Allyship Matters: How Men Can Help Accelerate Gender Equality in Health

When men are involved in workplace programs to promote gender inclusion, 96 percent of organizations see progress. That number drops to only 30 percent when men are not engaged. 

For change to come, we need to engage people of all genders. This is certainly true in the global health field, where women make up only a quarter of leadership despite making up 70 percent of the workforce.

How can men be involved in bringing about systemic change to correct this imbalance? We asked 14 global health leaders and advocates from across the world that very question. Here’s what they had to say.

 Be a Vocal Champion

Male allies should become far more explicit and vocal about their support to promoting women’s leadership than what has been hitherto. They must begin to question themselves, if they have done enough and how they could better their support. I am sure most would find out that they can’t stop doing just ‘one’ thing. They must demonstrate their support wherever possible in their own professional lives by encouraging women to take up leadership positions and enlist support from other male colleagues. The support for women’s leadership should remain unconditional irrespective of the colour, race, caste, disabilities and other forms of marginalization or well-known patriarchal arguments which prime women’s roles as caregivers and homemakers. It is the responsibility of the male allies and women allies as well to remain sensitive to these inherent biases and address them explicitly.”

Ravi Verma, Regional Director, International Center for Research on Women, WomenLift Health Global Advisory Board Member


“The COVID pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities between women and men in almost all areas of life. Men have been comfortable sidelining or undermining the role of women in leadership positions. This is a bitter truth in global health. So, men allies need to invest themselves in understanding the importance of healthy masculinities in global health and women’s representation in leadership roles. Thus, we need to support and make space for women, and listen to the voices of women and girls. Their voices must be included in every decision-making level. We need to be partners in the fight for a gender equal world, amplifying women’s voices and confronting inequitable structures. Gender equality is not just a women’s issue and it’s an issue that affects everyone. Thus, gender equality and promoting women’s leadership will only be achieved when women and men work together. The world with equality would be a just and inclusive society.”

Ye Min Ko, Women Deliver Young Leader, Research Officer at Population Services International Myanmar


“I would like my male colleagues to support women and girls as they can. Women’s health is very crucial to the survival of communities and entire nations. The lack of harmony and the non-involvement of men in this fight against violence can exacerbate inequalities between societies and disrupt community structures. The pandemic has reproduced colonial structures of power, wealth and extraction, and has further divided people into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Without collective awareness of men and boys for immediate action by communities, national governments, civil society and the private sector, only the few nations that hold the most global wealth will recover. Girls and women cannot wait any longer, I call on the responsibility of my male peers to join us in championing gender equality and stop believing that gender equality is only for women, it is a very important fact for stability and one of the most beautiful legacies to leave to our children.”

Sylvain Obedi, Member of Generation Equality Youth Task Force, Country Coordinator for Enable the Disable Action


Listen to Women’s Experiences and Ideas

“Without a doubt, now is the time for men to immediately strengthen their deep and intentional listening of all women, trans, intersex and gender non-conforming folks in the places where they operate. Talk less and make space, period. This is not the moment to showcase how ‘woke’ you are and what you’ve done to advance gender equity. This is the moment for radical co-conspiracy, which does mean doing their own work, like unlearning toxic masculinities and dismantling white supremacies in themselves, in their institutions, and committing to support other men to do the same. And p.s., just do it. We do not need to always hear about it.”

Erin Williams, Program Director – Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice, Global Fund for Women, WomenLift Health Leadership Journey Member, 2021 US Cohort


“This year, I would like male allies to listen and learn. I would encourage male allies to listen to the lived experiences of their friends, family, neighbours, and coworkers alike, as well as to global advocates for gender and health equity. I would then implore them to continue their learning by accessing resources, online and in their communities to better support positive impact in this space. Male allies play an imperative role in advancing equality, and their empathy, understanding and collaboration are critical to developing inclusive, scalable and sustainable solutions.”

Avery Johnstone, Women Deliver Young Leader, Canadian Council of Young Feminists Youth Advisor 


“As a male leader myself, in these times of the pandemic, I have learnt the importance of communication, more so with women team members who sometimes do not open up about the challenges they face. Work from home has changed the working environment for all of us, but women are taking greater roles at home and trying to divide time to be productive and efficient on all fronts. In my view, as male allies, an important thing we can do is recognize, communicate, be non-judgemental and be flexible – give them a safe space to express and create. And this is not just for colleagues but more importantly for women in our families and communities. The women of today want to progress on merit and do not like special favours – but they do want an equal measuring scale, and it is our responsibility to ensure that.”

