Article | 6 Things Great Male Allies Do: Lessons from a Project in Male Allyship

By Rachana Bhide

I was having a Sunday chat with a male friend of mine in Madison Square Park here in New York City recently. He’s a successful tech CEO, and very committed to building a workplace that supports women and men equally.

“Rachana,” he said to me. “I went on your website and really like the stories [successful women sharing positive stories of their male allies]. But maybe you can break it down for me even more. I’m a dude, tell me exactly what it is I need to know, in one sentence, that these guys are doing so that I can also do it.”

Well. If I could go “meta” on my readers for a moment, this is it. One of my own male allies, pushing me to refine my approach, so that my work could more effectively reach more men. I reflected. Our project, The Corner of the Court, serves several purposes, one of which is to motivate men to take action and see that they have the full capacity within them to be great allies. And another purpose of the project is to curate stories, so that we can learn more about what’s actually happening out there — what is it that the best male allies are doing? What can the individual man do, to be a better ally?

So I took his suggestion, read through our stories and tried to pick out some unique and compelling themes — specific behaviors, to make it relevant and actionable — that our allies have shown.

Ready for the list? Here are six things a great male ally does:

1. He knows the culture

In any organization, leveraging your influence successfully relies on knowing and working within the culture. Jen Welter, the first female to coach in the NFL, said her ally, Bruce Arians, Head Coach of the Arizona Cardinals, knew how important it was to focus on the players. “in the process of hiring me… he wanted my position to be something his players were also proud of — in a way, he was letting the guys on the team be heroes in championing me,” says Jen.

Kim says that her mentor, Shawn, knew the pharmaceutical company where they worked heavily valued titles and pedigree. As such, when she joined his team in a senior role, he made sure to introduce her by leading with both her title and educational background — that she was a graduate of MIT, and she would be his trusted advisor.

2. He “signals” to others that he supports this woman and her role

Kim said her former boss used to visibly show others his support in a subtle but powerful way, a behavior she calls signaling. “At the start of the meeting, he would come in with his coffee cup, pause, and then leave. Then the meeting would start. Everyone knew I was still there and I was his delegate.”

Karen’s former boss, Digby, was similarly visible in his support. “He would preface things with, ‘What I learned from Karen is…’” says Karen. She continues, “This demonstrated a great deal of respect for me in front of my new colleagues.”

3. He asks her a really great question

Great allies on our website have often been able to make a lasting impact often with only a few, thoughtful words. A great question has often been the turning point in her career that many women remember. Chief Millenial Officer Liz, says her ally, JC, asked her, ‘What can you do to go the extra mile?’ while she says she was “breaking through many self-imposed limitations. He often asked me questions to get me to expand my thinking to go above and beyond.”

Similarly, when Emily, a Recruitment Marketing Specialist, hesitated about taking a new role, her boss, Kevin, asked, ‘Why don’t you want to be a recruiter?’ “If Kevin hadn’t intervened when I was feeling intimidated by the newness of cold calling, there is a possibility that I wouldn’t have developed the experience and skills that have been so critical to my career as a marketer now,” says Emily.

Nicole’s ally, Rory, similarly gave her a thought-provoking “assignment” to define her five value pillars, which Nicole says “greatly helped me learn a lot about myself” while she was going through a career transition.

4. He trusts his instincts, even if it means taking a chance

Jen knew that Bruce did not have “an easy decision, and certainly it was not one that had been made before,” in hiring her to be the first female to coach in the NFL.

She says, “Bruce is known for his saying, ‘No risk it, no biscuit,’ and that statement definitely applied to his decision to hire me. His courage in hiring me, a woman, has now opened the door for many other coaches to follow. I take great pride in knowing that Bruce was the first.”

Many of our women tell stories of when they first started out in a particular career or job, and that their male ally trusted his instincts as he mentored her. Shelley Smith of ESPN shares, “I was a new, young reporter for SI assigned to the NBA finals in the late 1980s. I was terrified. Jack (McCallum), whom I had never met, took me under his wing, showed me the ropes.”

5. He adapts, pitches in and shifts his own role

Several of our stories show how male allies are willing to make a needed shift without compromising thier own sense of contribution. Megan Anderson, Founder of #GoSponsorHer, says, “Sharing the pie 50/50 is tricky given that the proportions are always shifting and someone always ends up needing to do more of the grunt work at any given time. Mike and I are explicit about those shifts and explicit about who is taking the lead on the homefront at any given time.”

Julie Kratz, author of ONE: How Male Allies Support Women for Gender Equality, says, without her husband, Rustin, “Our coaching business and family life would not be possible. He maintains the home, takes excellent care of our amazing girls, helps with our business, and is always there when I need that nudge or to vent about travel snafus. He’s our family’s rock.”

Megan also says, “If we are going to make real change, we have to allow men to change too — they needn’t carry the traditional pressures being the sole partner with a career.”

6. He builds possibilities

Our great male allies and mentors help us create. This can be an actual, physical co-creation of a product, like Erin Albert’s mentor, Dr. David Borst, who together authored The S(He) Says Guide to Mentoring, a “his and hers perspective on setting up women’s mentoring programs.”

It can also be helping a woman see what possibilities could lie ahead. Sociologist Christin, says her mentor, Dr. M., asked if she would like to go to Cornell University for graduate school, which Christin says, “set in motion a career trajectory beyond my wildest dreams. Had he not suggested Cornell, I wouldn’t have applied and I certainly wouldn’t have been accepted or graduated. I took on an ambitious dissertation project, which helped me land a prestigious postdoc at Stanford… [which led to] my current position which is, in every way, my dream job.”

Know a great male ally? Or a positive behavior of what great male allies do? Share it with me! This list was meant to spark ideas and conversation about helpful behaviors men can practice and emulate. And don’t forget to check out all our women’s stories at The Corner of the Court Project.

View this article on LinkedIn.