Male allies for women are proving to be elusive

If men can be visionary about smart phone apps, robotics and electric cars – why are they so reluctant to become male allies to 50% of the population? 

Open secrets

The slew of accusations about sexual harassment which are surfacing daily highlight a number of critical issues. Lewd and horrific stories are trickling out from sectors as diverse as film, photography, sport, fashion, industry, politics and even the hotel business. But one element stands out above all others. This is the culture of “open secrets” and the work around strategies that were created to manage these situations without outing them. It is clear that these patterns of alleged behaviour and specific incidents, some as severe as sexual assault, were well-known within the individual industries, but all remained silent. This allowed the abuse to continue for decades. The lack of male allies who supported women in sufficient numbers to make a difference is brutally apparent.

There has been much debate about why this happens and specifically the abuse of power. This behaviour persists for some of the same reasons that equal pay, gender balanced recruitment and the promotion of women in the talent pipeline are not making headway in many organisations.  The systemic change required to bring this about is not being embraced by the male allies that women need, and have needed, so badly.

Uncertain of yourself at work or afraid to speak out? Use our Returner Roll-Up Session on building your confidence.

male allies

How male allies can make an impact

Costas Merkides of the London Business School suggests that organisational change needs support in two key ways to have an enduring impact:

  • A strong understanding of the rational case for change (the business case)
  • The emotional reasons for change (the moral case)

He also suggests that the rational case is not sustainable on its own. Stakeholders need to be invested with deep insight into the wider drivers of change. This is combined with being able to see the long-term benefits for what is indeed a major disruption. Including 50% of the workforce is pretty major and very disruptive wouldn’t you say? These views promoting gender balance are frequently out of sync with the dominant corporate culture, which lags behind wider cultural change. Men can be visionary when it comes to electric cars, smart phone apps or robotics, but are often more short-sighted when it comes to gender parity.

Reluctance to speak up

There is a clear reluctance from men to speak out on behalf of women.  In a post for 3Plus Jarad Cline of the MARC Movement  asks if men are getting the message following the recent fallout about sexual harassment. I am not so sure. It’s not complicated is it? This is all that’s required.

“Let her speak/finish…”

“That was her idea..”

“That joke/comment is inappropriate…”

“Help me understand why you are not hiring/promoting Jane….”

“Get your hands off her………..”

This is before we get into the more severe issues of assault and abuse. Privately men will come out as allies for gender balance, but they are more reluctant to do so in a public arena.  In this way they unknowingly become bystanders, essentially enabling a toxic situation. As part of a dominant group they absorb conformity bias, especially if the perpetrators are the “brilliant jerks” of their organisations. The final one is fear of the zero sum impact. If more women are allowed “in” their piece of the pie will decrease.

Real male allies support workplaces that are open and inclusive. They understand that if women thrive so will their companies. It is about creating a working environment where all have the possibility to reach their potential and add value. In an era where there is a strong preoccupation with AI and robotics, replacing people in the workplace with software and robots,  you have to wonder if the notion of bringing male allies on side is nothing short of a pipe dream.

Clearly it is better than men are on side. Gender balance isn’t just about women. It is about men too.  But when they are reluctant, women would be better forging ahead and campaigning for change without relying on their male colleagues. What we are now seeing is a cultural momentum that is finally biting back. This momentum has to be maintained – with or without male allies.

Don’t let your company be one that ignores the open secrets. Use our Managing Unconscious Bias workshops to tackle them instead.









Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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