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Wanted: Male Allies

Updated: Apr 3

Regina Gomez (MBA ’25) shares thoughts on allyship and highlights from the WSA Allyship Committee’s “Men As Allies” Panel.

The term "allyship" has swiftly entered our every day vocabulary, capturing a broad but often misunderstood concept. “What exactly does it mean to be an ally?” is a question I frequently hear from my male friends, family members, and peers. Indeed, the notion of allyship, particularly its recent widespread application across contexts, is not immediately obvious to everyone. The Cambridge Dictionary defines allyship as “the quality or practice of helping or supporting other people who are part of a group that is treated badly or unfairly, even though you are not yourself a member of this group.” While this definition does not single out the dynamics between men and women, the rising tide of conversations around gender inequality has increasingly linked the term to how men can support their female counterparts.

But beyond the definition, why is allyship critical, and more importantly, how can men embody this principle in their day-to-day lives? These questions were thoroughly explored at the Women's Student Association (WSA) Allyship Committee’s “Men as Allies” panel this semester in Klarman Hall. Through this article, I aim to delve into why allyship has surged to the forefront of societal discourse, and share pivotal insights from the event. My goal is not only to engage my readers – particularly men – in this vital conversation, but also to encourage a collective stride towards a more equitable environment. 

Why is allyship critical?

The rise of societal movements, such as the #MeToo Movement in the United States and the #8March campaign against feminicide in Mexico – my home country – has underscored not just the quest for gender equality but also the pressing issue of sexual violence against women. These movements have amplified voices calling for equal rights and protections, spotlighting the critical role that society, especially men as traditional bystanders, can play in addressing these challenges. The concept of allyship has thus gained prominence, with increasing research focused on the active role men can play.

From my perspective, the journey towards gender equality and the prevention of gender violence becomes more achievable when it is a collective endeavor involving all genders. Unified efforts promise a swifter, more effective resolution. Experts like David G. Smith and W. Brad Johnson, who were the keynote speakers at the WSA’s panel, highlighted that engaging men in gender-inclusion initiatives leads to significant perceptions of progress: 96% of women in such organizations see real advancements in gender equality, versus only 30% in environments lacking male involvement. Their work, including insights from their book Good Guys, argues for a paradigm shift. We must transition from viewing gender equality as a “women’s issue” to recognizing it as a universal concern, thus framing it as a leadership and societal issue that requires everyone’s active engagement and participation in the discussion. This approach not only redefines the concept of allyship but also underscores its indispensability in forging a path toward true equality.

How can we embody it?

While the HBS community largely acknowledges the importance of striving for gender equality and recognizes its significance within organizations, there remains a palpable uncertainty among men about how to engage in this dialogue without the risk of being “canceled” or misunderstood. More importantly, there is a pressing question: what tangible actions can men take to support their female colleagues, especially as we prepare to become future leaders?

This question became especially pertinent following a sexual harassment case in the RC Leadership and Corporate Accountability course, sparking a deeply emotional discussion on a distressingly common issue. After class, a fellow student approached me, voicing a concern that I believe many of the men share: “What practical steps can I take? How do I initiate these conversations, and what is the step-by-step guide for responding in such situations?”. This encapsulates a crucial gap between endorsing the concept of gender equality and knowing how to effectuate it in real terms. 

Indeed, while agreeing with the principles of gender equality is foundational, it is the actionable steps that ultimately foster change. So, what can men do specifically to address and mitigate gender inequality and violence? This question not only calls for introspection but also for a shift from theoretical support to concrete, everyday actions that affirm our commitment to creating a safer, more equitable workplace and society. 

At the WSA panel, keynote speakers Smith and Johnson shared invaluable insights into how men can contribute to gender equality in their daily interactions and professional environments. Distilled into the acronym “FAIR,” these four strategies offer a roadmap for men to start making a difference today:

Forget Fear: The journey towards allyship begins by overcoming the fear of engaging in discussions about gender equality. Smith and Johnson emphasize that making mistakes is part of the learning process. It is crucial to ask for forgiveness, forgive yourself, and move forward. The biggest hurdle is often the fear of speaking up. Remember, you are surrounded by female allies who will support you despite your errors. Embrace the allyship journey with an open heart.

Ask Questions: Foster a culture of curiosity and sensitivity by asking your female colleagues about their experiences with gender inequality. It is about showing genuine interest and a willingness to understand perspectives different from your own. A participant noted the value of asking with empathy: “I've been hesitant to ask, but showing sensitivity and genuine curiosity can open doors to meaningful conversations.” Your effort to learn and understand signals respect and a commitment to change.

Intervene: Do not be a passive observer of inequality. If you witness a situation where a female colleague is at a disadvantage or in a potentially harmful scenario, take immediate action. An impactful example shared by Smith and Johnson involved a male colleague who, upon receiving a salary raise, proactively shared this information with a female colleague to ensure she received equitable treatment. This act of solidarity empowered her to negotiate for equal pay. Be proactive in identifying and addressing instances of inequality.

Recognize, Publicly: A powerful act of allyship is publicly acknowledging the contributions and expertise of women. For every male expert recognized, there is also a female expert whose achievements and knowledge should be celebrated. Shift the narrative by highlighting the accomplishments of women in your professional and academic circles. Whether it is leading a panel or contributing significantly to a project, make it a point to publicly praise your female colleagues. Next time you are in class and want to “pass it” to a subject matter expert, mention a woman. Recognition not only elevates the individual but also challenges prevailing biases and promotes a culture of equality.

These “FAIR” actions provide a practical framework for men to actively support gender equality. It is about moving from passive agreement to active participation, championing change in our daily lives and beyond.

For those eager to embark on a journey of self-reflection and growth towards becoming effective allies in the quest for gender equality, I highly recommend exploring the insights of Smith and Johnson in their enlightening book, Good Guys, published by Harvard Business Review. This resource is an excellent starting point for understanding the nuances of male allyship and the practical steps one can take to contribute positively to this vital cause.

Furthermore, I encourage you to actively participate in the initiatives and events organized by the WSA Allyship Committee. Their work is pivotal in fostering a culture of inclusivity and support within our community. By engaging with their activities, you will gain valuable perspectives and tools to aid in your personal and professional development as an ally.

Together, through our concerted efforts and continuous learning, we can advance towards a future where gender equality is not just an ideal, but a reality. Let us commit to this journey with open minds and hearts, recognizing that the path towards change involves each and every one of us.

Regina Gomez (MBA ’25) was born and raised in Mexico City, Mexico. She graduated from Tecnológico de Monterrey with a degree in Economics. Prior to HBS she worked at Mastercard and an early-stage fintech as a Global Strategy and Operations Manager specializing in the payments industry. 

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