One manager lamented, “I can’t even compliment a woman on how she looks anymore.” What he hadn’t realized is that context matters.

For those men who have walked the straight and narrow and valued female colleagues for their intellect, regardless of their looks, the #MeToo movement can feel confusing. It can make them hesitant or nervous about how they’re perceived, putting a damper on even healthy workplace culture and working relationships. In fact, a forthcoming survey by and SurveyMonkey found almost half of male managers are uncomfortable participating in basic workplace activities with women, including working alone together.(1)

The problem

The danger is that people in the developmental stage of Minimization tend to assume we all have the same experience. Two-thirds of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory® world-wide are unknowingly stuck in this stage. Because individual differences are not recognized, even de-emphasized, we may not see the cultural system that keeps people feeling left out or pushed out. We want equality and fairness, thinking this is best achieved by treating everyone essentially the same.(2)

However, people’s experiences are not essentially the same. Studies show one in five women and one in 71 men are raped at some point in their lives.(3) Activist and survivor Tarana Burke started the “metoo” movement in 2006 to help survivors of sexual violence find pathways to healing. She strove to galvanize a broad base of survivors to disrupt the systems that proliferate sexual violence for both women and men. The conflict escalated a year ago when the “#metoo” hashtag went viral on social media as the first allegations against Harvey Weinstein appeared in the New York Times. Within the first 24 to 48 hours, Facebook had 12 million engagements with the #metoo, igniting a national conversation about sexual violence.(4) Such problem-surfacing makes people uncomfortable and aware. Uncomfortable is a jumping off point for problem-solving.(5)

To begin solving the problem, we need to stop minimizing differences and disrupt the system that allows for sexual violence. To do so, we start by noticing the cultural characteristics, the shared values and patterns of behavior, that inadvertently support such a critical social problem. This isn’t just good for people, it’s good for business.

In the scenario of complimenting a woman at work, complement her work, not her wardrobe. Cultural intelligence is the ability to appreciate another’s perspective and change our words and actions to show genuine respect. To express cultural intelligence within the context of work, a man doesn’t need to comment on a woman’s appearance. In other contexts, if he’s unsure a compliment was appropriate, he can check by asking, “What was the impact of my words?” Then actively listen to the response. However, we need to be careful because depending on a woman’s experience, compliments offered with the best of intentions can be perceived as aggressive. And although she might not speak up, she may be minimizing her hurt or angry feelings to fit in or because she needs the job. Minimization is a sure path to lost productivity and employee engagement and satisfaction.

Why invest in and advance women at work?

Reykjavik Energy, the parent company of Iceland’s largest power provider, which was forced to fire one-third of its workforce in the aftermath of the financial crash, seized on its subsequent restructuring as an opportunity to become a fully gender-equal employer. Within five years, by “putting the gender glasses on before taking every single decision,” it had boosted the proportion of women in management positions from 29% to 49%. Over the same period, its adjusted gender pay gap shrank from 8.4% to 2.1% – and now stands at 0.2% in favor of women. The company’s chief executive, Bjarni Bjarnason, says the net outcome has been “more open discussions, higher productivity, greater job satisfaction, improved decision-making, higher morale and an all-round far better atmosphere.”(6)

Catalyst found that companies with the most women board directors outperformed those with the least on return on sales (ROS) by 16% and return on invested capital (ROIC) by 26%.”(7) Whereas most executives believe that gender diversity improves financial performance, far fewer translate that belief into action.(8)

In an interview for Forbes, Michelle King asked Mike Gamson, Senior Vice President for LinkedIn Global Solutions, “Why are most men not aware of their critical role in advancing women at work?”(9)

Gamson replied, “There’s a natural human tendency to hire or surround ourselves with people that look and think just like us. That’s a problem for many reasons, one being that when everyone at the top looks, thinks, acts or speaks like you, it’s harder to get that natural exposure to new ways of doing things or emerging opportunities.”(9)

What’s a guy to do?

