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Men as Allies

Allies Make Mistakes. This Is How to Recover from Them.

In my work with Forté’s Allies for Gender Equity program, I regularly give talks and presentations on allyship. I’ve helped hundreds of people understand what allyship looks like and how they can make a difference as allies.

Sometimes, as these men and women return to their daily lives, excited to put their allyship knowledge into action, they say or do the wrong thing. They might seize an opportunity to support a colleague, only to discover that their action had an unintended negative impact. 

When an early effort to be a supportive colleague backfires, it can be frustrating and embarrassing. The potential ally may feel like they’ve failed and be tempted to give up on allyship altogether. 

Making a mistake doesn’t make you a bad ally. In fact, a willingness to make mistakes is an important part of becoming a better ally. 

Why is it so common for allies to make mistakes?

Allyship is complex. Every situation is different, and every woman is different. The right thing to do in one set of circumstances could be completely wrong in another situation. To illustrate how an attempt to be an ally can easily go awry, let’s look at an example. 

An executive at your company mentions that she’s hiring for a new role. She asks if you think Jamie, your work friend, would be a good fit. Jamie has the right skills, and the role would be a step up for her — but it also involves frequent travel and Jamie is currently on parental leave. You know if you had a new baby, you wouldn’t want to travel, and you don’t want to make Jamie think about work while she’s on leave, so you say, “I doubt she’d be interested. She has other priorities right now.”

The following week, you check in with Jamie and mention that conversation. Jamie is hurt and angry. She says, “I thought you were someone who would advocate for me while I’m out of the office. Instead, you let me down.”

In this position, your first instinct might be to defend yourself or try to explain why you said what you did.  Consider the following responses, which are likely to make the situation worse:

Problematic responses include:

  • Centering yourself: “I care about you, so I wanted to protect you from any work pressure while you’re on leave.”
  • Derailing: “The real problem here is that our company doesn’t offer enough paid parental leave. You deserve more time with your baby.”
  • Victim blaming: “You chose to have a baby this year, so of course your career is taking a hit.” 

A better response:

Instead of trying to defend your actions or explain yourself, acknowledge that you made a mistake — even if that was not your intention.

1. Make a clear, direct apology: “I’m sorry.”
2. Center the impacted: “What would you like me to do next?” “How can I better support you?”
3. Listen to what they say and learn from it.

Allies have good intentions, but allyship isn’t about intent. It’s about impact. Some of your colleagues might appreciate it if you avoid asking them work questions while they’re on parental leave — but others would prefer to be kept in the loop. 

As an ally, you don’t have to wing it and hope for the best. If you’re unsure what an ally would do in a given situation, ask the person you’re trying to support what they would find helpful. You’re much more likely to have a positive impact if you check in before you take action.

Even when you’ve been practicing allyship for years, things will go wrong from time to time. When you make a mistake, apologize, reflect on what you learned from it, and commit to doing better. That’s what the allyship journey is all about.

We cover this topic in more detail in our Inclusive Leadership program and our Allies for Gender Equity Corporate Curriculum. To learn more, download our free Allies for Gender Equity corporate toolkit.

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