Male Allies Must Focus on the Details to Help Women Succeed

Experts say forceful and explicit actions are needed — not friendly pablum. Stop any subtle slights and make women’s advocacy a priority.

By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor

Male executives need to show up forcefully and explicitly to make good on their promises to be allies to their female colleagues in the new COVID-era work world, experts say.

Researchers say it’s all about the details and the multi-tasking, traditionally considered women’s strengths. It means, for example, that men must stay extra aware to stop Zoom-meeting slights against women. They need to set work priorities with exactitude, so women don’t end up doing the equivalent of housekeeping; and act in real time to keep women colleagues in the loop. Studies also indicate that the same levels of heightened awareness are needed to ensure that LGBTQA+ and other historically marginalized colleagues reach their potential, too.

Men who have demonstrated their allyship of women at work say the following examples show how they’ve ensured visibility and responsibilities for their female colleagues. Many of the women continue to work from home because of child care, eldercare, and other priorities amid the highly contagious COVID delta variant now circulating worldwide, making these actions even more important.

  • Notice every aspect of video calls, watching for ways that women and other marginalized workers are excluded.
  • Eliminate side chats.
  • Be clear and specific about your expectations.
male allies illustration
Credit: PISHIT

Countering new avenues of exclusion

Researchers found that virtual meetings open a new avenue of exclusion: the invisible side conversation. “Managers can easily have ‘chat’ in a different window right alongside the actual meeting, perhaps even coming up with plans that undermine group decisions or making inappropriate remarks about colleagues,” wrote Colleen Ammerman and Boris Groysberg, DBA, co-authors of Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work.

“Even if not actively discriminatory, these invisible conversations cement relationships and are impossible to break into,” said the researchers. Ammerman is the director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School, and Dr. Groysberg is the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

“Your impulse might be to huddle with smaller groups, but this instinct will not serve you well,” the co-authors wrote. “You’re likely to find yourself looking at a gallery of faces very similar to your own — those you feel most comfortable with.”

That’s why it’s so important to make your expectations clear. “Prior to meetings, remind people that they should be sharing their views with the full group and not carrying on side conversations that exclude others,” they wrote. “And if you get wind of problematic comments and conversations, make it clear that these exchanges are unacceptable and merit serious consequences.”

ammerman headshot
Colleen Ammerman, director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School and co-author of Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work
Photo Credit: Evgenia Eliseeva
Jesus Garrido, general manager of farm equipment maker John Deere & Co.’s Motores division in Coahuila, Mexico, and a 2020 recipient of the SWE Rodney D. Chipp Memorial Award
Photo Credit: John Deere

Scrap ideas of gender-based roles and benefits

Jesus Garrido, general manager of farm equipment maker John Deere & Co.’s Motores division in Coahuila, Mexico, said he took a page from his personal history being raised to take on family responsibilities that had no gender roles.

“We as a family had no sex segregation of duties. If my mother asked me to wash the dishes, I would,” said Garrido, a 2020 recipient of the SWE Rodney D. Chipp Memorial Award. Garrido earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical and metallurgical engineering from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

When his parents sent Garrido, his two sisters (one was older, the other younger), and four older brothers to Mexico City, where the metropolitan area population stands at more than 20 million, from their hometown of 5,000 people, the siblings divided chores. Garrido ended up cleaning restrooms and divvying up the weekly income that their parents provided for food and transportation. “I was 13 at the time,” he said. “The experience made us work as a team.”

In a similar vein, Garrido said he makes sure to have weekly virtual-contact meetings with employees who work from home. He also meets one-on-one with most of his administrative employees, and he frequently walks the shop floor to make contact with production employees.

The key, he said, is to let employees have “hyper-flexibility” to do their jobs, knowing that he can trust they will do their best work. That lets each person administer their time. And, as an extension, the company acknowledges and accommodates the challenges that working parents face.

