Raising Up Allies: A Standardized Pathway for Developing Men into Allies to Women

by Rob Dixon | July 31, 2020

In May 2015, in Cardiff, Wales, IBM Global Managing Partner Andrew Grill made an unexpected move at a panel discussion entitled “Online Influence.” The panel was comprised of six men. When a brave woman named Miranda Bishop pointed out the gender imbalance, Grill made his move. Rising from his seat, he offered his chair to Bishop. With encouragement from the crowd, she took his seat. Grill later reported, “Miranda brought an amazing perspective to the panel. . . . The response to our new panelist was extremely positive, as I had expected.”1

Men such as Grill are allies for women. In her book, Becoming an Ally, Anne Bishop defines an ally as “a member of a dominant group who works to end a form of oppression which gives them privilege.”2 As an umbrella term, allyship can include a range of activities, from standing in solidarity, to tangible pastoral support, to empowerment, to advocacy.3 In the area of gender, a male ally seeks to advance the standing of women in his context by every available means.

This article rests on the premise that one strategy for achieving gender equality in the church is developing more men into more effective allies. If our communities of faith can mobilize men to do the work of allyship in partnership with their sisters, we can all more fully live out God’s intention for equal partnership between the genders.

To help with this process, this article will lay out a standardized pathway that men can take on their journey to becoming an ally. Incorporating data gleaned from several one-on-one interviews and a focus group, together with the author’s analysis and personal reflections, this article proposes a seven-step process that communities of faith can use to help shape men into allies to women. The overall route, which will be examined in more detail below, is presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1

1. Starting Position

Generally speaking, men launch into the allyship pathway from one of three starting places. First, they may be predisposed to positive allyship. In this case, men have had a set of life experiences that make them open to embracing the notion of becoming an ally to women. For instance, one of the male allies surveyed for this study noted, “I grew up in a church . . . that allowed women to serve in every aspect of ministry, including pastor, and I did not interact with [a] denomination . . . that denounced [women in leadership] until [college]. . . . I would put myself at a soft egalitarian before starting down the [allyship] road.”4

A second starting position from which men can begin the pathway is an antagonistic or even adversarial posture. Another man interviewed for this study fits this scenario, for his bias coming into his allyship journey was that women should not be teaching or leading men. Describing his starting position as “nominally complementarian,” he can recall the restrictive theological preconceptions that he held as he entered into his experience of the allyship pathway.

Finally, a third starting point can be labeled neutral, or perhaps unaware, apathetic, or even naïve. In this case, the man is in the dark about the whole notion of privilege.5 By virtue of either willful choice or genuine ignorance, the man is not predisposed to be either for or against the idea of allyship to women. Further research would be warranted here, but it seems genuine neutrality is the least common starting position of the three options.

2. Disruptive Encounter with the Notion of Privilege

Whatever their starting position, at some point would-be male allies have their worldview around gender challenged. In particular, they are invited to consider that the world tilts in their favor, simply by virtue of their male gender.

“Disruption” often carries a negative connotation, but disruption can in fact be productive. Based on his research of women reentering school after long breaks, sociologist Jack Mezirow developed a ten-fold process by which people experience transformation in their worldviews. Mezirow’s first phase is entitled “a disorienting dilemma,” and everything else flows from this singular disruptive event.6

This encounter can look different for each person. One man’s disruptive encounter consisted of conversations with his then girlfriend, who expressed her desire that their relationship be complementarian in form, a conviction that he realized he did not share. Reflecting on his experience, this man wrote:

There was not only this desire for her to have a man that could “lead her spiritually” in a relationship, but also that this belief carried over into all aspects of ministry. [Her belief was] that man was inherently created to lead, and women were not. This time solidified my convictions and effectively ended my relationship, though there were other factors.

For other men interviewed, this disruptive encounter step in the pathway involved focused Bible study that presented an egalitarian view, new awareness of the realities of sexual assault and abuse, a respected person with an articulated egalitarian perspective, and personally experiencing the godly leadership of women in mission.

Whatever form it takes, the common theme at this step in the pathway is disruption. Men in this step have their presuppositions challenged, and the question is how they will respond.