“What can a guy do to support the advancement of women at work?” I asked Gwen Phillips, Director of Human Resources for Phillips Theological Seminary. As an example, she related the story about her college professor. He had said about her writing, “You’re an excellent writer, but something’s missing; you’re detached. You’re clearly grasping the material, but I don’t see your perspective expressed here.” Gwen said she was shocked. No one before had asked what she thought. She said, “At first I didn’t believe him; I didn’t change my writing style. He gave me a B on that next paper and again asked me to share my voice. On the following paper, I spoke my truth and shared my perspective. He gave me an A on that paper and said, ‘Now, I see you.’” She said that if he hadn’t persisted and encouraged me to speak up, “I’d still be burying me. Because of that professor, I learned to speak from my own social and political construct.” Gwen explained that if a man can ask about a woman’s experience and take the time to listen, her ideas and talents will come to the surface. When a woman’s perspective is encouraged and appreciated, naturally there will be more and differing perspectives that can provide the ‘ah ha’ moments that spur true innovation.

Be part of the solution

“Don’t avoid women, mentor them,” says Thomas and Brown-Philpot in their Wall Street Journal article.(10) While women represent over half the available talent pool, organizations struggle to retain and grow talented women. Leaders can:

  • Be a mentor. Studies show that people with mentors are likelier to get promotions. Mentors show women the ropes and help us navigate office politics. They introduce them to decision-makers who help us get high-profile assignments. So much of what gets you noticed at work is who you know and who sings your praises.(10)
  • Meet everyone for breakfast, if you’re uncomfortable going to dinner with female colleagues. The so-called Pence rule—the idea that a man can’t eat alone with a woman who isn’t his wife—is a double standard. It results in one kind of access for men, another for women. This is not the answer.(10)
  • Ask women what they need to move up. Maybe she wants advice on how to pitch to a prospective client. Maybe she is walking through political landmines in her office and just wants guidance from someone who has navigated her way in the past. Maybe she’s thinking about quitting because she’s being asked to attend too many events at night and she has young kids at home she wants to spend time with. Conversations such as these are important, typically requiring an hour per person a month, at most.(11)
  • Be informed about both big-picture data and the statistics of the company. For example, find out the average pay gap and address this when bonuses are being discussed. By doing basic research on workplace sexism, you could implement new policies to limit your company’s tendency for bias.(12)
  • Remember times when you have experienced some form of bias. By engaging in those conversations through personal storytelling, it creates an emotional connection to the issue and gets leaders in the majority to better understand the perspectives of minority team members.(12)
  • Take time to identify where bias might play a part in your work day. Whether it’s recruiting, management, interpersonal interactions, etc. – start making a plan. Recognition is the first key to making a change.(9)

Achieving diversity, equity and a sense of belonging in the workplace isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s critical to a company’s long-term success. Fostering employee safety and belonging using cultural intelligence is the means to an end for greater job satisfaction, productivity, innovation and profit in any business.  -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

To attract, retain and promote top talent from diverse backgrounds, leaders can create a culture of safety and belonging for everyone in their organization. With a PhD in Adult Education, Amy works with CEOs, management teams and those who want to take the lead to successfully onboard new recruits by shifting from a homogeneous to multicultural mindset by developing the skills for Cultural Intelligence in five 2-hour long Workshops


  1. Racioppi, R. (19 June 2018) “Advancing female talent: organization-wide opportunities for change.” Forbes:
  2. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  3. National Sexual Violence Resource Center:
  4. MeToo.:
  5. Hammer, M. (Oct. 2018) In a talk given at the International Conference for the Intercultural Development Inventory.
  6. Henley, J (20 Feb. 2018) “’Equality won’t happen by itself’: how Iceland got tough on gender pay gap.” The Guardian:
  7. (2013) “Why diversity matters.” The Catalyst Information Center:
  8. Werner, C., Devillard, S., & Sancier-Sultan, S. (Oct. 2010) “Moving women to the top: McKinsey Global Survey Results.” McKinsey & Company:
  9. King, M (28 Sept. 2017) “Three ways men can champion gender equality at work.” Forbes:
  10. Thomas, R. & Brown-Philpot, S (4 Feb. 2018) “Don’t avoid women, mentor them: worried by #MeToo? Here’s how to become part of the solution.” Wall Street Journal:
  11. Campbell-Dollaghan, K (23 Oct. 2018) “9 women executives on how MeToo has changed the way they mentor.” Fast Company:
  12. Donnelly, G, (5 Oct. 2018) “Here’s how men can be leaders in improving corporate diversity.” Fortune:
  13. Photo credit: Cory Bouthillette on Unsplash