Garrido has hired women — several of whom are mothers to small children — as his top advisors. He hired Jockabed Garcia as his human resources manager at Deere & Co.’s Motores division and promoted Yuriko Tanaka, a senior manufacturing engineer, into the operations manager’s role. Tanaka’s husband’s work requires travel, so she shoulders much of the day-to-day responsibility for their two elementary-aged children.

Garrido also hired women for the first time as the division’s safety professional, IT product owner, and loss-prevention engineer. Moving beyond expectations of gender roles, since Garrido took over the Deere operation in Coahuila, Mexico, four years ago, there have been significant increases in women’s representation:

  • He hired women as 25% of his staff, compared with none when he started
  • Women’s representation as senior managers has grown by 3.6%
  • The percentage of women in management with supervisory responsibilities has increased 1.9%
  • Female production employees’ numbers have increased 5.68%

Indeed, Garrido said he saw the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to do better or to find new ways of doing work. Employees were provided the tools and training they needed to transition during COVID to do their jobs remotely. And he kept Motores John Deere factory’s 450 employees in mind when teambuilding, and social events transferred to virtual technology, rather than being canceled.

Voluntarism events leveraged innovative activities such as asking employees to make videos of themselves singing or dancing or playing an instrument. The participants were rewarded with a gift, and the events’ earnings were donated to a community group.

And during monthly communications meetings, all 450 workers joined virtual sessions to hear about results of projects, programs, and operations. The forum let the workers hear directly from factory management and provide their input and opinions. Garrido also oversaw a program that lets employees rotate from home into the factory and back home so they can stay up-to-date with the latest health and safety protocols, as well as engineering, accounting, and supply management tools and projects that are available only inside the factory.

The book Glass Half-Broken recounts the efforts of former Campbell Soup CEO Doug Conant, who started the company’s first employee resource group, Women of Campbell, to show support for women’s role in helping a company perform better. He saw diversity as central to his turnaround strategy for the then-struggling company when he took over in 2001, according to the co-authors.

“We had to craft an employee value proposition that worked for everybody,” he told the co-authors. Conant also saw cultivating women’s careers as an individual responsibility.

“Denise Morrison succeeded Conant as CEO in 2011, the first woman to hold Campbell Soup’s top post; Conant had mentored Morrison for a number of years before Campbell’s board began looking at its CEO succession role,” according to the chapter “Allies on the Sidelines: The Role of Men.”

Conant told the book’s authors: “I hired Denise Morrison in a staff role as our first chief global customer officer, but then I got her into a profit-and-loss role, and she had a chance to show that she could run line businesses for six or seven years before the board had to have a discussion about my successor. At that point, she had a clear track record of contribution and experience.”

glass half broken book cover
david smith headshot
brad johnson headshot
David Smith, Ph.D., left, and Brad Johnson, Ph.D., professors and co-authors of Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace and Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women

Commitments must come with consequences

That’s just the kind of risking “skin in the game” that men should be doing to advocate for women, especially since COVID restrictions have driven many women to work remotely so they can focus on caregiving duties, say Brad Johnson, Ph.D., and David Smith, Ph.D., professors and co-authors of Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace and Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women.

“Deliberate sponsorship has got to happen,” Dr. Johnson said. “Make sure your female colleague’s name is always in the pool for new projects and promotions. Women tend only to get opportunities if they have done the job already, whereas men are never reluctant to push for things they have never done before,” he pointed out.

In fact, the COVID crisis should drive male allies to seize the advantages of remote and flexible work. They can now hire talented people from any location and leverage the increased productivity that a remote workforce can bring, Dr. Johnson said. “I have to make sure that work is something I accomplish — not somewhere I go,” he said. “People can be more productive when you give them autonomy.”

Dr. Smith said leaders should create a new system to evaluate workers’ performance and reevaluate the best ways to communicate. “It’s time to reconsider the routines of communication, how often we meet as work teams, when there’s feedback, and how often we need to have a progress or performance check,” he said. “It’s getting managers comfortable and knowledgeable about how to lead people and programs in a hybrid environment.”

