Even when men think they are being good allies to women, they rarely are

With many sobering conversations around ending violence against women and girls taking place this year, you might have heard of the term ‘male ally’ – it refers to any man willing to advocate for and speak up in support of gender equality.

Men are critical allies to women – their actions in the workplace and at home have a proven positive impact on women’s success and on gender equality worldwide.

Only, it isn’t time for men to celebrate or pat themselves on the back yet. A recent study by a US university recognised that, despite having good intentions, many men fail to take action – this is referred to as the ‘intention gap’. 

I work as a diversity and inclusion leader and my research has made me acutely aware that some men pay lip-service to supporting women without any real understanding of the barriers to female equality and how to dismantle them.

For example, many men say they would like the gender dynamic in businesses to include more women but many don’t know how to go about it.

Working with men across different cultures and organisations, I have seen that most want to do the right thing, they can tell the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, but very often they remain silent – preferring to mind their own business rather than calling out sexist and misogynist remarks or behaviours.

These men need to realise that this is why they are part of the problem. I know it’s easier not to intervene and avoid drama, but male allyship is crucial for women’s progress. A man’s word is accepted as more credible by other men as they belong to the ‘inner circle’ – something women can never do.

I’ve attempted to uncover the reasons many men are discouraged from stepping up as allies in my new book, intended to guide men in how to walk the walk not just talk the talk as advocates for women.

It’s important for men to understand that they do not have to be influencers, celebrities, politicians or HR professionals to drive change

First, we have to understand why, beyond avoiding confrontation, men are reluctant to act.

One obstacle is apathy. When some men hear the word ‘gender’, they often assume it means ‘for women’ and thus excludes or doesn’t concern them.

Lack of confidence is another – many men I interviewed also believed they neither have the knowledge nor the power to enact any changes.

Fear is another deterrent – some are afraid that supporting women may lead to diminished opportunities for themselves. A different type of fear is being scared of making mistakes, being uninformed or being misunderstood because they said the ‘wrong thing’. Also, men may also fear stigmatisation through association – they feel anxious about hostility and backlash from peers.

I sympathise with this. Men look to other men for affirmation of their masculinity and, if they sense hostility, it’s only natural to be apprehensive. There is also the concept of a long standing ‘bro-code’, which many believe needs to be upheld at all times.

Many people I surveyed for my book also believed that men have not evolved their concept of masculinity; that blueprint from decades ago is still intact even though the world looked very different then.

So, how can we effectively close the ‘intention gap’? Start small.

It’s important for men to understand that they do not have to be influencers, celebrities, politicians or HR professionals to drive change.

No matter their role, men have the power to shift perceptions and priorities by applying their knowledge, awareness and efforts in meaningful ways. 

At work, and in their own families, men can start by encouraging male-only dialogue that helps alleviate anxieties and unifies them in common goals. Open and candid conversations in ‘safe’ spaces without women present let men express their points of view freely without blame or judgment; they can also listen to and learn from other like-minded men.

Research also suggests that men who have female mentors are more aware of gender discrimination.

The truth is that women are tired of fighting alone

Men can be oblivious to the formidable challenges women must overcome unless we talk about it.

Women colleagues, friends and family members play an important role in educating, supporting and challenging men to think about gender relations in and outside the workplace.

For example, many women don’t share encounters of harassment with their family members, which means that some men remain blissfully ignorant of what’s happening to women in their own circle.

Research also indicates that many men feel more vested when they believe allyship is a social responsibility, not just personal. Knowing it can help improve their own communities makes a big difference.

It’s worth highlighting that men also stand to gain from being allies – they will enjoy more rewarding relationships; shared financial responsibilities, and more flexibility as a parenting partner.

During my talks I have had very positive feedback from men who have admitted to ‘living in a black hole’. They now feel they able to play their part in initiating at least the small changes first.

Several shared how cathartic it has been to unshackle themselves and challenge the harmful beliefs and social conditioning they grew up with. They now want to do better by their own children and not pass damaging ‘traditional’ messages to them.

It’s up to both men and women to be the change they want to see. Each one of us must take responsibility for bringing about a change individually rather than leaving it up to the system at large.

As we embark on this journey of allyship, it is important to acknowledge that the road ahead might be exhausting on both sides, especially since the pandemic continues to overturn our lifestyles and routines.

In these challenging times, it’s difficult to fight your own battles, let alone someone else’s but this is exactly when intervention from male allies matters most.

We need to be mindful that some people will be reluctant to embrace diverse values and inclusivity – we won’t be able to convert everyone to the cause.

But the truth is that women are tired of fighting alone, and only with male allies on our side we can change the narrative and rewrite the future.

Hira Ali’s book ‘Her Allies: A Practical Toolkit to Help Men Lead through Advocacy’ is out now.

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