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The COVID 19 pandemic has exacerbated long-standing challenges faced by women faculty, particularly in male-dominated disciplines, bringing to the forefront conversations about how men can be better allies to women in academe. Beyond higher education, popular press and practice-based articles have offered a variety of suggestions to be an ally, such as “shutting up and listening!” and learning from one’s mistakes.

Yet such strategies elicit a question: How does allyship differ from being a decent and reasonable colleague? And other approaches, such setting aside self-interest and focusing on shifting systems, can feel all-consuming and overwhelming.

In our recent research, we set out to ask what simple yet valuable allyship strategies can a man engage in if he is just starting out in his journey as an ally? In contrast, what strategies do exceptional male allies—as identified by women—use? Most important, what do women think about these strategies, and which do they find to be valuable?

Using qualitative narratives from 101 women in male-dominated departments such as STEM, business, law, philosophy and religion from 64 research-intensive universities, we explored women’s experiences as recipients of allyship. Further, we compared narratives about men considered to be “good colleagues” with those viewed as “exceptional allies.” We then analyzed such stories to identify key themes in allyship strategies.

We identified two primary modes of allyship in which men engaged on behalf of their women colleagues: interpersonal support and visible advocacy. The insights can serve as practical guidance for men who want to be allies to women colleagues.

Interpersonal Support

In our research, we found that men faculty can personally support their women faculty colleagues in the following ways.

Actively listening. The women faculty we studied found it useful when their men colleagues were fully present for them and actively listened to their concerns—paying attention to the content, intent and feeling of the speaker and offering encouragement. For women, active listening can feel affirming and is a simple but crucial first step toward greater inclusion.

It can be particularly impactful during the first few years on the tenure track when women faculty can feel overwhelmed with the gendered expectations around scholarship, teaching and service.

As one female faculty member shared, “He listened to me for countless hours as I related all the problems I was having teaching and supported me the entire time—reminding me constantly I could do it and that this experience was something most first-time teachers also encounter.” Male allies were able to recognize the distinct challenges women faculty face while, at the same time, expressing solidarity around the commonality of certain experiences.

Cheerleading. ​​​​Past leadership research suggests that while men are typically viewed as and expected to be provocative and agentic leaders, women are viewed as and expected to be “cheerleaders” who stay on the sidelines and play enthusiastic and supportive roles to men. The women in our study articulated how men, in a role reversal, can serve as cheerleaders to women and make a significant difference in women’s careers—such as their deciding to pursue leadership positions. For instance, one respondent shared that, in a fraught context, “J. was extremely supportive of my applying for and ultimately taking on the role of chair of my department. In the end I decided to accept the offered position, because I knew that he and several others would support me and help me grow into the position.”

Helping navigate double binds and impossible choices. Women typically face double binds relating to perceptions of their workplace behaviors. For example, women are often viewed as overly aggressive when they are assertive yet unsuitable for leadership when they are not. Women can also be placed in positions wherein they need to make impossible choices such as choosing between career progression and motherhood.

Men can support women through such situations by first offering reassurance. Women faculty frequently deal with the impostor phenomenon, wherein they (wrongly) question their abilities because of the high scrutiny and lack of affirmation experienced in male-dominated arenas. As one respondent noted, “I am working on a promotion. Dr. B has been very supportive of this move and has made me feel like I have earned it. His continued support has spurred me to seek promotion.” Reassurances can be effective, particularly from senior faculty or administrators who have the power and institutional knowledge to provide meaningful votes of confidence in women’s abilities and professional choices.

Men can also serve as reflection partners. The women we researched shared stories about how men colleagues joined them in thinking through complex problems and brainstorming solutions. For example, given the adverse impact of motherhood on academic advancement, women faculty noted that it was helpful to discuss the options available to them with mentors or senior colleagues when making choices that support work-life balance. They also found such reflective partnerships helped them navigate departmental cultures that don’t recognize women’s achievements and cast women as uncollegial or punish them when they confront biased systems.