Part of the new way of leading involves situational awareness, Dr. Johnson said. His advice: Next time a male manager leads a virtual meeting, look for a way to acknowledge a female team member as an expert. For example, point out that “Sara has way more experience in this area than I do. What do you think, Sara?”

Or ask a question to ensure that a woman’s voice is heard: “I know Susannah has done work in this area before. I’d love to hear your thoughts, Susannah,” or “You always have such interesting perspectives on these questions. I’m really interested in hearing your perspective.”

It’s important that you “say it because you mean it,” he said. “Notice who is speaking during a Zoom meeting. Who is getting the microphone? Is a woman team member being overlooked, interrupted, or disrespected? Call it out and shut it down.”

And be alert when women volunteer or are expected to do what Dr. Johnson calls “administrative housework” — chores such as taking notes and producing agendas, activities that take time away from advancing one’s career. Encourage the women to say “no” more often. “Talk about the ramifications for their careers, and encourage them to practice saying ‘no,’ even if it feels uncomfortable,” Dr. Johnson said. “Then, have their backs when they say ‘no’ to a duty that would fail to advance their cause.”

Dr. Smith said it’s essential that the entire team of senior leadership act as role models and hold people accountable. “If I’m in leadership and trumpeting the value of flex and remote work, my frontline managers need to enact policies that reflect those values,” he said.

Leaders also need to model behaviors that may be the opposite of how people are socialized from the time they’re children. It’s critical that men take family leave, do flex and remote work, and participate in programs that women have traditionally utilized, Dr. Johnson said.

“If those programs are ones that women — and no one else — take advantage of, they’re stigmatized,” he said. “If men — the company’s leaders — use those programs and tell others, be transparent, it becomes destigmatizing to junior men at work as well,” Dr. Johnson said. “Otherwise, we’re stuck with a two-tiered system.”

The solution should be aspirational — a man who wants his legacy to include a female successor as CEO, for example, to get beyond zero-sum-gain thinking, said Glass Half-Broken co-author Ammerman.

Some studies, including a survey of Harvard Business School alumni, show that the #MeToo movement made men more aware of and sympathetic toward the inequities that women face. Other research showed some men viewed #MeToo, aimed at raising awareness about and stopping sexual harassment and violence against women in the workplace, as a threat.

More than one-quarter (28%) of American men said they felt that women’s gains have come at men’s expense, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center study. Yet Ammerman and Dr. Groysberg found that men who have mixed feelings about gender equality or who believe it’s not their place to lead workplace gender-parity initiatives could shift their stance when company leaders “frame the work of increasing gender equity as a collective imperative.”

More top-down efforts need to be made in academia, too, which runs the risk of losing valuable women leaders, Dr. Johnson said. “We could potentially see a massive loss of female talent in the teaching profession,” he said of college and university education. “It would be easy to go back to the old tenure and publishing systems and requirements. But if you have that level of rigidity, you’re going to lose women’s valuable contributions.”

Taking a one-step approach, such as requiring managers and workers to take training to recognize their unconscious biases, won’t work, said Ammerman. “You’re not going to see any real difference if companies stop there,” she said. “Make that education part of a shared mission. Make sure that the decisions you’re making about doling out assignments, awards, assessing people and other measures show that you’re critically reflecting in order to minimize the unconscious bias.”

SWE’s HeForSWE Affinity Group Gives Men a Platform to Serve as Advocates for Their Female Colleagues

Purva Vaidya, a senior project engineer, is proud to say she has enjoyed the support and encouragement of male allies and mentors — including her brother Rushi Vaidya, a mechanical engineer — in academia and in her professional career.

Her brother urged her to consider biomedical engineering, and she found that it provided “the perfect intersection” of her interests in math, health care, applied sciences, and problem-solving.

