As organizations look to fix the issue of gender inequality at their workplaces too many gender inclusion initiatives focus exclusively on changing women, leaving men out of the equation. These efforts reinforce the perception that these are “women’s issues” and that men — often the most powerful stakeholders in organizations — don’t need to be involved. David G. Smith and W. Brad Johnson are gender in the workplace experts whose second book Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies For Women In The Workplace will be available later next month. They took time to respond to questions from the Women Icons Network in this exclusive interaction.


How would you describe the groundswell for gender equality at workplaces? Are companies taking it seriously and working towards achieving the UNSDG 5 by 2030?

David: The current situation during the pandemic has certainly affected women more negatively than men—and worse for women of color in the US and Europe. Research shows that women are more likely to be doing more unpaid work now than before the pandemic due largely to childcare and schools being closed. The impact of women doing more unpaid work is a reduction in paid work, leaving the paid workforce, and losing jobs at significantly higher rates than men. Never before has a spotlight been focused on the importance and integral relationship of childcare for working parents — especially working mothers. Elevating this conversation to the highest levels of government and corporate leadership as well as a grass roots effort by non-profit organizations looks to be gaining attention and traction toward making change.

Other key policies that are gaining attention within organizations are the importance of flexible working arrangements for everyone — not just women — and paid family and medical leave to the broader working population. The pandemic has shown that these are not nice to have programs that can be considered benefits for a small group of employees. Interestingly, before the pandemic, men had greater access to flexible work arrangements than women, but women accounted for more flexible work hours than men. These are key policies that help increase women’s full participation in the labor force and opportunity to compete for higher levels of leadership. 

Finally, there is progress being made in women’s representation in senior leadership positions. Corporations are stepping up to add more women to the board of directors, and executive leadership teams. In some cases, this is based on government regulations designed to create transparency and accountability such as California’s state law for corporate boards or France’s Gender Equality Index that focuses on pay equity and representation in senior leadership.


What has been the response of men towards the increased decibel levels and activities in this direction? Are they feeling threatened?

Brad: It’s interesting that when Dave and I began research for our first book, Athena Rising, which focuses on how and why men should mentor women, many of the men we interviewed expressed reluctance about mentoring women. Some of the reasons included anxiety about not knowing what to do, fear of gossip and rumors, biases about women not being committed to careers, and failure to understand that in many organizations (male-dominated), if men don’t mentor women, women will often go unmentored. Then, #MeToo become a global phenomenon and men retreated from meaningful engagement with women even further. There is evidence that nearly 60% of men in corporate America were far less comfortable having private meetings, meals, or mentoring conversations with women after #MeToo.

W Brad Johnson

While all this has been going on, there has been a steady drum beat of research evidence showing that women are vastly under-paid and promoted, and that when an organization has more gender balance, especially when it has more women in significant leadership roles, that company is often more successful (by nearly any metric). So governments, organizations, and company shareholders are increasing the pressure on men to become part of the solution. Men have got to lean in to meaningful engagement in gender equity and equality initiatives. They have got to show up as allies for their female colleagues. We find different groups of men responding differently to these pressures.

Some men are apathetic and disengaged (this is a small group) and organizers would do best not to waste much energy trying to draw them in. Other men are already leading as full-on advocates for equality. They’re doing the work right now. A large middle group of men is the one we like target. These are guys with some awareness and genuine interest in equity and fairness. They just don’t know how to get started. That’s where were our research for writing Good Guys comes in and can be very helpful in the sense of providing a male ally toolbox.


How can men adapt to the new reality that is shaping the workplace and workforce? Is there a willingness to overcome unconscious bias?

David: One of the reasons that Brad and I set out to do the research for Good Guys was that we heard from lots of men that they fully supported gender equality at work and home—they just didn’t know what to do to fix the problem or are worried they’ll make a mistake. Another reason that men are not engaged in the work to eliminate gender inequities is a lack of awareness of how much women find the workplace to be toxic. Finally, lots of men think they are already doing everything they can to support gender equality and eliminate gender inequities at work. The research shows us that in many cases, men are not actually doing the work — taking the action — to fix the system that disadvantages women. Men overestimate what and how much they’re actually doing.

There is a willingness to overcome unconscious bias and to get involved, but men also have concerns about what their role is in being an ally for gender equity. Too often gender diversity initiatives are advertised and perceived as women’s programs. Reframing these as leadership issues instead of gender issues helps to get men’s attention and involvement. It’s often as simple as inviting men into the conversation. Of course, once they’re in the conversation, they need to be thoughtful about their role in this space.

Often these conversations are part of a women’s leadership event or women’s employee resource group. Historically, these are spaces where women can share, collaborate, connect and enhance their career opportunities. A man’s role here is to listen, self-educate, and contemplate the connection to their own behavior and workplace culture. It is not to dominate or take control of the event, try to tell women how to fix their problems (mansplain), or become defensive and gaslight women. When men are comfortable and ready, they should ask what they can do to partner with women in making change in their organization.


The Male Ally movement does not seem to have gathered much steam thus far globally? How can men step up and be a catalyst in correcting a wrong that has plagued society for so long?

David: At best, there are pockets of male allies and advocates around the globe. However, we see a growing number and just as important is the visibility and voice these groups are adding to the movement. There are a few key steps for men to consider in how they can lean in to being an ally for gender equity. First, develop awareness of how women’s experiences are different from their own. This requires self-education, conversations with colleagues and peers, and a keen sense of situational awareness.

David G Smith

A key part of developing awareness is having a set of trusted gender confidants to have the difficult conversations that create insight and often enlightenment. These relationships are founded on trust and a true sense of care that enable an ally to ask for feedback. This feedback is critical to illuminating unconscious biases, stereotypes and overestimation of ally work. These relationships also create accountability because a man has put himself out there as an ally and your gender confidant is going to hold you accountable to being an ally. Second, once men have begun to think critically about how they show up as an ally in their interpersonal relationships as a collaborative and supportive gender equity ally, then they need to think about how they become a public ally.

