Supporting Male Allyship: Helping Leaders Find their Edge and Embrace their Full Humanity

Jennifer Brown | | , ,

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In this minisode of The Will To Change, Jennifer discusses the need for safe spaces for men and male leaders to explore their vulnerabilities and how they can be allies to marginalized communities. She shares her experience of being a panelist at the’s Male Ally Summit 2018 and why events like the Male Ally Summit are crucially important. Discover the key qualities that future leaders will need to possess and why change can’t always start from the top.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • How to identify allyship in all of its forms (4:50)
  • Why male leaders need safe spaces to be vulnerable (5:30)
  • The importance of becoming uncomfortable as a leader (7:30)
  • The #1 way that women get ahead in the workplace (10:20)
  • How social expectations for men can impede progress (11:50)
  • Why change doesn’t always start from the top (12:40)
  • Why leaders can’t have all the answers (14:30)
  • The key qualities that future leaders will need to possess (15:40)
  • Thought leaders who are helping shape the dialogue on male allyship (17:30)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome to The Will to Change. This, of course, is Doug Foresta, not Jennifer Brown, but I’m really excited, Jennifer is with me, as always on these minisodes. I’m facilitating them.

Today, we’re going to talk about a recent event that Jennifer attended and was a panelist for New York City’s’s Male Ally Summit 2018. We’ll talk about some of the take-aways, the importance of male allyship, and more.

Jennifer, as always, it is such a pleasure to welcome you to your own show.

JENNIFER BROWN: Well thanks, Doug. And I like that we’re going to be talking about this really neat experience I had the pleasure of being a part of yesterday.

DOUG FORESTA: Let’s start with the first question, a little bit about the Male Ally Summit. Can you say a little bit about it? What is it? What does it look like? And maybe we can talk about who some of the panelists were.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, sure thing. It’s in its second year. As you mentioned, Doug, the organization that puts it on is called, we call it “Anita Borg.” (Laughter.)

They are actually the producers of this huge conference, where I also presented last year, called the Grace Hopper Conference, which was in Orlando, and there were 17,000 young women in technology at this conference.

DOUG FORESTA: Incredible.

JENNIFER BROWN: So it was just this huge gathering and reminds me, as we always talk about on The Will to Change, Doug, reminds me that the pipeline is there.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes. When people say, “I just can’t find talent.” (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. There were 17,000 of them. I saw them with my own eyes, and they came from all over the country and the world very eager for jobs, many of whom are women of color. Yes, the pipeline is there. Never believe that it’s not.

The Male Ally Summit is in its second year, as I mentioned. It was hosted by Convene here in New York City, and there were about 100 mostly men in the audience—very diverse group of men, actually.

I’d say it was entirely an executive crowd. I’d say it was a very mid-career level crowd. I actually really liked that because there is a certain informality when you get people together at that level versus events that are heavy with executives, which tend to take on a formal—I don’t know what the word is for it.

DOUG FORESTA: I know what you’re saying. Everyone is so important, the gravitas of the situation.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know, I know. And there’s a lot of posturing and corporate speak. While I love executives and I want them to be at events like this, I felt people were there to truly learn and ask the tough questions. Everyone was taking lots of notes. Certainly, I thought that as a speaker, we were there really as coaches as well to complement the team, who was producing it. They have a fabulous team.

People picked my brain a lot, and the brains of the other speakers. It was a very honest conversation about what gets in the way for men who want to be more active allies, more proactive allies. What does ally even mean? Is that the right word? How can we become advocates not just for gender equality, but allies generally for the principles of inclusion?

You know me, I’m passionate that when we talk about allyship, we need to talk about it in all of its forms. That may mean I’m an ally for people of color, given that I identify as white, or I’m a straight ally for LGBT people, or I’m an ally for the community with disabilities as someone who doesn’t have a disability at the present time.

All of us are called to utilize the relatively more advantages parts of who we are on behalf others. We can always do that. Every single one of us can do that. This conference might have been generally about men as allies for gender equality, but the conversation was really about supporting your organizations or even helping to start your organization’s inclusion activities. A lot of companies don’t have anything yet.

DOUG FORESTA: Jennifer, I want to ask you a devil’s advocate question that I could imagine some of our listeners thinking. I’m hoping you can address this. What is the importance of a conference for male allies? I can see someone saying, “Well, don’t men have enough conferences? What’s a name for a male conference? A conference.” You know? (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Totally. It’s funny, I know that the assumption is out there that it’s a man’s world, and in business it’s a man’s world in particular, right? A lot of us know that, particularly at the top of the house. We see more and more diversity down the hierarchy.

It doesn’t mean that male leaders don’t need a safe space to be vulnerable to their own unconscious biases, making those biases conscious and known to them, and then learning how to be more supportive.