3. Response to Disruption

Following this disruptive experience, there is a fork in the road. One route in the pathway is marked by a negative response. The disruptive experience fails to propel the man forward on his journey toward becoming an ally, and instead he returns to one of the three starting places.

Though it seems likely that entering into the disruptive encounter with privilege from an antagonistic or adversarial perspective can result in a negative response, this is not certain. In two cases, men who self-described as antagonistic as they engaged this particular step emerged committed to continuing along the allyship pathway.

Alternatively, men can choose the fork that results in heart change toward becoming an ally to women in their context. This heart change can include repentance as well as resolution to do whatever is possible to level the social playing field. One man described his heart change experience in this way:

It was often overwhelming when I began to think: “What can I do, and how can I be doing better?” but I found an eagerness that matched. I concluded that I could do the little that I can, in my actions and my speech, but the new, primary goal was to look for opportunities to listen—to hear the stories of women in my life and respond. To mourn alongside, ask for what would best serve them and remain in a learner’s posture. Also, to keep sacred those opportunities when women in my life share vulnerably, to vocalize my appreciation that they would trust me with their stories and to provide spaces for them to safely, freely practice their giftings within ministry.

Successfully navigating this step in the pathway can depend on available resources. For instance, several men described their experience in Scripture study as formational. Confronted with the notion of privilege, they searched the Scriptures, noting how Jesus and others managed power and how the Bible lays out a message of gender equality.

In addition, a key component for this portion of the pathway is the presence of process helpers. For several of the men interviewed for this article, a key step in the heart change process was processing their experience with a trusted mentor. These mentors were able to pastor these men through their dissonance and to encourage them to continue along the pathway.

Finally, one of the men interviewed discussed the notion of displacement in helping him navigate this disruptive encounter. For example, he opted to place himself under the authority of a woman pastor and to read women authors. Choosing situations that would continue to challenge his worldview was a critical step for this man in becoming an ally.

Regardless of the process, the central issue is a positive response. Men who successfully navigate this fork in the pathway road embrace the reality of male privilege and emerge willing to do something to even out the social balance.

4. Initial Attempts at Allyship

Armed with a fresh sense of conviction from having walked down the route of heart change, budding male advocates take initial steps into the world of allyship.

In his junior year of college, one of the men surveyed co-led a small group with a woman. Perceiving subtly adverse dynamics in play against her, he “consciously [took] action against it.” For instance, when people would come to him because he was the male co-leader, he would “leave more space for her to talk, and whenever there was a question . . . rather than just jumping to answer, I would ask [her], as a way to open up social space.”

Another man’s first ally experience took the following form:

Our two Bible study leaders at the time were both women and were being questioned by other women in the ministry as to the validity of their roles as leaders based on 1 Timothy 2:11–12. Upon hearing this, I asked my two leaders how that made them feel and left them space to share. To be honest, my mind immediately jumped to wanting to share with them the Scriptural basis that I had learned; however, I wanted to properly respect, honor and keep sacred their initiative to share with me and I remembered the ways that having space to process had solidified my own convictions. After we had time to talk about how they saw the comments as a result of a highly-conservative Baptist upbringing and not a personal attack on their own capabilities and processed through God’s calling on their lives and their own church upbringings, I invited them to study some of the passages [I had been studying], including the 1 Timothy 2 passage. They both accepted the invitation and by the end of the few weeks that we studied, both expressed how much they appreciated being able to look at the passages from a new perspective and were encouraged. Since [then], any opportunity I can, I intentionally affirm their capabilities and positions in front of the rest of the chapter.

For a third man, heart change prompted a commitment to challenge his fellow football players to clean up their language regarding women. His initial attempts at becoming an ally to women involved advocating on their behalf in his college’s football locker room.

Whatever form the allyship takes—solidarity, support, empowerment, or advocacy—at some point, would-be allies need to do something intentional with their convictions. This is a critical step in the allyship pathway.

5. Pushback Experience

The fifth step in the allyship pathway involves pushback. Either in response to the initial attempt at becoming an ally, or in response to a further attempt, pushback seems to come with the allyship territory. How a man responds to this pushback dictates whether or not he will progress on the pathway.

