Male leaders can and should play an essential role in empowering women as future leaders, and the message should come from the top. Being an ally involves learning the skills necessary to make a real difference at the organizational grassroots level. --ROBIN BYRD
Despite decades of discussing gender equality in the workplace, women remain underrepresented at all levels of leadership, with men accounting for approximately 85% of leadership positions. This is despite numerous studies that have demonstrated that leadership diversity increases business value. There is a need for more to be done, and one of the most effective strategies is developing male allies at all levels of the organization, who can empower women by seeing organizational barriers to inclusion and advancement and proactively looking for ways to get involved. Though allyship begins in the C-suite, it needs to extend to male leaders at all levels, because lower-level managers work directly with women and have the most knowledge of women high performers with the highest leadership potential. Being an ally is not easy. Male leaders at the highest levels need a willingness to encourage male colleagues to step up, develop ‘allyship skills’, and empower women with strength of conviction, pursuing gender inclusion and equality as corporate values.
MALE ALLIES DEVELOP ALLY SKILLS
Male allyship concerns men in positions of power and privilege who can utilize their knowledge and influence to support women and diverse people. Encouraging male leaders at all levels to become allies is important, because they have the frontline ability to identify and recommend women with high potential for leadership development and advancement. Most companies remain hierarchal, in the sense that people must work their way up a career ladder to achieve a leadership position. But even when women make it to the point of potentially becoming a leader, they continue to hit the glass ceiling. If male leaders at lower levels do not support cracking that ceiling, then high achieving women are overlooked and remain in non-leadership positions.
The C-suite executives must support a culture of male allyship, in which other male leaders embrace being an ally and are willing to put in the effort it takes to succeed as one. Being an ally requires developing specific skills. For example, male leaders may have difficulty recognizing subtle forms of bias in action. Developing situational awareness is crucial to being an ally, and is described as being more aware of gender relationships or gender dynamics. It involves finding patterns of behavior that hold women back – like giving prime work opportunities to men, harassment and bias, and seldom recommending women for advancement. They notice improper language, negative interactions between men and women, and lack of inclusion.
KNOWING HOW TO HELP
An ally is proactive in empowering women, but many male leaders are uncertain as to how they can be an ally. A male who has an unconscious bias against women becoming leaders has to change his perspective before able to develop situational awareness. Knowing how to help is the first challenge to overcome.
First, male colleagues should embrace gender equality as a value. Barclays developed an initiative for their strategy the company called HeForShe. The idea is to provide a clear pathway for male allies to make a difference. The company created an online portal that offers resources and suggestions on partnering with women colleagues and addressing gender inequality in the workplace. Male leaders are encouraged to sign HeForShe pledges and join the gender network Win. They are also asked to mentor a female colleague, develop and engage talent, and become a champion of women in the workplace.
Empowering male allies who empower women must begin with the C-suite for allyship to become a corporate value. Publicly committing to change is a good step, but the commitment also needs action. For example, sharing the data showing women are not included in leadership opportunities with all male leaders lays the groundwork. Empowering women should be an organization-wide issue too. Males should view being an ally as the right thing to do for reasons of equity, equality, and business success. Open, honest conversations about female empowerment are important to keep the messaging on target. Senior leadership support is backed by metrics and holding male leaders accountable.
JOINING THE ALLYSHIP PROCESS
Engaging male allies is a process. It is impossible to tell someone to stop being biased unless they understand how they are biased in words and actions. A male who holds onto a biased perspective is unlikely to hold honest conversations with women. They do not know how to engage women. Allies’ skills development includes learning to listen to female colleagues when they discuss workplace challenges, recognizing strengths in women that may be expressed differently compared to male strengths, and calling out situations in which women are being treated unfairly or negatively. Allies take action when they recognize an issue, such as a conversation with a woman in which she indicates a lack of opportunity to use her voice. The ally would then invite the woman to attend a male ERG or a male is invited to a women’s resource group.
A male ally for women advocates for women even when women are not present. One of the ways male leaders can motivate male colleagues to become allies is to ask them questions about their perspectives on women. Do they believe women are valued in the organization? Do they understand the differences between men and women in work styles, life experiences, and perspectives? Are they afraid to empower women? Are they afraid of being misunderstood if they speak up for women? Do they believe standards are being lowered to accept more women in leadership positions? Initiatives to empower women are not likely to succeed if there are enough males in positions of power and influence who consciously or unconsciously believe women cannot be effective leaders.
GO AHEAD: DISRUPT THE STATUS QUO
One of the challenges of creating male allies is that allyship will disrupt the status quo if successful. That alone may stop a male leader from becoming an ally. It is natural to think, “If more women succeed, does that mean my chances of advancing are reduced?” This is the type of question that comes up in every effort to advance diverse people. It further explains the importance of creating a culture of female empowerment in which men develop a strategic mindset. A better thought is, “If more women succeed, we all succeed.”