How Women Can Recognize Male Allies
September 1, 2023 / Category: Communication
As we celebrate American Business Women’s Day this September, it’s important to reflect on the progress we’ve made in promoting gender diversity and equality in the workplace (though with still a lot of room for improvement — don’t get us wrong!) This special occasion provides an opportunity to acknowledge the valuable contributions of women in business and to recognize the role that male allies can play in championing these efforts. Spooler alert: Beware of performative allyship, where there is no action behind their words.
Women have faced significant obstacles attempting to climb up the ranks in the workplace. The journey continues to be fraught with many structural barriers that prevent them from gaining access to the same level of opportunities enjoyed by most men — from confidence hurdles, mommy-track narratives, boys’ clubs, and exclusion from professional and social networking to heightened barriers resulting from #MeToo, Covid-19, and racial violence. Women continue to struggle to find the support and advocacy they need and identify the allies who can help them.
Allyship is defined as a strategic mechanism used intentionally by individuals who strive to be collaborators, accomplices, and coconspirators. Allies are deeply invested in challenging and disrupting the status quo, dismantling systemic inequities, and shifting the power structure within an organization. Allyship is a practice that needs to be embedded within an individual’s sense of everyday commitment to equity. Thus, an ally must be invested in the larger goals of fighting for equity and be accountable for his actions.
An ally’s behavior often works to reduce the amount of invisible labor expended by marginalized individuals in white male-dominated organizations. Allies work publicly and privately to change workplace practices, cultures, and policies that negatively impact marginalized groups. By building authentic and trusting relationships, engaging in public advocacy and sponsorship, and fighting injustice, allies help to create equitable professional and social spaces by strategically deploying their privilege in support of those less privileged.
Anyone and everyone can be an ally. But male allies who recognize and understand the importance of fostering an inclusive, welcoming, and equitable workplace culture can help break down the barriers that women face at work.
Since men often sit in powerful positions of organizations (particularly in male-dominated fields), women can work with these allies to help dismantle the systemic power structures that prevent equal opportunity for professional development and advancement — for themselves and the other women around them. Only then will women and other marginalized groups have the ability to fully contribute as equally valued employees toward an ever-evolving organization’s mission and values.
So how can women identify male allies in the workplace? In the following, we provide a guide to spotting a male ally.
Take the temperature.
First, take the temperature of your organization. Scan the environment for clear indicators of growth and opportunity. Ask yourself:
- Do you see people advancing, or is it a portfolio of diversity with high attrition and no clear path?
- Are there embedded practices and policies that address issues stemming from gender, racial, and other forms of inequities?
It is easier to chart a pathway toward people who are genuine allies if you have seen patterns of people who have advanced other marginalized group members, particularly women of color. It is typically a red flag if you are not seeing any indications that members of an underrepresented group are presented with opportunities for growth. These observations could potentially be a sign of a weak culture of allyship among other workplace equity concerns within the organization.
Look for patterns.
Pay attention to details. Actively seek out the individuals you recognize as practicing allyship. See how these individuals position marginalized colleagues in public meetings, paying attention to what they are saying, when they are silent, or how they respond in pressured situations that challenge various forms of privilege. Allies step in when they see and recognize something wrong, whether it is an aggression, discrimination, or practice. They do not leave their marginalized colleagues feeling as though they are alone.
Ask yourself these questions when trying to identify an ally:
- Does this person speak up in pressured moments, exercising their voice, deploying their privilege by stepping in and raising eyebrows to the inequities witnessed?
- Is there a pattern of performance when it comes to public displays of support that do not add up to concrete results?
- Are there people who are already in existence that have a genuine interest in advancing marginalized individuals? If so, who are these people?
For example, Black women are often stereotyped as angry, confrontational, or sensitive when they step up to address racial aggressions, making it difficult for them to be heard. Allies can do the heavy lifting in these moments ensuring that their colleagues are not forced to expend emotional, cognitive, and relational labor navigating fraught situations.
Allies actively listen, following the lead of marginalized colleagues they are supporting to avoid eliciting further pain or trauma. This means working toward building equity by educating themselves; directing attention to inequities without silencing those who are marginalized; being kind, thoughtful, and open to disagreements; and learning and admitting their mistakes.
Beware of performative allyship.
We know that authentic allyship comes with a genuine attempt, where those who have privilege deploy it to advocate publicly and privately for those who are marginalized — or just to do the right thing — without promoting one’s virtuousness. And they do this to effect change.
Performative allyship is the opposite, where individuals label themselves allies and profess to be in solidarity with racial, gender, or any other type of equity project without committing to doing the work or even believing in its necessity. This is also done to strategically limit scrutiny of their own actions. It often involves surface-level work — gestures, statements, or even social media posts — for personal gain or impression management, without any intentionality for tackling structural issues or wanting to make a change. Performative allyship actually maintains the status quo and delegitimizes the work that needs to be done to address systemic and structural barriers that sustain all forms of inequity.
Actions speak louder than words. If you’re not seeing the results behind someone’s claims, you may want to steer clear.
Trust your gut, take a chance — but…
Once you have identified someone you perceive to be an ally, based on their pattern of behavior and proven efforts, the ball is in your court. The previous suggestions are prerequisites to taking a calculated risk when it comes to building a trusting relationship with someone you identify as an ally. Taking a chance includes being present, developing a rapport, and actively putting in the time to nurture a trusting relationship. However, you must trust your gut and continue to pay attention to how members of the organization are demonstrating a commitment to building and sustaining an equitable workplace through authentic allyship across all company stakeholders. For example, have you noticed anyone calling attention to problematic behavior and challenging colleagues to be reflective about how their actions go against institutional commitments to equity, or have they remained silent?
While the tips above speak generally to the experiences of women and the need to identify male allies, we must also consider the impact of multiple intersecting identities that create nuanced challenges for marginalized individuals, such as Black women. For instance, white women are often beneficiaries of white male allyship, while Black women are not due to the double burden of racial and gender oppression, as well as other forms of oppression that intersect, combine, and overlap to create inequities. It is imperative that white women, too, have a shared responsibility to deploy their white privilege to support other marginalized groups. The question then becomes, once women rise, how can they move toward lifting those whom they know are facing similar if not more structural barriers in the workplace?
Having a true ally in the workplace is not only knowing that you have an accomplice, collaborator, and advocate, but that others will too. An ally is bound by the profound commitment to challenge and dismantle existing systems of inequality to ensure that everyone is treated equally, has access to professional growth, development, and advancement, and has a safe and equitable place to work. The tips discussed here are a general guide to how you can identify that person. But know that the onus should not just be on women and other marginalized groups. An ally will reveal himself through actions, not words.
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