The roles of ‘ally’ or ‘sponsor’ for men have gained popularity in organisations working towards gender equity across the globe. At the very least, men in the role of ally are expected to publicly challenge and advocate for equity and inclusion. They are expected to take regular action to create an environment of equity, inclusivity and mutual respect in the workplace. In organisations where men act as allies, the progress towards female equity is accelerated, especially in senior leadership* .
At face value, this question seems straightforward, “what is the role of men in helping organisations work towards gender equity?” After all, being given a role helps people to know what is expected of them, to feel needed and respected and even more so when they can use their strengths and see the importance of their contribution. We live in a society that is fundamentally sexist and non-inclusive. Our workplaces have been designed and led by men for men. It cannot be denied that some men are still finding it difficult to accept that they may not be promoted because it might go to a woman instead. This mindset and the fundamental beliefs that go with it are still very prevalent, even when it’s not stated. However, many men are feeling the discomfort of knowing that they are expected to change and behave differently. Our research has identified men who are great allies are those that genuinely recognise and celebrate the difference women bring to the workplace and who understand that these qualities are not being valued by some of their colleagues. These men visibly support women in the workplace, they will advocate for a woman’s voice to be heard, call out bad behaviour and stand up for what is right. On the other hand, some men want to be involved and help, but don’t know how, while others wouldn’t even go there, as they see women’s gains towards equity come at their expense.
Allyship requires a shift in mindset. Everyone has the potential to become an ally, but often men don’t understand what is expected of them. They may also be put off if “calling out bad behaviour”, is the only measure of good allyship. Research has found that for men to embrace and thrive in organisations working towards gender equity, they need to acquire the necessary mindset and skills, to firstly ‘notice’ inequity, unfairness and bad behaviour and then to take make choices about acting. For senior leaders, this includes; addressing organisational culture, talent management processes, reward systems and sponsoring their female colleagues, using their own influence and power to facilitate development and progression. All allies must be prepared to challenge – if the circumstances are conducive – and proactively exert influence to change behaviours in their own social circles and sphere of responsibility. This is what it means to take positive action for gender equity. A shift in mindset requires becoming gender conscious, through understanding deeply the history and causes of gender equity and listening to their female colleagues to gain awareness of how women experience the workplace, their perspectives and the barriers they face in achieving their potential. Men also need to explore and understand their own power and privilege as a man. All this forms part of a dedicated journey of personal growth to build a strong foundation of self-awareness and insight, as well as the courage and conviction to live with the discomfort allyship inevitably brings. Men who achieve this shift in mindset then choose to use their power, privilege and influence to advocate for the fair and equal treatment and advancement of women.
Preliminary findings from research with men looking to embrace gender equity in the workplace, suggest there is much work to be done to redefine the role of men as partners in inclusive cultures. Several of the research participants felt that senior leaders lacked understanding of what it takes to achieve real equity. Many described their own eventual recognition of the benefits of equity in the workplace and then their realisation that understanding was not enough; “you have to do more than believe in equity for women, you have to be prepared to take action”. One CEO expressed frustration at the lack of awareness in corporate life and society in general and said he believed that outdated mindsets were preventing progress, that organisations needed to represent the societies they serve and this is just not happening fast enough. So, what can be done to help men, particularly those in leadership positions gain more awareness? The men in the study who are already stepping up for gender equity in the workplace, revealed the evolving and emergent nature of their ‘becoming gender conscious’. They were aware of experiences that had an initial impact on their thinking and were able to articulate a progressive journey of learning and development. They were quite humble about their progress and in no way claimed to be fully conversant in all the issues. The learning processes described were often triggered at varying points, by exposure to female role models in the men’s own life experience. For example, wives, sisters or mothers who work, spouses of male colleagues, working for a female boss or joining a board of predominantly female members. These experiences – often accompanied by listening to the challenges these women were navigating and reading around the topic – exposed their unconscious awareness, eventually evolving into a more conscious awareness of the gendered roles and expectations of women. One participant said it had been, “an evolving kind of maturity – mostly observing behaviour and listening in the workplace – I gradually became able to see microaggressions towards women, how they are talked about by men, how they are interrupted and silenced in day-to-day working life.”
Having a positive role model is one of the best ways to learn to be a better man and ally. If a man behaves badly towards a woman how easy is it for a man to call that out? Many men have been brought up in environments where it is much easier to smirk or laugh at someone who makes a sexist comment about women, instead of turning round to that person and saying, ‘that’s not on, it is just not okay to say what you just said’, because they open themselves up to being in an uncomfortable situation and this may then threaten their whole sense of belonging. They may also be good friends with that person and just not want to rock the boat. This is why role models are so important in helping to demonstrate the courage and conviction it takes as an ally and shows other men what is expected.
HR is well positioned to accelerate this learning journey, by taking some practical steps to engage and support men into allyship. This requires recruiting senior leaders to be intentional in leading women’s advancement and equity across the organisation, clarifying expectations and strategic goals and holding managers to account, identifying and progressing diverse talent across the organisation. It’s also about celebrating gender equity champions and leaders at all levels role modeling allyship and sponsor women’s professional growth. But assigning these roles is a complex ask, particularly for those who need to engage their hearts and minds to understand the benefits to women, themselves, teams and organisations and develop the mindset and skills to be successful. The role of men in helping organisations work towards gender equity then, is firstly to engage and embark on the courageous learning journey of becoming colleagues who see themselves as equal to women and women as equally deserving of respect, voice, career progression and pay. But fundamentally, it is about becoming supporters and allies that are committed to realising the significant benefits of women in the workplace and in leadership positions. These are core leadership skills for the future and men need to be supported in doing the work they need to do.
* Grant Thornton, 2022
Horowitz, J.M. & Igielnik, R. (2020) A Century after women gained the right to vote, Majority of Americans See Work to Do On Gender Equality. Pew Research Centre
Grant Thornton (2022) Women in Business Research Report
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