The Tik Tok video is nauseating. A lone woman in an all-men college tech class sits wide-eyed and understandably appalled as several male classmates loudly banter about rape — specifically, the virtues of sexually assaulting women who drink too much and pass out. Although one man appears to drive the conversation, others offer sheepish laughter and, we imagine, several others sit silently by.
We see two common threads in this example. First, a few young men objectify, disrespect, or harass women. Second — and far more troubling — lots of men remain bystanders, silent, impotent — and complicit.
Although this video quickly went viral on social media, sexual harassment is ubiquitous for young adult women in American society and on U.S. college campuses. Eighty percent of women report experiencing harassment, and contexts in which harassment is allowed to flourish become breeding grounds for sexual assault. A 2019 study of 33 major universities revealed that 25.9% of female undergraduates had experienced nonconsensual contact through physical force or because they were unable to give consent.
Translation: a quarter of parents sending daughters off to a U.S. college can expect their daughters to be sexually assaulted.
Why are harassment and assault of women so prevalent in male-dominated contexts, such as college STEM courses, the military, and finance and tech broadly?
Why are harassment and assault of women so prevalent in male-dominated contexts, such as college STEM courses, the military, and finance and tech broadly? One of the answers is that men fail to hold other men accountable. Worse, they perpetuate a culture that excuses this behavior and gaslights women. Although most men believe and publicly announce that they are advocates for gender equity and the respectful treatment of women, the evidence shows most women disagree.
What are we men missing? Genuine allyship with women requires not only holding yourself accountable (e.g., demonstrating authentic care and concern for the women around you, showing up interpersonally as a trusted friend and colleague, respecting boundaries), it also demands holding other men accountable. This is public allyship that is rooted in accountability and action. It’s where things quickly get real — and scary — for many men. This is where we move beyond performative “niceness” to full advocacy for dignity and respect.
We have a message for men, not only the pathetic “bros” featured in the Tik Tok video, but men throughout the U.S. higher education system (students, professors, coaches, and administrators): Your legitimacy as a leader and ally for gender equity and inclusion, or just being a decent man, is only fully expressed when you become an intentional exemplar and fierce watchdog for the behavior of other men.
Confrontation — bringing sexism, exclusion, or harassment of women to the attention of men who instigate or perpetuate these attitudes and outcomes in their comments and actions — may be the hardest part of showing up as a male ally.
Why do so many men fail as watchdogs for appropriate behavior in other men? It’s complicated but here are the primary culprits.
First, too often, men erroneously believe they’re the only guy in the room who objects to harassing jokes or sexist comments — though the research evidence shows that many men are offended — so they stay silent when they could break the spell by calling it out, enabling other male allies to find their voice and join in the confrontation.
Second, a lot of men allow fear to trump courage. They fear going against their gender tribe’s long-standing “bro code,” perhaps having their masculinity questioned.
Third, let’s not forget the silencing power of the bystander effect. When other bystanders are present — in this case, other men who say or do nothing in the face of sexual harassment — even the most well-meaning man can suffer bystander paralysis and freeze up when he knows he “should” say something. Interestingly, when even one man muster’s the courage to confront, the paralysis wears off and others are emboldened to join him.
Fourth, when the perpetrator is a powerful or influential man, bystander paralysis is exacerbated. Consider the case of former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Although he allegedly sexually harassed numerous women over many years, not a single man — that we know of — had the courage to publicly call him out.
Be on the lookout for signs of sexism and harassment and have the courage to call it out in real time.
Why are we calling on men specifically? Simple. Research shows that men, compared to women, are seen as more legitimate, credible, and persuasive when they call out harassment because they are in-group members acting without apparent self-interest. Both men and women are often surprised when a man intervenes in harassment and are therefore more inclined to take note and listen.
If you identify as a man, if you study, teach, coach, or lead in an academic environment, we’re throwing down a challenge here and now: Show up as a public ally. Hold other men accountable. Constantly be on the lookout for signs of sexism and harassment and have the courage to call it out in real time.
From our research on male allyship, here are three tactical strategies for holding other men accountable.
1. Use the two-second rule: 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.
2. 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. Instead, use clear I-statements to signal that the behavior didn’t land the right way with you.
3. Use personal experiences or relationships: At times, confrontation through self-disclosure can be particularly effective. Sharing how bias or sexism was harmful to you or, more often, a woman close to you can cause other men to do an informed double take, seeing their own problem behavior through a new lens. Think of this as your personal “why” or your male ally elevator pitch. Be ready to give some context for your out-loud advocacy for the equitable and respectful treatment of women.
W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith are the coauthors of “Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace,” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2020), and Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women,” Harvard Business Review Press, 2019).
Johnson is a professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy and a faculty associate in the Graduate School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. Smith is an associate professor in the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.
Also read: 8 tips for women traveling alone