Stronger together – Engaging male allies in pursuit of gender equality

Arpad Szakal by Arpad Szakal | May 28, 2020

Contributing author: Kim-Chua, Assistant Professor, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University – Asia Campus

Diversity and inclusion strategies of aviation and aerospace organizations have a tendency to centre solely on women and other underrepresented groups.

When it comes to change initiatives aimed at increasing gender parity, diversity professionals often struggle to engage men, whom, especially within the aviation and aerospace sectors, hold positions of power and influence.

Consequently, change initiatives sometimes become labelled as “women’s issues” within businesses and fail to resonate with internal stakeholders effectively.

To address this issue, we first need to understand the concept of a “male ally” and break down some of the barriers that prevent men from getting involved with gender, diversity, and inclusion efforts.

Encouraging male allies to be new agents of change

Many women’s networks and conferences in the industry often attempt to bring men into the conversation by awarding them titles such as “allies” and “champions”. David G. Smith, a professor of sociology at the United States Naval Academy describes male allies as “members of an advantaged group committed to building relationships with women, expressing as little sexism in their own behaviour as possible, and demonstrating active efforts to address gender inequities at work and in society”.

Male allies come in many forms and it is perhaps best not to focus on what they are but instead on what they can do.

According to Fairygodboss & Artemis’ “Men in the Workplace” survey, men who have been allies in advancing women’s inclusion at work have done so by privately and publicly advocating for equality, inclusion, and diversity.

These efforts include meeting women in their workplace to discuss equality, inclusion, identifying cases of inequality or lack of diversity and actively working to fix them.

Diversity expert and CEO of 20-first, a leading diversity and inclusion advisory firm, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox suggests that rather than making male support for gender balance the exception – by using congratulatory titles such as “champions” and “allies” – the goal is to make it the norm.

The business case for gender balance

According to Wittenberg-Cox, the best way to mainstream the concept of gender balance is to use and leverage existing male dominated hierarchies that are pegged against key performance indicators such as sales volume, market share, profitability, quality, and performance.

As such, the business case for gender balance should be articulated more urgently since it is clear that diverse teams deliver better performance and higher returns.

If leaders are accountable for shareholders and stakeholders, then gender balance should form part of their mandate. Hence, it is probably best to call them, leaders.

Breaking down the gender silos

To meaningfully engage males in the gender, diversity, and inclusion effort, aviation organizations must identify and understand the segments that constitute the male demographics before they mitigate the barriers that distance men from those initiatives.

Broadly speaking, there are three main groups within the male demographics including the Resisters, Neutrals, and Advocates.

From personal experience, it could be observed that most males tend to fall into the ‘Neutral/Indifferent’ category while a small minority tends to congregate at both ends of each spectrum. As the terms suggest, this is a fairly accurate indication of their levels of interest and awareness of the prevailing gender issues at hand.

To make matters more complex, there are also misconceptions that potential male allies often grapple with:

  1. Not knowing how to engage: according to David G. Smith at the US Naval Academy, aside from the distractions of career and life, the main factors limiting male support and engagement in diversity efforts include the lack of knowledge on  how to engage with the issue, followed by lack of access to the right forums, and inability or unwillingness to realize the benefits of engaging. Some men are simply not aware of gender inequality problems and initiatives at their workplace and others struggle to see how gender equality would affect their personal and professional lives.
  2. Lack of humility and willingness to work in partnership: additionally, there is the risk of over-focusing on men at women’s events which may ironically reinforce the gender hierarchy status quo. Men’s lack of understanding of where they fit in the diversity equation, may result in them perceiving gender and diversity and inclusion efforts as a ‘zero sum game’ in which they stand to lose opportunities for progression to other members of the workforce. Set against the wider context of societal and social progress, a failure to understand the importance and significance of partnership and collaboration with humility, may lead to the risk of male allies undermining women’s initiatives by attempting to dominate them.
  3. Lack of acceptance of male involvement: male allies can also face scepticism from the women they try to ally with. As someone who writes and speaks about diversity and cross-gender mentorship, it could be observed that there was occasional backlash from women when men turned up at women’s events. Many women are initially sceptical about efforts to include men in women’s events and conferences. This is understandable as such gatherings have traditionally offered women a sense of community and safe space for sharing experiences and exchange ideas to achieve equality in the workplace. As such, it is timely to discuss some effective ways that men can support women in their day to day professional lives at the workplace.

Advancing together

There are many actions men can adopt to advocate gender equality in the workplace.

