Blog Post

Eight Ways to Engage Men as Allies (and two to avoid)

November 11, 2014
Topics Allyship
Chuck Shelton class=
Chuck Shelton
Chuck Shelton

The touchstone for successful gender ally development is this: a man is an ally when a woman says he is.

Allies listen, co-create opportunity, and build a personal brand for accountability and trust. For us men, we aren’t allies to women because we aspire to be, or because we say we are. We’re allies only when specific women are willing to say to us and others: “Here’s an example of how you are collaborating with me, supporting me, making and keeping promises, and receiving from me in a two-way relationship….”

With that frame for accountability in place, let’s consider emerging practices in engaging men as allies to women’s advancement. The following seeks to equip both men and women.


Define the value proposition for ally development.

There are many business reasons to focus on women, and therefore on how men can help them advance. Are women leaving your organization in disproportionate numbers, five to ten years from their date of hire? Does the success of your firm require more women to build careers in the company? Are more women buying your products and services? The struggle to recruit, develop, and retain female engineers is one powerful argument for developing male allies – even when tech companies attract more female technical workers, these women are less likely to stay and contribute if their male colleagues fail to collaborate with them. We can be certain that Silicon Valley’s well documented ‘frat boy’ culture will grow to include women more effectively only when male allies join women in leading that change process.

Clarify your personal motivations.

Why do you want to find and equip male Allies? For women, the opportunities are evident – a career can thrive when you have influence partners. They help you sort through on- the-job challenges, look for opportunity, navigate the trade-offs that every professional culture requires. The impetus for men to develop more male allies is also compelling: when we walk alongside other guys and help them to serve as allies to women’s opportunities, we grow the culture, we grow the company, and we grow our own influence.

The overlapping motivation for women and men is reciprocity. Such high-performing, two-way relationships efficiently deliver results for the team, the business unit, and across the enterprise. Reciprocity is also fun: when we get great things done with our colleagues, it’s easier to find joy in the many hours we invest in work. That’s what motivation looks like.

Imagine and explore the self-interest of male allies.

Men engaged as allies to women’s advancement tend to have their own reasons for doing so: shaped by relationships with their spouse, a female colleague, their mother, their daughter; recognizing that they need to retain the excellent contribution of the women reporting to them; internally motivated to ensure that women are paid equally for equal work; driven by a sense of justice or fairness or equality; concerned that they are seen to ‘get with the D&I program’. There are dozens of indicators that can define men’s self-interest in becoming allies. As ally developers, our job is to understand the benefits men can find in becoming allies. Most importantly, we must explore with each prospective male ally how he can come to define his self-interest in serving as an ally to women.

Intriguingly, I’ve found that a competitive spirit can fuel many men’s willingness to consider the opportunities of being an ally. I call it the Sustainable Collaborative Advantage: when you are known as a man who collaborates well with women, they will choose to work with you. A secondary advantage also accrues: your reputation becomes an advantage over other men who choose not to collaborate well.

Select prospective allies wisely.

Is every man in your sphere of influence open to becoming an ally to you and other female colleagues? Absolutely not. So part of successful ally development is identifying the men who are open and ready to collaboratively roll in your direction. This is an argument for targeting the development of your male allies. A few criteria, to help you focus your ally selection:

  • Do you experience this gentleman as a skilled collaborator, open to your influence?
  • Does he have a reputation for working well with women? Does he carry credibility with his male colleagues?
  • Does he work on a mixed gender team? What can you see about his relationships with his female colleagues?
  • Do you observe ways he is producing business results through his relationships with women: peers, direct reports, manager, clients and customers, business partners?
  • What specifically does he do to demonstrate emotional intelligence?
  • Does he appear to be dialed into healthy decision-making around work and life? Is he transparent about his life and priorities beyond the office?
  • Do the two of you simply enjoy being around one another? (mutual care is key to great ally relationships)
  • Can he articulate (or is he open to learning how to speak to) how being an ally is in his self-interest? About the advantages that accrue to him – and the challenges he faces –as a man?

Along the way, you’ll build your own list of such ‘ally indicators’. Wonderfully, you will discover a surprising number of men who have been allies to women for a long time, and many men who are open to such reciprocity and collaboration.

Approach ally development with respect and candor.

Prepare carefully for your ally development activities. Think through what you’re looking for in the relationship (mentoring, solving a business problem together, as answer to a specific question, a listening ear on your innovative idea, etc.). Consider how you feel about and will handle any difference in position power between you. Then plan the time and place for the initial conversation. Keep in mind that he needs to feel safe as well – in the White Men’s Leadership Study, we found that relational safety is a top concern among male leaders when differences in gender and race are in view.

