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   Ally Toolkit to Support Men as Allies

What does Allyship Entail?

Being an ally involves someone from a privileged group actively engaged in an on-going process of deconstructing their own privilege (Case, 2013). According to the British Columbia’s Teachers Federation : “ Allyship is not an identity—it is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people. Allyship is not self-defined—our work and our efforts must be recognized by the people we seek to ally ourselves with.” See the BCTF website for more information.

A variety of checklists have been created by women and men to provide advice on being an ally. One example is from Franchesca Ramsey who outlines 5 Tips for Being an Ally in the following textbox:

The image contains the image of a woman holding a microphone. There is a text bubble above her that says :‘5 Tips for Being an Ally’. On the right hand side, there is a list of the 5 tips: Understand your privilege, Listen and do your homework, Speak up, not over, You’ll make mistakes! Apologize when you do, Ally is a verb, so do the work.

Another checklist from Pete Gombert (2017) highlights in the following textbox how men can begin to be allies by undertaking four key things:

The image has a white background and has the following title in black bold letters: Men can be Allies by Doing These 4 Things. The rest of the text lists in point form: 1. Be aware, 2. Implement protocol for feedback, 3. Reject passivity, 4. Encourage a culture of sharing & transparency for all genders. In the bottom left corner, the image cites Gombert, 2017.

Another list was compiled by Dr. Michael Sinha, who has shared 10 ways that men can support women in medicine, which one could argue applies to healthcare and health sciences more broadly.

This image has the following title: 10 ways #HeForShe Men Can Support #WomenInMedicine. The list is as follows: 1- Listen and learn from women’s experiences 2- Recognize gender differences in communication 3- Call out inappropriate behavior when it occurs 4- Mentor, sponsor, and connect women 5- Nominate women for awards 6- Put women on editorial boards 7- Promote women to leadership positions 8- Provide equal pay for equal work 9- Share salary data and negotiation strategy 10- Say no to the all-male panel (“manel”)! This list is adapted from the Top 10 list by Dr. Michael Sinha, presented at the Massachusetts Medical Society, October 2018

Common across these lists is the importance of recognising and unlearning biased assumptions about who is and can be a leader.


Recognise Biased Assumptions about Leadership

We have all been socialized from an early age into thinking of men as leaders - both men and women. The images below show a typical picture of what a leader looks like - drawn by a young child - picturing a man.

The image is a child's drawing of a male leader in business attire. Keywords point out grey hair to show experience, vision, that he listens, he is decisive and well dressed, successful with charisma and ahead of his time. He is balancing on a board which depicts fear, love and respect.
Image sources:

The following cartoon, although it does conjure up assumptions about men and women leaders, visually depicts some of the gender-based barriers women experience in their leadership journey. Although these focus on the situation for women at home, barriers also exist for women at work.

A drawing titled ‘meritocracia’, which describes the challenges women face in the professional world. Three men and three women are at the starting line on a race track. The women have obstacles such as laundry, ironing, and ovens in front of them, while the men have no obstacles.

The following image prepared by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) depicts some common (and incorrect) assumptions that affect women’s path towards leadership in the article Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership.

The image is a red and orange box with a graphic of a woman at a work desk in the middle of the box. The title above her reads: Women have heard it all. Surrounding her is multiple speech bubbles containing incorrect assumptions, biases, and stereotypes about female leaders in the workplace. They read as follows, from left to right: We’ve never hired a woman for this position before. We didn't realize you liked golf. Don't take it personally. Will your kids get in the way of your work? You have a lot of experience, but we are looking for someone who has more authority. We need someone who is going to be tough. We didn't think you’d want to get a sitter. But you’re so good at taking notes. You’re so pretty, people have a hard time taking you seriously. I need you to plan the office birthday parties. Why are you getting emotional about this? I never thought a woman would be interested. Can you get the coffee? I’ve never met a woman executive. I didn't think you’d want that much responsibility. Women aren’t natural leaders. Below the speech bubbles, the text reads: Don’t be a barrier on a woman’s path to leadership. Learn more at #leadHERship.  In the bottom right corner is the logo for AAUW.

Additionally, the AAUW created an online test in collaboration with Harvard University and Project Implicit which allows you to discover if you hold any bias against women. As they note, one key obstacle to women’s leadership is unconscious or implicit bias, which can cloud judgment in ways people are not fully aware of.