This is a very new conversation. Just to make the assumption that because you’re a man and you have power, you should be good at this. That’s completely false.

In many ways, the learning that they’re showing up and spending a whole day to do in community and be vulnerable to is the very similar learning to what all of us do when we go to conferences—to get to know ourselves, to build our self-knowledge, to reconcile am I doing enough as a leader? Where am I uncomfortable? Where’s my edge as a leader and as a learner?

I can tell you from yesterday, there’s a lot of note-taking in the room. There are a lot of honest questions. And I think there is dialogue going on there that people are afraid to have in the course of their general day-to-day business role.

To me, I want to protect that. I want to foster that, I want to support it, I want to be a helping factor in those kinds of conversations. That’s where the growth is happening. When you are uncomfortable, that’s exactly where you need to be. If you’re not uncomfortable as a leader, you’re not really leading in my book.

These people took a full day away from their jobs to come to connect with other men, largely, who are also asking the same questions: Am I doing enough? What language do I use? How do I have awkward conversations? How can I be more supportive?

We literally role-played, for example, how do you approach a woman to mentor her without it feeling awkward and inappropriate?


JENNIFER BROWN: We role-played that, we gave feedback, and then we flipped the roles and we had a woman approach a man to ask for mentoring and role-played that as well. Those are very uncomfortable conversations on so many levels. For a man, particularly in the age of Me Too, approaching someone and saying, “I want to diversify the people I’m mentoring, and I want to be reverse mentored by you, or co-mentored by you so I can learn.” It can feel patronizing, it can feel threatening, it can feel like you’re being inappropriate—especially at this time when Me Too has created—and Sheryl Sandberg has documented this through her organization, Lean In—she has documented the fact that the effect of Me Too and the conversation we’re having has caused many men to pull away from ever being seen with a woman.

DOUG FORESTA: That makes sense.

JENNIFER BROWN: Let alone mentoring her.

DOUG FORESTA: I’ll just stay away from the whole thing, it’s a hot stove.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Third rail. Totally third rail. Any conversation that builds a safe space for men to continue to lean in, and lean in even more and have those breakthroughs in terms of having that conversation they’re scared to have because they’re committed to equality and they don’t want to hide. Now, more than ever, we need men to lean in.

David Smith and Brad Johnson spoke yesterday. They’re the authors of Athena Rising, which is just an incredible book. I had David on this podcast.

DOUG FORESTA: That’s right. And if you haven’t listened to that episode, go back and listen to it. That’s my plug.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Yes. They were there. They are two big military guys. They teach in the Naval Academy, they’re sociologists, they’re professors. David was a fighter pilot for 20 years.

DOUG FORESTA: He was, yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: To hear these men speaking about how and why to engage with women and gender equality and to use what I call your “social capital” on behalf of somebody else to help them get ahead. This has been shown to be the number-one thing that helps us get ahead—those that have power are actually willing and ready to share it with us. The number-one way that people of color and other underrepresented talent communities get ahead.

To have them on the stage talking very openly. They joke about what they call “man scripts.” It’s the socialization of how men and masculinity is articulated in our world, particularly in business, what kind of behavior men are expected to exhibit, and what they’re not allowed to do.

It’s subtle, but to have men talking about this very openly, it lets the air out of the balloon. When you’re sitting in the audience for something like that, you feel that somebody is finally acknowledging that the straightjacket of conformity that all of us struggle with, there are men who are also struggling against it and they are trying to break out of it.

The system is very strongly constructed against breaking out of that conformity for men as well. I know that may be a provocative thing to say, but we do need to talk about this because the expectations of how men need to behave and parent and have work/life balance and manage their careers—all of these things have elements of brokenness to them that is not healthy for men.

We had Jack Myers on the podcast, too. Remember, he talked a lot about his book, The Future of Men, which I loved, it’s an incredible read. When I said, “Hey, Jack, we need more men at the senior levels, more mature men mentoring younger men about being better leaders, better human beings.” He said, “No, no, no, we don’t want that because the older generation of men is not necessarily the model we want to follow.” That generation of men might have made a lot of compromises in terms of their own authenticity, their needs, and their full humanity.

He flipped it a little in my own thinking. Can we become curious about millennial men and younger men who have grown up in a much more balanced world? Let them take the lead on how we’re going to talk about this in the future. I found that really stimulating and cool because we do often assume the most senior person, the leader is where the change starts.

When we talk about diversity and inclusion, yes, that’s true from a power perspective, but in terms of defining what we want as full human beings, it’s fascinating to dive a bit more into the millennial man and how they look at gender equality and define it and how they articulate their allyship.

