men as allies

Men have it within their power to help female colleagues retain and advance their professional status and their workplace confidence as, in the workplace, a male ally usually holds a certain position of power and privilege and chooses to take responsibility for supporting underrepresented groups within that organisation – such as women. Having a male advocate who is prepared to push back against chauvinistic behaviours or other forms of discrimination where women are belittled, is to empower a marginalised female workforce, creating a more inclusive and positive working environment. For men to be fully engaged in the debate, they first need to be invited to the debate. To convert a general curiosity about what makes a more inclusive environment into real engagement leading to positive change, means potential male allies becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable.

As a first step, encouraging men to be involved in internal groups within an organisation which focuses on women, drives improved understanding and greater self-awareness on the impact of their own behaviours. When those at the higher end of an organisation’s hierarchy realise an intentionally inclusive mindset, acting on their personal values can affect positive change throughout an organisation. By having a male colleague who is in a leadership role as a sponsor for the group, there is added authority and prominence to simple allyship. A holistic approach to diversity and inclusion is essential for success. EDI cannot be a standalone topic – it should be a thread running right through all business strategies. Ideally, change should come from a granular level and impact all aspects of a male colleague’s life. In a business environment, however, it also needs a degree of courage to initiate the discussion.

Employee Network Groups (ENG) are an effective way of getting everyone to join the conversation, but it sometimes requires a shift in communication in terms of who is being targeted to join. If an ENG overly references women within the group’s communications, male colleagues might feel they are excluded. True inclusion is everyone being welcomed into a safe space to gain deeper understanding of others in the group – their backgrounds, their experiences regardless of their age, seniority, and other perceived differences. Acknowledging behaviours can help to change mindsets. Being talked over or having a finger pointed in their direction can be intimidating, disrespectful and patronising to women during the course of an exchange. But men might not realise they are doing it. Understanding inclusion can be experienced best through standing in someone else’s shoes and accepting that another person’s perspective is not necessarily the same as our own. To reach a better understanding and create better connections and therefore a more authentic leader/employee relationship, showing vulnerability over knowledge gaps or over the correct vocabulary to use for example, is extremely effective.

Everyone will have some, albeit unintended, unconscious bias – it is what makes us human and is mostly the result of our upbringing. Greater self-awareness of unconscious behaviours (“Do I do that?”) and challenging these behaviours when they are insensitive or inappropriate to female colleagues is a key first step to male leaders being able to ultimately influence others in their professional circles.

There are some simple pointers: where there are clear knowledge or self-awareness gaps – go to the source. Male employees can ask women in their organisations – through ENGs, through feedback surveys or by directly asking and offering support. Secondly, male employees need to be cognisant of how to communicate appropriately and admit to sometimes not knowing or understanding. It is also important for male colleagues to cultivate self-awareness in relation to male privilege and unconscious biases while maintaining a growth mindset. To be more influential, male allies should make their stance clear and public from the start in order for others to follow, and finally, encourage male/female colleague interaction within the workplace including gender equality initiatives. Positive professional encounters enable greater understanding and inclusion.