The Expert Q&A – on Engaging Male Allies

Trish FosterWith Bentley University’s Trish Foster

Q: Many men say they support equality for women in the workplace. But being an “ally” involves taking action. What are some examples of the most important kinds of actions male allies can take to advance gender equality in the workplace?

This is a big question! Men who want to be authentic allies need to actively, vocally, and visibly support, mentor, and sponsor women (and other underrepresented individuals). And they need to take action in everyday moments, like amplifying for women in meetings and advocating for them when they aren’t in the room. But before they can do all of this, and become authentic allies, they have to do some introspective work. I recommend three things:

  • First, they have to invest in understanding their own privilege, remembering that holding privilege isn’t a sin – it’s all about how you choose to use it.
  • Second, they need to work really hard on listening to understand. Michael Welp, a true thought leader in the male allies’ space, says that the one leadership skill that men – white men in particular – need to work on is listening to understand.
  • And finally, they need to remember that there is no such thing as “a silent ally.” So, they need to ask themselves, “Am I prepared to be a loud and proud ally?” If the answer is yes, they’re ready to go.

Q: What are some of the most effective ways to engage male allies?

This one is easy, because the data really speaks for itself. Men’s own relationships continue to have the biggest impact. This includes their relationship with wives, mothers, female bosses, mentors, and especially daughters, all of whom enlighten them and win them over emotionally. Men are sometimes criticized for this, but it’s important to remember that all of us learn best through experience and personal connection. One study showed that even judges with daughters are significantly more likely to decide cases in favor of women’s rights.

Second, we have to include men in our discussions and forums, inviting them into women’s events, diversity councils, and employee resource groups. Third, we have to talk to them honestly and directly about our experiences, letting them know what our challenges and our goals are. We can’t expect them to read our minds!  Finally, more junior men have to see senior men acting as allies – this is social proof that it’s the right thing to do.

Q: What are some ineffective ways that you’ve seen backfire?

Making men feel guilty. It accomplishes nothing. Most of the men I talk to in the work we do are already carrying guilt and discomfort, and many of them are walking around in fear. As one tech executive said to me recently, “We’re all just trying not to do anything wrong.” This is so unproductive and demoralizing – and that negativity seeps into organizational culture. This doesn’t mean that we should let men (or any of us who carry privilege, including white women like myself) off the hook. But I do think we should try to move past blaming and shaming, and work collaboratively to empower everyone in our organizations to make a difference.

Q: A 2019 study revealed that 60 percent of male managers say they are scared of being alone with women at work – which can have a dampening effect on mentoring and other career opportunities for women. How do we overcome that?

We discuss this issue openly when we run allyship workshops for businesses. I think the only way to overcome the fear that has set in since the #MeToo and Times Up movements launched is to address the issue head-on with men and women together in the same room. Give men a chance to explain their reticence and women a chance to share their stories in a psychologically safe space, with an effective facilitator who can help guide the conversation.

Here’s an example of how this played out recently in a workshop I ran: After a man shared his reticence to meet privately with women, a woman in the workshop – a seasoned financial services executive – revealed that in the past year a more senior man who she had worked with for some time had begun holding meetings with her in the hallway outside his office. She explained why his behavior was hurtful and demeaning, and he had a chance to explain why he was doing it.  You could literally feel the emotional release taking place for everybody in that room. The conversation resulted in greater empathy on both sides and, importantly, a commitment from all of the men and women in the workshop to start modeling positive professional relationships across gender difference. This included plans for men and women to be seen grabbing coffee or lunch together, seeking opportunities to visibly collaborate on projects, and openly supporting each other’s work.

Q: Who is a male ally who inspires you?

Because of the work we do in the Center for Women and Business (CWB), I’m fortunate to know quite a few men who are using their privilege for positive change, and many of them are younger guys who are really walking the talk with everyday behaviors that are inclusive and progressive. Men like David Chang at Wellington Management who started their Upstanders group, for instance, and a colleague of mine at Bentley, Alex Hirs, who runs workshops with me.

Among the very top executives, a person who is a standout is Tim Ryan, PwC’s US Chairman. You might know that he is the driving force behind CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, a broad-based initiative that’s brought more than 900 organizations and leaders together to make workplaces more inclusive and diverse. Tim has really used his privilege and stature to make a difference, and his humility is remarkable.

Trish Foster is the Executive Director of the Gloria Cordes Larson Center for Women and Business at Bentley University.


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