Bias indeed matters. Take the following example:

“Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the pervasive gender associations documented by researchers, academic scientists who evaluated identical résumés belonging either to “John” or “Jennifer” perceived Jennifer as less competent. They were less likely to offer to mentor Jennifer and were more likely to say they would hire John to be a lab manager. What’s more, when asked what starting salary they’d offer the two candidates based on the same résumé, scientists proposed a salary that was $4,000 (13 percent) higher for John than for Jennifer. And female scientists showed the same type of bias against Jennifer that male scientists did”. ( AAUW, 2016)

The image is a lavender coloured rectangle with purple lettering and yellow, red, and purple geometric detailing on the top border. It is advertising AAUW’s Implicit Association Test to measure gender bias towards leadership roles. The text reads: Think you’re not biased against women leaders? Below is an image of a yellow button which reads: Take the test.

Curious to see where you stand? Take the Implicit Association Test. This tool tests for unconscious associations, and your results will help further AAUW’s research.

According to a recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) study, “ despite decades of progress closing the equality gap between men and women, close to 90 percent of men and women hold some sort of bias against women, providing new clues to the invisible barriers women face in achieving equality, and a potential path forward to shattering the Glass Ceiling.”

Corroborating these assumptions is a recent study in the Academy of Management Journal. These researchers revealed that getting noticed as a leader in the workplace is more difficult for women than for men, even when speaking up with similar ideas. This strongly suggests that unconscious assumptions about gender affect people’s abilities to recognize emerging leadership.

Similarly, Bill Tholl, Founding Executive Director of the Canadian Health Leadership Network, details in the quote below how women lead differently: ‘women health leaders tend to lead from who they are and where they are rather than the position they occupy.

A photo of Bill Tholl, Founding Executive Director of the Canadian Health Leadership Network is accompanied with the following quote: Women health leaders tend to lead from where they are rather than the position they happen to occupy.”


In the article Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers from the Harvard Business Review, Herminia Ibarra, Robin J. Ely and Deborah M. Kolb describe how...  “ Becoming a leader involves much more than being put in a leadership role, acquiring new skills, and adapting one’s style to the requirements of that role. It involves a fundamental identity shift. Organizations inadvertently undermine this process when they advise women to proactively seek leadership roles without also addressing policies and practices that communicate a mismatch between how women are seen and the qualities and experiences people tend to associate with leaders.” 

The National Health Service (NHS) Confederation and NHS Employers in the United Kingdom recently established the Health & Care Women Leaders Network. This was part of the call by the NHS for collective action to drive gender balance and inclusivity in senior leadership roles. A short 12-page report by the Health & Care Women Leaders Network explores some of the important actions and behaviours men can take to support the development of women leaders in the NHS. The report compiles information from conversations with senior men in leadership positions, as well as feedback from a  Men as Allies Tweet Chat on the same topic from January 2019. 

Several factors senior male NHS leaders see as holding women back include men recruiting in their own image, women not putting themselves forward, a lack of networking, and long-hours culture. One of the barriers that still persists is a tendency of some individuals in positions of power to recruit in their own image and such bias is highly likely to be unconscious. Several interviewees felt that women put up barriers to their own progression, primarily related to imposter syndrome or a lack of confidence in their own abilities. Networking is seen as one of the ways men advance and get their next job however, women’s ability to benefit from joining networks or networking events may be adversely affecting their changes of progression. Lastly, women promoted to high-level jobs may be expected or believed they will be expected to work excessive hours, potentially conflicting with other family commitments to children and elderly relatives. 

The report highlights how male leaders have an important role to build support and encourage constructive change. What men can do to help includes learning why greater diversity and gender balance is helpful, and encouraging different models of working. Greater awareness of the evidence base of the business benefits brought by a diverse leadership team can help leaders to make the case for diversity in their organisations. Furthermore, balancing work and home is a challenge for anyone at a senior level however, historically, women have often taken the burden of caring responsibilities for both children and elderly relatives and may not want to work in the way previous leaders have. Leaders also need to ensure that flexible working is valued as equal to the traditional model and does not hinder career progression.


