Women’s Advancement in the Law: Small Actions by Male Allies Make a Big Difference

Topics: Corporate Legal, Diversity, Law Firms, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts

male allies

Recently, I attended a Male Allies Summit focused on driving greater recruiting and retention of women in the technology industry. The Anita Borg Institute put together the summit to amplify what a male ally for gender diversity looks like and the small actions men can take on a day-to-day basis to drive greater inclusion. The room had an excellent gender mix — 50% of the attendees were men.

What I really enjoyed was hearing about the many daily actions men can take that are relevant across industries, companies and institutions, and that many of the behaviors are universal in terms of helping to advance women, people of color and LGBT individuals.

The first topic examined was what does “male ally-ship” mean. There were panelists representing a diverse group — a white man and woman, a woman of color and an LGBT female. One panelist started off the discussion about the importance of challenging every day interactions, being aware of power dynamics in the room, and proactively asking out loud:

  • Why aren’t there more women here?
  • Why is it that this meeting is all male and all white?

Another panelist indicated that helping women to advocate for themselves was also important, and could be done simply by asking women, “Why are you not speaking up?”

Another interesting perspective offered was the importance of asking women what they need in an advocate and not make assumptions about what the male ally thinks she needs. To illustrate, one of the panelists shared a story about her boss making such assumptions which resulted in his decisions potentially stalling her career trajectory.

The panelist started by describing that she had worked with a man (not her boss) with pretty traditional ideas about what role women play in business and at home. He was known for being tough on women; and, because she was the account manager to a highly-valued company client, she had to work with him every day. Her boss knew that the male colleague had a history of being tough on women, and thinking that he was doing the right thing, told her he was going to take her off of the account.  She said, “No, absolutely not. It would set my career back by a year or more.” Her boss had good intentions, but he assumed, wrongly, that she could not work with her male colleague.

The Importance of Language  

Another important point during the discussion was the use of language. One panelist pointed out that a well-meaning male ally can sometimes reinforce the status quo because of the divisive language he uses. For example, she thought the phrase, “I believe in meritocracy,” is like saying, “I don’t see color” to a person of color. She said the workplace is not a meritocracy because we all start from difference places of privilege. (If you want to see how privilege can work to some people’s advantage, this widely viewed video where a coach clearly demonstrates the point using a foot race is worth seeing.)

The all-too-familiar situation of men of influence being unaware of the power dynamics in team meetings was also examined by the panel. As a leader of a team or organization, it is important for white men — and others will hold such privilege — to be conscious of these factors, such who is sitting at the table, who is talking most of the time, and who is being quiet.

In these situations, the panelists agreed that the best rule is to “do more listening and less talking.” Giving others the space to talk is tremendously important. If you notice a colleague is sharing too much, note their gender identity or culture, because you as the leader have the responsibility of ensuring all voices are heard. For example, if someone else is talking too much, interject and say, “Thank you [insert colleague’s name] for sharing your view. I would like to hear from others now.  [Call on someone who tends to be quiet], we have not heard from [insert name of quiet person]… I would like to hear what she has to say.”

Other points underscored where diverse lawyers could use the support of male allies, proactively and intentionally, included:

  •         Pay attention to who you are mentoring and sponsoring. If it is all men, then you as the leader have some work to do.
  •         Analyze who is getting your time and attention.
  •         In meetings, examine who are you throwing your support behind. If it is all men, again, you have some work to do.

Another point made by a male ally was to take every chance to learn about the perspectives of those different than you and to find common interests and experiences. He went on to suggest that male allies could hang out in spaces where communities of underrepresented groups go, such as an employee resource group events and conferences. If “you, as the male leader or ally, are concerned about not being welcomed, ask the leader or organizer of the gathering,” he said. “Don’t assume you cannot attend.”

Another point made by the LGBT woman panelist was to be courageous by being vulnerable and “share your own ‘diversity’ story proactively at your leadership team meetings and at town halls.” In anticipation of the male allies thinking to themselves, “I don’t have a ‘diversity story,” she illustrated those of male allies she knew, such as one male leader not having a college degree.

One easy way to identify your diversity story is to think about when you have ever felt like a fraud or imposter, which is a very common human experience in the professional context, no matter what your gender identity or ethnicity. Write down the details of the situation and share it at every opportunity. I guarantee you that every female and person of color has felt like an imposter at some point in their career, and you can use yours as a point of connection.