Women in male-dominated industries [Pt 2]: Male allyship and how to boost gender diversity

In the first part of this series, Business Forward spoke to Farah and Nour* about the challenges they have had to endure working in male-dominated sectors. In part two, they tell us about the few instances when their male colleagues stepped up, what organizations should do to make their work environments better for women and what male-majority industries should do to become more gender diverse.

How can men be better allies?

Nour says she has had few male colleagues who sympathised with her over the years, “but they’re all younger.”

Some have gone as far as to stand up for her during certain incidents. “They will say ‘don’t treat her like that’, ‘she’s good at her job’ and things like that. Other male colleagues will give me tasks that fit my responsibilities and what I’m actually capable of. They treat me as an equal. Even if they’re older, they understand that even though I’m a woman and young, that doesn’t mean at all that I’m less than them in any way.”

Farah says: “Most of my male colleagues over the past four years in my different jobs had no issues with me at all. They showed concern where valid in terms of perhaps me going somewhere unsafe. They joined me on longer drives to site visits.”

Among the most important things which Farah suggests men should do to ensure their female colleagues get the same opportunities in the workplace is to not make assumptions about their “qualifications or willingness to do physically demanding jobs and then deciding on behalf of women.”

“Give credit where due and avoid the habit of delegating organizational tasks or secretarial questions and stuff like that to your female colleagues because they are better at it,” she adds.

Especially crucial during meetings, Farah strongly recommends that men make sure they do “not to take up all the interaction and response time especially if someone is as or more qualified than you.”

It is also very important to consider the impact of social and team bonding activities beyond the workplace, something which Farah says she and other women tend to be excluded from, denying them opportunities. She cites the Friends episode where Rachel was not included in her colleagues’ cigarette breaks and was missing out on the business decisions they were making.

“You can’t reward the male employee more and treat him better because he smokes cigarettes with you in the balcony or goes with you to the ahwa or watches football with you or because you can crack sexist jokes with him. This actually happens and it is not fair. Judge a person according to their work,” Nour adds.

What should the workplace do?

“The first responsibility of the organization is to ensure the safety of women employees. This can range from securing safe transportation to ensuring a harassment free workplace,” says Ghada Howaidy, founder of the Egypt Women on Boards Observatory (WoB), which aims to increase gender diversity in company boards across Egypt and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Howaidy maintains that in this day and age, it is not enough to be consciously anti-sexist and work against obvious forms of gender bias, stressing the importance of what has come to be known as second generation bias. “This is a term often used in gender discourse to mean unconscious bias against women. This is the kind of bias that requires emotional intelligence at a personal level to be aware and able to reflect on behavior, as well as explicit interventions at an organizational level to raise awareness and identify policies to overcome it.”

Nour suggests that “companies should conduct their own internal evaluations to see if their managers are sexist or not.”

How can male dominated sectors become more gender diverse?

Much of the reason as to why certain industries and sectors are male dominated is that they have barriers to women entering them in the first place, starting from education. Persistent social and cultural attitudes also play a role in discouraging women from pursuing careers in these fields.

“Once I made it to my last year of uni, this is when a couple of new challenges rose. Thinking about finding jobs or internships was a hardship. The job posts and workplaces mainly assume male applicants and employees. Some of them even specified it in their posts,” Farah says. “In a job interview, an interviewer in a reputable engineering company tried to scare me into not pursuing a job further by telling me these extreme case stories about having to stay late in the office and that it might not be appropriate for me.”

“The tone from the top of the organization is key,” Howaidy says. “Gender equality has to be reflected at the highest level of the organization in order to be meaningful. Companies have a choice to simply comply with the law or go a step further and ‘do no harm’ or actually go even further and do good, meaning be pro-active and show initiative.”

Nour says that companies should establish and publicise their anti-sexual harassment policies on their websites. “When you’re applying for a job with them, they should inform you of the procedures they go through should a sexual harassment incident take place. I saw an ad for a job before that clearly stated the organization’s anti-sexual harassment policies and the procedures that are taken in case an incident occurs.”

So that traditionally male industries can attract more women to pursue careers in them, Farah adds that there needs to be major interventions in schools and universities. “Support interest in non-gender conforming subjects and careers from a young age and remove the stigma attached to working in male dominated fields.”

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