The Expert Q&A on Engaging Male Allies

Tom SalgeWith Varian’s Tom Salge, Senior Director, Oncology Software Business Operations and Innovations

Q: Many men say they support equality for women in the workplace. But being an “ally” involves taking action. What are some examples of the most important kinds of actions male allies can take to advance gender equality in the workplace?

Just saying “I support women” is not enough. And, assuming you are not part of the problem is a cop-out and makes you part of the problem whether you know it or not. This is the nature of being born into male privilege: We don’t experience what women experience so we have to bend our minds to see it.

Here are a few tangible actions we can take as men to promote gender equality.

  1. Amplify women’s voices.
    • Agree with women vocally, publicly, and by name – even though it may come at a small cost. Our cost is a tiny fraction of what women pay every day. If you care, then dare.
    • Listen more, talk less. Then listen some more. Then keep listening. No, seriously, stop talking. This is one lesson I (sort of) learned early and the one I need to discipline myself to make into a habit. It takes some practice. When it comes to male allyship, a big ear is worth so much more than a big mouth.
    • Actively pay attention to how much you interrupt women. Notice if you interrupt women more than men. Then apologize sincerely and stop doing it.
    • If you notice another man interrupting a woman in a meeting, it’s the right thing to say, “Sorry but [name] was speaking.” It’s all about respect.
    • Don’t reframe women’s ideas as your own or let other men get away with it. Validate her ideas and use her name. If you notice a man in a meeting saying almost exactly what a woman just said, vocalize that she had the idea in the first place and pass the mike back to her. As a man, it is very likely you never noticed this phenomenon happening. But it really does happen. Pay attention and call it out when you see it.
  2. Call out microaggressions
    • Women are not bossy, shrill, annoying, nagging, etc. When you hear men referring to a woman in those terms, correct them.
    • When a man asks a woman to get coffee, take notes, or order lunch, suggest that maybe he should do it himself.
    • It’s never appropriate to comment on a woman’s appearance, even if you think it’s a compliment and have good intentions.
    • Know that “locker room talk” between male coworkers is never harmless, even if it occurs outside of the workplace. Shut it down every single time.
  3. Fight and stand beside women for fair workplace policies
    • Does your company have a wage gap problem? Fair parental leave? Lactation rooms? Gender neutral bathrooms? Are talented women being overlooked for promotions? Speak up!

Q: What are some of the most effective ways to engage male allies?

  • Men, over centuries, have created this problem. Now, we have to raise our awareness and be part of the solution. Put yourself out there, talk to other men openly about this, and role model the desired behavior.
  • Teach empathy. Stand up with women and give them highly visible opportunities to speak about this topic at work and encourage other men to listen. When men hear directly from women about their experiences, it has an impact on changing minds. There are some future male allies out there that just need to hear that they are not alone and can make a difference.
  • Share data and bust myths. For example, “women not applying for jobs” is not why more women are not getting hired. Actively seek to hire and promote more women if you are in the position to do so.
  • Send more men to conferences and events that are geared toward women so they can witness, firsthand, the many issues women face in our society. When we men suddenly find ourselves in the minority at a women’s conference, the roar of solidarity turns up the volume and we listen more, learn more, and walk away with a charge to become part of the solution.

Q: What are some ineffective ways that you’ve seen backfire?

  • It’s important to for men to know that being a male ally is not an opportunity to be a hero. Making sure women are heard just means men have to listen more.
  • Jumping in and saving the day in grand gestures just exacerbates the problem. You can amplify their voices quickly and effectively when needed, but then pass the mike back to her and be quiet.

Q: A 2019 study revealed that 60 percent of male managers say they are scared of being alone with women at work – which can have a dampening effect on mentoring and other career opportunities for women. How do we overcome that?  

  • Fears like these are usually grounded in ignorance. Men need to understand that avoiding women in the workplace just makes them a bigger part of the problem.
  • Most men know what behavior constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace, so not doing that shouldn’t be hard. Men need to be responsible for their own behavior.
  • By avoiding women, or not hiring or promoting women to roles that would require close interaction, you put your own fears before business success and women’s success, and you risk losing amazing talent. The success of the women we work with must not be limited by our own inadequacies or fears. That’s not right, period.
  • This is another opportunity for male allies to hold other men accountable to do what is right for the women they work with.

Q: Who is a male ally who inspires you? 

President Obama inspires me in part because he became the first sitting president to identify as a feminist in a 2016 speech at the White House United State of Women Summit. He was loud and proud of it. He famously said we need to keep changing the attitude that “criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear … that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs … that congratulates men for changing a diaper, stigmatizes full-time dads, and penalizes working mothers.” … Here, here!

Tom Salge is the Senior Director of Oncology Software Business Operations and Innovations for Varian Medical Systems. He fights side-by-side with amazingly talented and inspired people so someday we will live in a world without fear of cancer. In his professional life, Tom has applied himself to become educated on and sensitized to the issues that women face, making a conscious effort to stop talking and listen more, and to find ways of amplifying the voices of women. He wants to help, doesn’t always know how to, but is willing. And, in full disclosure, a strong woman helped him write this article. 


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