Headlines about workplace sexism regularly bring us men sharing social media posts and retweets with hashtags like #GenderEquality. Yet, many of their female colleagues read those posts and think, “That guy? An ally? Really?”
The skepticism may be deserved. I study allyship—the idea of someone from an advantaged group supporting the professional and personal well-being of someone who is typically marginalized in society, such as women or people of color. Despite widespread beliefs that gender bias is not really a problem or that supporting women in their workplaces goes against men’s own self-interests, more men are starting to express an interest in being allies; in recent research from my group, 76 percent, or 1,342 of 1,751 participants, said that they wanted to be allies for underrepresented and marginalized people in their organization. But new research has questioned whether that interest is largely performative, mirroring the skepticism that women often express.
Understanding whether men think of themselves as allies is important because allies are uniquely positioned to support equality. For instance, when male allies step up against sexism, their message that women are equal to men often gains more attention and is better received by people harboring sexist beliefs than when women themselves speak up against sexism. Consequently, when male allies call out sexism, bystanders are more likely to speak up in support of the victim and expect leaders to hold those behaving in sexist ways accountable for their actions.
While researchers have hypothesized about men’s beliefs and motives around allyship, I wondered: “What if I directly asked men about whether they think they are allies to women in their workplaces?” What I have found is that women’s skepticism has merit; in many cases, men believe they are better allies than their female co-workers do. Actions speak louder than words, and action from men in the workplace is still too little.
To do the study, I asked 101 women in male-dominated fields such as science, technology, engineering and math to each identify a male colleague they worked with regularly; I told them the study was about workplace collegiality, not allyship specifically. Then I asked the women to complete a short survey on whether the man they identified was an ally. Next, I asked them to describe an instance in which the men they chose supported them or stood up for them at work. I also asked the women how energized they felt working with these men and if they felt like they belonged in that workplace (both indicators of well-being).
Next, I reached out to the male colleagues (without revealing what the women had said) and asked the men to rate themselves as allies. I asked them to describe an instance when they supported or stood up for that female colleague. The men and women thought differently about whether the men were allies and if the men’s actions showed allyship, and this difference in perception affected women’s well-being.
When men believed they were good allies, but women didn’t feel the same, women reported feeling less energized about working with those men, and less a part of the workplace environment. To understand why this is the case, I looked for clues in how men described their own allyship and how women described those men’s allyship.
For instance, in one pair, the man described another male colleague being “uncharacteristically resistant in a meeting, talking over her and throwing up unnecessary and irrelevant complications to derail her.” He continued: “Although I did not speak up in the meeting, I did visit her to express sympathy and support.” He viewed himself as an ally because he reflected on the situation, recognized the unfairness (“I had certainly floated far worse ideas and been treated far more charitably”), and talked to her about it later.
She saw him as a good colleague but not necessarily an ally: “He provided moral support. It was nice. Not super impactful, but nice.” In other words, while speaking privately was seen as an act of collegiality, she would have likely viewed him as more of an ally had he said something during the meeting to support her. Undoubtedly, he noticed and acknowledged inequities, which is a critical first stage of a person’s journey to becoming a strong ally. But without concrete action when it matters most, men’s care and interest in allyship are invisible to women.
Where some men rated themselves as allies, women often saw them as no more than doing the bare minimum as colleagues. Other men described themselves as being gender-blind because “I don’t feel that I acted in a different way than I would have had she been male,” ignoring the heavier burden of sexism that falls on women. For instance, while a man may get talked over on occasion, a woman might get talked over, and her ideas dismissed, several times a day. So, a gender-blind approach loses sight of how the same level of support can make a bigger impact on a female versus male colleague.
Even when women rated the men as better allies than the men rated themselves, women surprisingly still reported lower energy and inclusion, and those situations mostly came from junior women grateful for any help from someone senior in a bad workplace.
Sometimes, women described hostile incidents where men intervened. One woman said that “another colleague said something sexually and racially charged to me. John quickly defused the situation with humor…. It was surprising and reassuring. The most impactful part was that I was the lone woman in the conversation, and John was the only man who seemed to bat an eye.” While this woman rated John’s allyship (slightly) higher than he did, she still reported low inclusion and energy. Perhaps such “quick fixes” can defuse tense situations but don’t build a robust sense of support and trust in the colleague.
When women and men rated men’s allyship similarly—which happened in a quarter of the study’s pairs—women reported higher levels of energy and inclusion than others. In these cases, male colleagues often used multiple allyship strategies , standing up for the female colleague in hostile situations, but also checking in on their well-being later. These men devoted time and energy to assist their female colleagues in strategizing how to advance and make the workplace better.
Workplace dynamics often do not favor women, and creating a culture of inclusion requires men to be allies who not only stand up for their female colleagues in visibly difficult moments, but who work day-to-day toward equality. To be a better ally, consider asking colleagues what problems they could use help with, and consider what you can do to be useful in that context. It is possible that what you are currently doing is ineffective or could be made more effective. When colleagues who are of equal or greater power tell you that you could be a better ally, take that feedback seriously. When colleagues with less power view you as an ally, question whether they are in a position to expect strong allyship and ask yourself if you are living up to their flattering assessment. Women’s skepticism over men’s perception of their allyship is warranted, but it is within your power to change that.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.