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What does it mean to be a male ally in a feminist organization?

by Paula Baker | May 11, 2021


by Paula Baker | May 10, 2021

Male ally. Google it. I did. You’ll get a myriad of search results that lean heavily on the ‘how-to’ component of being one. Terms like ‘tempered radical’, ‘wimp effect’, ‘fake feminists’ come up in many publications.

And yet, in a world where creating inclusive and diverse communities has moved up the priority list, it’s a goal that doesn’t just happen by watching it come together from the sidelines. When considering another generation of women will need to wait for gender parity – 135.6 years to be exact – men need to be in the game to move the dial because a century is too long to wait.

But what is a male ally? What does being one look like working in a feminist organization that is made up predominantly by people who identify as women? Many women’s rights and international development organizations have a majority of women on staff and as supporters. Do you have to call yourself a feminist to work in this arena?

Speaking to three men at Oxfam Canada – the board chair, an extractive industries policy specialist and an international program officer, who have three distinct and varied life, cultural and professional experiences – shows the complex nature and nuances of calling yourself a male feminist and doing the work of a male ally.

Are you a male feminist?

“This has been controversial for me in Oxfam circles in the past… I actually do not call myself a feminist,” Ricardo Acuña said.

It’s an unconventional answer from the man who chairs Oxfam Canada’s Board of Directors. But he qualifies his belief by saying he has “no problem identifying as an ally but I feel that feminism is a movement that comes from a lived experienced, a lived background of oppression, and not having lived that experience… for me calling myself a feminist would do an injustice to that background.”

For Acuña, who has spent the better part of 30 years working in community, non-profit, labour and political organizations, his other concern around men calling themselves a feminist lay in the trendiness of the term.

“There are a lot of woke bros out there walking around calling themselves feminists and in so many ways it goes against one of the fundamental tenants of allyship, which is ‘don’t make this about yourself’.”

But for René Guerra Salazar, an International Program Officer with strong roots in activism particularly in his native home of El Salvador, he does consider himself a feminist. It has nothing to do with him being a ‘woke bro’. Instead, he echoes Acuña’s belief of lived experiences and whilst Guerra Salazar will never know what it’s like to walk in a woman’s shoes, his commitment to the movement comes from intellectual exposure and the belief that the goals of feminism encompass all of us.

“Coming to it was, for me, intellectual – exposure to feminist literature, concepts and firsthand to feminist struggles,” Guerra Salazar said.

“I can think of so many role models from my birth country – so many strong feminist leaders from El Salvador that gave up their lives, gave up their families, gave up their futures to make the world a better place. How can you not be inspired by that?”

René with Tz'ununija' Indigenous Women's Movement members as part of the feminist Women's Voice and Leadership - Guatemala project. René with Tz’ununija’ Indigenous Women’s Movement members as part of the feminist Women’s Voice and Leadership – Guatemala project.

And then there’s Ian Thomson, an extractive industries policy specialist, who lands somewhere in the middle with his view on fitting into the feminism puzzle. Whilst Thomson considers himself part of the feminist movement, he doesn’t apply the label feminist to himself.

“It’s not a label I like to apply to myself, although it’s very fashionable these days to label yourself a feminist,” Thomson said. “I always feel that if through my work and actions, other people recognize me as a feminist, then I’m on the right track.”

Unlike Acuña and Guerra Salazar, whose activism roots are hard-wired and run deep, Thomson spent part of his journey re-wiring what he’d learned. An engineering student in a heavily male-dominated discipline and faculty, he was steeped in the ‘old boys club.’

“For me, part of this journey has been a lot of ‘unlearning’ and [Guerra Salazar’s] comments really resonated with me about having lived experience or not, and what a difference that makes,” Thomson said.

“Obviously we all have a lived experience of gender but we don’t have that lived experience of gender oppression. How that informs my understanding, I know there are limits… and I recognize that, and I try to be upfront about it.”

Why Oxfam Canada?

Acuña, who walked away from Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) after years of working in the sector, returned to Oxfam to sit on the board due to what he calls their mission of “transformative” change. Historically, he said, “the NGO sector has been a pink-collar ghetto, where you have women doing the hard day-to-day work and men in the leadership positions.”

“And Oxfam… they weren’t creating structures outside the public sector but actually working to create advocacy and mobilize people – and through its advocacy work, pushing the envelope politically. And those were all things that were necessary and missing when I walked away from the sector in the late 90s,” Acuña said.

“I got to witness Oxfam’s transformation from an organization that embraced gender justice to a feminist organization. I came for the advocacy-based social justice work and stayed for the feminism.”

Thomson is in it for the people – not the colleagues per se, but the partners, the coalitions and the movements leading the work.

“It’s the people we work with around the world and sometimes it’s people I’ve worked with even if I’m not directly collaborating with them,” Thomson said.

“You feel affected. You can’t let these systems of injustice exist once you’ve been with them and accompanied them in their struggle. You can say it’s tough and it’s hard and sometimes it seems like things are getting worse, not better but it is so inspiring. And it’s also what gives me hope as a parent [of two girls] and as someone who is also thinking about what the next generation looks like.”

Now, onto that male allyship idea

Guerra Salazar (like Thomson) is the only man on his team and it’s something he’s acutely aware and mindful of daily.

“I’m very aware of it because allyship isn’t about feeling better about myself,” Guerra Salazar said about the role allyship plays in his work and life.

“I take my [allyship] cue from the many amazing organizations we work with. Often times when we’re accompanying gender justice programming – one of the first things that comes back is how can we strengthen our work. How can we improve the impacts we’re trying to achieve.”

Guerra Salazar says his work often comes back to “how do we bring men and boys on board? How do we change those relations? How do we change those gender norms so that the onus isn’t just on women to make the change happen?”

He suggests the responsibility is largely on men to make the space for change to happen.

“I think we need to be constantly aware of what we do to facilitate women to be in leadership positions [and] facilitate spaces where we’re not in the driver’s seat. I think a good ally recognizes that… and when you need to stop and check yourself.”

Adding to Guerra Salazar’s reflections and looking through a policy lens, Thomson believes male allies have another role to play in gender justice.

“When we look at normative change in society, one of the things that Oxfam works on is what is the role of male allies in gender justice… on an individual level but also as a change strategy as a way we’re going to change the world,” he said.

Lots of nice things have been written down about gender equality and gender justice,  including in laws and policies, but the world is still a very patriarchal place. So how are we going to change that? In policy advocacy, we spend so much time on changing what’s written down in law and in policy and yet so much of the transformation that’s needed in the world is going to happen through normative things that aren’t necessarily written down.”

Listening to these three men speak about the work of male feminist allies it shows that the role needs to act as amplifier, supporter, resource and convener.

“It’s not enough to have an understanding of privilege and oppression and justice because just having that knowledge won’t make the difference,” Acuña says.

“You have to do the work to bring that knowledge into how you operate. You have to do the hard work of bringing that understanding into everything you do. Otherwise that understanding remains at an academic level and although it may enable you to say very nice things, you’re not doing anything transformative or meaningful with that understanding.”

And where does that leave the feminist movement if it’s not transforming?

It is so clear in listening to these compassionate and humble men that there is a role for men and boys to play in advancing women’s rights and gender justice. And it’s not about calling yourself a feminist. Whether you take that label or not, if you commit to supporting women who have been marginalized, if you create space for women to take leadership and power where they didn’t have it before, if you are willing to unlearn the assumptions and gender stereotypes that are pervasive in our society, then you are doing the work.