I have been fortunate to work with several men who are open-minded, supportive, and committed to equality. The working relationships I’ve built with these men have helped me learn things about myself and my various work environments that I would not have learned without them. I have a hypothesis that there are a lot of men seeking to champion women but aren’t being recognized for it or don’t know how to act on their instincts. This article is my letter to men (and women) who are probable allies to women at work — my version of the “Jerry Maguire” memo.
Men helping women and women helping men? Cats and dogs getting along? Has the world gone mad? The fact is women cannot move up in the world without men. This is because men are in the positions that women want to be in and should be in. They are in the board seats, in the decision-making chairs, and standing behind the influential podiums. Women need men to show the way, pave the way, or move out of the way. This is where being an ally comes in.
What do I mean by an ally? An ally has two characteristics:
1. Someone who understands and respects you and your work.
2. Someone who cooperates, assists, and advocates for you, even in your absence.
What does it feel like to have an ally? It feels like support. You know the feeling you get when someone really has your back, and you know it? You know when you are not around, they are speaking positively about you and looking for opportunities for you to step in and use your skills and experiences. I have worked for a man that I consider to be an ally who looked for opportunities to interject me into decision making positions. I heard it from others who were in meetings with him and I noticed people starting to take me more seriously because of it.
What does it look like to have an ally? A co-worker, or someone in a different department, who knows you well, shares insights with you, and encourages you. This could be someone on any rung of the corporate ladder. A strong ally will do the above even when it might cause pressure for them, not just when they have nothing to lose. When an ally takes the time to get to know you as a person and the depth of your professional skills, they are in a unique position to bolster you into roles where you are most likely to be successful. An example of this from my life goes back to my late 20s. Back then I was crazy enough to think that I could get a Master’s degree without getting a bachelor’s degree first. I already had 3 bachelor’s degrees in an unrelated field and didn’t want another, but I wanted to make a drastic change in my career path. The Dean of the program I was targeting became my ally through the process. He got to know me and was able to connect the dots for me on how my unrelated degrees really did relate to the new path I wanted to go down. He walked me through all the prerequisites I would need and, once accepted into the graduate program, he walked me through taking higher-level classes, the job interview process, and all the way through getting my first job out of graduate school. I know you are saying to yourself, “but he was the Dean, this was his job.” You are right, but he didn’t have to take the time to use his position to help me, a woman, go from ambition to action, all his job requires him to do is support me through the program, not get into it and then get a job. Without his support, I would be in a very different place today.
What are the benefits of having an ally? When you feel supported at work, you are more apt to being yourself. When you are being yourself, you are more likely to share your ideas, speak up, and show your value. You are more likely to find yourself in roles that are appropriately suited to your skills and knowledge. You will struggle less in the day-to-day, and you’ll find more happiness and satisfaction in your work.
How do I recognize or find an ally? It’s not really an intentional thing. You never really know when you are going to hit it off with someone who can potentially be your ally. You may have to look around for it. Foster relationships with men, maybe men that are senior within the organization and network. I became very aware that I had an ally when I was pregnant with my second child and a man that I was working with offered me a job in his department that I would start when I was 8 ½ months pregnant. He had to advocate for me and the role that he was creating and he had to trust that I would actually return to work after maternity leave. That is a clear ally in my book.
I have plenty of female allies, why should I seek a male ally? Law of numbers. More men are in positions to speak up and advocate. I look forward to the day when more women are in the roles to be allies, and I hope to have one, and more importantly, be one someday.
Women, take a look around at the men you encounter day-to-day. They are not going to tell you directly that they are your ally, so look for the signs. If you identify an ally, let them know that you are appreciative and tell them how they have helped you. The relationship should be a two-way street.
Men, speak up, stand up, and become an ally if you want to be one. If you are concerned about some kind of backlash, think of it as anything else new that you want to try… give it a go and see how it comes out. If it doesn’t go well or it doesn’t make you feel good, then do it differently next time. I have a hard time envisioning it going awry if you are using your privileged position to support the efforts of a goal-oriented woman.
Together, we can make the change we want to see.