In their Harvard Business Review article entitled “How Men Can Become Better Allies to Women,” Brad Johnson and David Smith lay out two forms of pushback.7 First, they describe the “wimp penalty,” where male allies get backlash, primarily from other men, because of their choice to associate with women. “New research reveals that men perceived as less self-promoting and more collaborative and power-sharing are evaluated by both men and women as less competent (and, not incidentally, less masculine).” Second, men can face pushback from women, who either doubt their motivations or resent the “pedestal effect,” where men get lauded for relatively minor efforts at championing women.

In one instance, one man’s initial allyship step took the form of speaking up in a committee meeting when the group was only considering male speakers for an upcoming ministry opportunity. Taking a risk, he invited the group to consider a slate of women leaders. Unfortunately, the pushback to his suggestion was significant. After processing his fears and potential courses of action with a trusted mentor, this man made a second attempt to influence the committee. In the end, though the group ignored his plea, this moment served as an important marker on this allyship journey. Because he had put himself and his reputation on the line, he emerged from the experience galvanized and determined to continue to advocate as an ally.

Pushback is a painful part of the male allyship pathway. In fact, this is a second place where men can find themselves opting out of the journey altogether, as the process of putting themselves in the line of fire proves to be too much.

Still, fully-formed male allies will have experienced some degree of external resistance to their allyship for women in their context. Indeed, it would seem that a man is not fully an ally until he has experienced personal pushback.

6. Continued Investment

My personal journey as an ally includes a step where I walked into a meeting with a male student in our campus cafeteria, prepared to help him see the Bible’s message of gender equality. What I was not prepared for was the pastor he had also invited, and that pastor proceeded to spend the next hour eviscerating me, time and again labeling me a false teacher because of my theology and practice of gender equality.

This pushback experience was formational for me in my process of becoming an ally, in good measure because it meant that I had personal skin in the game. That is, I was now invested in a way that I was not prior to that moment, and that investment triggered a season marked by theological exploration and self-reflection.

The investment phase of the pathway entails continually growing as an ally. It means repeatedly taking on the position of a learner. There is a sense in which male allies are constantly wrestling, both with their own privilege and with how to more effectively challenge the systems in their contexts. Men in this step experience a change in how they view power and understand that “true power multiplies when it is shared.”8

For men interviewed for this study, this humble learning posture fuels a desire to think through “201-level” allyship ideas, including when to advocate and when not to, how to become proactive vs. reactive in engaging potential pushback, and how to raise up the next generation of male advocates.

7. Habitual Allyship

In this final step on the pathway, men begin to use the language of identity with regard to their efforts at allyship. They fundamentally see themselves as allies, and that identity has depth and significance for them. These men have become habitual and courageous allies, full of conviction about this identity that they have taken on.

One man described his posture this way:

I’m an ally because I believe that empowering women in leadership is profoundly biblical and that the church is impoverished where patriarchy, male privilege and sexism reign. I really want a church where men and women are free to use their gifts in any context. I’m motivated because my leadership and faith journey have been shaped in powerful ways by women and I want the same for everyone.

Sounding a similar note, another man writes, “my goal is to use whatever voice and influence I have to develop women as leaders and help them find places to make the contribution that God intended them to make.” 

The testimonies of these men resonate with Jesus’s habitual allyship on behalf of women. In Mark 14, Jesus is in Bethany at the home of Simon the Leper. While at dinner, a woman comes into the room, breaks open an expensive jar of perfume, and uses her hair to anoint him. Some of those present judge the woman’s actions to be a waste and a disgrace. The text notes that some began to scold the woman. Jesus’s response both validates her actions and puts those critiquing her in their place. He says:

Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.9

These advocating words are those of a habitual ally. May it be so that more men in our faith communities travel a path that makes them more like Jesus in this way.

Implications

There are at least four key places in this pathway where communities of faith should focus in order to develop more men into more effective allies.

First, our communities need to be thoughtful about creating disruptive encounters. Whatever their starting position, we should be thoughtfully inviting men into the allyship journey by causing them to consider their privilege. This could involve making intentional choices with our programming, both in large and small groups. For instance, a sermon series on women in leadership, or power, or masculinity, could open up fertile ground from challenging someone’s paradigm. Alternatively, book discussion groups focused on these topics could also provide more intimate contexts for disruptive encounters.

