Supportive Male Allies Can Make Male-Dominated Workplaces Less Hostile For Women

By Emily Reynolds

Despite much work to counter unequal workforces in science, technology, engineering and maths, stereotypes about who will succeed in science still abound — and some research suggests that these biases can actively put people off certain careers or fields. Other papers find that the competitive nature of STEM courses and roles can be particularly damaging, leading to low feelings of belonging and subsequent low retention rates for minority groups.

A new paper looks at the role of men in countering hostile environments — in particular, how men can signal their support and respect for women colleagues. Over three studies, the University of Kansas team found that supportive male allies helped reduce feelings of isolation and hostility for their women colleagues, potentially offering a new way to combat inequality in STEM.

In the first study, 241 White women were told to imagine they had recently received a job offer at a chemistry company. Participants were randomly assigned to four conditions: in each, they saw a slideshow of their future co-workers. In two conditions all co-workers were male, while in the other they were gender-balanced. Within those groups, some participants were also assigned to the “ally condition”, in which one of the male co-workers expressed support for gender equality, while in the “no-ally condition”, none of the men mentioned gender equality. After viewing this slideshow, participants indicated how much they felt they would be isolated at the new company and how much they felt their co-workers would support and empower them. 

Women without allies in workplaces with unequal gender compositions anticipated feeling significantly more isolation, though for those in gender-balanced contexts the presence of an ally didn’t make a difference to anticipated isolation. Participants in the all-men workforce with no ally also anticipated significantly less support from co-workers compared to those who had either been exposed to an ally or those in a more gender-balanced workforce. Having an ally in an unbalanced workforce, therefore, was as powerful at reducing feelings of isolation as having a gender-balanced group of colleagues.

The second study looked at the impact of allyship specifically on women of colour, with Black and White women participants recruited to take part. The procedure from the first study was employed again — only this time, the randomly assigned allies were either Black or White men, and all participants saw workforces in which women were underrepresented. After viewing the slideshow, participants completed the same measures as before, as well as indicating how much they anticipated hostility in the workplace and how much respect and equality they expected to encounter.

Those who were assigned an ally indicated that they expected to receive more respect and support in the workforce, would be less isolated, and would experience less hostility. There was no difference in results between Black and White women and the race of the male ally was also non-significant, suggesting that allies of all races can have an impact on women’s feelings of safety and inclusion at work. However, all workforces had 50/50 representation in terms of race; this could have mitigated any potential effects of the race of allies.

In a third and final study, participants saw allies who were either men or women. As well as completing the previous measures, participants also indicated how much they felt gender equality was the norm in the new workplace and how much they expected to fit in with their colleagues. Participants with either a male and female ally had significantly higher expectations of respect than those without. Interestingly, however, male allies outflanked female allies in other areas — participants expected gender equality to be the norm when a male ally was present but not a female ally, were more likely to feel they fit in and feel less isolated, and believed they would receive more support. They were also more likely to feel the workplace was not going to be hostile.

Though the results do seem to offer some hope — and a potential strategy for tackling unbalanced and stereotypically “male” environments — there are some limitations to the work. Firstly, the study only gave insights into women’s anticipated responses to allies, rather than looking at how it can help women when they are already in a workplace. Furthermore, looking at how allyship affects women in actually hostile environments versus generally gender equal ones could provide more detail on its impact (and its limits). The team also points to sincerity as a potentially mitigating factor — what happens to this gendered effect when men say they are dedicated to gender equality but don’t follow through, or if they exhibit other forms of hostility related to race, class or sexuality?

Despite limitations and lingering questions, however, the study does offer some tangible action that men could (and should) be taking in the workplace. Though such a strategy is obviously unlikely to completely reduce gender inequality, creating supportive, respectful and just working environments could go some way to make STEM a more equal place to be.

Male Allies at Work: Gender-Equality Supportive Men Reduce Negative Underrepresentation Effects Among Women

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest