How men can improve work for women

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Throughout my career, men have helped me every step of the way. Sometimes it was when I asked for help. Sometimes they saw I needed help even before I did, and they were there.

So you might think this is December-is-full-of-good-cheer-post — you know, me thanking men for all they've done for me at work. But no. It's me asking for even more. It's my wish list for what else men could be doing.

This is not grand stuff. Okay. I mean, women are doing better in school than men, outearning men, and look, now even Time magazine says women don't need marriage as much as men do. So it's not like women are in trouble. But still, men could do some stuff to make life better for women at work.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Buy flowers.
Women are happier when there are flowers in the room. Don't send red roses, because that means I love you. And don't send pink roses, because that means I wish I could sleep with you and then send red roses. Send a fun bouquet. If you think this is not what goes on in the upper echelons of the workplace, then read my post about Mark Benioff sending me flowers. It was great. We both got what we wanted, which is what the workplace is really about.

2. Take leave when you have a child.
Companies that have paternity leave policies rarely have to pay for them because men don’t use paternity leave. Maybe it's because taking leave kills your career. We all know that. We also know that the arrival of children is the genesis of salary disparity between men and women. But it is still essential for women to take leave. (Confession: I did not take time off and I lost my mind.) If men took leave, they would effectively change how the workplace deals with taking leave. If everyone took leave when they had a kid it would be too much trouble to penalize people. It's sort of like job hopping. When the whole generation does it, no one is penalized. And, here's a great little piece of research for you last few doubters: Taking maternity leave is better for your baby.)

3. Don't look at porn at work.
Don't tell me you don't do it, okay? Porn sites get the majority of their traffic during the workday. The opportunity here is that men do a better job of working with women if the men don’t look at porn during the day. So, if you want to be a non-collaborative grouch to the women around you, you should do your porn at night, when you're home with your significant other. She can take you to task on it more effectively than your co-workers.

4. Show your forearms.
If you are going to insist on making the workplace sexual, at least do it in a way that appeals to women. Women like to look at mens’ forearms. That's right. In the same way that men like to look at womens' cleavage. It must be from the days when women were looking to mate with a guy who was strong enough to kill a lion. Or something.

5. Encourage women to break rules.
Women follow rules better than men do, so the women do better in school. But, there is no correlation between doing well in school and doing well in adult life. And there might be a reverse correlation, because school is about doing what you're told, but strong performers in business make their own rules.

Maybe this is why most big law firms have no women in their top 10 rainmakers. This is because it's an ill-defined, outside-the-rules-of-what-you-learn-in-law-school kind of job. But these are the people who make the money and have the flexibility to have a lifestyle they want outside of work—one not so hours-bound.

So for women to really get the kind of workplace they want — flexible, responsive, and engaging, the women are going to need to break some rules. And the men can help by encouraging women to do that.

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  1. Mike
    Mike says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I think you’ve omitted a “don’t” in the following quote:

    “So, if you want to be a non-collaborative grouch to the women around you, you should do your porn at night, when you're home with your significant other. “

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      No, I think she got it. It took me a couple times to read it, but I think she means that if you must look at porn, do it when the grouchiness can be turned on someone other than your coworkers. So the “women around you” would be the wife instead of the coworkers. The sentence technically works, it’s just confusing.

      • Mike
        Mike says:

        I get that it’s semantically correct, I assumed it was lacking the negative because “non-collaborative” reads to me as referring to the work environment, especially given the topic of the article. Further, your reading assumes that porn causes grouchiness. I’d be interested in seeing evidence of that conclusion.

  2. KateNonymous
    KateNonymous says:

    While I agree with a lot of this, I’m a bit skeptical: won’t this just result in more competition for the spots men already hold, or want to hold? And why would they want that? I see what’s in this for women, but what’s in this for the men?

  3. Laura
    Laura says:

    One thing men should do in the workplace is scrutinize their interactions with their female co-workers. There are a couple of men in my office (a couple, not the majority) who seem to question their female employees plans a lot more than they do their male employees. There is one manager in the office who had 3 different female employees tell hr that if they had to keep reporting to him, they would quit. Since they were extremely valuable, they got their wish.

  4. Chris McLaughlin
    Chris McLaughlin says:

    So may good points it almost makes me forgive you for being yet another young, still-hot woman who takes the kindness of men in the workplace for granted — and generalizes from it.

    Revisit this in ten years, please.