For instance, one respondent shared how her department committee voted against her tenure case but supported a less qualified male colleague (who was also a drinking buddy of the committee members). Another male colleague strategized with her on how to advance her case through the system: “M. coached me through this very difficult period, giving me advice on how to navigate the tenure system, how to properly refute the misleading report the committee wrote to support their decision, and how to keep my head down and continue being productive despite being furious, panicked, and disenchanted by what had happened. By following his suggestions, I was able to compose some strong, objective documents and ultimately received full support in every step of the review process above my department committee.”

Visible Advocacy

Perhaps the defining finding of our research is that the intervention most valued by women, one that is practiced by exceptional allies but not by good colleagues, is visible advocacy. This sort of visible advocacy is vastly different from optical allyship or inauthentic behaviors engaged in for performative reasons. We define visible advocacy in contrast as any consequential action undertaken by a male colleague in which they advocate for a woman’s career and well-being in ways that are visible to others and, therefore, have the potential for systemwide discussion and change. Such visible advocacy manifests in four forms.

  • Voicing support. This typically occurs when men react to a concrete issue or systematic problem that women in the institution face. One respondent, for instance, recalled how a male colleague “supported me in front of my dean, who was questioning my research area,” despite all the Ph.D. students she’d successfully guided to success. By such actions, men erase organizational silencing, serve as role models for solidarity with women and help reduce women’s sense of isolation.
  • Promoting impressions. By promoting impressions, we mean that men can actively go out of their way to boost the image or reputation of women, such as by nominating them for professional recognition and awards. One respondent noted how her colleague ensured visibility of her teaching efforts by shining the spotlight on her: “He spoke to the dean about my new approaches, and I was invited to present my plans to the entire college directors to share best practices.”
  • Investing time and effort. For our women respondents, it was memorable when men invested time and effort to support them or engage with issues impacting them. Those actions could be as simple as affirming a woman’s work at her conference presentation—where women tend to face disproportionate questioning of their scholarship—or as complex as lobbying to hire a woman for a tenure-track position. One respondent highlighted the depth of her male ally’s efforts in helping her secure her current position as “he had to fight for it at the college level.”
  • Giving credit or deference. Women are less likely to get credit for their expertise and contributions, especially in male-dominated environments, where men are viewed as having higher status and are stereotyped as the experts. Male allies acknowledged women’s competence in their professional domain and showed deference to their expertise. A respondent acknowledged the significant boost to her professional reputation from one such action: “He publicly deferred to me … He was clear that he was trusting me to steer a particular project.” In addition, redirecting misplaced credit to women and sharing deserved credit with women is important—not only in doing justice to women, but also in shifting gendered, institutionalized norms and perceptions.

Using Modes of Allyship

Interpersonal support as an allyship strategy is more individually oriented and enables understanding of the experiences of specific women as they navigate a male-dominated space. Men who are relatively new to allyship and are uncomfortable in engaging in visible advocacy can still make a significant difference by providing such instrumental and emotional support to women.

We must note, however, that while women identified and acknowledged the value of interpersonal support in their own careers as useful, it usually didn’t have the same impact in changing institutional norms. Our research demonstrates that women value strategies associated with visible advocacy because they bring to the forefront the structural inequities women face and encourage concrete actions that can broadly impact women’s career trajectory and institutional standing. Academic culture is masculine, and the existing structures privilege men’s experiences. The purposeful actions of male allies can challenge those cultures and structures. In androcentric systems, men’s voices are more likely to be taken seriously at all levels, and this privilege can be leveraged to support women.

Further, women faculty can feel isolated in their battle against prejudice, which is an important predictor of women’s turnover in academe. By visibly voicing support for women and promoting women’s accomplishments, men can make a positive contribution toward their careers. And by highlighting the value of women as assets to the institution, men can take a step toward disrupting the gendered organizational logic—the unwritten as well as written rules—and make tangible progress toward greater gender equity throughout higher education.

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