Male Allies: A Potential Force for Improved Workplaces

As documented in the 2019 SWE research issue, the idea that combating gender inequality in the workplace would benefit from increased involvement of men has begun to take root in recent years.

From left, David G. Smith, Ph.D., and W. Brad Johnson, Ph.D., advocates for involving men in the fight for gender equality at work.

Getting men actively involved in efforts to promote gender equity, however, can be quite challenging. Good Guys, a book published this year by David G. Smith, Ph.D., and W. Brad Johnson, Ph.D., two of the leading advocates for involving men in the fight for gender equality at work, provides practical advice about how men can help.

Drs. Smith and Johnson argue for the need to overcome these attitudes and get men more involved; they see men as important allies who can be powerful forces for workplace change when they speak and act in support of gender equity, precisely because their interventions are not seen as self-interested.

The authors acknowledge that getting men involved requires work. They note that men don’t perceive gender inequality in the workplace and are often reluctant to get involved for fear of making a mistake or being seen as a wimp. Some also feel that they’re involved in a zero-sum game in which women’s gains are men’s losses. And, many see gender bias as exclusively a women’s issue.

Good Guys identifies three “levels” of allyship: interpersonal, public, and systemic. Interpersonal allyship involves men’s supporting gender equity in and through interpersonal interaction. Men should work to improve their gender intelligence, learn to understand what others are experiencing, and seek to learn and get feedback from female colleagues.

They can set a good example for others by promoting gender equity in their own lives outside work and by participating in events designed to promote inclusion. Men also can contribute by treating women as competent and by challenging them and encouraging them to succeed. And, they need to work to include women, who often feel isolated and excluded in male-dominated workplaces. Drs. Smith and Johnson cite Forbes author and columnist Kim Elsesser, Ph.D., who:

“… explained that ally behavior can be as simple as being included: ‘When I worked on Wall Street, there were very few women, zero in some cases. One of the most helpful things that men did for me was just treat me like one of the boys.’”

– Smith and Johnson, p. 60

This also means working to develop friendships with female colleagues, mentoring younger women, and taking practical steps to combat the rumor mongering that can accompany these efforts (for example, they advocate transparency about meetings with female colleagues and mentoring multiple women, rather than just one).

Being a “good guy” means more than just improving one’s own interpersonal interactions with women, however. Treating women as “one of the boys” does little good if that means immersing them in a sexist work culture. So, being an ally also means engaging in public allyship, i.e., speaking and acting publicly on behalf of gender equity.

Most men feel they are doing all they can to support gender equality at work; but fewer than half of women agree. Men need to do more to confront sexism and bias according to Drs. Smith and Johnson. Doing so can take a variety of forms: speaking out when one sees/hears examples of sexist speech or behavior; working to ensure that women are treated equally (and heard equally) in meetings and are not left with all the homework after meetings conclude; actively sponsoring high-potential female employees and promoting their candidacies for opportunities that arise; and holding hiring committees accountable for ensuring that gender equity in hiring is a priority (it should be noted that this last issue has been an important theme in many successful NSF-ADVANCE projects).

Finally, Dr. Smith and Dr. Johnson emphasize the importance of systemic allyship. It’s important that men in leadership roles advocate change. This means not just speaking but actively showing they are committed. Male leaders should not just advise women on how to effect change — males have to take responsibility for that change themselves by setting an example, showing up for diversity-related events, being intentional in hiring diverse talent, and making diversity central to the leadership responsibilities of organizational members.

Male leaders should also make sure policies and practices against sexual harassment are in place. And, they should create flexible work options and ensure parental leave policies work and are being used. Drs. Smith and Johnson are careful to emphasize that steps need to be taken to avoid these options turning into a “mommy track” trap — leaders should take responsibility for ensuring that women are able to return to work after a leave and that there are no penalties associated with using family-friendly policies. Still, one can criticize them for focusing their discussions of these issues largely on women and not giving enough attention to men’s responsibilities as parents and caregivers.

Finally, to support allyship in general, sympathetic men should exercise leadership by forming communities of supportive men, developing clear goals for these organizations, and forging relationships between those communities and women colleagues who are engaged in working for gender equity.

Drs. Smith and Johnson offer an optimistic view of the potential for men to contribute to the fight for gender equity in the workplace. To their credit, they provide concrete suggestions for how men can make a contribution without posing as knights in shining armor. Sympathetic men reading this book will come away with lots of good advice about how to be effective allies for women in the workplace.

A particularly valuable aspect of the book is its insistence that men shouldn’t “take over” but need to be a complementary force:

“Allies work alongside women, not for women, not instead of women, and certainly not to rescue women.”

– Smith and Johnson, p. 205

What the authors don’t provide is a persuasive answer to the question of whether and why allyship is likely to happen. What will motivate men to engage as allies, particularly in a period when one hears more and more about the alleged decline in male economic prospects and the alleged psychological damage experienced by boys who are surpassed by girls in what some describe as increasingly female-centric educational systems?

Drs. Smith and Johnson note that many men see themselves involved in a zero-sum game; how can they be persuaded that this is not the case and/or that they, too, will benefit from a more equal workplace?

What will motivate sympathetic men to speak up against instances of harassment and gender inequity if the organizational culture in which they work is like the “bro culture” that seems to pervade the tech industry or if the people treating women badly are their superiors?

To be fair, Dr. Smith and Dr. Johnson are aware of how difficult it will be to get men involved. Their emphasis on “higher-level” forms of allyship (the formation of communities of men who support gender equity, cultivating leaders who actively support it and who implement policies and practices to promote it) makes clear that men’s support of gender equity cannot be limited to individual acts of conscience.

But, the question remains of whether and why those “higher-level” forms of allyship will develop. It’s quite possible for organizational leaders to be vocal supporters of gender equity while ignoring (or even being actively involved in) inequitable practices at work (Susan Fowler’s memoir about her work at Uber, discussed elsewhere in this issue, makes this clear).

One would be more optimistic if Drs. Smith and Johnson made a clear “business case” for gender equity or said more about how pressure could be put on employers (by consumers, by government) to encourage them to make the issue a real priority. As it stands, Good Guys provides much valuable practical advice about what men can do to support gender equity but leaves one wondering how likely it is that they actually will.


Smith, D.G. and W.B. Johnson (2020). Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.