Johnson WB and Smith DG. Cultivating HeForShe Allies: How to find and develop productive professional relationships with male allies. Presented at: Women In Medicine Summit; Sept. 24-25, 2021 (virtual meeting).

Disclosures: Johnson and Smith report no relevant financial disclosures.
October 14, 2021
4 min read

Male allyship of female physicians entails mentorship, equality at home


Johnson WB and Smith DG. Cultivating HeForShe Allies: How to find and develop productive professional relationships with male allies. Presented at: Women In Medicine Summit; Sept. 24-25, 2021 (virtual meeting).

Disclosures: Johnson and Smith report no relevant financial disclosures.
You've successfully added to your alerts. You will receive an email when new content is published.

Click Here to Manage Email Alerts

We were unable to process your request. Please try again later. If you continue to have this issue please contact

In his presentation at the Women In Medicine Summit, W. Brad Johnson, PhD, acknowledged the oddness of the fact that he and his co-presenter David G. Smith, PhD, were “two men at a women’s conference.”

“We often get the question, ‘Who are you guys to be talking about relationships with women in the workplace?’” Johnson said. “We understand that, and we take it on board. We just want to share with you the methodology of our research, which was a qualitative methodology that involved going out and interviewing lots and lots of women, usually at the top of their careers, and asking them, ‘What does it look like for you when a male really shows up as a mentor, a sponsor or a good ally?’”

Stock photo of male and female physicians discussing information. Source: Adobe Stock photo.
Source: Adobe Stock photo.

Smith and Johnson discussed the lack of mentorship and sponsorship of female physicians, the gap in perceived allyship and how the #MeToo movement has engendered fear and hesitation among potential male allies.

Lack of mentorship

Johnson cited a comparative lack of mentorship provided to female physicians across all medical specialties, also noting that women are less frequently sponsored for career-enhancing opportunities. He discussed his and Smith’s surveys of men on why they are reluctant to play a mentoring role for female trainees.

“When Dave and I were doing our research, one of the things we encountered were the number of reasons that men feel reluctant to engage,” Johnson said. “This could include everything from anxiety to not knowing what to do, to not wanting to make a mistake.”

Some men expressed concerns about being attracted to a woman they are mentoring, noting that this might be awkward or difficult. Johnson refuted this belief using neuroscience.

“It turns out, we men have a frontal lobe,” he said. “The beauty of this is that I can be aware that someone is attractive and also exercise judgement, impulse control and boundaries.”

Johnson said although this sentiment was lighthearted, a serious and valuable message can be taken from it.

“We say this tongue-in-cheek, but there is some real truth to this,” he said. “If men would just do ‘exposure therapy’ and have more collegial relationships with women at work, the anxiety piece wouldn’t inhibit their interactions.”

He said #MeToo has turned up the volume on that anxiety and has unfortunately contributed to a false narrative about the “dangers” of mentoring women.

“After #MeToo came along, we saw data showing a huge number of men who now say, ‘I’m not comfortable mentoring women, it’s dangerous,’” Johnson said. “Part of our job as male allies is to push back on the false narratives. #MeToo is quite straightforward. Women would like to come to work and not be assaulted or harassed. Yet, we’re hearing a false narrative suggesting that the problem is women who make false accusations. This simply is not true.”

A ‘36-minute pledge’

Johnson told of a successful allyship effort implemented by J.P. Morgan after the company found itself losing talented female employees.

“On exit interviews, some of these women were saying, ‘There was no mentoring, no sponsoring; I got the sense that nobody really cared about me,’” he said. “So, they started asking the men, who were the majority of power holders, to take a 36-minute a week pledge, where they spend 30 minutes taking a talented junior female colleague to coffee, just finding out about her career and where she’d like to go, and how they can contribute.”

Additionally, these men committed to spending an additional 5 minutes giving a female friend or colleague a shout-out for an award or achievement, as well as 1 minute telling senior members of the company about that accomplishment. The effort showed results quickly.

“Within just a few years, J.P. Morgan started to see a lot more women advancing,” he said. “This is not a heavy lift. It’s an easy ally action in 36 minutes a week.”

Allyship begins at home

Johnson discussed a study that found that although 77% of men believe “men are doing everything they can to advance gender equity in the workplace,” only 44% of women agreed on this point.

“People have different definitions or ideas about what allyship includes,” he said. “We want to at least know how to approach this. Through our research, we identified three main parts to it — interpersonal allyship, public allyship and systemic allyship.”

Interpersonal allyship describes how an individual shows up and holds himself accountable for the work of being an ally in their relationships with others. Public allyship entails another level of commitment, and requires “putting skin in the game,” Johnson said.

“In this case, it feels like I’m putting myself out there and accepting a bit of personal or professional risk,” he said. “Now it’s not just me that I have to hold accountable, it’s my team.”

Systemic allyship involves working to correct institutional biases or deeply embedded inequalities, such as pay gaps. Johnson said although systemic allyship is allyship at the highest level, men would be wise to start small when undertaking this goal.

“One of the things Dave and I encountered when speaking to men about allyship is that men get really fired up and think ‘OK, I am ready to do this,’” he said. “They can be a little bit disappointed when our messaging to them as that this actually starts at home.”

He discussed the disparities between genders in domestic responsibilities, citing the fact that women traditionally do roughly twice the amount of domestic work and child care, a situation made worse by the pandemic.

“Our message to men is that you have to start our allyship at home. Go home and do a domestic audit,” Johnson said. “Ask your partner if you are really showing up, if you are doing your full share. And don’t get defensive about the response. Just ask how you can step up.”

He said stepping up does not necessarily only involve doing the dishes or sharing in child care.

“It’s also keeping lists, planning events, knowing your children’s clothing sizes — these are things that typically default to women,” he said. “We’re never going to get to gender equity at work if men are not doing more equitable stuff at home.”