  5. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    I love your posts on women at work. I think we’re kind of told that boys and girls are the same nowadays, and then it’s a shock when we grow up and go to work and it’s not so. That’s how I felt. Sometimes even my parents opinions shock me. Of course, I am the product of your typical Baby Boomers, a homemaker mother and a father who when I was young worked with derivatives at JP Morgan so that I barely saw him, especially as he would use his Sundays to play golf. We all know things have changed, I think it’s a good idea to encourage people to go even further. In the Atlantic article “The End of Men” it pointed out that what’s good for women is not necessarily good for children (and families), since women are excelling at work and spending more time away from home. If men help out, take paternity leave, etc, that sort of side effect can be eradicated, or at least lessened.

  6. Renee
    Renee says:

    I would like to add… Men can stop saying things like “My wife usually does this for me” before asking a woman to do something at work. It usually involves something menial like organizing or planning something. The whole work-wife thing is so ancient and the new generation is not interested in participating.

  7. Morgan
    Morgan says:

    I don’t need, or want, flowers. In fact, if you’re a guy working around me and you get the urge to buy flowers, don’t do it and give me the money instead.

  8. Woody
    Woody says:

    Oh silly Morgan! As a man I want the women around me to be special. In a government job where I worked one of the men made fun of the fact he didn’t get flowers like several of the women did on some non-occasions. I sent him a beautiful bouquet with a note that said “get over it, be yourself and be a bit more lovable and you will get flowers more often.” He became a different man and found the mate of his life and still credits the wake up call to the anonymous person

  9. MyWifeThinksImADonkey
    MyWifeThinksImADonkey says:

    If women are doing better in school and outearning men then why do men need to do more for them? Shouldn’t women be doing something to help out the guys who helped them out whey they were down? Aren’t men the ones that need the help?

    Isn’t men doing even more to help out women in the workplace akin to U.S. industries teaching proprietary trade secrets to Chinese business partners?

    • John
      John says:

      Women can help out men in the areas they need help with (school, parenting, expressing emotions ect.) and men can help women in the things they need help with. This isn’t a zero sum game.

    • Jake
      Jake says:

      Many companies cover maternity in their short-term disability policies. Very few cover paternity leave.

      For both of my kids, my wife was covered at 2/3 salaries for 3 months. I could use regular vacation or take unpaid leave. Unpaid leave is not a real option, so it was one week off and back to work.

    • Jacque
      Jacque says:

      Bank of America. It is their only redeeming quality.

      Penelope, I can’t stand you today. I don’t care if you want to tell stories about your sex life and vagina dipping to drum up business, but please stop with the gender advice for the workplace. You truly suck at it. Buy women flowers and show your forearms? The serious business women I know care about real issues and real equity where it is deserved and should be a right.

      And STOP STOP STOP writing that women are earning more than men. I’ve seen the stuff you link to as “references” for this claim, but if you can’t say it is true for all women and not one “group” of women then please stop writing that women are earning more than men. AArrrggghhhh!

  10. Charlotte
    Charlotte says:

    Thanks Jake,
    So if maternity leave = short term disability,
    delivering a baby = injury?
    I’m not trying to be funny, just want to know.

    • hlcs
      hlcs says:

      I believe insurance companies stick it more in the ‘illness’ category than ‘injury’ but basically, yes.

    • Liza
      Liza says:

      So basically, it’s not the ‘having a baby’ that’s an injury – it’s the process of delivery.
      up to 8 weeks after delivering a baby a woman’s body is going through huge changes – both physical and mental. Besides post-partum depression, mood swings can occur, among other things. Physically a woman’s body needs to ‘shrink’ down- the skin, organs and usually all the swelling that occurs a few weeks before delivery as well. Women also bleed for a longer period of time after giving birth. This is a physical recovery that takes time-much like if someone had to have knee/back/hip surgery.

      Not to mention the positive effects a baby can have when it is able to bond with a parent(s) – this is also why most women (who are able) will also use 6 weeks of FMLA that they are allowed once their maternity leave at work wears off (or if they don’t have maternity leave-FMLA allows them to stay home while still earning some of their pay).

      geez, I’m not even a mom and I know this stuff.

      • KateNonymous
        KateNonymous says:

        I’m a mom, and I know all of that stuff, and it’s still weird to equate childbirth with a soccer injury.

  11. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I’d send you flowers tomorrow if I had your address. But I’m a woman, a straight one, with two grown kids. I’d do it because I want you to write about me on your blog. At least you give clear instructions.

  12. John Feier
    John Feier says:

    Love it, love it!

    Thank you, Penelope for setting me free.

    Part of my reluctance in rejoining the workplace has its roots in some of my bad experiences. I don’t want any conflicts of interest, but yet I don’t want it to have an inflexible atmosphere of suspicion. Let men be men and let women be women.