It’s not enough to hold yourself accountable, a real ally holds others accountable and is an active disruptor of the status quo. Think of the idea of “see something, say something.” Public allies say or do something to disrupt the bias and discrimination that plagues our organizations and societies. This makes what is often invisible to other men, suddenly visible and acknowledged as a problem. The final part of allyship that men need to do is examining everyday practices and processes where bias and inequity is created. At whatever level of leadership, we can be attuned for how the playing field may not be level for everyone. The employment process — recruiting, hiring, paying, training, developing, promoting, mentoring and sponsoring — is a prime place to start.


What has been the reaction of women towards the concept of male allies? Is there a willingness to partner or is it perceived to be yet another form of male patronisation?

Brad: This is such an important question and a crucial conversation between women and the men who would like to become better allies, accomplices, and advocates for equity. Here is some advice we give men:

  • Don’t frame allyship as rescuing. Don’t think that becoming protective of women or “fixing” them or their gendered problems in the workplace is the right approach;
  • Show at women’s events, gender inclusion events, and women’s conferences with an intent to learn. Don’t try to become the spokesman for the group, don’t tell women how to achieve gender equality. Instead, listen, listen, and listen some more. Then, ask what role you can play in partnering to move the needle on equity.
  • The same is true in how we show up interpersonally in relationships with women. First, listen, have a learning orientation, be trustworthy, and recognize that not all women are the same; their experiences are different. To women, we often communicate a genuine appreciation of the fact that women’s groups, conferences, and equity conversations often are a valued safe space for women, but if there is space to collaborate with men — especially those gentlemen who really get it and want to contribute — we know that male engagement in gender equality work is often crucial to more rapid change.


How can men be effective mentors for women? Is it necessary to be a male ally to be a good mentor?

Brad: To become better cross-gender allies, men first need to get over any anxiety they have about interacting with women in the work. Men can be reluctant to mentor women if they’re not sure what to do, if they worry how their overtures to mentorship will be perceived, or if they get hung-up on false narratives about it being dangerous somehow to have private meetings or conversations with women.

A simple way to over mentorship is to say: “I noticed the great work you’ve been doing in _____ and I really hope we can keep you in our organization. If you’d ever like to chat about opportunities and promotions, I’d enjoy chatting to learn more about your career interests and how I can help promote them.” Then, as a mentorship begins to unfold, be attuned to career elements of mentorship (challenge, advice, direct role-modeling, coaching, networking, sponsorship) but pay just as much attention to the relational elements of mentorship (friendship, encouragement, affirmation, counteracting the imposter syndrome, and inclusion).

Finally, don’t call yourself her mentor (unless you’re paired with her in a formal mentoring program). Instead, do the work, be in her corner, be her confidant, be her sponsor and raving fan. Then, if she refers to you as her mentor at some point, you can feel good about that.

Lots of men are allies to women and accomplices to achieving equity and equality in the workplace without necessarily being mentors to many of the women they ally with. Mentoring connotes a special kind of reciprocal, collegial, committed, trust-based relationship that often goes on for some time. On the other hand, it would seem hard to be a great mentor to a woman without also being an ally!


Digging in a bit deeper into the evolution of a male ally, what circumstances really shape a man to become a feminist? Is it the upbringing, social connects or just that some are wired that way?

David: What we found in our research on male allies is a set of motivations that foster men’s commitment to gender equity and feminism. First is a personal connection with an important woman (family member, mentor, mentee, co-worker, subordinate or boss) in their life who shares how gender inequity has negatively and unfairly impacted their life. This personal connection heightens a sense of unfairness or injustice that motivates action. This is the most common reason we heard from male allies in our research.

Second, often men in their jobs or leadership positions have an experience that makes them realize that gender inequality is making them less effective. Whether that ineffectiveness is measured in profits/losses, getting the job done, meeting deadlines, or finding innovative and creative solutions, as leaders they recognize that without gender equality, they are failing in many ways as a leader. We call this the business case. This can be a powerful motivator for men who are often biased toward evidence and outcomes that directly impact their lives in a visible way. Finally, some men are inherently altruistic and natural social justice advocates based on their education or socialization.


What initiatives can individuals and companies take to increase male allies within the organisation? Are there more silent men than vocal ones when it comes to supporting the cause for gender equality at workplaces?

Brad: Great question! We are firm believers that organizations should be approaching the growth and development of male allyship in at least two distinct ways. First, start with your grassroots men. There are men at every level in your organization who are equity-minded, who are already allies in their behavior and attitudes, men that women feel comfortable approaching for confidential conversations and mentoring. Capitalize on these men and pull them into leading male ally interest groups (perhaps they get together once per month and discuss an ally topic from our book, Good Guys!).

Often, these men are influential and getting them together — perhaps partnering deliberately with the women’s employee resource group — to form an ally network is a crucial way to build a genuine community of male allies, recruiting more and more men as they grow. Second, men in leadership roles need to make male allyship a priority in their conversations, in their communications — inside the organization and publicly —and in the transparent priorities they establish, communicate, and hold their people accountable to achieve.

There are indeed male allies of all stripes. We want all of them in the conversation and doing the ally work. One need not be an extrovert to be an excellent ally. One need only be committed to the cause, willing to show for women as friends and supportive colleagues, and willing to publicly disrupt sexism. In our experience, quiet men can often have a big role in such disruption. Because they don’t often speak, when they do call something out, or express public concern about a sexist comment, we find that others are often especially likely to sit up and take notice.