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Legal Talent & Inclusion

How allyship paves the way for overcoming women’s self-censorship

Rangita de Silva de Alwis  Associate Dean of International Affairs / the University of Pennsylvania Law School

Rangita de Silva de Alwis  Associate Dean of International Affairs / the University of Pennsylvania Law School

Research conducted by Penn Law and the Thomson Reuters Institute show that male allyship can help alleviate damage caused by women's own self-censorship

The successful road that took Kamala Harris to the title of Vice President of the United States has demonstrated that women from all backgrounds — especially Black, Asian, White, Latina, and Native American — have achieved important outcomes and many firsts despite hostile or biased workplace settings.

Indeed, these perceptions have relaxed over time, and based on insights gleaned from recent research involving Gen Z male allies, conducted by Penn Law in conjunction with the Thomson Reuters Institute, there is ample evidence of positive momentum for change.

Bright spots for Gen Z male allies

Men adapting to behave ‘bi- culturally’ — The 100-plus male students who were interviewed for this research were both supportive of their female peers and the values of gender equality in general. The research showed that men were now more likely to embrace gender-sensitive attitudes and more systemic and structural change on issues like care-giving and workplace organizational behavior. These changes in male attitudes are key to altering hostile learning and working environments.

Most of our respondents found it important to amplify women’s voices, not only because it was the right thing to do, but because these diverse voices enriched their own insights on law and life. For example, one research participant illustrated the subtleties of biases in his understanding of what it means to be an ally. “For me, as a straight, white, cisgender male, allyship is defined as i) being aware of the discrimination, both individual and systemic, that holds women and Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) back; ii) being aware of your own privilege, implicit biases, and how the white patriarchy environment shapes and limits your actions; and iii) actively working to empower women and BIPOC,” he said.

Gen Z men committing to change social gender norms — Another bright spot from the research is that Gen Z men appear to understand more deeply the societal impact of women internalizing stereotypes and the threat that these unexamined assumptions pose to women’s advancement as leaders. Individuals from all genders appear to be aware of these invisible barriers to success — often referred to as a thousand paper cuts, meaning, the idea that one microaggression may not hurt that much, but when several are experienced daily over the span of a career, real damage can occur. As one male respondent noted, allyship “requires identifying these microaggressions, in systems and in ourselves, and working to rectify them.”

The impact of a thousand paper cuts on women’s self-censorship

Despite growing awareness of these microaggressions, however, pervasive undercurrents of gender bias that are sometimes invisible to the naked eye still remain. Women of varied backgrounds and ethnicities face daily indignities, exclusions, and marginalization. In isolation, these incidents are not problematic, but in the aggregate, they pose impediments that result in women self- censoring themselves or reinforcing the prove-it-again expectation, which compels women, particularly women of color, to prove their competence over and over. As part of the recent research, Penn Law conducted survey of the thousand paper cuts idea, to better understand the new generation of biases and how such biases translate into subtle and pervasive self-censorship. The research found that:

  • 58% of the 52 women interviewed reported having been criticized for being soft spoken or “not assertive enough,” which is very subjective;
  • 54% indicated they have been hesitant to take on leadership roles because of criticism of their behavior; and
  • 71% said they had been reluctant to speak up or speak frequently in meetings or group settings because of criticism of their behavior.

Allyship to address a thousand paper cuts

The key take-away for male allies from the research is the importance of taking proactive action to encourage their women peers and colleagues to be cognizant of power dynamics in group settings and actively ensuring that everyone is invited to share during group settings. For example:

  • If mostly men are sharing in a group, say to the group, “I would like to hear from my colleague [and say her name].”
  • On the hesitation to take on a leadership role, male allies can say, “I would like to see my colleague [insert her name] take a lead on this activity.”
  • When women colleagues are being ignored or interrupted in a discussion, say, “I noticed my colleague [insert her name] has tried to offer her perspective. Let’s hear from her now.”

Interestingly, a separate research initiative, conducted by Thomson Reuters in 2018, surveyed 100 individuals from underrepresented groups, primarily from the legal and finance industries. The findings showed that respondents indicated they want allies to speak out. More specifically, the respondents overwhelming referred to situations in group settings when bias is displayed, indicating that most people in the majority lack awareness of the group’s power dynamics.

Results from both of these separate research initiatives indicated that speaking up on behalf of others is the best way to combat microaggressions and lop-sided power dynamics in groups.


The author would like to thank Dean Theodore Ruger, Dean of Penn Law for supporting the research. The study is dedicated to David Wilkins, Lester Kissel Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. His work on diversity in the legal profession inspired this work.