Second, as or after paradigms are challenged, our communities of faith should apply pastoral energy to walk alongside men as they strive to interpret their disruptive experience. Process helpers such as mentors can make the difference in a man continuing forward toward heart change or sliding back to the starting place with a negative response. One way to utilize men who are in stage 7 is as guides to other men as they process during stage 3.

Third, communities of faith should also consider pastoring men through steps 4 and 5. Mentors can again be useful here; since this is another place where men can opt out of the pathway, it makes sense to provide guides at this step. Another option is the implementation of a cohort model. Gathering novice allies into a learning community as they make their initial attempts and experience pushback is a key way to help them through these steps. In addition, utilizing a man who has progressed through the entire pathway to facilitate these groups would be wise.

Finally, when men move from stage 6 into 7, our communities of faith should be intentional about celebrating their journeys along the pathway and commissioning them into service as allies. Further, community leaders should identify strategic places where allies can be deployed in their context and seek to match individual men with those opportunities. For instance, not every allyship opportunity calls for an advocate. Some men would be a better fit as pastoral support for women in their context.

Conclusion

To be sure, a diversity of strategies will be necessary in order for the church to more fully embrace a vision and practice of gender equality. One strategy should be developing more men into more effective allies for women in their contexts. The church needs a fresh crop of Andrew Grills. This standardized pathway can provide a roadmap for communities of faith to use in helping this become a reality.

Notes

1. Grill’s article can be found here: https://linkedin.com/pulse/hacking-all-male-conference-panel-problem-real-time-andrew-grill/?trk=prof-post. Bishop’s reflections on the event are here: https://talkingsocialmedia.co.uk/find-female-speakers-panel/.

2. Anne Bishop, Becoming an Ally: Breaking the Cycle of Oppression in People (Fernwood, 2015) 134. Similarly, Johnson and Smith define a male ally as a “member of an advantaged group committed to building relationships with women, expressing as little sexism in their own behavior as possible, understanding the social privilege conferred by their gender, and demonstrating active efforts to address gender inequalities at work and in society.” W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith, “How Men Can Become Better Allies to Women,” Harvard Business Review (Oct 12, 2018).

3. Diversity consultant Jennifer Brown charts allyship on a continuum, from apathetic (clueless and disinterested) to aware (understanding the issues but unengaged) to active (engaging, but only when asked) to advocate (proactive champions). See http://jenniferbrownconsulting.com/blog/from-unaware-to-accomplice-the-ally-continuum/.

4. When it comes to the roles of women and men both in the home and in ministry, there are two general theological camps. Complementarians believe that while men and women are created equal, God has designed men to be leaders, with women serving in supporting roles, both in the home and at church. By contrast, egalitarians believe in shared leadership between husband and wife, as well as the openness of all ministry roles for anyone, regardless of gender.

5. Karen Catlin defines privilege as “a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group. Due to our race, class, gender, sexual orientation, language, geographical location, ability, religion, and more, all of us have greater or lesser access to resources and social power.” Karen Catlin, Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces (Karen Catlin Consulting, 2019) 12.

6. In some respects, Mezirow’s transformative learning theory runs parallel to the allyship pathway described in this article. For instance, Mezirow’s eighth step is “provisionally trying out new roles,” which would be akin to the fourth step, where a man attempts to be an ally to women in his context. Jack Mezirow, Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning (Jossey-Bass, 1991) 168–69.

7. Johnson and Smith, “How Men Can Become Better Allies to Women.”

8. Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (InterVarsity, 2013) 41.

9. Mark 14:6–9, NRSV. Numerous passages confirm Jesus’s habitual allyship to women. For instance, he empowers and releases the woman at the well in John 4, he places himself in solidarity with the forgiven woman in John 8, and he heals and supports the faith-filled woman in Mark 5.


Editor's Note: Listen to Rob Dixon’s workshop, "Becoming an Ally: A Roadmap for Men Who Aspire to Advocate for Women," from CBE’s 2019 international conference, “Created to Thrive.”

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