Sometimes we have no idea that our lives are about to change. I had been teaching at what was then Utah Valley State College for about a year when I first met our new president, Bill Sederburg.
While I was impressed by his warm smile and sense of humor, little did I know that this man would not only become a mentor and sponsor, but also help me grow professionally by giving me strategic, challenging and meaningful opportunities.
In contemporary jargon, Bill was a “male ally.” Our newly released research shows that male allies play a critical role in supporting and advancing women in the workplace. They can do this in a variety of ways. As mentors, men can share their own leadership development stories and convey to women confidence in their ability to succeed. Men can get involved in the hiring processes and make sure women are included in the application pool.
Allies acknowledge women’s contributions, both large and small, and give recognition in public settings. I remember many a time Bill would introduce me to a group of people by praising my latest project or endeavor. It sent a message to my peers and superiors that I was an important part of his efforts.
Yet, as much as it helps to be mentored, our data reveal that what women really want is “sponsorship.” Sponsors go beyond advice and praise. Sponsors act. Bill positioned me to serve on important campus committees. He introduced me to key players, legislators and community leaders who found funding for my research. He provided opportunities for me to discover and use my voice, as when he asked me to create solutions after learning that Utah had substantially fewer women graduating from college than the national average.
True allies go beyond cheerleading. Bill didn’t validate me by telling me, “You’re great!” Instead he gave me projects and opportunities that conveyed the message, “I trust you and know you can do this!”
Even when I wasn’t quite sure I was ready, these opportunities built my capacity and developed skills that only came from taking risks.
We know that organizations thrive when both women and men hold top positions, and we know that male allies make a huge difference. So, why do some men still sit on the sidelines? One reason is that, even if the majority of men want to help women in the organization succeed, many of the challenges that women face are invisible to them. Good intentions will only create change if supported by good information and awareness. So, if you want to be an ally, talk to the women in your workplace. Ask how you can have their backs. Believing in them will help them believe in themselves. Be a mentor but, more importantly, be like my dear friend Bill. Be a sponsor! #CountOnMeToo
Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership & Ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University. She is also the founder and director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.