Enlisting Men as Allies

Enlisting Men as Allies

By Karetta Hubbard, Lynne Revo-Cohen, Gwen Crider, and Dr. Chris Martin

“Most men are fair-minded; they like women, are friends with women, and are offended by sexism (Kilmartin & Berkowitz, 2005). However, they overestimate other men’s sexism (Kilmartin et al., 2008). When progressive men and women let them know that they are not alone in their egalitarian desires and invite them to join in antisexism efforts, many men respond in a positive way.”

How Men are Socialized Determines Their Behavior 

Imagine you are Dave….Stepping off the elevator, briefcase in one hand and coffee in the other, I walk past Carmen and instead of the usual, “Lookin’ sharp today Dave,” I get, “The meeting has started, you better get yourself in the conference room.” “Ummm” I wonder, what’s bugging her; hope it’s not me.

Slowly entering the rear door, moving against the wall I inch my way to the back of the room.  Folks are four-deep between me, the conference table and the boss standing in front, facing us.

“As most of you know by now, we have had three Sexual Harassment reports filed here in the last month. This is not acceptable. The reports do seem to be credible; however, they are still being investigated. Please know there is no rush to judgement. But, this is the last thing our company needs. I am putting all employees on notice that this behavior will not be tolerated.”

Continuing, he says, “look, these incidents took place in front of other people, but no one came forward except the harassed to let Human Resources know the incidents occurred. Can any of you tell me why no one defended or spoke up while these insults were going on”? There is silence.

I raise my hand. “Boss, I was there. I didn’t know what to say. The guys are my friends, and well, some of what they said was just joking around and really, everybody seemed to think it was funny.” Nervous laughter ripples across the room. Steely stare penetrates from him to me. Uh oh, I am so toast. How can I take my foot out of my mouth, I wonder?

“Are the women your friends?” a new voice asks. My head whips around and my eyes meet a woman, and my head flops to one side, eyes down; I am wishing I were anywhere but here.

“Folks, meet Inez, our new Director of Human Resources, here to teach us facts about gender disparities and how to engage in Bystander Intervention. Most importantly, though, to teach us all how to be Allies.”

Inez asks no one in particular, “So, why did Dave not speak up? Research tells us that men’s fears of other men’s disapproval are based in distorted social norm beliefs. Men who tell sexist jokes or refer to women by animal names or the names of their genitals, also offend most men and tend to overestimate other men’s acceptance of these attitudes. Men routinely are bothered by other men’s sexism, but believe that they are unusual in this reaction because they are comparing their inner experience with other men’s verbal replies.”Enlisting Men as Allies

Dave chimes in, “So if I had said something to the men who were saying sexist comments, the other men in the group would have appreciated my thoughts?”

“Exactly,” she says. “In fact, they probably would have supported and agreed with you.”

“Really?” asks Dave. “Really,” she retorts.

Inez proceeds, “We are discussing how most men who behave in sexist ways do so to win the approval of other men.  Interestingly, many men who hold more favorable views of women do not challenge other men’s sexism because they fear their disapproval.  At the interpersonal level, sexism will not stop until men lose social status with their male peers for engaging in it.”

“I, for one,” says a woman in the front row, “am tired of the lewd comments and innuendo, and the thought that I am ‘less than’ in men’s eyes.  There may be more going on here psychologically and socially than I know, but if this is a societal issue that stems from taught sexism, it is time to eradicate it.” Applause erupts among the women, and then Dave, says, “here, here!” Supportive laughs and snorts from the group.

Inez follows with, “There is a lot to unlearn of the socialized differences between us. One way is to identify Everyday Allies. As a company, we can begin a series of discussions, called Crucial Conversations to identify negative and positive behaviors, how to address them, and what to say to one another when witnessing inappropriate behavior. Dave, you would have a language to speak to your male colleagues.”

Dave nods approvingly. “Yea, maybe ‘knock it off, not funny’ for starters.”

Question:  have some of you men been in a situation you wish you could confront and change the direction of the message?  If so, please send your comments in and we will publish them.



The preceding is based on Kilmartin, C. T. (2017).  Male allies to women. In J. Schwarz (Ed.), Counseling women across the lifespan: Empowerment, advocacy, and intervention. New York: Springer.


Next Week: How to be an Ally