What’s Missing from Your Gender Equity Program? MEN

Dec 11, 2020



Organizations and their male leaders see gender inequities as something women need to solve, and men are historically missing in efforts to address these problems. And because most men are not meaningfully engaged in addressing gender inequities, it may take another 202 years to bring about gender parity, according to 2018-19 World Economic Forum estimates.

Gender inequities are not women’s issues—they are leadership issues. Framing gender inequities as “women’s issues” gives men a free pass—“We’re not women; it’s not our problem.” If gender equity is perceived to be a women’s issue, men are more likely to believe they have no psychological standing or ownership to support taking action. The perception that men lack legitimacy because they aren’t women, don’t share women’s experiences, or don’t have the expertise keeps men silent.

Men need to do more to be a good guy in the workplace and pave the way for gender equality. The truth is that in most organizations—especially those that are traditionally male dominated—men are more likely to occupy key stakeholder positions. Men have the influence and power to create change, and they are crucial to altering the status quo. So why is that so many men don’t see or understand women’s experiences at work? The simple answer is that it’s hard to see problems we don’t encounter.

One of the primary roadblocks to male awareness of gender disparities relates to our misperceptions of women at work. For example, men often presume that women leave their companies at higher rates than men because they want to pause their careers to have children. In fact, McKinsey & Company’s annual Women in the Workplace report in 2017 revealed that women are not leaving the workforce to have children—80% of the women planning to leave their company in the next two years were staying in the workforce. Instead, they’re leaving a workplace that doesn’t treat them fairly, hoping to find one that might. Like men, less than 2% of women say that they are leaving the workforce for reasons related to family.

Male misperception extends to how men and women perceive opportunity and equity in today’s workplace. CNBC’s 2018 “Closing the Gap” research on the finance industry indicated that male senior leaders generally believed that gender discrimination had significantly declined. In the survey, 56% of male participants believed that men and women were just as likely to become leaders in their industry, while only 37% of women said the same. Similarly, 75% of men indicated that men and women working at similar levels of management were paid equally, while only 40% of women agreed. Clearly, many men don’t perceive gender inequities in the traditional workplace. It’s hard to fix what you can’t see.

Men have told us that they don’t know how to get started in the fight for gender equity, and some encounter obstacles when they do. These obstacles include unclear rationales for inclusion, lack of support from senior leadership, and fear of making mistakes. Who wants to inadvertently offend someone or hurt their feelings when you have good intentions? It’s easier to avoid taking action, so you don’t engage. If you’re not comfortable talking about gender, women’s work experiences, harassment, discrimination, or emotions, then you’ll probably avoid those conversations.

It’s time to focus on fixing the systems within our workplace that reinforce and normalize the institutional sexism that creates gender inequities. The only way to drive significant long-term change is to fix our organizations’ behavior and culture and to engage men in partnering with women to make this change.


How do we solve our problem? Men need to get involved. We need to learn to work together as gender partners and allies for each other. We define allyship as: “Actively promoting gender fairness and equity in the workplace through supportive and collaborative personal relationships and public acts of sponsorship and advocacy intended to drive systemic improvements to the workplace culture.” Allies exhibit both affirmation and informed action.

We use the terms “partner” and “ally” because they conjure images of women and men as equals in the workplace, working together to achieve their mission. Allies in an alliance acknowledge the power of relationship and prize interdependence and responsibility to each other. Allies aren’t saving women. They don’t see an opportunity to take control of gender initiatives and rescue women from nequality, reinforcing the heroic, masculine stereotype and strengthening the status quo. Instead, allies emphasize humility and gender partnership—men and women working together in complementary roles—to create and support inclusive workplaces.

When you’re getting started, allyship can feel complex, with competing expectations. Allyship demands that you simultaneously become attuned to women’s experiences and enter into conversations about gender equity. As an ally, you must learn when to speak up, listen, ask questions, and sometimes become invisible. Then you must go bigger. Involve men directly in gender equity work. Ask men to participate, volunteer, and contribute ideas, and give them a role in changing policy. Integrate gender diversity initiatives into operational business outcomes and then hold managers and leaders accountable. Make it clear that women are not the only beneficiaries of gender equity, and more men will act. That takes being a “good guy” to the next level.

One of the true paradoxes of male allyship is the consistent social psychological research evidence showing that when men advocate for women or call out gender inequities, they are perceived to be more credible because they are not acting in self-interest. The research shows that when men advocate for gender equity initiatives, their voice and message are given more weight because they are supporting initiatives that benefit women. Women are all too familiar with these double standards. It’s time for men to open their eyes to this opportunity and privilege and use it. As apparent outsiders to the cause, our voices on the topic of gender equity carry considerable weight.


As it turns out, men can do so much more because of their innate privilege—even at the junior levels. Being members of the dominant gender at work, we are free to navigate the system through our knowledge of the culture and use our understanding of women’s experiences to disrupt the status quo. To develop our sense of being allies, we learn to see the world through others’ experiences. This requires being more aware, challenging assumptions, reading, learning, asking questions, and listening. Without this effort, we risk falling into the trap of silence—doing nothing. We can do better.

