Perspectives

What does it mean to be a trustworthy male ally?


 

“If you want to be trusted, be trustworthy” – Stephen Covey

A few years ago, while working in my office, a female colleague stopped by for a casual chat. During the course of the conversation, she noticed that I did not have any diplomas or certificates hanging on my office walls. Instead, there were clusters of pictures drawn by my children, family photos, and a white board with my “to-do” list. The only wall art was a print of Banksy’s “The Thinker Monkey,” which depicts a monkey with its fist to its chin similar to Rodin’s famous sculpture, “Le Penseur.”

Dr. Benjamin Kinnear, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, and University of Cincinnati Medical Center

Dr. Benjamin Kinnear

When asked why I didn’t hang any diplomas or awards, I replied that I preferred to keep my office atmosphere light and fun, and to focus on future goals rather than past accomplishments. I could see her jaw tense. Her frustration appeared deep, but it was for reasons beyond just my self-righteous tone. She said, “You know, I appreciate your focus on future goals, but it’s a pretty privileged position to not have to worry about sharing your accomplishments publicly.”

What followed was a discussion that was generative, enlightening, uncomfortable, and necessary. I had never considered what I chose to hang (or not hang) on my office walls as a privilege, and that was exactly the point. She described numerous episodes when her accomplishments were overlooked or (worse) attributed to a male colleague because she was a woman. I began to understand that graceful self-promotion is not optional for many women in medicine, it is a necessary skill.

This is just one example of how my privilege as a male in medicine contributed to my ignorance of the gender inequities that my female coworkers have faced throughout their careers. My colleague showed a lot of grace by taking the time to help me navigate my male privilege in a constructive manner. I decided to learn more about gender inequities, and eventually determined that I was woefully inadequate as a male ally, not by refusal but by ignorance. I wanted to start earning my colleague’s trust that I would be an ally that she could count on.

Trustworthiness

I wanted to be a trustworthy ally, but what does that entail? Perhaps we can learn from medical education. Trust is a complex construct that is increasingly used as a framework for assessing medical students and residents, such as with entrustable professional activities (EPAs).1,2 Multiple studies have examined the characteristics that make a learner “trustworthy” when determining how much supervision is required.3-8 Ten Cate and Chen performed an interpretivist, narrative review to synthesize the medical education literature on learner trustworthiness in the past 15 years,9 developing five major themes that contribute to trustworthiness: Humility, Capability, Agency, Reliability, and Integrity. Let’s examine each of these through the lens of male allyship.

Humility

Humility involves knowing one’s limits, asking for help, and being receptive to feedback.9 The first thing men need to do is to put their egos in check and recognize that women do not need rescuing; they need partnership. Systemic inequities have led to men holding the majority of leadership positions and significant sociopolitical capital, and correcting these inequities is more feasible when those in leadership and positions of power contribute. Women don’t need knights in shining armor, they need collaborative activism.

Humility also means a willingness to admit fallibility and to ask for help. Men often don’t know what they don’t know (see my foibles in the opening). As David G. Smith, PhD, and W. Brad Johnson, PhD, write in their book, “Good Guys,” “There are no perfect allies. As you work to become a better ally for the women around you, you will undoubtedly make a mistake.”10 Men must accept feedback on their shortcomings as allies without feeling as though they are losing their sociopolitical standing. Allyship for women does not mean there is a devaluing of men. We must escape a “zero-sum” mindset. Mistakes are where growth happens, but only if we approach our missteps with humility.

Capability

Capability entails having the necessary knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be a strong ally. Allyship is not intuitive for most men for several reasons. Many men do not experience the same biases or systemic inequities that women do, and therefore perceive them less frequently. I want to acknowledge that men can be victims of other systemic biases such as those against one’s race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or any number of factors. Men who face inequities for these other reasons may be more cognizant of the biases women face. Even so, allyship is a skill that few men have been explicitly taught. Even if taught, few standard or organized mechanisms for feedback on allyship capability exist. How, then, can men become capable allies?

Just like in medical education, men must become self-directed learners who seek to build capability and receive feedback on their performance as allies. Men should seek allyship training through local women-in-medicine programs or organizations, or through the increasing number of national education options such as the recent ADVANCE PHM Gender Equity Symposium. As with learning any skill, men should go to the literature, seeking knowledge from experts in the field. I recommend starting with “Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace10 or “Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women.”11 Both books, by Dr. Smith and Dr. Johnson, are great entry points into the gender allyship literature. Seek out other resources from local experts on gender equity and allyship. Both aforementioned books were recommended to me by a friend and gender equity expert; without her guidance I would not have known where to start.

Agency

Agency involves being proactive and engaged rather than passive or apathetic. Men must be enthusiastic allies who seek out opportunities to mentor and sponsor women rather than waiting for others to ask. Agency requires being curious and passionate about improving. Most men in medicine are not openly and explicitly misogynistic or sexist, but many are only passive when it comes to gender equity and allyship. Trustworthy allyship entails turning passive support into active change. Not sure how to start? A good first step is to ask female colleagues questions such as, “What can I do to be a better ally for you in the workplace?” or “What are some things at work that are most challenging to you, but I might not notice because I’m a man?” Curiosity is the springboard toward agency.

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