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Engage men as allies to create gender equity in health care

Written by: David G. Smith and W. Brad Johnson
Published on: Aug 17, 2020

Women are at a disadvantage in the workplace. They deal with unequal pay, sexual harassment, lack of credit for their contributions, and more. And while organizations are looking to address these issues, too many gender-inclusion initiatives focus exclusively on how women should respond, leaving men out of the equation. Such efforts reinforce the perception that these are women's issues and that men — often occupying crucial leadership roles in most organizations — don’t need to be involved.

The mentoring landscape is also unequal. Although strong mentoring relationships have the capacity to transform individuals and entire organizations, evidence consistently shows that women face more barriers in securing mentorships than men (Kalbfleisch & Keyton, 1995). And when they do find a mentor, they may reap a narrower range of both career and psychological benefits.

When men lean into the roles of ally and mentor for women, demonstrating awareness, commitment, and gender humility (for example, being willing to admit mistakes and ask for feedback), they stand to help level the playing field for women at work, encouraging female colleagues to achieve their highest potential.

Men have a crucial opportunity to promote gender equality at work. Research shows that when men are deliberately engaged in gender-inclusion programs, 96% of women in those organizations perceive real progress in gender equality, compared with only 30% percent of women in organizations without strong male engagement (Krentz, et al, 2017).

We find several common themes when working with senior male leaders. These themes relate to men with various motivations and understanding of gender inequities. A few men are threatened by gender diversity and see the workplace as a zero-sum game. Some men are just not aware, or perhaps don’t believe or take seriously the challenges women face in the workplace. Others believe that gender equality has been achieved and don’t understand why this conversation is important. And still others are aware of the challenges and understand the importance. But, they think they are already doing enough or don’t see that it is their place to take action or speak up.

Linking gender equity to leadership is vital. To create a culture in which men can be allies, we find it’s essential to reframe gender equality as a leadership issue instead of a women’s issue.”

Forward-leaning and successful organizations cultivate a culture of allyship and equip men to succeed in mentoring women and thrive as public allies for gender equity. Male allies advocate for policies and practices that improve the workplace for everyone — especially those who don’t look like them. Allies also step up when it comes to recruiting, hiring, and promotion practices.

Finally, it is imperative that leaders create a work environment that supports allyship itself, a workplace where curiosity, courage, confidence, caring, and commitment are valued traits. In this environment, men can support each other on the path to becoming an ally — acknowledging mistakes, holding each other accountable, and maintaining a learning orientation along the way.





Dr. Smith is a professor of sociology in the College of Leadership and Ethics at the United States Naval War College. He is the coauthor of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women. His next book, coauthored with W. Brad Johnson, is Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace, forthcoming in 2020.

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Dr. Johnson is a professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy and a faculty associate in the Graduate School at Johns Hopkins University. He is the coauthor of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women, The Elements of Mentoring, and other books on mentorship. His next book, coauthored with David G. Smith, is Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace, forthcoming in 2020.

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Kalbfleisch, P.J., & Keyton, J. (Eds.). (1995). Power and equality in mentoring relationships. Gender, power, and communication in human relationships. Routledge.

Krentz, M., Wierzba, O., Abouzahr, K., Garcia-Alonso, J. & Taplett, F. (2017 October 10). Five ways men can improve gender diversity at work. Boston Consulting Group. Retrieved from


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