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Gender inequality is not just a women’s issue

Gender equality issues are nothing new in the boardroom. Grant Thornton’s 2022 report ‘Women in Business: Opening the door to diverse talent’ revealed that only 33% of senior leaders, globally, are female. Time and again, research shows that the more diverse a company, the better its performance. So perhaps it’s time to shift the focus and consider how men can play their part in the pursuit of parity.

Men as allies

Too many organisations still miss the mark on gender balance efforts by focusing gender initiatives solely on what women can do to level the playing field. Or at best, invite men to attend diversity and inclusion events designed for women.

Instead, a drive towards ‘allyship’ is steadily gaining pace.

Forbes describes this as ‘the key to unlocking the power of diversity’ and the process of building relationships based on trust and accountability with marginalised individuals and/or groups of people.

For men, it’s about acknowledging and using your privilege to help others - and when you do, you share knowledge, break down barriers, and give equal access. It’s also recommended that men demonstrate active efforts to address gender inequities at work and in society, whilst expressing as little sexism in their own behaviour as possible.

Why allyship matters

Notably, the more women occupying a seat in a company’s C-suite and corporate board, the better its sustainability, corporate social responsibility, and business performance. With this in mind, having men as allies should be more than just a ‘nice to do’ (and not to mention, the right thing to do), it should be a business imperative.

Empowering men is one pathway towards allyship; male allies can help advocate for women’s voices to be heard, and that commitments to equity and inclusion are taken seriously. But believing in the cause is only part of the equation - men must actively work to achieve it.

Grant Thornton’s 2022 article suggests male allies can support progress towards gender parity in senior leadership in a number of impactful ways. From exerting influence to change behaviours in their own circles, to facing down sexist behaviour, and supporting and encouraging female colleagues. The result is reciprocal rewards. The business itself performs better, and male allies experience a degree of personal growth, broader networks, and most importantly, the associated benefits of a unified, energised, collaborative team.

Allyship is a verb, not a noun

For men, the message is clear - you must take action.

The authors of this report offer five ‘rules to live by’ for men who aspire to better ally behaviour in the service of promoting real gender equity in the workplace:

  1. Allyship is a journey, not a destination. Nobody ever “arrives” as an ally.

  2. Allyship is with, not for. Make your ally actions collaborative.

  3. Allyship perpetuates autonomy, not dependence. You must hold yourself accountable for the net outcome of your ally behaviour.

  4. Allyship is about decentering, not standing in the spotlight. Speak less, hand the mic to women with key expertise, and structure projects so women gain credit.

  5. Allyship is critical to improving the status quo. Examine longstanding practices that perpetuate systemic inequities.

Overcoming barriers

Allyship and allyship training is a growing trend, but it seems there’s a gender gap in the perception of its success. According to this article, research shows that women and other underrepresented groups see less evidence than men of measurable workplace change. In short, men are essentially worse allies than they think.

In this no-holds-barred report in the Harvard Business Review, the authors also suggest there can be a cost to men who act as an ally. The authors describe the ‘wimp penalty’ of allyship - where men who advocate for female colleagues are seen as less competent by both men and women. Backlash against male allies is a real possibility.

Women too can also be the harshest critics, with cynicism and scepticism around the idea of allyship, with reports of a ‘Pedestal Effect’ in which men are given special treatment for behaving in a way that’s fair, respectful, and inclusive. In 2022, it’s no wonder women are baulking.

As the authors suggest, “when aspiring male allies fail to understand the critical importance of partnering and collaborating with humility, there is a real risk that they may ultimately undermine women’s initiatives by attempting to dominate them”.

Finding the balance

Barriers aside, it’s clear from the evidence that progress towards gender balance in senior leadership is accelerated when men act as allies. The more positive interactions men have with women in professional settings, the less prejudice and exclusion they tend to demonstrate.

Here are some practical suggestions for closing the allyship gap:

  1. Make allyship an organisational value and priority: ensure senior leaders can talk clearly about the importance of allyship as it connects to core business outcomes demonstrating how they value it personally and in their business.

  2. Listen and collaborate: demonstrate generous listening, show that you understand, and take meaningful action.

  3. Move from awareness to action: consider actions and techniques to overcome, challenge, disrupt, and prevent these behaviours and inequities.

  4. Create a community of allies who share and grow: allyship is not a one-and-done process. Allow your communities to continue to learn and develop the skills they need to support the women in your organisation.

Clearly there is a role for allyship to play in gender parity efforts. Ensuring that men are given a dignified, respectful role to play in becoming allies will bring wide-ranging benefits associated with a truly inclusive team. And then everyone wins.

If you’d like to find out more about the work of Dermody, or you need support in building a comprhensive, impactful and sustainable D&I strategy, get in touch with Dermody today.

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