    People, in general, are going to have to own up to the fact that it’s not who you’re married to but rather who you spend the most time with and if that means that the secretary gets 12 hours a day while the wifey at home only gets of his waking hours, then maybe someone should have done thinking ahead of entering a relationship.

  13. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    #3. Don't look at porn at work – I get the reason why but I wonder how much access there really is to porn in today’s workplace. The referenced article was dated 2003 and I have to believe companies have much stronger filters on their computers which access the Internet – to protect themselves from lawsuits, have a better work environment, and have better productivity.

  14. AlliG
    AlliG says:

    I wish the problem for women lawyers could be easily solved by “breaking the rules.” I don’t think it’s that simple.

    You talk about legal careers often enough that you should have someone guest post on it. Like me. I might title my first post something like:

    “You’re Leaving the Practice of Law Because You Couldn’t Hack It As a Lawyer and the Hours Were Too Much for You (and Other Things That Will Be Said Behind Your Back or After Four Tequila Shots)”

    Or maybe that title isn’t catchy enough? I’m sure your editor and I will come up with something great.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I spend a lot of time on this blog saying that the legal profession is really really behind in it’s ability to accommodate flexible schedules.

      Frankly, I think that law firms advertise themselves as able to jump to a client’s whim, which is exactly what people who want flexible work do not want to do.


      • AlliG
        AlliG says:

        Not sure if you’ve ever run across it, but there is a venomous debate about this (as it relates to Gen Y lawyers) in the online legal community. Google “slackoisie,” if you’re interested.

  15. Jens Fiederer
    Jens Fiederer says:

    Maybe some of the top guys, the ones with very private offices that lock and have good sound proofing, actually DO look at porn at work. I don’t – although our porn-filter occasionally claims I try to even when I am not trying to do anything of the kind.

    One of my co-workers actually got fired, and our manager told me that his internet logs showed he’d been looking at porn. He sat RIGHT NEXT to me. I notice porn, at least real porn. He was a depressed goof-off who spent too much time looking at rock&roll sites. Maybe some of those had links/ads to sites that were questionable. But as fiercely as I concentrate on my computer programming when I’m in the flow, I think I’d notice my neighbor wanking.

    Something is either off with your stats, or maybe the porn sites reporting are actually being hit from different time zones.

  16. Mika Salakka
    Mika Salakka says:

    Having worked in a setting where 19 out of 20 of my co-workers were female, I can’t begin to tell you how little I care about turning a workplace into an experiment in social change.

    If I could ask female co-workers to do me one favor, it would be to keep their mouths shut unless it’s about work; the amount of gossip and idle banter I had to listen to on a daily basis made me want to tear my ears off.

  17. Vicky
    Vicky says:

    Most women are stuck in jobs earning barely enough to support a family. Women earn 78.2% of men’s earnings according to the US Census bureau.

    That said:

    My eyes were shocked though when my boss wore a short sleeve shirt and his forearms were buff (even though he’s an older dude.) They were definitely attractive.

  18. Michael LaRocca
    Michael LaRocca says:

    For years, my female boss bought me flowers every Secretary’s Day. (I’m a guy.) But then one year her husband told her, “Michael doesn’t want flowers, he wants beer.” So the gift changed and damn I miss being a secretary.

  19. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I think this is a brilliant post! You hit the nail on the head. Also, thanks for some of those links (specifically the Times and Men’s Health articles) as I’d never have read them otherwise, and they’re actually very interesting/entertaining.

  20. Jim C.
    Jim C. says:

    As you point out, people who take family leave hurt their careers.
    So you want the dad to take leave when a child is born? How is that going to help his wife, if he impairs his earning power? It may help other men and other women in the workplace, to whom he owes no loyalty, but it will make his wife and family poorer.

    • Liza
      Liza says:

      this is such a naive comment.

      If a dad were to take paternity leave, then the structure of the home life would begin to equal out, which in time and with a growing popularity of this trend, will help the overall achievement potential of women.

      And in case you didn’t understand that:
      Dad stay at home with mom = equal parenting = equal work success because it isn’t just women leaving the workforce, it would be men as well.

      • Jim C.
        Jim C. says:

        Actually, Dad stay at home with mom = equal parenting = equal lack of work success and equal poverty. The result will be that the DINKs and the parents who didn’t take leave would get the promotions.
        Husbands have to put providing for their families first. Someone in the family has to be the breadwinner. Someone has to continue bringing home paychecks and chasing the promotions. If both parents go on the mommy track, they’d better give up their hopes of advancement.

