Cheatsheets for Allies:
Disrupting Internalized Sexism
and Men’s Oppression

When you were born, someone decided whether you were female or male. Which biological category you were placed in probably had something to do with your anatomy. But biology was just the beginning. Being raised male or raised female means you learn to occupy a social category as well.

There are ways girls are supposed to be, and not supposed to be. Ways boys are supposed to be, and not supposed to be. Either gender is a role to play. Because only some aspects of your humanity are permitted within each role, gender role conditioning is dehumanizing for everyone.

If gender roles are a performance, sexism and men’s oppression are the directors of the play. After many years of performing our roles, we have internalized the directives of sexism and men’s oppression. We direct the play ourselves, even when no one else is around.

We all need allies if we are to free ourselves from the oppression, if we are to reclaim the whole of our humanity. We need people who can see through the conditioning, who can support and encourage us to become our full selves.

If you want to become an ally to women and to men (and of course you do), here are my personal ally cheatsheets.

  • Hold high standards for women. Hold out that there are no limits to what women are capable of, no limits to their intelligence, no limits to how powerful they can become.
  • Support women to find and express their anger about sexism, but don’t let them get stuck in anger.
  • Encourage women to become leaders. Sometimes this will mean yielding leadership to them or mentoring them in leadership.
  • Help women inhabit, rather than objectify, their own bodies. Support them in learning to cultivate their felt sense experience, use their physical power, and develop physical abilities.
  • Be wary of objectifying evaluations of women. Instead learn to appreciate unconditional beauty.
  • Help women identify their needs and desires, which means learning to sense what they want from the inside. Support them to discover who they want to be as sexual beings on their own terms.
  • Don’t stand for women settling, especially for the sake of men. Expect them to prioritize themselves, which will sometimes mean putting themselves first, other women second, and men third. Even if the eventual goal is to find the right balance between self-care and care for others, sometimes tipping the scale the other way first helps to create balance.
  • Validate women’s ways, watching out for male-centric values and preferences, and encourage women to do the same for themselves.
  • Take women’s feelings and concerns seriously. Even if you disagree with them, find a way to validate their experiences by offering empathy.
  • Encourage women to trust their own thinking, and to find and share their voices.
  • Model not criticizing, disparaging, or invalidating women.
  • Interrupt the derogation of women when you see it, even if it is women derogating one another.
  • Don’t stand for women competing with each other. Help redirect the impulse toward the real problem: sexism. Support women to collaborate with one another instead.
  • Model how to be an ally to women. Remind others, and yourself, that we’re all in this together.

This list is excerpted from a longer piece about sexism and internalized sexism that I co-wrote with Marielle Amrhein. To learn more, read Why Women Hurt Women: Understanding and Overcoming Internalized Sexism.

  • Assume men are good. Don’t buy into their characterizations of themselves or other men as bad.
  • Rather than be scared of men (which often assumes they’re bad), remember that toughness is always just a front. Let men know how good they are.
  • Offer patience and gentleness. This is opposite of what most men received growing up. Let them know you can tell they’re doing the best they can.
  • Encourage rest. Men often think they are what they do. Remind them that they’re valuable for who they are, not what they accomplish. Encourage slowness, rest, and recovery.
  • Make room for men’s feelings, but don’t be in a rush for men to feel. If you’re desperately looking for emotional signs of life, you’l just be creating another demand.
  • When feelings do come (in whatever form) encourage them. Help men consider that they might be scared. When they cry, give them permission to cry more. Recognize that anger is usually just an attempt to get at other, underlying feelings.
  • Help men to ask for help. Don’t settle for them being isolated.
  • Model closeness. Men need lots of close relationships of all kinds, the vast majority of them non-sexual.
  • Don’t reject men. Instead, set clear boundaries while showing them you like them and finding ways to stay close.
  • Help men overcome homophobia. Encourage them to turn to other men for things they previously expected only from women. Expect men to have sensitive, intimate, and contactful relationships with other men.
  • Expect men to be allies against sexism. Don’t blame them for the sexism they’ve been saturated with. Instead, assume that they want the liberation of all women, and educate them based on that assumption.

To understand more about male gender role conditioning and some key aspects of men’s oppression, check out my article Why Men Are So Obsessed With Sex.

About the Author

Steve Bearman, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He founded Interchange Counseling Institute in 2002 and is the lead teacher of Interchange's San Francisco-based year-long counseling and coaching training. When he's not counseling people, leading workshops, and advocating for social justice, Steve climbs mountains, adventures in the urban wilderness, explores the edges and limits of what's possible, deconstructs everything, and finds new ways to put it all back together.