“I’ve had tons of male friends who wanted to be allies but didn’t know where their space was,” said Vaidya, whose role as senior project engineer II involves developing and executing capital project strategies for advanced therapy and biotech manufacturing companies at Project Farma. Founded in Chicago, Project Farma is a biomanufacturing strategy and execution company focused on mobilizing medicines and treatments for patients suffering from rare, chronic, and incurable diseases.

Vaidya saw on SWE’s All Together blog that SWE had started a Society-level HeForSWE affinity group in July 2020, aimed at ensuring a more diverse and inclusive culture where women and other underrepresented gender engineers are recognized as essential members of their teams and companies.

She had already experienced the initiative’s potential when she helped build SWE’s HeForSWE program at Drexel University, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 2019 in biomedical engineering. “I joined SWE my freshman year in college, and I started taking on leadership roles,” said Vaidya, who served as membership chair and then membership director for the Drexel SWE collegiate section.

The HeForSWE effort started at Drexel in 2017, and Vaidya stepped up as co-director in 2018. “We started finding allies around campus and created events tailored around HeForSWE, and we coordinated efforts with the Office of Equality and Diversity,” she said.

Vaidya’s excitement and determination led her to her current position as HeForSWE co-lead, along with her Project Farma mentor, Senior Manager Danny Foody.

The first HeForSWE co-directors were environmental engineer Catherine Martsolf, EIT, and Kenneth R. Fulmer, P.E., president and CEO of Philadelphia-based Urban Engineers.

Martsolf had interned at Urban Engineers, where her mother, Carol Martsolf, P.E., started the Urban Training Institute. The institute has been awarded the International Accreditors for Continuing Education and Training (IACET) Exemplar Award for Internal Training; trains on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; and enables hundreds of engineers each year to attain their continuing education and other required certifications.

Fulmer, too, started his career at Urban Engineers as an intern — as a co-op student at Drexel University — before he rose through the ranks to become president and CEO. Fulmer said Urban Engineers, an employee-owned firm with 450 employees, is known for its work in infrastructure and development, and encourages women employees to take on leadership positions in professional organizations.

“I’ve always had an admiration and appreciation for the effort [that the women engineers in leadership positions] are taking, and especially now during these stressful times as the COVID pandemic continues, and I want to support them,” said Fulmer, who earned bachelor’s degrees in architectural engineering and civil engineering at Drexel. A native of Norristown, Pennsylvania, he now is a member of Drexel University’s board of trustees. Of Catherine Martsolf, Fulmer said, “She is the future of the profession. How do I not want to be involved?”

Fulmer added that “we wanted to let everyone know of the power of allies. If the [SWE affinity] group was going to be inclusive, there was a need for partnerships from male engineers, where appropriate. It was a diverse way of thinking, of saying we want to be inclusive. Men are often in leadership positions, and we need to change that so women are equally in leadership positions. One way of making that happen is through HeForSWE and allyism.”

Urban Engineers has started a flexible remote work policy amid COVID. Fulmer said companies and engineering leaders must take care to keep women advised and empowered to seize important career opportunities if they’re working remotely. “Men and women working outside of the office could be less visible and may be passed over for opportunities,” he said. “That’s a real concern.”

“We [leaders] need to be on point,” Fulmer said. “If you’re aware of a remote employee’s success story, you need to bring that forward. Perhaps the person’s work was essential to complete a project or provided an innovative approach to solve a problem — all of it done remotely.”

“We need to celebrate that more than ever,” he said. “Our communications have to be stronger, from co-worker to co-worker and from supervisor to employee, in a remote work environment, so that we’re all visible, given the same opportunities, and celebrated for our successes.”

Expressing a similar view, in a separate interview Vaidya said, “Everyone should be welcomed and provided equal opportunity. Let’s make actionable changes. That’s what drew me to the program. SWE is a place for everyone, men included. And this is a perfect intersection of those things.”

Purva Vaidya, a senior project engineer at Project Farma, is currently co-lead for HeForSWE.
Danny Foody, Vaidya’s HeForSWE co-lead, reports being honored and humbled to be part of the effort.
Kenneth R. Fulmer, P.E., president and CEO of Philadelphia-based Urban Engineers, was co-director of the first HeForSWE.