    • tara
      tara says:

      i am both the bread winner and the uterus. taking 12 weeks off and then having to continue to be primary care giver most of the time while working full time has been tough and my career has flat lined. thankfully it was pretty good when we his the flat line, so I can support the family and do the things i need to do.

      however it’s an important distinction – it’s not the 12 weeks of leave that flat lined me, it was the 2 years after the 12 weeks. 6pm day care pick up, 10x the laundry, kid illnesses, etc.

      • Snowmama
        Snowmama says:

        Amen! I am in the same position and I only took two weeks off after having a c-section, due to being the primary breadwinner and very nervous about maintaining my position. I remain the primary breadwinner, primary caregiver of the children (3), shopper, cook and chief bottle-washer!

  21. Karen Tiede
    Karen Tiede says:

    Naw, it’s not short sleeves–it’s rolled up long-sleeve dress shirts. Works for me… Esp. on a blue jeans Friday.

    We had tight internet control (no star wars, match, or any social networking except LI) at my last day job; have a girl friend who worked for a VP who had ordered IT to open up his PC to the world. Eventually, they were able to get rid of him, but not before a lot of ugliness.

  22. Obi Okere
    Obi Okere says:

    I don’t know if it would really be a good idea for men to take a paternity leave. Traditionally it has been our role in society to earn the household income when our wives have just had a baby.

  23. Lisa Best
    Lisa Best says:

    Break some rules is so true. We women often do what we are told so we can be accepted. Men do whatever they want and they are accepted. We (women) are smart, let’s do what is best, not what we are told. That is the only way good change comes about.

  24. tara
    tara says:

    Men don’t take leave when babies are born because there’s not much they can do in those early weeks (in most cases). I say let them be flexible about taking their leave so they can take it when the other family member’s leave ends. That would be helpful to the employee, their family and show support of leave related to child care in general.

    sadly, that will never happen

    • Liza
      Liza says:

      There is soo much to do!

      Wife: “Honey, i just can’t handle the baby crying anymore, I’m going through so many emotional changes after giving birth, can you PLEASE take the baby so I can have some personal time.

      Husband: “Sure honey, take the time you need until the next feeding in 20 minutes.”

      Duh! Being a parent is tough – being a single parent to a newborn is extremely demanding emotionally and physically.

    • KateNonymous
      KateNonymous says:

      Actually, there’s tons to do. Pretty much everything except feeding the baby, if the mother is breastfeeding. I know this because I lost all of my baby weight in a week, and more over the next couple of weeks, because I was so busy feeding the baby that I didn’t have time to feed myself. And that was eating, not, say, doing the laundry or washing the dishes or making sure the bills got paid or any of the other things that need to be done whether or not there’s a baby in the house.

  25. rb
    rb says:

    A guy who works for me just took his “bonding” leave to be with his son at 4 months old. His wife had just gone back to work. I can tell you that it in no way, shape or form hurt his career. Actually, I find myself more impressed with him now, because I expected comical stories about how hard it was to be with a baby all day, but in reality he handled it quite well. (Maybe this is because I’m a female boss. Maybe this is why we need more female bosses.)

  26. Jody Urquhart
    Jody Urquhart says:

    Thanks I will pass the link onto my fiance maybe I’ll get flowers. I was surprized to know that men look at porn at work, all this talk about companies banning facebook and other social networking sites at work and they haven’t banned porn sites yet?

    I had my son and I ran my business at the same time, if i did it again I would have taken a full 3 or 4 months away with no work, hire an assistant or something

  27. Becca
    Becca says:

    Here’s another one–mentor young women, especially young women in law firms! Don’t assume that a woman wants to be mentored by another woman–why would she want to be mentored by a member of marginalized group?

  28. ManFromMilwaukee
    ManFromMilwaukee says:

    I agree: porn should not be watched at work, not when a person is being paid to work. They should be working. Sounds like a man should take parenting leave because it is hard on the career, and then they would be sympathetic to women who take such leaves. Recent studies show that, controlling for marriage and children, women make as much as men. Don’t forget that in 2009 93% of work place fatalities were men.

    So men need to do more to help women? More than they have already done? And when will the favor be returned? Don’t expect it any time soon. Perhaps most men should just be castrated now, and that would save women the trouble of doing it themselves later on. They don’t need to castrate all men, as a few studs could satisfy an office of women, and the rest could just be useful eunuchs.

  29. Thomas
    Thomas says:

    Your setup undermines the rest of the article. Women are better educated, I’ll grant you that. And in some professions (no all) women have parity or surpassed male earnings.