DOUG FORESTA: Well, that previous generation of men probably wouldn’t even show up to a conference on male allyship, because to do so—I’m curious what you think about this—to do so, in a way, is an act of courage because it goes outside of two fundamental things about the man box and traditional masculinity, that men are never wrong and men know everything. (Laughter.) So to show up to a conference in itself says, “I need help.”

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s precisely what I work on with senior executive male leaders these days. It’s okay to admit that you’re learning, and it’s not only okay, but it’s actually a signal that will be well received by people around you.

Let’s not lie about this. The world is changing so fast that any executive leader who doesn’t say, “I don’t have all the answers right now, my learning agility and my openness to change and my discomfort is actually one of my most important skills.” To listen to the markets, to change quickly, to be agile, to be flexible, to change your mind—no matter what level you’re at, these are key competencies for executives, especially in these times.

I work on that competency a lot with executives. Like you say, it’s a hard hump to get over, to admit—well, look at Me Too. To admit that you didn’t know the pervasiveness of how women are feeling every single day, and how many women have experienced sexual assault, hostile work environments all around you, every single day. If that’s not the biggest “ah-hah” moment for men who, hopefully, weren’t involved in propagating that behavior.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: But they say, “My goodness, it was all around me and I didn’t know.”

The message here is: There is so much you don’t know. To me, the leaders of the future will be open to this, will embrace new concepts quickly that they didn’t know about, that will use their judgment and the information of others to help make decisions, but not always have all the answers.

You know, it is this openness and flexibility and this organic way of working that those really attuned leaders will thrive, because those around them will feel that they’re being listened to, they’re being heard, they’re being seen, they’re being put into positions of authority and opportunity. We are really going to see the true age of the servant leader, which we’ve all been reading about for so long.

We’re still laboring under the “leader knows best” patriarchal organizational model. I think that really needs to change. We’ve seen that it needs to change. We’re going to see a whole new generation of leaders arise, and they were in the room yesterday. Those men are the leaders of the future, who are willing to make the time for this discussion and to say, “I don’t know, but I want to learn.”

DOUG FORESTA: Jennifer, before we wrap up, I want to make sure that we mention some of the panelists that were at this amazing event. Do you want to share with our listeners some of these other people? You’ve mentioned a few of them, but maybe we can give a shout-out to some of the other people who were participating as panelists.

JENNIFER BROWN: For sure. I was so impressed with all of them.

The event was kicked off by Dennis Kozak, who’s the SVP of Next Generation Portfolio Strategies at CA Technologies. They’re in the hardware and software business, technology company. He was very passionate, shared his personal story and said a little bit more about what CA Technologies is doing on this front.

He’s an SVP, so senior executive that this dialogue is really meaningful for. And he made time for that. I think we all appreciated seeing a senior leader be vulnerable and say, “We’re still learning at my company, and here are some of the things that we’ve tried.” He opened it up.

And then Evin Robinson, co-founder of New York on Tech, moderated my panel. New York on Tech is really an incredible advocacy organization. His name is spelled E-V-I-N, and he’s a rock star.

My panel was amazing. There was a male allies panel before lunch that was moderated by Heather Cabot, who wrote an amazing book called Geek Girl Rising. She’s a speaker and a writer.

On that panel, we had the head of data science at Mashable, Haile Owusu. We had Adam Singer, who does analytics and is an advocate at Google; Wayne Barlow, engineering manager at Bloomberg; and Matt Holford, who’s the CTO at If you don’t know the work of Do Something, it’s incredible. It’s a female-dominated, nonprofit organization. He was sharing a little bit about being one of the only men on the leadership team. He had a lot to share with all of us.

Then in the afternoon, we had heard David Smith and Brad Johnson, as I mentioned, the authors of Athena Rising. And then wrapping up the day, we had one of my good friends and fierce advocates, Matt Wallaert, who is the chief behavioral officer at Clover Health. Matt’s last name is spelled W-A-L-L-A-E-R-T.

These are all male allies who are out there, who are having these conversations, who are worthy of your following on social media.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes, we’ll put links in the show notes so people can follow their work, absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: For sure. Absolutely. I’m grateful for the opportunity. I wish there were more forums for us to talk about these things, because I think they’re important. I anticipate there are going to be more companies jumping into events like this, and also the other conference I’m deeply involved in, called The Better Man Conference hosted by Ray Arata, who’s also been a podcast guest.

DOUG FORESTA: That’s right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. And other folks like Michael Kimmel, who has given a really amazing TED Talk on gender equity, and he’s a professor at SUNY.

There’s a really neat community out there having this conversation. I encourage our listenership to get involved and make some time to come and participate if you’re a man; and as a woman, come and be an ally and a mentor to these men so that they can proceed and progress along the journey.

DOUG FORESTA: Jennifer Brown, thank you for sharing your words of wisdom on this important topic. And thank you for being out there in the world helping us to do this work.


DOUG FORESTA: Thank you.