Dominating most of the senior positions in business, white men remain in the driving seat of change and own the prevailing corporate narrative. And being in the majority, they’re also best placed to speak up for the women and other minority groups who are absent from the room.
Becoming a male advocate of gender equality is not, however, without its challenges — a fact acknowledged at the 2021 everywoman Global Summit. In an enlightening panel discussion, hosted by Tunji Akintokum MBE, Senior Director and Head of Marketing Solutions, UK and Ireland for CCMI, the spotlight was turned on how to address these challenges, enabling men to become better allies — not only by supporting equality in the workplace, but also actively driving it forwards.
Tunji was joined by Jennifer Frasier, Head of Global Inclusion and Diversity at FIS, Vincent Guglielmetti, Vice President, Operations and General Manager, Corporate Services Americas Manufacturing Operations at Intel, Stephane Reboud, Sales Vice President, Global Medium Business at Dell Technologies, and Rear Admiral Jim Macleod CB, Assistant Chief of Defence Staff, from the Ministry of Defence.
1. OPEN THE DOOR & HOLD SPACE
A gold standard of male allyship is giving those without a voice an opportunity to be heard. Men in leadership positions can open the door for women and hold space for important conversations, while making sure that other male senior leaders listen, says Macleod.
He shares his experience of talking to a woman who had served in the Royal Navy and of listening to her describe a very traditional organisation that was ‘set up in a way that meant she didn’t feel like she was invited in’.
‘And what I realised was, with the position of authority that I had, I had the budgets, the convening power and the understanding of how the organisation works to get things done, but what I didn't know was what needed to be done.’
This female colleague did; she just wasn’t in a position to make things happen. Between them, they set up a gender working group to looking into the systems, policies and processes that needed updating.
2. KNOW WHEN TO STEP ASIDE
There are certain topics that men are not qualified or equipped to talk about. This includes the ‘lived experience about being a woman in the room’, as Macleod puts it. Having the self-awareness to know when those moments arise and stepping to one side to allow a woman to speak is a key part of male allyship.
It’s a perspective supported by Frasier who also acknowledges the courage and vulnerability in pausing, reflecting and recognising that you’re not the one who should be answering a question, even when it’s asked of you. But every day, she says, whether it’s in a one-to-one conversation or a room full of leaders, there are opportunities for men to model this behaviour, and concede the space to allow a woman to share her experiences.
3. PAY FORWARD YOUR PRIVILEGE
‘Diversity is a fact, inclusion is an act’ says Reboud, a quote that serves as a North Star for him in such discussions. It reflects the need for men to take action in their day-to-day lives and use their privilege as leaders in the right way. This involves coaching, mentoring and sponsoring employees, as well as ensuring that there’s a visible standard set by recruiting women into their organisation. Within Dell, he says, there are at least two candidates from minorities in the shortlist for every position. Since imposing this rule, the diversity rating has improved, with managers taking the issue much more seriously and proactively securing minority candidates from the talent pool.
Guglielmetti suggests that part of acting as a male ally involves forcing challenging dialogues to push boundaries, explore what’s possible and as a leader, being prepared to make a difference. For him, this meant refusing to accept that recruiting one or two women for every ten men was good enough. ‘It’s not OK,’ he said, ‘because what kind of environment am I creating for those females to have a dialogue?’
4. BE OPEN TO FEEDBACK
Closely linked with the need for action, is the requirement to be credible: to follow through on what you’ve promised and show others that you’re trying and have the best intentions, observes Macleod. And listening to feedback is an essential part of this process.
‘Ask Did it achieve what I set out to do? because I can tell people what I think I've done, but whether or not that's achieved the desired effect… only the people I'm trying to work with can tell me.’
5. GET ON THE LEARNING CURVE
‘You have to have a curiosity and have a sincere desire to really learn and want to know more’ says Guiglielmetti. ‘And whether you get that through books or whether you get that through conversation, I think that's really powerful.’
The fact is, we all have blind spots, but as Frasier points out, ‘It’s just the way our brains have worked so far, the way we process information based on the experiences we’ve had.’ And limitations in our experiences are the reasons why these biases exist.
By opening ourselves up to different perspectives, we broaden our knowledge — and it’s a learning curve that will last a lifetime.
‘When we're talking about women or any dimension of diversity, it’s important to recognise that it's not a monolith,’ she warns. ‘We have to recognise that within the lived experiences of women, there's a lot of intersections that create different situations, different needs, different perspectives. And so that lifelong journey of education also has to be there. And the recognition of the fact that just because you might have spoken to one woman, it doesn't mean that this is the expectation or need or desire for allyship of another woman.’
6. HAVE THE COURAGE TO BE WRONG
‘I'm more nervous talking about gender and inclusivity than I am any of the subjects across my portfolio,’ admits Macleod. ‘I don't like getting things wrong […] and one of the biggest challenges about being a male ally is accepting that you're going to get it wrong because it's not your lived experience.’
Allyship requires you to make the mental leap that involves accepting — despite your best intentions — that you won’t always be right, and then taking things a step further and giving people permission to challenge you when you’re off track, role modelling that behaviour within your organisation.
‘You really don't know everything,’ says Guglielmetti. ‘And all of us love to know, and nobody wants to be in front of the room speaking and not feel like they're authorities. The other part is that as a male, since the rooms are dominated by males, you're the only one that'll speak up. Your peer group is now critiquing you. And many of your peers don't think [gender diversity] is a problem. So, you need to be the first one in the room actually starting the conversation.’
This involves sticking your head above the parapet, but also, says Reboud, ‘being ready to break some traditional stereotypes from a male standpoint’.
7. NEVER WITHOUT HER
In France there’s an initiative called Jamais sans elle, says Reboud, which means ‘Never without her’. If, as a leader, you’re invited to speak at an event, you simply refuse to join the conversation if there’s not a woman on the stage. He describes this as creating constructive tension.
He also set up a Zoom background image last October to promote a current breast cancer campaign — an easy way to create a working environment that helps women feel seen, safe and welcome, as well as setting a standard for other men to follow.
Of course, there’s always more to be done and mountains to climb to achieve the diversity that places women on a par with their male colleagues.
To quote Macleod: ‘There is no silver bullet. There's a lot of work that needs to be done across a lot of different areas, but I think male allyship for me is probably your eBay nickel, cadmium-plated bullet. It's the closest you're going to get to a silver bullet to make a big difference … Male allyship is the biggest single step any organisation can make towards levelling the playing field.’