Your male colleague says something sexist? It’s your two-second litmus test moment (review of Good Guys)

I failed the test but I’ll be ready for the next one.

I was in a meeting with a manager who kept mentioning “his girls”. He wasn’t talking about his preteen daughters. He was referring to his colleagues around the boardroom table.  

I shot the women a sympathetic look but didn’t call out the manager. I was still new on the job and stunned by this unexpected throwback to the 1950s. I admit that was a pretty thin excuse for staying silent.

Men saying sexist and stupid things serve up what David G. Smith and W. Brad Johnson call litmus test moments. These are the moments when the women we work with decide whether we’re an ally or a bystander. And we have no more than two seconds to pick a side.

So what should we say?

The authors of Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace recommend a single word.

“Just say ‘ouch!’. The beauty of the ouch intervention is that it buys you a few extra seconds to formulate a coherent way to communicate what landed the wrong way with you.

“So, after you tell everyone in the meeting or within earshot in the workplace that something just happened that wasn’t okay, you’ve now got time to formulate your follow-up elaboration.”

You can elaborate by saying the comment or quip wasn’t cool, it was way out of line and not something we say or do around here.

You can ask your colleague if he really just said what you thought you heard. Did he actually mean it? Did he think he was being funny, clever, ironic or endearing?

“Going against your gender tribe’s long-standing bro code to promote an equitable and inclusive workplace is where the cost of allyship quickly gets real,” acknowledge Smith and Johnson.

They believe public confrontation’s warranted if your male colleague is a malignant and serial misogynist, is young enough to know better, has been unapologetic about past misbehavior or has said something so egregious or offensive that it demands an immediate rebuke.

For a clueless colleague who doesn’t check these boxes, follow up your “ouch” with a private conversation. 

The women we work with don’t need to be rescued. They’re not looking for a savior. They just want us to be better allies.

“Allies emphasize humility and gender partnership – men and women working together in complementary roles – to create and support inclusive workplaces.”

It’s not enough to be an ally in private. Men need to speak up and advocate for gender equality, especially when women aren’t in the room.

“Speaking out isn’t easy,” admit Smith and Johnson. “But becoming a partner and ally to women is a crucial element of helping them reach equity in the workplace. If you think you’re doing enough, you’re probably not. Push further.”

The authors offer 60 practical strategies for interpersonal, public and systemic allyship.

We’ve all had the privilege of working and living with wicked smart and strong women.  As colleagues, husbands and dads, we need to be more than just good guys. Gender inequality is not a women’s issue. It’s a leadership issue and it’s a fight we need to loudly join as all-in allies.

This review first ran in the Dec. 26 edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.  

Review: That’s What She Said – What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together by Joanne Lipman

she saidThis review first ran in the Feb. 24 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together

By Joanne Lipman

William Morrow


I can’t afford to wait 170 years.

That’s how long the World Economic Forum predicts it will take women and men to reach economic parity worldwide.

But I need the gap closed by the time my daughter’s done school and launches her career.

Parents want what’s best for our kids. We also want what’s right. And gender equality is a fundamental human right. My daughter deserves the same opportunities that will be afforded to my son.

To close the gap between women and men, all of us dads, husbands, brothers and sons need to man up.

So what’s stopping us? Journalist Joanne Lipman says there’s real fear of how both our male and female colleagues will respond if we join the fight. “Plenty of other men would be happy to join the conversation,” says Lipman, author of That’s What She Said. “They’re just terrified of saying something wrong.”

A non-profit focused on working women asked men what would undermine their support for gender equality. “A stunning 74 per cent cited fear – fear of loss of status, fear of other men’s disapproval, and most telling of all, fear of making a mistake. Men are walking around on eggshells.”

Yet Lipman says women will only solve 50 per cent of the problem if they just talk amongst themselves.

“We need men to join the conversation, to be our partners. And as for the men, most of them aren’t anywhere near villains. They don’t need beating up with a two-by-four. They’d like to see an equitable workplace, they just can’t figure out what they’re supposed to do about it.”

So here are some of Lipman’s suggestions on what men can do to help level the gender playing field at work.

Interrupt the interrupters. Don’t allow your male co-workers to interrupt and talk over female colleagues.

Diversify the interviewers, not just the applicants. It’s not enough to bring in female job applicants, says Lipman. “If the interviewers aren’t diverse – if, say, all the interviewers are white men – they are less likely to see her as a ‘cultural fit’ while she may also feel so uncomfortable that she rejects the job even if offered.”

Stop dishing compliments that belittle your female colleagues. “Would you say it to man? If not, you probably should not say it to a woman, either.”

Quit making decisions for women who are raising children. Do they want to travel, relocate or take on extra hours? “Don’t assume. Ask her. Even if she declines, present the next opportunity, and the one after that.”

Give women raises and promotions before they ask or think they’re ready for it. Research shows men are four times more likely than women to ask for a raise and a bigger job. “Make sure qualified women are in the mix, whether they have put up their hands or not. Be prepared to twist a few arms.”

And start respecting women by eliminating slights large and small. Researchers have found that men get more respect than women even if they hold the exact same position. The subtle digs and lack of respect are wearying, difficult to fight and the steady drumbeat can be debilitating, says Lipman.

“For real change to happen, if we are to transform a culture that has long been molded by and for men, it will take individuals, one at a time, taking a stand, reaching across the gender divide. The wins will come from the accumulation of small, everyday interactions of both women and men. When men and women both reach across the gender divide, we actually will have a shot at closing the gap.”

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.