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How Women Can Identify Male Allies in the Workplace

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Tsedale M. Melaku and Christoph Winkler for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Women have faced significant obstacles attempting to climb up the ranks in the workplace. The journey continues to be fraught with many structural barriers that prevent them from gaining access to the same level of opportunities enjoyed by most men — from confidence hurdles, mommy-track narratives, boys’ clubs, and exclusion from professional and social networking to heightened barriers resulting from #MeToo, Covid-19, and racial violence. Women continue to struggle to find the support and advocacy they need and identify the allies who can help them.

Allyship is defined as a strategic mechanism used intentionally by individuals who strive to be collaborators, accomplices, and coconspirators. Allies are deeply invested in challenging and disrupting the status quo, dismantling systemic inequities, and shifting the power structure within an organization. Allyship is a practice that needs to be embedded within an individual’s sense of everyday commitment to equity. Thus, an ally must be invested in the larger goals of fighting for equity and be accountable for his actions.

An ally’s behavior often works to reduce the amount of invisible labor expended by marginalized individuals in white male-dominated organizations. Allies work publicly and privately to change workplace practices, cultures, and policies that negatively impact marginalized groups. By building authentic and trusting relationships, engaging in public advocacy and sponsorship, and fighting injustice, allies help to create equitable professional and social spaces by strategically deploying their privilege in support of those less privileged.

Anyone and everyone can be an ally. But male allies who recognize and understand the importance of fostering an inclusive, welcoming, and equitable workplace culture can help break down the barriers that women face at work.

Since men often sit in powerful positions of organizations (particularly in male-dominated fields), women can work with these allies to help dismantle the systemic power structures that prevent equal opportunity for professional development and advancement — for themselves and the other women around them. Only then will women and other marginalized groups have the ability to fully contribute as equally valued employees toward an ever-evolving organization’s mission and values.

So how can women identify male allies in the workplace? In the following, we provide a guide to spotting a male ally.

[Here are the first two ways.]

Take the temperature.

First, take the temperature of your organization. Scan the environment for clear indicators of growth and opportunity. Ask yourself:

  • Do you see people advancing, or is it a portfolio of diversity with high attrition and no clear path?
  • Are there embedded practices and policies that address issues stemming from gender, racial, and other forms of inequities?

It is easier to chart a pathway toward people who are genuine allies if you have seen patterns of people who have advanced other marginalized group members, particularly women of color. It is typically a red flag if you are not seeing any indications that members of an underrepresented group are presented with opportunities for growth. These observations could potentially be a sign of a weak culture of allyship among other workplace equity concerns within the organization.

Look for patterns.

Pay attention to details. Actively seek out the individuals you recognize as practicing allyship. See how these individuals position marginalized colleagues in public meetings, paying attention to what they are saying, when they are silent, or how they respond in pressured situations that challenge various forms of privilege. Allies step in when they see and recognize something wrong, whether it is an aggression, discrimination, or practice. They do not leave their marginalized colleagues feeling as though they are alone.

Ask yourself these questions when trying to identify an ally:

  • Does this person speak up in pressured moments, exercising their voice, deploying their privilege by stepping in and raising eyebrows to the inequities witnessed?
  • Is there a pattern of performance when it comes to public displays of support that do not add up to concrete results?
  • Are there people who are already in existence that have a genuine interest in advancing marginalized individuals? If so, who are these people?

For example, Black women are often stereotyped as angry, confrontational, or sensitive when they step up to address racial aggressions, making it difficult for them to be heard. Allies can do the heavy lifting in these moments ensuring that their colleagues are not forced to expend emotional, cognitive, and relational labor navigating fraught situations.

Allies actively listen, following the lead of marginalized colleagues they are supporting to avoid eliciting further pain or trauma. This means working toward building equity by educating themselves; directing attention to inequities without silencing those who are marginalized; being kind, thoughtful, and open to disagreements; and learning and admitting their mistakes.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Tsedale M. Melaku ( is a sociologist; assistant professor of management at the Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College (CUNY); and author of You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism. Follow her on Twitter @TsedaleMelaku.

Christoph Winkler is the Endowed Professor and Founding Program Director, Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Iona College. Follow him on Twitter @VEntreship.


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