Allyship consists of small steps and huge actions

Vaidya also realizes, as a strategic problem solver, that men — who hold a majority of the engineering industry’s leadership roles — can use their influence to advocate the advancement of all minorities in STEM. “I don’t think there’s any way to create advocacy in our field unless everyone is on the same page,” Vaidya said.

But the key to starting the conversation is to just clear the space, she said. Allyship can be a huge action or a small step. “Any woman has experienced saying something in a meeting and not being heard, and then watching as a man says the same thing and gets recognized,” Vaidya said. “Allyship can start with a man in that meeting saying, ‘Hey, I really liked her idea. Let’s talk about it some more.’ It’s about being present, lifting and elevating minority voices.”

Elaborating, she added that “platforms help start that conversation. It can start as small as, ‘Here are some resources,’ or sharing experiences and having people get more comfortable with that conversation. How do we bring it into the workplace? How do we pull in more mentors?”

Noting that men and women often don’t know how to approach the topic of allyship, Vaidya said that “it’s going to take time. But I think starting those conversations and introducing the resources and platforms where people can be like, ‘Yeah, there are things I can do to be an ally in this space.’”

Foody, Vaidya’s HeForSWE co-lead, said he shares Vaidya’s and the affinity group’s values. “Project Farma does a really good job of challenging team members and giving them opportunities, and making sure the process is inclusive to all,” said Foody, whose degree is in molecular and cellular biology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Because he holds regular one-on-one meetings with his team members, Foody said he quickly learned about Vaidya’s interest in SWE, as well as her eagerness to be challenged. “It’s clear that women are underrepresented in STEM fields, and especially in leadership positions,” he said.

Foody’s methodology as a team leader is to never assume anything about his team members, with a goal of being approachable; to hold open dialogues; and to find out how to challenge his team members to achieve their growth potential.

“There’s a lot of untapped potential of male allies in every industry, but specifically STEM,” he said. “I want to be a part of that process and encourage more men to be a champion and an ally and further support women’s inclusivity in the STEM industry.”

Of HeForSWE, Foody said, “I’m truly honored and humbled to be in this group. It’s something I’m very proud of.” Vaidya and Foody started their positions as co-leads of the HeForSWE affinity group on July 1, and they’ve put together a panel, “Engaging Men as Active Allies and Sponsors,” at SWE’s WE21 conference in Indianapolis.

Details on conference registration can be found at

“Throughout the year, we want to continue building our platform and putting together events,” Vaidya said. Foody added, “Purva and I are confident this affinity group will continually grow and further its impact.” And because it takes the efforts of many to make systemic change, “We are thankful for Catherine and Ken and the constant support of the SWE organization,” he said.

Don’t further marginalize those already marginalized

While staying clear-headed about how to empower women, managers also must take care to understand issues of importance to others who are marginalized, including LGBTQA+ employees. Nearly a quarter (24%) of surveyed professionals were not open about their identity in their workplace, according to a new survey, with 26% of respondents worried that being open about themselves would cause co-workers to treat them differently.

The survey, conducted by YouGov for LinkedIn between April 30 and May 12, 2021, reflected responses from 2,001 U.S. LBGTQ+ professionals ages 18 to 69.

  • Nearly a third (31%) of LGBTQ+ professionals say they’ve faced blatant discrimination and/or microaggressions at work. A quarter of survey respondents said they left a job in the past because they felt unaccepted at work.
  • More than half (57%) of survey respondents said they would like companies to have clear policies to protect LGBTQ+ workers.
  • 45% said they wished their employers would create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ workers, such as employee groups.
  • More than half of the respondents said they felt inspired by seeing openly LGBTQ+ senior leaders.

The added stress of COVID had a sliver of a silver lining in that company leaders have become more open to providing mental health and child care support, said Kweilin Ellingrud, lead author of the McKinsey & Company report “Diverse Employees Are Struggling the Most During COVID-19 — Here’s How Companies Can Respond.”