Recognise and Stop Microaggressions

Microaggressions are “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group  membership” (Sue, 2010, p xvi). They are the commonplace verbal or behavioral indignities which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights or insults. Microaggressions are often unconsciously delivered by people who believe they hold egalitarian views. These can be “subtle snubs or dismissive looks, gestures and tones” (Sue, 2010, p xvi) and can be related to race, Indigenous status, gender, sexuality, ability and other systemic inequities. The subtlety to microaggressions makes them difficult to address. Learning skills like interrupting harmful messages, which are taught in bystander training, can be a first step to stop the repetition of harmful stereotypes.

Candace Brunette-Debassige, is a Special Advisor Indigenous Initiatives to the Provost at Western University. Between minute 26:23-29:40 of Candace’s Empowering Women Leaders video on YouTube, she describes the different types of microaggressions commonly experienced by women and Indigenous women leaders working in mainstream organizations, such as public institutions and higher education. Candace describes three different types of microaggressions which include:

The image has a white background and has the following title: 3 types of microaggressions. Below the title, there are three grey boxes, each box containing a type of microaggression. The first box describes microinsults, which are (often unconscious) are defined as behavioural/verbal remarks that convey rudeness, insensitivity, and demean a person’s racial heritage and identity. The second box describes microassaults which are (often conscious) are defined as explicit derogatory characterized primarily by a violent or nonverbal attack to hurt the person through name-calling, avoidance behaviour, or purposeful discriminatory actions. The third box describes microinvalidations which are (often unconscious) are defined as verbal comments or actions that exclude, negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person.

In the following table are some specific examples of microaggressions and how to intervene:

Scenario Microaggression Why not? What to say instead What to say as a bystander
A woman colleague tells you that she has been selected for a leadership role in the Canadian Headache Society “Are you sure you can do this? You have two small children. You don’t have time for this” Saying this to a colleague leaves her feeling that you think she is less capable because she has children. She may feel you are imposing your own values on difficult work/family balance decisions. She should be the one to decide for herself if something is too much for her. She doesn’t want her colleague to assume what she cannot do or what she cannot handle. People rarely make this sort of statement to a man. “I know you will be great at this. Let me know how I can support you Really? What did you just say?

“I’m really looking forward to seeing Dr. X in this role" 

“I have three young children and no one ever says this to me”
A Black woman colleague is speaking at a conference about her experience of racial discrimination. After the conference, you and another white woman colleague meet up with the speaker. “Dr. X, I never see you as a Black woman. I just don’t see colour.” This statement implies that you consider your colleague to be an exception to what you consider as a rule: that Black women are less intelligent or competent than white women. This reinforces racist steretypes.  Saying “I don’t see colour” implies that, as a white person, you are the racial norm. It also sends a message that you haven’t stopped to understand  the lived experience of race and racism. “Thanks for sharing your experience. I hadn’t considered how racism affects your life. I need to do my own work to learn more.” “Dr. X’s experience as a Black woman is different than mine, and it’s important to understand all parts of people’s experiences.”
A young latina woman heard this on numerous occasions after displaying an ‘extensive’ vocabulary or use of grammatically correct English. Why do you sound so white? “You talk white.” This signals an idea that you’re not like the rest of them.” The Latina woman who reported this said “I felt angry, sad, despondent. I would go talk to my mom afterwards in my frustration and luckily she would tell me how wrong what they said was and that being intelligent was NOT exclusively ‘white’, supported with many examples of educated people of color.


This example comes from

Don’t say anything. Reflect on your prejudices, and learn more about how to counteract them. “That’s an offensive thing to say.

Adapted from Eleven Things Not to Say to Your Female Colleagues.

One form of microaggression is mansplaining. Mansplaining is defined by UN Women as “The practice of a man explaining something to a woman in a way that shows he thinks he knows and understands more than she does. Although it may not be intended to cause harm, they go on to describe it as “a patriarchal act that trains women in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.”

This image is giving the definition of mansplaining which is 1. The practice of a man explaining something to a woman in a way that shows he thinks he knows and understands more than she does. 2. A patriarchal act that trains women in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence. Source:

In a follow up tweet, UN Women provides tips on how men can avoid mansplaining. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did she indicate any desire to hear this information?
  • Is it possible that she knows more about this topic than I do?
  • Did I read the room before starting to speak?

