The Critical Role of Male Allies in Forging Gender Equity in Health Leadership

According to the 2023 Global Gender Gap Index no country has yet achieved full gender parity. In the pursuit of gender equity within global health, the conversation often centres around empowering women, breaking glass ceilings, and inspiring the next generation of female leaders, which is justifiable. However, there’s a crucial element in this narrative that demands more attention: the role of active male allies to the attainment of gender parity in health leadership. To truly advance gender equity in health leadership, we must critically look at how men, who often hold most leadership roles, can become active participants in this transformation.

Our East Africa Communication Manager, Liberty Kituu, recently engaged in discussions with Mr. Dunstan Matungwa from Tanzania and Dr. Brian Madison from South Sudan, along with Dr. Brian Kizito from Kenya. These accomplished professionals in the health sector are male advocates in the region, and together, they delved into strategies for male allies to actively contribute to creating environments that promote the advancement of gender equity in health leadership.

Why is gender equality important to you, and what motivates you to be an active male ally for gender equity?


Dr. Brian Kizito: At the core of everything is the fact that we are all human and as such, everyone’s humanity needs to be accepted. Against this background, I believe in broad perspectives on issues from all angles. Any organization that pits one gender against the other risks developing blind spots. The surest way to build an all-inclusive culture is to ensure equality. Equity ensures that everyone’s contribution is equally considered.

Mr. Dunstan Matungwa: I believe in the fundamental equality of all humans, transcending differences in class, race, gender, age, religion, sexuality, and abilities. We share basic needs and human dignity, deserving equal respect and recognition. My commitment to this principle drives my resistance to all forms of inequity, including gender inequality. Despite some progress, women still face historical and social disadvantages. These are not natural but social in their origin, and can therefore be changed. My goal is to promote fairness and implement strategies that level the playing field for both women and men, preventing a regression to past inequities.

Can you share a pivotal moment or experience that shaped your perspective on male ally ship for gender equity?

Dr. Brian Kizito: I once worked on a team in which we were expected to meet deliverables under less-than-ideal circumstances. This request kept coming from one of my leaders, a senior to me at the time, and it was simple. Despite her belief in herself, she felt that she did not always make sense. She asked for my perspective and, where possible, my support as she executed her responsibilities. Later, I learned that she was suffering from postpartum depression at the time and found it extremely difficult to handle all of these competing priorities, and in a way, my role as a silent male ally to the women on that team had given her some hope and impetus to continue with her work as she continued to seek professional help outside of the work setting. That really jolted me.

Dr. Brian Madison: Gender equality holds immense personal significance for me. Growing up surrounded by strong women—sisters, aunts, and friends—I witnessed their resilience in the face of societal hurdles imposed by a male-dominated culture. Despite these challenges, they emerged triumphant. The lingering question is, “How much more could they achieve with equal opportunities?”

My unwavering commitment as an active ally to gender equality stems from the desire to witness women, who constitute half of world’s population, thrive with the same opportunities as men. The ultimate payoff extends beyond individual happiness; it lies in the enrichment of humanity itself. Equal chances unlock a reservoir of ideas, energy, and creativity, fostering a stronger and more vibrant community for us all.

What challenges have you faced in your journey as a male ally for gender equity, and how did you overcome them?

Mr. Dunstan Matungwa: Firstly, rumors have been spread about me having inappropriate motives for supporting women and girls, damaging my reputation, and deterring some from seeking my help. Secondly, my actions have led to belittling remarks that question my masculinity, suggesting that supporting women and girls is a sign of weakness. Despite these obstacles, I remain steadfast in my commitment to diversity and the belief that empowering both women and men will make the world a better place. My convictions and good intention are unshaken by these baseless rumors.

Dr. Brian Kizito: My efforts as a male ally have been misconstrued by some, leading to rumours and labels of womanizing, which can undermine my professional position, particularly when working with direct reports.

What strategies or initiatives would you suggest encouraging more men to become active allies?

Dr. Brian Kizito: Women leading their own journeys inspire both genders. My career in reproductive health has been shaped by remarkable women leaders, though I’ve also encountered those who foster micro-aggression and resist feedback, hindering genuine efforts for workplace equity. Encouraging a culture where both men and women can openly discuss and understand the challenges women leaders face is crucial. Many men avoid these conversations. Creating a space for open dialogue, vulnerability, and actionable steps can help to engage more men in supporting gender equity.

Dr. Brian Madison: Frequently, we encounter individuals influenced by the mindset of women’s subservience, often driven by apprehension towards the success of talented women traditionally relegated to inferior roles. To address this antagonism, it is crucial to comprehend its origins. My strategy is to make them understand that male allyship and women’s empowerment in itself is an opportunity, not a threat.

Mr. Dunstan Matungwa: First, it is important to educate as many men as possible, in organizations, how unconscious bias shapes decisions that relate to hiring, development, and promotion. Data showing how internalized gender bias affects these three processes can be used to substantiate the argument and why it is important to change it.

Second, communities and organizations can support the creation of active male ally groups that can promote gender supportive behaviors in their workplaces and beyond. More men can be encouraged to join these groups to learn and become male allies too.

How do you envision the future of male allyship and its role in achieving gender equality in health leadership?

Mr. Dunstan Matungwa: Male allyship is crucial for gender equity but faces challenges in patriarchal societies, particularly in Africa. Men supporting women and girls are often demeaned, leading many to abandon or resist their allyship. To counter this, more supportive strategies are needed. Affirmative action measures that have been successful in education and political leadership for women could be extended to organizations and communities. For example, laws could mandate equal gender representation in leadership roles, ensuring that if there are ten positions, five are reserved for women and five for men.

Dr. Brian Madison: A paradigm shift is necessary for rethinking gender equality in health leadership which should be regarded as an invaluable resource enhancing our communities and the world at large. I believe that educating our children about gender equality from an early age is crucial. This will ensure that they grow up to be strong women and ardent male allies.

Dr. Brian Kizito: In the global health landscape’s push for equal pay and inclusive leadership, two scenarios emerge. First, while there’s an increase in men positioning themselves as allies, without addressing systemic workplace challenges for women, these actions alone may not yield effective results. Second, the rise of more male champions could lead to a clearer understanding of active allyship. Achieving gender equality in health leadership depends on evaluating current practices, men realizing that allyship is about recognizing humanity, and women speaking out against systemic workplace challenges. Balancing these elements is key to ensuring proactive efforts in fostering gender equality in global health leadership.

Male allies need to engage in critical self-reflection and understand that gender equality is not a zero-sum game but a collective gain. By fostering mentorship programs, advocating for policy changes that promote work-life harmony, and calling out discrimination, men can aid in crafting a health ecosystem that is truly egalitarian.

Critically, the involvement of male allies in gender equity must move beyond performative allyship to active allyship which requires genuine commitment to understanding the nuanced barriers women face, from the gender pay gap to the scarcity of women in surgical fields. It’s not enough to just ‘talk the talk’; men must ‘walk the walk’, ensuring their actions are consistent with their words, a concept that is often missing from the dialogue.