After speaking with both male and female leaders to gauge what delivered positive change within their organizations, we narrowed them down to the following recommendations:

  1. Model the right behaviours: men should be mindful of the work environment they create and the message they send in modelling the right behaviours. Male employees should avoid making assumptions about female employees, including their needs, goals, and ambition levels. For example, a male manager’s well-intentioned move to “help” a new mother by taking her out of an international job assignment may instead end up negatively affecting her career progression. Instead, the manager should check with the employee directly whether she wants to be considered for such a position – if the answer is positive, he should actively support her to make it work.
  2. Listen more and talk less: talking to female colleagues with the intention to listen and understand the challenges they face and the support they need will inspire trust and respect. Creating awareness through sincere dialogue enables male allies to provide actionable support in the workplace.
  3. Mentor and coach: men in senior positions can offer to mentor and/or coach a high potential female employee by recognizing their strengths and identifying strategies to accelerate professional growth. Conversely, they can also offer to coach women perceived to be underperforming and identify strategies to address their gap areas and keep them focused.
  4. Support inclusive recruitment: men should insist that hiring teams in the organization consider a high percentage of resumes representing top female talent. Men should also practice empathy when hiring by putting themselves in the shoes of female candidates by understanding their experience and acknowledging their need to feel valued and respected.
  5. Sponsor a high potential woman: men in senior positions can advocate for female employees by supporting their application for promotions and ensuring that they get the training and development support they need to move up the career ladder.
  6. Call out inequality: men can support women who are being treated poorly or harassed in any way by speaking up and reporting negative events to Human Resources. Men can also show support by sharing articles and videos that supports the gender equality theme on social media. Even small acts like these can make a difference.

Enabling male engagement

How can organizations drive active male advocacy in the advancement of women?

  1. Have the will to drive change: according to Jeffery Tobias Halter, President of YWomen, a consultancy focused on engaging men in women’s leadership advancement, organizations must openly and publicly commit to change. Businesses and their leaders should never be satisfied with the status quo but look at their numbers and act. It could then be argued that changing the numbers often precedes any real change in behaviours, beliefs, and cultures since there is strength in the collective voices of a critical mass.
  2. Make gender balance a business issue rather than a diversity or HR one: organizations who frame gender balance as a diversity or a women’s issue might be less successful in engaging men than those who frame it as a business challenge. According to Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, if organizations want to get a broad base of support for balance from men, the ‘business imperative’ is a more effective frame. Avivah adds, “until leaders are convinced that gender balance is a strategic level for the business and become convincing to their teams why that is, balance remains a politically correct side-line”.
  3. Make balance a measurable management skill: businesses should recognize and reward their managers according to their ability to build gender balanced teams. Wittenberg-Cox believes the best way to bring about this change in culture is to normalize gender balance as a management skill that needs building. Organizations should educate managers to become more gender aware and have them learn about gender difference so that they become adept at flexing their management styles to suit their target audience.

Supporting male allies

Interviews with female leaders revealed that women can play a significant role in bringing men into the conversation and support their efforts as male allies. This is how:

  1. Initiate male engagement: sharing data and research that demonstrates how diversity improves productivity and financial return will help men get interested in actively getting involved with diversity efforts. Consequently, talking about the relevance of gender diversity as it applies to their own roles within the organization might appeal to one’s sense of fairness and social responsibility.
  2. Be a mentor to men: affirming the impact and work of your allies and sharing success stories related to collaborative efforts will help engage more men within the business and drive lasting change. As a mentor to men, women can play an important role in helping men address their own biases and fears. Additionally, as mentor to younger men, women can help prepare the pipeline of the next generation of male allies.
  3. Create alliances: inviting men to be part of the conversation about gender equality builds awareness, creates alliances and fosters a diverse perspective within the group. If men are free to attend events and have an active role in defining and rolling out inclusive programmes, they are more likely to engage in gender equality activities. Additionally, men are more likely to respond to personal appeals from colleagues, friends, and family members as opposed to formal directives and/or mandated programmes.

Sustainable model for social change

Gender balance and diversity are important and relevant issues in aviation. This is not only because of the industry’s struggle to find and engage the number of qualified personnel but also due to the importance of creativity in our industry’s overwhelming need and drive for innovation and problem-solving.

This is even more pertinent in today’s COVID-19 pandemic context. Agile and innovative thinking comes from having a variety of perspectives in the conversation.

Hence, in order to achieve lasting and sustainable change, it is critical for aviation and aerospace companies to engage and enlist male allies as a sustainable model of creating social change in order to reap the rewards that come from open and authentic communications.


Kim-Chua is Assistant Professor at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University – Asia Campus based in Singapore. In addition to her academic role, Kim is also Faculty Mentor for Women in Aviation Asia, a community-based initiative to promote female participation in General Aviation and Aerospace in Asia.

Arpad Szakal

Arpad Szakal

Aviation and Aerospace Lead, Cellence Plus
Arpad Szakal has a broad industrial background having worked on global search mandates across the aviation and wider transportation sectors. Prior to his career in executive search & assessment, Arpad worked at the Aviation Departments of two leading international law firms in London where he handled various EU regulatory matters including passenger rights. Arpad earned his LL.M. (Adv.) degree in Air & Space Law at the Leiden Institute which is one of the leading academic research and teaching institutes in the world, specialising in aviation law and regulation. He is also an active member of The Aviation Club of The UK, the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) and the Air League.
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