In Mansplaining, explained in one simple char t, Kim Goodwin outlines a similar series of questions as a way to help curb the incidence of mansplaining.

This image provides a flow diagram  to help an individual answer the question “Am I mansplaining?” The flow chart consists of a series of questions in textboxes, and decision point arrows such as “yes” or “no”. The first textbox is in the top left-hand concern and asks the question, “Did she ask you to explain it?” If the answer is yes, then it is not mansplaining. If the answer is no, the next question asks ‘Do you have more relevant experience?. If yes the follow up question is ‘did you ask if she needed it explained. If that answer is yes, then again, this is not mansplaining. If the answer is no to either of those two questions, the answer could be one of three:probably mansplaining; Definitely mansplaining; and Just stop talking now. Source: Kim Goodwin (2018)  Mansplaining, explained in one simple chart
Source: Kim Goodwin (2018)   Mansplaining, explained in one simple chart

You can be a happy MD
is an organization that has been the leader in the prevention of physician burnout for individual doctors and healthcare organizations since 2010. One of their blog posts called 3 Things Men Must Stop Doing to Decrease Unconscious Gender Bias in the Healthcare Workplace shares simple tips that male physicians can do to dramatically reduce the unconscious gender bias in the workplace, one of them being “ Never ask a woman to do anything you would not also request a man. Read the rest of the tips here!

The image is a picture of toy people standing on lego pieces against a wooden background. Two toy men are standing together confidently on a large lego piece, while a woman stands alone on the edge of a tiny lego piece. Source:

Clearly, the words you say matter. UN Women suggests using more gender-inclusive language, as detailed in the following text box.

In a blue textbox, UN WOMEN provides a definition of the noun ‘gender-inclusive language’. Primarily, it is defined as language that places all genders at the same level. Secondarily, it is a way of communication that does not discriminate against a particular sex or gender identity, and does not perpetuate stereotypes. An example is avoiding gender-specific nouns such as ‘mankind’ and ‘wife/husband’ by replacing them with ‘humankind’ and ‘partner’ respectively.


Challenge tokenism & an end to ‘Manels’

Allies recognize the harmful psychological impacts of tokenism. Tokenism is “. . . the practice of making only a token effort or doing no more than the minimum, especially in order to comply with a law” ( Collins English Dictionary, 2003, “Tokenism”). “Tokenism is most likely to occur when members of the minority group in any situation account for fewer than 15 percent of the total” (Gutiérrez y Muhs, 2012, Pg 449). Recruit so as to develop “a pool of faculty of colour,” this includes wording job advertisements to attract people of colour. Make use of affirmative-action policies and be wary of opportunity-hires which usually end up being occupied by white men.

Source: Tweet from @shailjapatel 

An important way to challenge tokenism is to end all male panels or #manels. Conference, seminar, and workshop panels are important venues for visibility in healthcare and academic health. A number of allies are refusing to agree to set on #manels. One example is Andre Picard, announced on twitter in 2017:

The image is a white text box with black lettering, containing a tweet from Andre Picard which states ‘Well, I now refuse to participate on manels - panels that consist only of old white men like me. Diversity and inclusion are a choice.’

Similarly, the Lancet has made a public commitment not to participate in panels with only men as participants: 

The Lancet Group is committed to no all-male panels (“manels”). Our editors will not serve as panellists at a public conference or event when there are no women on the panel. For events that we organise or plan, we aim for at least 50% female speakers. Our preference is for women to be included as panellists, not only as chairs or moderators.

Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) and their allies have also started raising awareness about all white panels or #wanels.  

Equally important, however, is to ensure that all health care and health science decision-making tables represent the broader community. A number of recent articles have questioned this. In the 2018 Healthy Debate article, In health care, do the people in power reflect the people they serve?, authors Dafna Izenberg & Maureen Taylor question the lack of diversity among hospital boards. More recently, in The missing voice of women in COVID-19 policy-making, Dr. Ivy Bourgeault argues that having more women at decision-making tables would help ensure the gendered effects of the pandemic are fully examined and part of recovery policies.

The image is a picture of mix-matched beige lettering on a black background sourced from Ontario Midwives facebook page. The text reads: Equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you, it's not pie. Source: