Start Small, Start Now: Seven Bias Interrupters Male Allies (Or Anyone Really) Can Start Using Today

Male (or other “majority-group”) allies are key for successful change efforts in majority-minority workplaces or environments. While anyone can make change, majority-group allies (e.g., male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied employees) often have more power and are in a better position to make significant change. Below are 7 ways male allies can get involved starting today!

Tip 1: Ensure productive meetings

Tip 2: Listen for and correct “personality penalties”

Tip 3: Interrupt “fixed mindset” talk

Tip 4: Interrupt task assignment biases (e.g. “office housework”)

Tip 5: Provide legitimate encouragement

Tip 6: Know & improve your own “ratio”: Expanding your contact list

Tip 7: Talk to other potential allies

Help ensure productive meetings

The situation:

Ever been in a meeting where it’s difficult to get a word in edgewise? Or where one or two people are dominating the conversation? The best meetings include a cacophony of voices but research shows that subtle biases often result in underrepresented employees being interrupted more often than others and not getting credit for their ideas. Relatively simple interventions can make a significant difference both in improving employees’ daily work experience and in realizing the benefits of diverse teams.

What you can do:

  • Solicit the opinion of quieter employees during the meeting or after the fact. Ask to hear from the quieter employees or approach them later to see if they had ideas they would like to share.
  • Implement practices that give everyone a chance to think ahead of time (e.g., send specific questions or ideas for consideration ahead of the meeting).
  • Intervene when someone is being interrupted or not getting credit. Simply commenting along the lines of, “I think _____ was trying to comment a second ago” or “Let’s let ______ finish” can make a big difference in ensuring that all team members are heard.
  • Find a meeting ally who can support you and help notice subtle biases. If you are the person facilitating a meeting, it can be hard to keep track of all the contributions and directions. Invite a partner to be on the lookout for tracking who has spoken, where ideas originate, who wanted to contribute and did not get to, and so on.

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Listen for and correct personality penalties – in casual conversation or in formal performance evaluation

The situation:

You’ve probably heard someone being described as “pushy” or “bossy” or being told to “tone it down.” Or perhaps someone has labeled you this way at some point. Research repeatedly demonstrates that women experience “personality penalties” (e.g., negative feedback regarding their personality, style or tone) more often than men. For example, these penalties include being labeled as “pushy, abrasive, or having a challenging personality” or being told that they could “tone it down a little.” Biases about race and class also result in different manifestations of these personality penalties. While these penalties often occur in formal performance evaluations, they also happen in casual hallway conversation or informal advice-giving, where any observer might intervene.

What you can do:

  • Question these comments when you hear them in casual conversation or in more formal performance evaluation discussions. Always assume good intentions and avoid blame when first intervening.
  • You might say something like: “Hmm, what makes you think so or what do you mean by that exactly?” or “I’ve made these same kinds of comments before but have learned that subtle biases can sometimes lead us to conclusions like this; it’d be a good idea to examine what we mean by this comment more closely.”
  • It can be especially helpful to acknowledge that we all share these biases, that you have done this before or that we all make these kinds of assumptions or comments at times.
  • If intervening in the moment does not seem appropriate or possible, question internally and make a note to address this issue later in private or in a more general manner (that doesn’t single out a particular speaker) in a later meeting.

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Interrupt “fixed mindset” talk

The situation:

Do you or others in your work environment ever use phrases like, “so and so just isn’t a natural leader” or “I don’t think he or she has what it takes?” These and similar comments can indicate a “fixed mindset” when it comes to talent. Research shows that, for the most part, talent and ability are not fixed or innate. Yet many technical organizations operate with a “fixed mindset” that either you have “what it takes” or you do not (Dweck, 2006). Fixed mindsets tend to exacerbate biases, as we tend to presume that those who are most like us or most like those who have been successful in the past are the ones who “have it.” A “growth mindset” focuses on potential and sees skills and abilities as things that are developed through continued effort and practice.

What you can do:

  • Question language like “natural talent,” “born leaders,” “not leadership material,” “a leopard doesn’t change its spots,” or “either you’ve got that special something or you don’t.” Encourage people to take a step back and think about whether these comments might reflect biases about people “like us” or the kinds of people who have historically been in these kinds of positions.
  • When giving feedback, frame mistakes as opportunities for learning and improvement rather than as signs of inadequacy or a lack of natural talent. For detailed tips on how to give this kind of feedback see our NCWIT Tips.
  • Question whether you might be confusing prior experience with ability. Employees who are less adept at a particular skill may just have less experience, not less potential. But sometimes people take this as a sign that they are less talented and use this assessment to disqualify them for a particular task or position. If you think that you or others might be doing this, step back and ask if this is a skill that can be learned, if this candidate has the potential to do so, and if this candidate brings other desirable skills that would help offset the learning curve.

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Interrupt task assignment biases

The situation:

Perhaps you’ve noticed that certain people often end up doing the note-taking or other kinds of tasks? Evidence suggests that biases exist when it comes to who gets assigned (or who takes on) certain tasks or responsibilities. Sometimes this manifests in women taking on more organizing, note-taking, or relational kinds of tasks – what Williams (2014) terms “office housework.” It also can result in women being channeled more frequently into technical execution roles (e.g., QA or testing) with less access to core, creative technical roles.

