First, the good news: More men want to be allies to women in the workplace than ever before — with 76% of men expressing an interest in allyship. The bad news? Men think their allyship is better than what their women counterparts would rate it as.

In one recent survey of 100+ women in male-dominated fields, researcher Meg A. Warren found that men would classify certain actions as allyship when they were not. As an example, one man saw another male colleague speaking over a woman colleague in a meeting, and while he didn’t speak up during the meeting, he recognized the unfairness, and checked in with the woman after to express his support, rating his actions as showing allyship. While she saw him as a good colleague, she didn’t view him as an ally.

Allyship is about being visible by using one’s position of power and privilege.
Nick Henderson-Mayo, Head of D&I at VinciWorks

In fact, men consistently overestimate their abilities across gender research. “Men give inflated self-ratings in a lot of different areas — humorously, including their own attractiveness to women,” says Dr. Brad Johnson, Professor of Psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law at the United States Naval Academy and author of Good Guys: How Men Can Become Better Allies for Women in the Workplace.

“If 80% of the people making decisions are men, we need to engage them in the dialogue,” says Salima Lin, IBM Consulting’s Vice President and Senior Partner of Strategy, Transformation, and Thought Leadership. “We know that they want to be a part of the solution, so engage men in the answers. Don't just make this a problem for women to solve.”

Let’s start by defining the first step of allyship. “Allyship is about being visible, building relationships, and standing in solidarity by using one’s position of power and privilege,” says Nick Henderson-Mayo, Head of D&I at VinciWorks.

When it comes to men knowing if they’re actually being good allies (as opposed to their self-perception), men can also rely on close relationships to check in, though they should be sure they’ve done a lot of self-education first. That means reading books and articles on the subject, listening to podcasts, and encouraging other men to do the same. This takes the education burden off women when asking for their feedback. After that you can “ask to ask,” which leaves it up to her if she wants to share her experience.

If the feedback isn’t all positive from a colleague, it’s important to not get defensive, take some time to process, and come back to the colleague to thank her and solicit more feedback if appropriate. “Allies will make mistakes, but they will also be open to hearing how they didn’t quite match up, and what they can do better next time,” says Henderson-Mayo.

“When a woman trusts you enough to share ‘Hey, when you said that today, a lot of women cringed. Here's why.' You are lucky to get feedback like that, so thank her and think about how you're going to get better,” says Dr. Johnson. He also suggests following up after with appreciation and an invitation to continue pointing out any similar missteps. “When you show up that way, you're likely to be getting feedback about how you're doing.”

Some examples of what allyship can look like:

  • “After overhearing a conversation of people disparaging the idea of sharing pronouns in email signatures, you start sharing your own pronouns,” suggests Henderson-Mayo. This act of allyship creates more space to normalize the concept of pronoun-sharing.
  • Advocate for women leaders especially when they’re not in the room. Men in the C-Suite in particular have a higher responsibility to advocate for their women peers since women are the minority in the C-Suite. This means disrupting bias and sexism in real-time, but more importantly, bringing up a C-Suite colleague’s name when it comes to opportunities and key assignments. “You have an opportunity to keep that woman’s name front and center,” says Dr. Johnson. “Be her loyal, raving fan.”

Examples of what allyship does not look like:

  • Don’t fall into the “women are wonderful” problem, where when asked, men will say that women have lots of positive traits, like being kind, gentle, and caring. “If I’ve got that frame for women, then what I’m not saying about them is they’re great leadership material, they’re competent, they’re people who should be in leadership roles,” says Dr. Johnson. “If that's going on implicitly, then maybe I'm not offering mentoring because I don't see her as a future leader.”
  • Don’t let your anxiety get in the way. “In their honest moments, men will share, ‘I don’t know what to do, I don’t want to get it wrong, I don’t want to step in it,’” says Dr. Johnson. “They’re just afraid on some level, and it’s easier to avoid.” But in all his years in psychology treating anxiety disorder, he’s noticed that exposure therapy is the only thing that works. “That means more conversations, more mentoring, more lunch, more coffee,” he explains. “That’s the only way you get comfortable.”

It’s important to remember that allyship isn’t just to benefit women. Data consistently shows how men benefit from close relationships with women: “Their EQ gets better, their communication skills get better, they’re seen as more inclusive leaders which leads to more promotions in most modern workplaces,” says Dr. Johnson. And those skills aren’t checked at the door; those relationships can make them better parents and partners at home. “There’s a lot in this for a man who gets this right,” he says.