Vinoj Manning, CEO, Ipas Development Foundation, Women Leaders in Global Health 2020 Conference Speaker


Be a Mentor

“This year has been brutal for women in so many ways and has eroded important gains that women have made in global health. Male allies have an opportunity to promote women’s leadership by supporting policies that disproportionately impact women (e.g., paid family leave), while supporting loved ones at home by engaging in caregiving roles to other family members (e.g., children) to free up women’s time. There are so many opportunities for sponsorship – from inviting women to speak in key discussions (and ensuring that it really is the end of the ‘manel’) to tangibly supporting their promotion, which can include writing letters of support or providing opportunities for women to excel (e.g., asking them to be co-authors on a paper, lead a discussion, or represent a team at a conference).”

Ingrid Katz, Associate Faculty Director of Harvard Global Health Institute, WomenLift Health Leadership Journey Member, 2020 US Cohort


“Select two women either within your organization or elsewhere in global health to mentor. Work with them to set development goals, listen to them, and support them to achieve those goals.”

Bindiya Patel, Managing Director, Programs and Innovation, PATH, WomenLift Health Leadership Journey Member, 2020 US Cohort


“Right now, we need to proactively counter the regressive impact of biased decision-making about women in professional roles. Nominate, promote, and support your female colleagues in taking on new leadership roles. Avoid making the biased assumption that those with caregiving responsibilities will choose to opt out of leadership opportunities. When you hear a co-worker say, ‘She already has too much on her plate,’ respond with ‘Let’s pick the most qualified person for the role and let her decide.’ When a female colleague tells you she is too busy to continue in a role or take on a new one, don’t just accept this immediately. Instead, try responding with ‘You are really the best person for this role. What support do you need to be able to add this to your plate?’”

Katherine Van Loon, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine, Director of Global Cancer Program

University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), WomenLift Health Leadership Journey Member, 2021 US Cohort


Take a Bigger Role at Home

“Women are an important part of the healthcare workforce. Please consider staying home to care for children and elders and allow your female partner to return to the workforce until childcare, schooling and eldercare services can fully return.”

Stephanie Gallagher, Senior Technical Advisor, Private Sector – Healthcare Practice, Palladium, WomenLift Health Leadership Journey Member, 2021 US Cohort


Lean Out

“Male allyship is not about speaking on behalf of women but rather starts with listening to women.  There are existing power structures and power asymmetries, and the temptation is to retain one’s power — ostensibly to use it for good — while remaining in the spotlight.  For example, to elevate other voices from more marginalized or less-represented backgrounds, provided that one is visibly seen to be ‘passing the mic’. The existing power structures and existing range of presently-amplified voices will not be enough to achieve the outcomes we all want.  So one thing male allies should do this year is seek out perspectives of women not currently in our circles, listen to those voices and allow them to shape our points of view, and find ways to shift power. Allyship is about showing up over the long haul, listening and learning, building trust, and not caring whether one is visible.”

Philip Welkhoff, Director of Malaria, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation


“Male allies have to intentionally give up some of their space in global health. They can suggest a female colleague speak on a panel instead of them, suggest a woman lead the task force instead of them. Either make more seats at the table for women, or step away from the table so that others can sit down.”

Callie Simon, Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Advisor and Team Lead, Save the Children, WomenLift Health Leadership Journey Member, 2020 US Cohort


“The past several months have shown that when women are involved and lead in global health, they bring a collaborative, caring and compassionate perspective, driven by science and evidence, where everyone benefits. Male allies are critical partners for women to step in and lead within global health spheres. This year, as the pandemic continues to highlight gender disparities in global health leadership and global health overall, it is imperative that male allies (specifically male leaders in positions of power) step up to actively partner with, promote, mentor, sponsor and, at times, deliberately lean out and make space for women to assume leadership roles and positions in global health. This is especially needed in settings where additional cultural and resource barriers exist for women to lean in.”

Kashmira Date, Director – Global Medical Affairs Leader (Vaccines), Johnson & Johnson Global Public Health, WomenLift Health Leadership Journey Member, 2020 US Cohort


Educate Yourself on the Issues

“3 key words for men allies: STOP AND THINK!!! Do I truly understand the inequities that women (and their children) face in the sphere of global health? Do I understand how COVID has exacerbated those inequities? Do I reflect on which people I work with in the field of global health to ensure I include women? Am I willing to mentor female colleagues who wish to grow in global health and am I willing to give them real responsibilities? Will I support gender specific research to illuminate the challenges and provide a solution? Am I aware and sensitive to the system changes required to improve equity?Finally, do I appreciate the tremendous impact of protecting female health, women’s education and women’s economic empowerment in achieving the SDGs?”

Alex Coutinho, Board Chair, International Partnership for Microbicides, Women Leaders in Global Health 2020 Conference Speaker


We hope you find this guidance useful — whether you’re a male ally or looking for ways to engage men in the movement for gender equality in global health and beyond.