The interplay between respect and candor is vital. Respect can be defined as “honoring and esteeming a person’s character and contribution”. Candor may be seen as “saying what needs to be said in a way other people can hear it from you.” Well-selected allies generally respond very positively to approaches with such intentional respect and candor.

Take care of yourself and your allies in the process.

Listen to his responses and watch his behavior. Ask yourself: “Does he believe in me? Is he willing to learn from me?” Be patient in ally development work – relationship building is an adventure, non-linear and unpredictable. Cut yourself some slack as you learn how to encourage men to work as allies. Accept that there are mutual risks in having allies and being an ally, and trust intuition that you may have about how the relationship is evolving. And if a man you’d like as an ally is not demonstrating to you that he’s currently up for actually being your ally, then don’t persevere in the attempt. Skills like forgiveness and letting go are often wise choices for self care.

Track ally relationships in terms of accountability and trust.

Bring a clear-eyed view to ally development. Not every man who wants to be seen as an ally is willing or able to act like one. Male allies are accountable to women for behaving in ways that the women deem useful. Yes, it’s a reciprocal relationship. But the directionality of the support must clearly flow in her direction. So it’s a two-way street with three lanes, and two of the lanes flow in the woman’s direction.

Trust is “the making and keeping of promises over time.” The men I’ve worked with over the long haul as allies (with me, and with women) make promises, and they keep the promises they make. One key promise for male allies: we will influence other men to become effective allies.

Position and organize ally development in the organization.

Many companies are busy innovating with male ally development. A few include:

Cisco, with their nascent Men for Inclusion group, a mixed gender influence network to build opportunities with women and reciprocity with men

PwC, focusing on building the cultural dexterity of all partners and other leaders, with a willingness to listen to and invest in their many white male partners

HSBC, by transitioning their women’s organization to an influence network open to women and men in partnership

Walmart, thoughtfully engaging men as part of their Global Women’s Strategy

Liberty Mutual, releasing a series of crafted videos and a toolkit, all emphasizing that global diversity and inclusion ‘means that everyone is in’, including white men


Watch out for cynicism (among the women) and arrogance (among the men).

Women pay a price for attempting to thrive in work cultures built by and for men: expected to smile and yet be assertive, without being aggressive; counseled to care for people even while being excluded themselves; asked to contribute, even though their ideas may not be listened to, and then men take credit for those very ideas; wearing full-time hats at work and home; and on it goes. Women regularly report fatigue and weariness with the struggles that seem to accompany their gender. This is all real and understandable. What’s also true is that a person cannot be an effective influencer from a place of cynicism, where they expect other people to fall short, and see little hope in many situations. While cynicism is a tempting response to the price women pay for being a woman in a man’s world, the simple truth is that such hopelessness and negative expectation makes ally development unlikely. As a male ally, I would never counsel women to ‘get over it’. But cynicism as a default emotional state closes off collaborative space that male allies need to grow toward the women they support.

A male malady in ally development comes across as arrogance: the tendency to solve women’s problems for them, a mistaken assumption that a man’s emerging awareness of gender challenges is equivalent to a woman’s lifetime of learning across the gender divide, the temptation to see oneself as an ‘advocate for women’ rather than an ‘ally at their shoulder’, and other attitudes and behaviors that belie the servant ethic of allydom. Humility is the antidote to the risks in such male arrogance.

Drop the ‘champion’ title.

To ‘champion’ can be a healthy leadership verb – to speak up and advocate for another, to support someone in a way that they may not be positioned to speak for themselves. But men and women alike should be wary of the unintended consequences of using the word ‘champion’ as a leadership noun – too often, the acclamation of a male champion (in contrast to serving as an ally) is a powerful temptation for men to climb up on our white horse and solve women’s problems (which they seldom want us to do). As male champions, we thoroughly enjoy all the attention and credit we derive from being heroes, at least in our own minds. Being an ally is to be a servant, a friend, a co-learner. It should be viewed by no one as heroic.


A man is an ally when a woman says he is.

As men we need to get busy building such high-performing relationships with women in our sphere of influence. Men who are allies come alongside women, and we do not exert undue influence or steal credit or give a pass to the disrespectful behaviors of other men. There are career advantages in being known as such a collaborative colleague. And the business results from such inclusive leadership are powerful.

Women can engage men in ways that grow advanced reciprocity, for two-way relationships of mutual opportunity and promise keeping. Let’s be clear: it’s not that women can only achieve because men support them. But is always good to have supportive, influential, and caring allies.

The work to engage male allies is a long game – trust between women and men cannot be manufactured, only earned – and it’s part of the solution to creating work cultures that welcome, support, and retain women. And here’s another cool truth: ally development breathes integrity into inclusion, because the cultures that women and their male allies grow also create opportunity for gender savvy men.

Chuck Shelton may be reached at Greatheart Consulting, 206.652.3450, [email protected]