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Listen up, men: You have an important role to play in helping women avoid workplace stress and burnout. In conversations, you need to signal full acceptance and respect for your female colleagues’ abilities. Sounds simple, and obvious. But it’s vital and not always happening.

With so much focus this past year on bullying behaviour and sexual harassment by some male bosses, it has been easy for other men to distance themselves: “That’s not me. I’m OK.” However, research by UBC social psychologist Toni Schmader and colleagues suggests that more subtly demeaning conversations by men are also taking their toll.

She studied women in STEM industries – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – where they are generally a minority. And although as a researcher she can’t extend her findings beyond that realm, it seems to me the same situation may occur in management ranks of companies where women are a minority and can feel equally threatened.

She asked women and men at the end of 10 consecutive work days to pinpoint their three most significant conversations and rate them. The sample also indicated how they felt at the end of the day to test for stress and signs of burnout.

The good news is that there were very few overtly hostile conversations. The tricky news is that a subtle lack of acceptance was “more prevalent and somewhat pernicious,” she says in an interview. It applied from men to women, not women to men or between people of the same gender. And it could be linked to women feeling stressed and burned out.

Her message to men: “You play an important role signalling inclusion and acceptance. You don’t want to do that in a patronizing way or a knight-in-shining-armour way, but as friends. Women in minority situations in the workplace are cut off from other women. So men, when in the majority, must look for ways to extend a hand of acceptance and affiliation.” And it must come in talking about work; the same effects weren’t found in social discussions between men and women.

In her latest study, she is trying to design a way to create such inclusion and respectful interaction. It involves teaching people about the role of implicit bias in shaping women’s experiences in their professional lives. Then in pairs, women and men share their experiences to see if it’s a problem society creates that men and women can work together to overcome. There are some positive signs, with men seeming to be more alert to bias and believing women can be successful in engineering.

Patricia Devine, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has been pioneering steps to successively counter unintended bias in gender and between racial groups. When she was a child, her mother caught her boxing with her brother, and she was forced to write out 500 times, “I am a girl.” We carry stereotypes like that in our heads since childhood. The starting point is to understand how they affect you and, as with any bad habit, decide you want to eliminate them.

You need to be particularly alert in situations in which these stereotypes tend to pop up, such as when hiring. Instead of seeing men as fit for certain jobs and women for others, examine what skills the job actually requires and then screen candidates rigorously, focusing on the actual evidence rather than falling prey to stereotypes. She says research shows that when we have a stereotypical notion of what fits for a job – unconsciously believing a leader must be a man, for example – the evidence consistent with that belief will seem more powerful. “This is pernicious, as you feel you are being objective,” Ms. Devine says. Another situation to be alert to: an idea advanced by a woman in a meeting not drawing the same support as the same idea mentioned by a man. She now makes it a point to say, “That’s a good point and it’s reminiscent of what Judy said earlier.”

In this process of change she calls “stereotype replacement,” you must detect, reflect and reject. Catch your tendency to abide by a stereotype, reflect about why that is occurring and what the impact will be on women, and then reject it. Another helpful step is to get to know people better – for men, the women in your office – so that you will be less likely to jump to stereotypical conclusions.

Our minds are powerful and can abide by or reject stereotypes. “People can become the change they seek,” she says. So listen up, men.


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