Article | Design Meets Diversity: Building Male Allies Through Design Thinking

By Rachana Bhide

As a design thinker and leadership professional, fewer things delight me more than applying design to my work, my research, career or even personal life. The iterative, user-based approach of design allows for freedom in testing out approaches, using metaphoric thinking and consistently iterating toward a better solution.

My recent program, The Corner of the Court, is geared at building self-efficacy of male diversity allies through the voices and stories of women. This program has a has been entirely designed using a design thinking approach, allowing for a deeply human-centered, empathy-based product.

Now that the story-based project within the program is approaching its three-month anniversary, I want to share some design-based principles that this project reflects, in the hopes to both illustrate the success of the overall program so far, and to share a tangible example of the importance of applying design to HR/diversity, a field where empathy is at the heart of all that we do.

5 Stages of Design and “The Corner of the Court”

Empathy: Empathy is about gathering data using various, objective sources such as observations, interviews and the like. The real unique insights happen when we “go there” and don’t make pre-conceived notions about who we are observing, we just allow ourselves to uncover what is.

When I first began my research on men and diversity, I did so as an academic psychologist. And a great perk about being a psychologist is having agency to leverage both quantitative and qualitative data in my research – the latter is where the powerful learning for me took place, that led to developing the program. Most of the interviews I conducted for that first project at Columbia University were via 1:1 qualitative interviews and group discussions with men. I sought to understand things like, “What makes you more likely to support diversity? What are the possibly diverse experiences that you have had as a man? What is your own unique story?”

But while I was in this deep empathy stage, I realized I was gathering a lot of other data too – from women. Women who were reflecting back to me about my project, sharing their examples of great male allies. Women who cut me off (in a good way) when I would explain the project because they were bursting to share a story about a great male ally who they knew. All of this was data that I carried into the next stage, Define, to generate insights that ultimately led to my approach to create The Corner of the Court.

Define/Insights: It became clear to me that there were two key “user” groups – men and women – and sub-profiles within both (e.g. men who were strong allies, men who were not, women who had strong allies, women who did not, etc.). I thought about and tested a lot of opportunity statements and ultimately realized one major gap was how to leverage the power of the female voice in building male allies. Bringing the faces and words of successful women as a visible outcome of positive allyship; harnessing the willing voices of these women who wanted to tell a man’s story. This became the opportunity statement that would support the full body of research outcomes about building male allyship I’ve previously written about.

Ideate/Brainstorm: The Corner of the Court is a metaphor which I used in my keynote address to male and female executives at ESPN, FOX Sports and LA84 Foundation at a gala honoring outstanding female executives in the sports industry.

In design thinking, we encourage use of imagery and metaphors to draw inspiration in order to address a challenge. The image of a tennis court was a powerful one to reflect the design-based insight I wanted to show around the effect of allyship: That the female voice is, and remains, the central theme. The female is the athlete, the competitor, the protagonist of each story. She is out on the court, sweating, deciding her next move, wrestling with emotions and physical exhaustion and all that comes with playing her hardest for each point – while her male ally or coach, is fully active and present, in the corner.

It need not be so obvious, but there’s a beauty of using design and metaphors to suggest an experience. It allows for mental freedom to go where we choose; for example, we could equally take a moment to consider the male ally on the court – in which corner is he standing (across from her, or watching from the back corner)? As she switches sides to serve, what is his new vantage point? How is his presence on the court, yet not as an active competitor, making him feel? All of these complex considerations about the topic are wholly permissible and non-threatening when using a metaphor to which all sides can relate.

Prototype: In the age of Agile development, rapid change and yes, use of design thinking, prototyping allows a “try-it-and-see” method. That’s the approach I took in launching the program. I started with a few passionate women, we got on the phone and crafted the first stories… and then we put ourselves out there. We didn’t allow ourselves to get distracted by “likes” or how many followers we had; what mattered in the early stages was whether we were making an impact. How were the stories landing? Where were we getting the most feedback? Which leads us to…

Test: In design, we are always seeking feedback. The feedback that first led me to the project design was based in empathy, and I take a similar approach in gathering user-based data around how the project is landing so far. I look at things like:

– What are women saying about how their story was received by their male mentors?
– What are male readers saying about the stories?
– What are the male mentors saying about the awareness of their impact?
– How do the variety of stories (featuring personal or professional relationships) resonate with readers?
– What excites readers with each story?
– What questions are people left with?

Test has been one of the most interesting stages for this project, because it has invariably led to another round of empathy. As I gather data on the above, I simultaneously continue to uncover hidden insights about the topic of male allyship: Women who approach me and say “Gosh, I would love to submit a story, but I’m afraid I just don’t have a compelling example of a male ally… is that bad?” Or, coming to the early realization that of all the stories that have been shared so far, nobody has yet submitted a “husband” as the featured male ally (though we’ve had older brothers, fathers and professional figures). Or some men who have said they wish they could have played such a role in a woman’s life, but they feel it might be too late (it isn’t!). Such insights help The Corner of the Court both meet its stated purpose to tell the stories of women and their male allies, while also uncovering a lot of unseen activity and emotion around the topic.