Fortunately, over the past several decades, more men have been willing to speak out publicly and act to level the playing field for women. The research evidence is clear: When men are actively engaged in gender diversity, both women and men have a more positive outlook about their organization’s progress toward eliminating gender inequities. An international study done by Boston Consulting Group in 2017 asked women and men if they agreed that their company had made significant progress in the last three years in improving gender diversity at all levels of the company. These responses were correlated with whether they agreed that men in their company were involved in championing gender diversity. The results show that in companies where men are actively involved in gender diversity, 96% of people report progress, whereas where men are not engaged, only 30% see progress.

Allyship and support for gender equity must be public, too. It’s not enough that we hold ourselves individually accountable. We must be advocating for gender equity in public spaces, even when women aren’t in the room— especially when women aren’t in the room.

The skills you need to be a better ally for women at work will also make you a better ally for everyone. Think of them as gateway skills. What makes you an ally to women also applies to being a better ally to someone of a different race, sexual orientation, military veteran status, or generation. This will become clear as you learn how to develop these important skills for today’s workplace.


Allyship is a continuous learning process. It’s a journey on which we will need to leverage and learn from each other, with men and women in partnership. Maintaining a learning orientation, a growth mindset, and a healthy dose of humility goes a long way toward being better allies. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

There are no perfect allies. As you work to become a better ally for the women around you, you will undoubtedly make a mistake. You’ll be stepping out of your comfort zone and you’ll be putting yourself on display as a partner and supporter. As University of Houston research professor and New York Times bestselling author Brené Brown said, “You can choose courage or you can choose comfort. You cannot have both.” In many ways, allyship is a test of courage. If it were easy, we wouldn’t be talking about it. Allyship requires us to enter spaces and conversations that can make us feel uncomfortable and take the occasional misstep.

Many men have never been in a space where they were in the minority; they can find this both uncomfortable and powerful. (Take it from two guys who routinely speak and work in female-dominated spaces.) Most people don’t want to unintentionally offend someone or hurt their feelings. And others worry that they’ll experience resistance, backlash, or the dreaded wimp penalty. They fear they’ll be stigmatized through association with women’s initiatives at work. When faced with these uncertainties and fears, they naturally want to step back, rather than push forward.

But men need to get comfortable with these situations and conversations. Allies must immerse themselves in spaces where they can use their curiosity and learning orientation to ask questions and just listen. They must change the prevailing discourse from a wimp penalty. Instead, recognize that it actually takes a stronger, more secure man to support women’s initiatives. This requires showing up in spaces where you don’t think to venture and in ways you are unaccustomed to and speaking up when you see backlash behavior. And in the process, make mistakes, learn from them, and figure out ways to improve.

In our experience, we find that when we make a mistake, we benefit from the honest relationships we’ve developed with women who trust our good intentions. Speaking out isn’t easy, and no one expects perfection. But becoming a partner and ally to women is a crucial element of helping them reach equity in the workplace. If you think you’re doing enough, you’re probably not. Push further.


Not sure where to start? Make your next diversity and inclusion event focused on men as allies. Better yet, start an ongoing discussion group to learn, practice, and share men’s stories and motivations for being better allies. Help them to develop an awareness of women’s different experiences at work, recognize their own privilege, and think about how they show up as allies in workplace relationships with women— what we call gender intelligence (GQ).

Our book, Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace, is based on extensive research with women across industries about their experiences with male allies, focusing on the tangible ally behaviors they found most important. We also interviewed many of the male allies these women nominated. The result is a book chock full of evidence-based actionable strategies for men who aspire to real gender allyship. We’ll leave you with seven of them to get you started on your ally journey:

  1. Sharpen your situational awareness. Be vigilant in observing how your female colleagues are experiencing meetings and other gatherings and be alert to inequities and disparities in these contexts.
  2. Cure your gynophobia. Publicly push back on false narratives about the “risks” of engaging with women at work while deliberately and transparently initiating conversations, friendships, and mentorships with female colleagues.
  3. Ask about women’s experiences. With humility and genuine curiosity, strengthen your GQ by learning about the uniquely gendered workplace experiences of some of the women you work with.
  4. Recognize that all women are not the same. Be attuned to the unique experiences and intersectional identities (such as race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, generation, religion) of the women you work with.
  5. Own and strategically deploy your privilege. Recognize and fully own your privilege as a man—your opportunities, advantages, resources, and power—while leveraging it for the benefit of women and other marginalized groups.
  6. Deliberately seek feedback from women. Establish trust with a network of women who will give you unvarnished feedback about how your workplace attitudes and behaviors land with women and receive this feedback as a gift.
  7. Notice sexist words and phrases—and intervene. Watch and listen for noninclusive language, sexist comments, overt misogyny, and harassing behavior; then, say something to disrupt it.

About the Author: David G. Smith, PhD, is a professor of sociology in the National Security Affairs department at the U.S. Naval War College. As a sociologist trained in military sociology and social psychology, he focuses his research on gender, work, and family issues. W. Brad Johnson, PhD, is a professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy and a faculty associate in the Graduate School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of 13 books. They are the authors of the forthcoming book Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace (Harvard Business Review Press, October 2020), as well as Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women (Bibliomotion, 2016).