    1. “buy flowers” sorry, you’ve been in the Wisconson farm to long. The last time I tried this the florist got the address wrong And the flowers arrived on Christmas Day. A lovely fight ensued between her and her husband and our friendship is corjeral, at best (after she chewed me out for “what were you thinking”. I now seen more flowers to male coworks, never to female.

    2. Take paternity leave. Great, I have no problem with this. Several of my mail employees have done so, and I’ve encouraged them.

    3. Don’t look at porn at work. Are you kidding? All screens are public and porn gets people fired. While not related, porn at home is as dangerous (and useless) as it Is at work. You need a stronger — and enforced anti-porn edict at work (wait, don’t you work on a farn in Wiscinson, not in an office?)

    4. Forearms: ok — you — have a fetish for them. In that context they are NO MORE APPROPRIATE THAN CLEVAGE. Work should be asexual. Sorry, but we have work to do. Get laid on your own tme.

    5. Encouage women to break the rules. You already asserted that women are better educated, get better pay, and don’t need men. Ahhh…. What do you want us to do? Wouldn’t it be simpler if we just conceeded female superiority … And went away?

  30. eots
    eots says:

    I’m from Russia, er… former Soviet Union, and back there giving flowers to women wasn’t necessarily erotic. I think it’s a great idea. You are acknowledging her femininity while showing appreciation.

  31. My Name Is Jim
    My Name Is Jim says:

    no way am I doing most of this stuff. You don’t feel comfortable at work that’s your problem not mine. I love the idea that I’m going to take maternity leave, just so you feel better about yours, whats next, are you going to suggest I take steroids one day a month to simulate getting PMS? Whine if you want, but winners use their strengths whatever they are, losers hobble themselves just because someone asked them to.

  32. Therese
    Therese says:

    A friend recommended your blog. I am a copywriter and have my own business. I contract with a hospitality marketing agency and work “virtually” with men – it’s a lot of fun.

    “So for women to really get the kind of workplace they want – €“ flexible, responsive, and engaging, the women are going to need to break some rules. And the men can help by encouraging women to do that.”

    Why do “men” need to encourage women to break the rules? This statement is a bit outdated and sounds old-fashioned to me. This goes back to that old paradigm of patriarchal “old school” business structures. Why can’t women encourage each other to break the rules, or why don’t we just break the rules ourselves? Why do we need to look to men to “advise” us or give us the go ahead to be “rebellious” to break the rules?

    I know some of your comments are meant to be tongue-in-cheek (looking at porn, etc.), but I agree with Thomas about the flowers. It’s inappropriate to send female co-workers flowers in a business environment. A Starbucks gift card or an engraved pen – yes. But flowers? No, I don’t think so. I would be VERY uncomfortable if a male client sent me flowers.

    I’ll take that one step further. If you really want to be a rule breaker, my advice is to own your own business and be your own rule maker and breaker – whether male or female.

  33. Calfifornia CFO
    Calfifornia CFO says:

    I really don’t need a man to “improve” the workplace for me, that’s very patronizing. Work is work and the same rules should apply to everyone equally (I don’t plan to have kids so maternity leave issues don’t apply to me). To me, gender equality means 50/50 split down the line to the penny. I don’t need anyone to hold the door for me, I can pay for my own dinner and I definitely don’t need anyone to send me flowers to make my day. I am a lot stronger and tougher than that.

  34. Micaela
    Micaela says:

    Agree with Jacque commenter. Your Asperger’s is leading you to make a lot of spurious correlations regarding research on work, pay, and gender.

  35. Trish
    Trish says:

    Penelope, I think you are spot-on that more men taking parental leave is the key to levelling the punitive professional impact such leave has on women. Men, you will earn huge kudos with the women around you, both at work and at home, if you take paternity leave! To my fellow women, we can make a difference in the workplace if we encourage/support/demand better paternity as well as maternity leave policies, and encourage/support/compliment our male colleagues who actually take advantage of them. At home, we can make a difference by strongly encouraging our husbands, brothers, friends and others to take paternity leave whenever available. I’m afraid this is going to take a long time to change, but we each have the power to make a small difference. (Of course the shortage of paid paternity leaves makes it nearly impossible for many men to do this. But for those who can — go for it!)

  36. Bob
    Bob says:

    If you’re a young male, you can treat other older female employees in senior positions like your big sisters (not your mom, though – don’t be needy), to bring out their maternal side. More effective than sending flowers :)

  37. JT
    JT says:

    I totally agree that men should take paternity leave. Even if the company doesn’t pay for it. The US law allows for unpaid family leave for businesses, except the really small ones. I took maternity leave 8 years ago and it was all unpaid. We couldn’t really afford it. But looking back, that period of a couple of months without income wasn’t really that big of a deal.

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