As such, if we think in our tennis metaphor, we are still in the “first points” of the game, of the set, of the match, of the tournament. We are ready and poised to continue to tell the stories of women and their male allies, to make an impact on our readers. And as we work toward gender partnership, iterating and being strong designers of the male ally experience, the thread in our work is this: It is the metaphor of the woman athlete, on the court, fiercely and valiantly playing for each point. It is, after all, she who is willing and continues to inspire her male ally, and all of us, with her story.


Submissions are always open! If you would like to share a story about a male ally, please inquire or submit here.

See all of our women’s stories here.

The Corner of the Court Project is aimed at building self-efficacy of male champions, allies and mentors.


Meet Erin, a woman of many “firsts” including being the first female football coach at the University of Albany, and the first in her position with the both the NFL and New York Giants.  Erin shares her inspiring story of her male champion, NY Giants and football PR superstar Pat Hanlon.


“As Vice President at RISE (Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality) and a proud member of WISE (Women in Sports and Events), the professional advancement of women is an issue close to my heart.

I have been ‘the first’ a few times in life. I was the first girl in my family; the first female to coach football at the University of Albany; and the first woman to hold my position at both the New York Giants and the National Football League. As a frequent minority, I sought allies in the majority who could offer support and direction. My father and brothers served as early guides.

Later, I was blessed to be employed by one of the best male champions in the game, New York Giants Senior Vice President of Communications Pat Hanlon.

Once dubbed the ‘Rock Star of Football PR’ by PR Week, Hanlon may seem an unlikely feminist, but he has a long history of advocating for equal rights. Husband to a former NBA executive and father to two daughters and a son, he has helped launch and guide the careers of countless young people.

While working for him I was thrilled to be considered for the same assignments as my male colleagues and held to the same high standards. When issues arose that required different perspectives — such as a player publicly comparing a bad loss to rape — he sought and valued my opinion. He modeled true leadership in times of adversity and always helped us learn from our mistakes. But what shaped me most was the way he used sports to help others. Through large and small gestures, he brightened the lives of sick children, wounded veterans and the elderly. He always goes the extra mile to pass his blessings onto others and inspired me to do the same.

Over the past 17 years, I’ve sought Hanlon’s advice on everything from switching jobs to burying my oldest brother and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. He is one of the busiest men I know, and yet he always makes time to be there.

Behind most women in sports you’ll find a male champion. I am grateful that he is mine.”

– Erin, Vice President at RISE (Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality), New York City

Guest Interview: Designing Your Career by Rachana Bhide on Protégé Podcast

On the March 5, 2017, episode of Protégé Podcast, I provide a guest interview about having a career abroad, design strategies, research and more. Here’s what you’ll find:

– How sabbaticals can provide intentional and purposeful career growth
– The positive role of male allies in promoting diversity
– Design thinking principles of empathy, reframing, and prototyping that can help you design a career you love

Podcast details:

“How do you take a five-month sabbatical to study fashion at Vogue in London, and then return to your high-powered job without missing a beat? Anything is possible when you design your own career. On this week’s Protégé Podcast, we talk with organizational psychologist Rachana Bhide, who shares her story about using mentors, sabbaticals, language immersion and other elements to help create a bespoke career.”

Special thanks to Rory Verrett for being an exceptional host and interviewer!

Check out Protégé Podcast on iTunes.


To celebrate International Women’s Day, on March 8, 2017, we featured a story of a young woman entrepreneur, Allie, who spoke about her male mentor, venture capitalist Tim Draper.   Check out Allie’s story below and at The Corner of the Court Project.

“’I’m not so sure your business is scalable. But you: you’re it.’

I distinctly remember renowned venture capitalist Tim Draper’s feedback. I was 21. It was my first pitch competition. At that moment, Tim saw something in me that investors search for in their founders. It was positivity and grit.

Tim and Melissa Draper sponsor the largest collegiate pitch competition for women. Tim’s mom, sister, and wife Melissa Draper attended Smith, making my alma mater a natural fit to plant the seed of entrepreneurship as a career path for women.

Sure, my idea wasn’t a viable business. But what I learned was far more valuable: public speaking and personability, receiving constructive criticism, and networking up among business people and investors.

A year later, I worked for Smith College to market the competition I had once participated in, and scaled the number of participants by 500%. I spotted the towering man throwing his head back in a full-belly laugh as he entered the building. For a serious investor, Tim has a wildly youthful personality. I ran up to him immediately.

“I remember you!” he said. I was offered a job on the spot. Three weeks later, I was living in San Francisco, doing marketing for Tim’s entrepreneurship program Draper University.

Giving me a position at Draper University meant Tim entrusted me with the responsibility to grow and create success for his company. He believed that though I was young and relatively inexperienced, I had what it takes to figure things out.

Tim Draper fervently believes in the value of women in business for diversity of thought and return on investment, whether he’s investing in them through venture or social capital.

I am forever grateful for having Tim as a champion at the start of my professional career, and as a lifelong mentor.”

– Allie, Marketing & Partnerships, New York City