Four Actions Overlooked by Even the Most Well – Intentioned Allies


While my book, Her Allies: A Practical Toolkit to Help Men through Advocacy, explores various ways in which men can become more supportive allies to women, including concepts such as active listening, advocacy, and speaking out when needed, this article aims to shine a spotlight on certain aspects that have not received as much attention despite their potential to influence a woman’s psychological safety significantly. This is especially pertinent for women hailing from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. Though not surprising and counterintuitive to most, these aspects often get overlooked. Here, I will outline four crucial actions that allies should focus on:

Not respecting personal space:

One area that often goes overlooked is the issue of not respecting personal boundaries. Many individuals tend to overlook this aspect, assuming it’s inconsequential. For instance, actions like placing one’s arm around a female colleague, leaning in too closely while taking a photograph or working on a laptop, or engaging in unsolicited physical contact such as handshakes and hugs can inadvertently make some women uncomfortable. Allies need to recognise and respect a woman’s need for physical autonomy. Understanding that hugging or touching her without permission may be inappropriate is crucial. Even if consent was given on a prior occasion, it should not be assumed for every subsequent interaction.

Furthermore, it’s essential to acknowledge that some women may require a larger personal space due to cultural norms or personal preferences when approached by men. For survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence, maintaining a safe distance is especially critical, as infringing upon their personal space can be terrifying. Additionally, it’s worth considering that cultural norms related to eye contact may influence how individuals maintain eye contact during conversations, and this should not be mistaken for a lack of confidence.

Employing diminutive language or incorrect forms of address:

Using derogatory terms such as ‘love,’ ‘dear,’ or ‘hon’ when addressing colleagues can have unintended adverse effects. These nicknames can undermine a woman’s authority, even if meant without ill intent. Referring to women with such “endearing” names, mispronouncing them, or unnecessarily shortening their names for convenience can often be offensive. It is crucial to remain mindful of these common missteps. Addressing individuals with the correct forms of address is indeed crucial. It’s imperative not to make assumptions about people’s gender, as one cannot discern if someone is non-binary solely based on appearance, just as one cannot determine if someone is transgender just by how they look. When in doubt about someone’s pronouns, asking is always a good practice.

Non-binary individuals may use a variety of pronouns; some prefer “they,” while others may opt for “he” or “she,” and there are those who use alternative pronouns. Although inquiring about someone’s preferred pronoun may initially feel uncomfortable, it remains one of the simplest and most fundamental ways to demonstrate respect for an individual’s identity.

Posing culturally insensitive or presumptuous questions:

Asking questions is essential to being a helpful and informed ally. The more informed you are, the better equipped you’ll be to make your colleagues feel more at ease. However, how you ask is equally important. It’s crucial to inquire in a way that doesn’t come across as intrusive or ignorant. Posing culturally insensitive or presumptuous questions may backfire. For instance, a male colleague once inquired about a female colleague’s first disco experience when she had never been to a disco before. Or when a male ally assumes that a woman wearing a hijab is conservative and makes naive and uninformed decisions or inquiries based on this assumption.

Fostering inclusivity, awareness, and respect for non-mainstream traditions and practices is crucial, including not assuming all women share identical experiences and interests. Male allies must recognise that certain practices and beliefs may be unfamiliar but could be a fundamental aspect of a woman’s belief system. In various cultures, the customary way of [doing/celebrating/following] traditions may differ from what male allies are accustomed to seeing women do within their own culture.

As an ally, it is essential to recognise and honour individual choices and preferences without passing judgment or resorting to generalisations. Respecting cultural practices and values can empower you to ask more informed and culturally sensitive questions, allowing you to take meaningful actions and foster a positive impact.

Paying compliments or giving gifts.

Not all women are comfortable receiving them, especially if it involves comments on physical attributes such as how they look and what they wear. Well-intentioned remarks that make the recipient uneasy need to be avoided. People have varying levels of importance attached to their appearance, regardless of gender. However, in particular, women aim to be recognised for their achievements rather than their looks. The advice is to avoid commenting on superficial aspects of a woman’s appearance and focus on their professional accomplishments if you wish to compliment them.

It is crucial to distinguish between personal and non-personal gifts when gifting female colleagues. Personal gifts encompass items that come into contact with your body, such as cosmetics, perfume, clothing, accessories, etc. Many women consider these items to be inappropriate gifts in a workplace context. On the other hand, non-personal gifts include items like books, mugs, stationery, etc., which are generally more acceptable in a professional setting. These classifications may vary based on personal preferences, individual comfort level and your relationship with the colleague. Still, the purpose is to acknowledge the distinction between intimate and non-intimate gifts, some of which could make women uneasy despite best intentions.


Hira Ali

An inspiring leadership development specialist, executive career coach, and acclaimed writer and speaker, Hira's work has been published in The Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Telegraph, B.B.C., Harper's Bazaar, Independent, C.B.C., Huff Post, and Entrepreneur, among hundreds of other print, radio and television outlet. Founder of Advancing Your Potential and champion of inclusive allyship programs and diverse talent management initiatives, she is also the award-winning author of two transformational books: Her Way To The Top: A Guide to Smashing the Glass Ceiling and Her Allies: A Practical Toolkit to Help Men Lead Through Advocacy. 
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