The global research encompassing 11 countries, published in November 2020, showed that employees who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or gender nonbinary disproportionately feared losing ground at work and reported feeling more isolated during the pandemic.

And though roughly two out of five companies said they’ve increased their diversity, inclusion, and equity efforts during COVID, only one in six diverse employees said they felt more supported during the pandemic than they did before the crisis, the research showed. “Women, racial minorities, and LGBTQ+ colleagues tend to be over-mentored but undersponsored,” Ellingrud said.

So closing the sponsorship gap — the act of proactively finding opportunities for certain employees — is important to equalize the playing field at work, she said.

The McKinsey report urges companies to rethink working norms and expectations about employee productivity and to expand benefits such as paid time off. Companies also need to speak out about the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and show that they mean it through their work with suppliers, the community, and philanthropies, the report concluded.

Another researcher, Katina Sawyer, Ph.D., assistant professor of management at The George Washington University School of Business, wrote in a university blog post that allies “can use inclusive language and educate others on inclusive language, defend colleagues when they witness harassment or discrimination and advocate for more inclusive policies, practices or initiatives within their organizations.”

“When you are butting up against a norm within the organization, or you are taking an action that might be viewed negatively by others, but which promotes inclusiveness at work, taking those risks sends a stronger message of value to members of the trans community,” Dr. Sawyer wrote.

Kweilin Ellingrud, lead author of the McKinsey & Company report “Diverse Employees Are Struggling the Most During COVID-19 — Here’s How Companies Can Respond”
Photo Credit: McKinsey & Company

“What we’re finding is that while taking these risks and standing up for the rights of trans individuals is very important, it needs to be done in a way that’s also tempered with some humility,” she noted.

“Allies need to be willing to listen, learn and incorporate feedback so that they’re not continuing to act in a way that is not ideal for an ally, or that they’re expecting or acting as if every single trans person is going to want the same thing in the workplace instead of asking new questions when they’re encountering new situations,” Dr. Sawyer added.

The rise in remote work also shows that geographic barriers are no longer a constraint to a diverse-focused company. “You can look across the entire country or globally for diverse leadership,” Ellingrud said.

Stop playing the protector and close down the “always on” culture

Making assumptions is a habit fraught with peril. In fact, women said they had been denied opportunities because their male bosses had sought to “protect” them, Ammerman said. One woman said her manager never told her about a career possibility because he assumed that since she had recently gotten married, she wouldn’t be interested.

“Male managers may think they’re being helpful” by shielding women who’ve recently married or who have young children from opportunities, Ammerman said. The answer is to have open conversations about employees’ career goals, Ammerman explained. “Women’s outside responsibilities shouldn’t derail their careers.”

Male managers also must fight today’s “always-on” work culture on behalf of all employees, according to Dr. Johnson and Dr. Smith in an October 2020 article they co-wrote for Harvard Business Review, “4 Ways Men Can Support Their Female Colleagues — Remotely.”

“We talk about how you get an [instant message] with a quick request at 7 p.m.,” Dr. Smith said. “You’re always there. Even if it’s dinnertime. You are on it. But it can devolve into an arms race that leads to burnout, especially if everyone else is doing the same thing.”

Does a promotion come at too high a cost? “Does a promotion mean missing Friday evenings with your family and children? That’s a high cost,” Dr. Smith said. The always-on culture, including seeing leaders working while they’re on vacation, should be penalized, he said. “Companies with the happiest employees who were working partly remotely said their managers led by example. They took holidays.”

Interested in Learning More About Male Allies?

The following resources are available from the SWE Advance Learning Center:

  • Diversity in Engineering Matters (2) Confronting Gender Bias – Men and Women as Diversity Partners
  • Empowering Women at Work: Why and How to Sponsor Others
  • Difficult Conversations about Race & Gender: Building the Skills for Productive Engagement
  • Closing the Leadership Gender Gap