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Why I Failed to Advocate for Women: Confessions of an Ignorant Man

Many men don't go to bat for women because they're blind to gender bias.

In Hollywood, Judd Apatow was known as the King of Bromance. He made his name producing comedies like AnchormanThe 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. But then he made a radical shift. He championed a script that was written by two women, starring six women.

Bridesmaids became his highest-grossing film at the U.S. box office. Apatow now serves as the executive producer for Lena Dunham’s smash hit Girls on HBO.

We need more men like Judd Apatow to go to bat for women. Sadly, many men don’t, because they’re blind to gender bias. I know, because I was one of them.

When I worked in advertising, a female colleague mentioned that male board members weren’t taking their ideas seriously. I was convinced she was imagining it. She was brilliant, and it was the 21st century. I wanted desperately to believe that we were living in a just world. As Margaret Heffernan puts it, I was willfully blind.

My eyes started to open when my wife and I welcomed our first child, and then our second—both daughters. All of a sudden, I found myself worrying about their future, and noticing how different the world was for them. I learned that the daughter effect isn’t unique to me. In Working Fathers, Jim Levine and Todd Pittinsky report that companies were most likely to become family-friendly and embrace flexible work schedules when a male CEO’s adult daughter was working in a less supportive environment. And two years ago, I wrote enthusiastically about evidence that having daughters motivates male CEOs to pay their employees more generously and male legislators to vote in support of women’s reproductive rights.

Back then, I was encouraged that having daughters makes men more concerned about women—it gave me hope that more men would come on board. Now, I just find it embarrassing. Why didn’t I think about these issues before I had daughters? Shouldn’t loving my wife, my mother, and my sister have influenced me?

My wife and I spent a lot of time discussing how to promote equality for our girls, but I didn’t think much about it in the workplace until I watched Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk and then read Lean In. I was stunned by the mountain of evidence that gender stereotypes continue to hold women back.

Even then, I shied away from talking about gender in my Wharton classes, fearing that it would divide rather than unite. After all, I had read overwhelming evidence that on virtually every attribute ever studied, men and women are remarkably similar—including intelligencemath and verbal abilities. Instead of claiming that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, I thought it was high time to recognize that we’re all from Earth.

Two colleagues, Sigal Barsade and Nancy Rothbard, convinced me that I was wrong to stay silent on gender. Even though there are more similarities than differences between the sexes, that doesn’t mean the world is fair to women.

Today, U.S. corporate boards have more men named John, Robert, William, or James than women in total. Recent coverage by Claire Cain Miller has brought more chilling data to light: in math, when graded anonymously, girls outperform boys, but when teachers know their names, boys do better. And when students rate their favorite professors, they describe men as “geniuses” and women as “nice.” This is sad and unacceptable. We may be in the 21st century, but we’re still a very long way from gender parity.

Those combined events shattered my naiveté, and motivated me to start writing, teaching, and speaking about equality for women. I told audiences to take my comments with a grain of salt, since to my knowledge, I’ve never been a woman. But as an organizational psychologist, I feel a responsibility to shed light on what the data say about half of the population. And as a man, I don’t feel that this is just a woman’s issue; it’s a social issue. I wish I hadn’t waited to become an advocate for women until I became a dad to daughters and the evidence was staring me in the face. But I guess it’s better late than never.

Last year, Sheryl Sandberg asked me what my own data showed about gender. I had done more than a decade of research on success at work, but because of my resistance to acknowledging gender biases, it hadn’t occurred to me to systematically analyze differences between men and women in my studies. When I finally did, I was mortified: men got credit for speaking up and helping, but women didn’t. To bring these persistent biases to light, we decided to write a New York Times series on women at work.

Our fourth piece in the series is now live. We make the case that gender equality isn’t just good for women—it makes us all better off.

There are still too few men who step up as champions for women. Guys, it’s about time that we #LeanInTogether for equality. To learn more, visit www.leanintogether.org.

(Image via thodonal88/Shutterstock.com)

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