The Male Champions Of Change movement is helping to share the responsibility for gender-balance between women and men. This represents a fundamental and welcome progression in promoting inclusive leadership.

The promise of the male allies movement can be amplified if we each think about our own network, and identify who we can inspire to show greater support for gender balance. And then show them how to do it.

Why do men decide to be champions of change for gender balance?

Professor Isabel Metz interviewed over 40 members of various Australian Male Champions of Change groups, to understand their motivations for participating.

Supporters were motivated by personal reasons such as existing positive attitudes, ‘I want to make a difference’.

Bystanders were motivated by external pressures from stakeholders: ’It seems like it’s the right thing to do’.  

Sceptics were prompted by ‘ulterior personal motives’ such as gaining status and visibility ‘I’ll do this to make myself look better to people I want to impress’. Metz noted that Resistors are unlikely to join such a group.

Champions and supporters successfully change attitudes

Amongst her findings, Metz identified that many Bystanders became more passionate about gender equity once they were members of a champions group, and she attributes this to their gaining a better understanding of the issues.

By bringing men together to focus on gender equality, men are influencing each other in powerful ways. They are more exposed to positive messages, and are introduced to an array of constructive possible actions.

Supporters are effective at changing the attitudes of Bystanders as they demonstrate their credibility and trustworthiness by clear and consistent messages that have personal congruence. 

Persuasion is effective at changing explicitly held attitudes

It’s pretty well known that powerful influencers change our explicit attitudes. We are more likely to be persuaded by information that comes from someone who has a high level of expertise or a high degree of trustworthiness.

This certainly applies when men in leadership roles are Supporters and Bystanders. Their high credibility and trustworthiness, coupled with strong and well-articulated messages, is highly likely to change minds. This is an instance where affinity bias can actually work for change rather than against it.

However, the caution is with the Sceptics and Resistors. Attempts at persuasion backfire when the message is weak; weak messaging and a lack of credibility may create, or reinforce, attitudes opposing equality.

Persuasion can also change implicit attitudes

Consciously held attitudes adapt in response to a wide range of change techniques. Until recently attempts to change unconscious associations have been seen to be limited and have focused in two major ways; either over-training associations in their opposite direction or interrupting associations.

While a direct appeal from a credible source to influence opinion works well at the explicit level, it appears that persuasion works differently at the implicit level. Implicit evaluations only change when we have plenty of ‘cognitive bandwidth’ available, that is, when we are not overloaded and have the time to think deliberately. Research shows that highly credible sources can change our implicit attitudes when we pay attention to the message and are not distracted.

It takes a lot of thinking effort to override implicit attitudes, no matter how persuasive the message or messenger. However, it can be done.

How to increase the number of Champions in your own network

You can translate these lessons to your own network. Using this continuum, identify people in your network that you can move further to the right.

Think of this as another pipeline. We focus so much on the pipeline of women who are ready for more senior roles. Add this pipeline of male support into your mix.   


Inspire more champions of change


Champions are motivated by existing positive attitudes, they get the value of gender balance, and stand up to advocate for it. Supporters get it too, but they’re going about what they do quietly and without much recognition. Their work has great value, but would benefit from amplification, letting people know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

Bystanders are neither for nor against gender-balance; they’ll do what they’re told to do and change when the environment around them requires it. Pressure from others and feeling out of step with peers are what motivate them to change their behaviour.

Sceptics ask why, which projects opposition, and directs everyone’s efforts to convincing them otherwise. Sceptics can be guided by their need for status.

And Resistors just say no; they actively oppose moves towards gender balance.

Senior men are powerful advocates, highly persuasive and they set the tone. By using their ability to persuade, and the power of affinity bias, it is possible to move more men to the right. How can you amplify this effect in your own male allies’ pipeline?

Tactics for change

Tactics for the Champions in your pipeline include thanking and encouraging them, offering to help, joining in with their activities, and perhaps most powerfully, sharing their stories with others.

Who are the Supporters you know? They are doing the right thing quietly. I was mentoring a senior leader on inclusive leadership and he shared his philosophy of inclusion with me. He spoke passionately about how he believed his teams were particularly innovative as a consequence. He was saying all the right things, and there was a great deal of passion in his stories.

I asked him who knew about his approach and his stories? I was aware that it certainly wasn’t his reputation. I asked him, ‘What if he had a reputation for being a champion?’  and ‘What would he like his legacy to be? And we then had a very engaging conversation about how he could be a champion, and ways to go about it.  

As a senior organisational leader he is powerful and highly credible, his messages carry great weight. People pay particular attention to, and are more likely to be persuaded by, information that comes from a source having a high level of expertise or high degree of trustworthiness. He could move from being a Supporter to being a Champion in the organisation if he publicly told his stories. Help the Supporters you know to share more about what they are doing and why they are doing it.

I think of Bystanders as the walking on eggshells group. They hold themselves back because they are too concerned about getting it right, they worry too much about offending others. They’d take action with guidance, yet aren’t sure just what to do. Make the action they could take specific and clear, and expect them to do it. Bystanders respond well to having accountabilities for change.

Sceptics, particularly if they are generally sceptical people, have a tendency to say no to suggestions. It’s an automatic response pattern. Don’t take it at face value. And don’t try to convince them with alternative facts. Seek to understand where they are coming from and what their concerns are.  

One senior leader in an organisation was identified as being in this category. He was an engineer and his default response was to say no, and come up with objections for why not. In my conversation with him, instead trying to convince him of what to do, or what to believe, I invited him to tell his own story of when he’d been in a diverse working environment and what it was like. He told an amazing story of his experience working in a diverse team and what had made it a one-of-a-kind experience for him. As he told the story, and then went on to share it publicly in the organisation, he changed from being a Sceptic to being a Supporter.

Resistors need to be left alone, in my view. There’s plenty of work to do with those who are in the other categories. The challenge with Resistors is that putting pressure on them to change can in fact increase their expression of bias. Changing the context around them, growing support more broadly, is more likely to make change possible.

Anyone can be an advocate for change

Many of us don’t believe we can be powerful enough to make this kind of change: it seems to take a lot of effort and something that powerful people do. When it comes to increasing diversity and creating inclusive cultures, it takes advocating for it. By reviewing the people in your network and identifying a small number of people that you know and work with, you can help them make the shift to the Champion end of the continuum.

I like to use the metaphor of a murmuration; it’s so apt for change. When the individual birds come together they create a powerful and amazing sight. The magic of it is that this happens because each bird pays attention to just seven of their neighbours. By doing that they manage to balance group cohesion with individual efforts. All it takes is for seven of them to pay attention to each other, to get in sync, and they create something extraordinary.

Who is in your magic seven?

Just like the birds focus on just seven others, you don’t have to influence the whole flock. Find your seven key people around you, and work on increasing their support for gender balance. And if you can’t find seven, start with one.

Use affinity bias, people with whom you already have a connection, and work the power of connection to speed up change. Who are your seven male leaders with whom you have a connection, and have the opportunity to influence, even if in small ways? Then seek to inspire them to increase their support for gender balance.

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