Corps.
But here’s the thing: Physical bravery has little connection to moral courage. Moral courage is harder.
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