What you can do:

  • If you are a team member or individual contributor, be on the lookout for everyday instances where women are asked or volunteer for “office housework.” Offer to take on these roles yourself or suggest that others take them on periodically.
  • If you are a manager, reflect on your own task assignment patterns. Do you see subtle patterns where certain people are often given high visibility tasks or more risky, “scapegoat” tasks? Do you make subtle assumptions about who might want more or less responsibility?
  • If you are a manager, talk with your employees to get a sense of how satisfied they are with current task assignments and patterns.

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Provide legitimate encouragement

The situation:

Have you ever heard an employee – especially an employee from an underrepresented group – worry that they may not be qualified for a particular opportunity or think that they may not be ready for a leadership position? A variety of factors make it more difficult to take risks or apply for new opportunities when one is a minority in a majority-group environment. One such reason is stereotype threat – the fear that our actions will confirm negative stereotypes about an identity group (e.g., gender, race, age) to which we belong. More than 300 research studies with different populations (e.g., elderly, people of color, men, women) have documented that this unconscious phenomenon can reduce feelings of competence, lessen one’s sense of belonging, and negatively affect performance.

These factors can prevent people from taking unnecessary risks for fear that any mistakes they make will be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that they are a woman or member of another underrepresented group. And indeed, people often do use these explanations when members of underrepresented groups make mistakes.

What you can do:

  • Encourage others to apply or ask for a certain position, award, or role. This simple strategy can go a long way toward mitigating the potential effects of stereotype threat. While such encouragement is important for all employees, it is particularly important for minority members in a majority-group environment.
  • Interrupt when you hear someone say that “so and so just isn’t very confident or is not a risk-taker.” Let them know that often this is not so much about the individual but the environment they find themselves in.
  • Interrupt explanations that attribute someone’s mistakes to an identity group (e.g., gender, race, sexual orientation) to which they belong, even when said in jest.

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Know and improve your own “ratio”: Expanding your contact list

The situation:

Do you or your organization rely heavily on referrals or “word-of-mouth” recruiting efforts? While convenient, this practice greatly exacerbates the tendency to reproduce the status quo since people tend to recommend others much like themselves. Rick Klau, partner at Google Ventures, describes an interesting personal exercise he conducted: taking stock of the gender breakdown in his address book. He found that his ratio was 80% men to 20% women and observed, “If the majority of leaders at most companies are men and if the majority of their networks are men (as mine are), then this is a self-perpetuating problem…It really is who you know.”

What you can do:

  • First, know your own ratio. Take inventory of your own contact list and networks and encourage others to do so as well. Make it okay to talk about and begin expanding those networks.
  • Actively seek out and ask for referrals from people not “like you.” As with any network building, these connections will soon multiply into more referrals.
  • Encourage those doing the recruiting to partner with “return to work” programs and other programs or organizations serving diverse populations. See NCWIT Aspirations in Computing (AiC) and NCWIT Affinity Group Alliance.
  • If you have responsibility for hiring, ensure that diverse candidates are included in every hiring pool and explain that you are doing so in order to reap the benefits of diverse teams.
  • Be ready to address misperceptions and questions about “lowering the bar.” Here’s a very helpful article for doing so.

More resources for active recruiting are available here.

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Talk to other potential allies

The situation:

Often people are hesitant to get involved in diversity efforts because they are too busy or they are afraid of doing or saying something “wrong.” Research shows that real-life stories can help with this problem and motivate people to act! Share your own experiences as a male ally or as a member of an underrepresented group. While the “business case” can help to get new allies theoretically on board with industry changes, it often takes personal stories to move people to action.

What you can do:

  • Talk about the kinds of challenges underrepresented groups encounter in IT. Share your personal experiences as a person in a minority position or talk about your experiences as a male or majority group ally.
  • Share a research finding you found interesting or a solution you or others have tried.
  • Emphasize that it is okay to make mistakes and take risks to have a conversation. Sometimes people are afraid to have a conversation because they might “say something wrong” but endeavoring to have the conversation, even if it has awkward moments, is important.
  • If someone makes a mistake or says something problematic, always assume best intentions. Remember this is not about blame but about us all working together to correct these biases. Acknowledge their effort and explain how they might improve their approach in the future.
  • If you are afraid of making a mistake or are corrected for making a mistake, do not take it personally. Remember that underrepresented groups are often responding to repeated and longtime experiences with bias, sometimes on an almost daily bias. This can be exhausting. Approach the conversation with a spirit of inquiry. Express an interest in understanding more and in improving your approach in the future.

More information on having these conversations and enlisting more allies, available here.

Make it okay to make mistakes and learn!

“Every person that becomes an advocate had to go through that door where they take the first risk and realize, ‘Oh, that wasn’t so bad.’ So I would talk about the risk-taking that you take the first or second time and how, all of a sudden, it is no longer risk-taking.”

~ Interviewee from NCWIT’s Male Ally and Advocate Research


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