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How Men Can Confront Other Men About Sexist Behavior

Confronting other men for sexism, bias, harassment, and all manner of inappropriate behavior may be the toughest part of male allyship. But it’s also utterly essential. While the prospect of speaking up against transgressions can feel overwhelming, there are steps you can take to make it easier.

Globally, most men support gender equality and believe they are contributing in meaningful ways. While some men may be doing their part in interpersonal allyship — mentorships and other professional relationships and support to push women forward — few are helping with public allyship — becoming courageous watchdogs for equity, dignity, respect, and fairness in the workplace. Perhaps this explains evidence showing that 77% of men believe they are doing all they can to support gender equality, while only 41% of women agree. That means men must do more to speak up and speak out when they see bad behavior.

Active confrontation of other men for sexism, bias, harassment, and all manner of inappropriate behavior may be the toughest part of male allyship. It is also utterly essential. For many men, challenging masculine workplace norms is where the cost of allyship gets real in a hurry. We define confrontation this way: Bringing sexism and exclusion of women to the attention of men who knowingly or unknowingly instigate and perpetuate these attitudes and outcomes in their words and actions.

Why is it so important that men stand willing to confront other men when they demean, offend, or harass — even if it’s unintentional? There are several reasons. First, women who call out bad male behavior often are evaluated negatively, even rated as less competent compared to a man that does the same. Second, when a man (someone without an apparent vested interest in gender fairness and equity) confronts bias or sexism, observers are more likely to be persuaded. Third, how a message is received is often less about precise wording and more about the in-group identity of the speaker. A confrontation intended to change attitudes and behavior has more impact when it comes from someone perceived to be similar — in this case, another man who can claim, “That’s not who we [men] are” and “That’s not what we [guys] do.” Finally, quite often, men fear they’re the only guy in the room who objects to a sexist comment or raunchy joke (though evidence shows lots of men are offended), so they stay silent when they could break the spell and enable other male allies to find their voice if only they’d speak up.

While the prospect of speaking up against transgressions can feel overwhelming, there are steps you can take to make it easier. Drawn from our research for our new book Good Guys, here are six confrontation strategies you can apply right now in your interactions at work:

Use the two-second rule. The well-documented bystander effect too often plays out in the workplace when men stay on the sidelines, timid and mute in the face of obvious gender bias and sexism. To combat the paralysis that sets in mere seconds after another man delivers a sexist comment or demeaning joke, just say something! We recommend the ouch technique: Simply say “Ouch!” clearly and forcefully. This buys you a few extra seconds to formulate a clear statement about why the comment didn’t land well with you. Then, have some ready responses cued up in advance, such as:

  • Did you really mean to say that?

  • We don’t do that here.

  • That wasn’t funny.

  • Actually, that’s an outdated stereotype.

When you say something, own it. When you confront another man, don’t attribute your concern or offense to the fact that there’s a woman in the room or that women might be offended. Too often we hear half-hearted confrontations such as, “Come on, Bob. There are women in the room.” This implies that Bob’s sexist comment would be acceptable if no women were in sight.

Instead, use clear I-statements to signal that the behavior didn’t land the right way with you, such as, “I didn’t find that joke amusing, Bob. I don’t appreciate the way it demeans women,” or “I’d really appreciate it if you’d stop referring to our female colleagues as ‘girls.’ They are women.”

Use Socratic questions as a confrontation device. Quite often, a Socratic question can serve both to disrupt gender bias and trigger self-reflection in a male colleague. For instance, many women have experienced having a creative idea ignored during a meeting, only to have it repackaged by a male before the meeting ends. Next time you bear witness to such co-opting of a female colleague’s idea, ask a thoughtful question designed to remind everyone in the room — including the offender — who generated the idea in the first place: “I’m confused, Charles. How is that any different from what Amber suggested a few minutes ago?” The Socratic question can also be quite effective in helping a male colleague consider an alternative perspective. Lisen Stromberg of Prismwork Consulting recommends something as simple as, “I wonder if you’ve considered that women might experience this differently?”

Share what you’ve learned through a personal experience or relationship. Sometimes, confrontation through self-disclosure can be a powerful approach. Sharing authentically how bias or sexism was harmful to someone close to you can cause other men to do a double take, seeing their own behavior through a new lens. Saying, calmly but firmly, “My wife experienced this at work, and it’s unacceptable! I don’t want women to experience that here,” can be deeply influential for other men. You can even make this aspirational by connecting this feedback to who he wants to be by saying, “I know you’re a good guy, and I wouldn’t want you to inadvertently offend women by suggesting they should smile more.”

Use humor now and then. Particularly when you have an existing relationship with a male coworker or peer, try a short humorous observation as an intervention. For instance, when a guy calls a female colleague “sweetheart,” try, “Do you call all your software developers ‘sweetheart’?” Or, when a team member regularly interrupts your female colleague in a meeting, try some sports-related humor. Toss a yellow sticky note on the table, and say, “Penalty! That’s 10 yards for interrupting.”

Show him that you’re on his side. Creating real behavior change in other men is best achieved through an artful blend of challenge and reinforcement. A group of real allies can turn confrontation into “carefrontation” as one informal group of executive leaders shared with us. So, when a guy goes off the rails with sexism or harassing humor, first, use language that lets him know you see him as part of your tribe and that your heart is in the right place. Pull him aside after a meeting and have a direct conversation. Show that you are worried about him; use I-statements that aren’t accusatory, but also let him know how you feel as a friend and colleague. In clarifying the precise behavior of concern, be specific in the details, situation, and people involved. You don’t have to take the conversation to “DEFCON 5,” but you do have to make him understand how his behavior is hurting others, sabotaging his credibility, and why you care. Then, when he shows some gender awareness or an inclusive mindset, be sure to follow up with some positive reinforcement.

Confronting other men about their missteps is not about humiliation, shaming, or angry altercations. And there is no one-size-fits-all approach. At times, a private conversation after the meeting will get a more positive result, especially if the perpetrator is a close colleague, open to feedback, and well-meaning but naïve, or out of step with changing attitudes and expectations. At other times it is essential to confront in public, especially if the comment or behavior was egregious and likely to dispirit coworkers and damage the relational environment, or if the perpetrator is a serial offender, rigid in his attitudes toward women, and unlikely to respond to private corrective feedback.

Allyship is hard work. It takes a deft touch and a thoughtful and empathetic ally to create lasting and meaningful change. Excellent allies have the courage to get comfortable doing the uncomfortable work of disrupting the status quo.


Written by W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith

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