On International Women's Day - Choose to Challenge: How to be a male ally for gender equality


This short article by Deeper Leaders Collective Member, Helena Clayton, begins from the belief that men need to play a role in creating gender equality in our workplaces and suggests some ways that men can challenge their own thinking as well as the system around them.

The way things are now is no one’s fault and no one is to blame. Rather it’s a build-up of historical norms. But we can choose to challenge those norms now.


We don’t have to challenge anything.


But we’re likely to have to if we want anything to be different.


That’s assuming you do want something to be different, of course. I’m not automatically assuming that you do.


Gill Whitty Collins, says that it’s only the dominant culture than can create change. And that the dominant culture has to have the appetite for doing so.


So do men, as the dominant culture in the vast majority of organisations, have the desire and appetite to challenge themselves and others to help bring about gender balance in the workplace? Do you?


Are men willing to do what it takes? Are you?


Some feel that it’s unlikely. Otegha Uwagba has said that someone in a position of privilege is likely to have to give something up in order to help others have more of it. So if our organisations are set up to benefit men more than they are women, then are men likely to be willing to relinquish some of those benefits and that privilege? Are men willing to give up some of what they have in organisations – senior roles, greater power and privilege – so that women can have more of those things?


Because many things in our organisations are zero sum – the amount of airtime in a meeting, the number of people in the Executive Team, the number of promotions available – and so that requires men not have some of those things up so that women can. As a man, are you willing to have less?


Do think before you say an automatic ‘of course’. It’s probably not that straightforward.

Because Uwagba recognises that it’s ‘materially inconvenient and difficult’ for us to give things up, to make personal sacrifices and she questions whether it would therefore happen.


And I get that.


For example, I know I could get by on half of my income. But, I haven’t yet given away half my money so that people who have less can have more. I think they should have more. But I notice I’m not willing to make that much of a sacrifice personally in order that they might actually have it.


So I’m ok with recognising that it’s really hard to give up something you think you’ve rightfully earned. That you feel you deserve. Why shouldn’t you keep it (all). You can.



But you might be up for doing something different.


You might be a man in an organisation who is willing to take practical action in service of gender equality.


So in case you are – in case you might be up for being a male ally for women – here are some places you might start.


The first three are ways you can challenge your own thinking and your own view of things as they are now, and no one need know. Preparation for allyship, if you like. The second three suggest some practical ways that you can show your commitment to gender equality in ways that are behavioural and visible and clearly and unequivocally helping your organisation with its gender balance. These three are the important ones because allyship is about action not intention. Allyship is about being active and not passive.


So you could start here:


1. Swot up on the facts: Learn the data that matters in your organisation. Exactly what are the statistics around the gender pay gap? What proportion of women join your organisation and what proportion are in senior roles? Does your organisation have a male ally network – and if not, why not? Read something that gives you a new perspective on women’s experiences, like Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women that shows how pretty much everything we use from medicine to care is primarily designed for men.


2. Get to know the stories : What are the stories that get told in your workplace about women and why there aren’t as many of them in senior roles? What do women say about the way women are treated there? And if you don’t know – and why would you – just ask them and start with ‘what’s it really like being a woman in this organisation’. Or take a look and Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism Project to learn more about what women have to deal with.


3. A personal audit: during the course of a typical week, just watch and gather data. How many women are in meetings you attend compared to men? In those meetings, make a note every time a man speaks and for how long – and do the same for the women. What do you notice? Note when women are talked over. Make a note of any remark from a man that has even a slight edge of sexism to it, feels even a little bit patronising (I was in a meeting just the other week where the male facilitator invited all the project leads to talk about their projects and when he came to the only woman he said ‘and I think you have a little project to tell us about too’.)


And once you have some of this data, just sit back and ask yourself what you think about it and what you feel isn’t ok.


But being a male ally means that you do more than know about these things and simply say that you support gender equality. It’s more than performative. Being an ally for women means that you don’t just you say you’re all for gender equality. It means that your walk matches your talk. And that your actions and not your words are how people know that this issue matters to you.


For example:


Invite and amplify: find ways to create spaces for women to speak more often. There’s much data to show that women do not get the same amount of airtime in meetings as men. This article by psychologist Adam Grant is a good one to help you get a better feel for this. Some ways you can bring the voices of women into the room more include:

  • ‘Support and build’ by acknowledging something a woman has said with a simple ‘great point’ and then inviting them to say more.

  • NEVER talk over a woman in a meeting and if anyone does, just say ‘hang on, I don’t think Jenny had finished’. You should do this for anyone, of course. But pay particular attention to when it happens to women because it happens a lot.

  • Actively bring other women into the conversation by asking for their views and ideas. Yes, women can do more to bring themselves in … but men can help enormously with this.

  • When someone presents an idea, ask ‘and are there any ways in which this proposal might disproportionately impact women’ or ‘what’s the impact for women of this?’

  • Challenge every list you see. Ask ‘why are there so few women on this list?’


Create visibility: people get on in organisations when they are visible to senior people and key stakeholders. Challenge yourself to step back and create space for a women to have access to senior people. Perhaps:

  • If you’re presenting a paper or an idea, which woman in your team might present it with you or in your place?

  • Which meeting could you take a female colleague to, instead of a male colleague? Could they go in your place instead of alongside you?

  • What projects do you have that will help raise someone’s visibility with senior people. Could you give it to a woman, or include a woman in the team when you might not have ordinarily done?

  • What opportunities coming up do you have to raise your own profile? And could you step aside to offer that opportunity to woman in your team, or to a female peer?

  • If you’re putting a man forward for promotion always make sure you are putting a woman forward too.

Sponsor: even when someone is a high performer they often need a vocal sponsor to actively champion them in an organisation. This is especially so for women. Take a look at this short TED Talk by Carla Harris to see what we mean. So:

  • Can you identify two women, possibly in your team but possibly outside it to mentor and ‘take into the room’. If these women are junior, so much the better.

  • Who are the people who need to know about these women you’re sponsoring? Which forums or meetings can you use to help increase their visibility and help them be seen by people who might know otherwise know about them?

  • What mentoring opportunities are there within your organisation?

  • Ask the women around you – ‘what can I do more of or less of to be a better ally for you here?’

Being an ally for women means more than saying you’re an ally. It means sticking your head above the parapet. It means putting your money where your mouth is.

Yes, it might mean a little less oxygen for you. But you gain in reputation. Reputation is sometimes described as ‘the stories people tell about you when you’re not in the room’. If you want to be talked about as someone who really is FOR women, then developing your allyship is one way to get there.



A great example of an organisation making a real effort to develop male allies is Coutts Bank. Coutts was founded in 1692 and is the eighth oldest bank in the world.


This is what Ashleigh Calderwood, CEO of Wealth had to say about the Coutts approach:


"We’ve had a Male Allies network at Coutts for over 3 years now, with members ranging across all grades.


We don’t want our allies to just wear the badge, so we actively educate and advise our members on what more they can do to support their female colleagues.


Data speaks a thousand words, and we use it to show colleagues how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to travel, and through this we encourage all our allies to be mentoring and sponsoring females within their teams and further afield.


We have listening sessions, where allies can hear stories from their female colleagues, and also run bias workshops across the bank on a regular basis, so no matter what grade you are, the gender topic is always being discussed. We also run large events for both staff and clients, shining lights on topics such as ‘Equality for female sport’ and ‘Menopause’, as we believe men have to be part of the gender equality agenda".


And for a global initiative, please take a look at the work of UNWomen and their #heforshe campaign.

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