Breaking Barriers Together: How Allyship Fuels Gender Equity
Written by Megi Mustafai
Supporting gender equity would have significant benefits to the culture and results of any workplace. A study by McKinsey projects that in a “full potential” scenario where women participate in the economy identically to men, the world would be 26% richer as $28 trillion dollars would be added to the annual global GDP. The same study demonstrated that organizations with female CEOs have more success producing "superior stock price performance, compared with the market average." And in their first two years in the CEO role, these women's companies saw a "20% boost in stock price momentum. Companies with a female CEO or head of the board of directors had a 25% annualized return over eight years, compared to 11% for the broader worldwide index of firms," according to a 2017 study by Finnish bank Nordea.
If you are thinking that companies have taken these studies at heart and were inspired to build the corporate version of Barbieland, you are wrong. While about half of business college degrees have gone to women since 2000, the share of women in the C-suite is only 26 percent — compared to 48 percent in entry-level positions. The gender gap cannot be explained by differences in education, choice of degree, or ambition. In the U.S., women earned 58 percent of the bachelor’s degrees granted in the 2019-2020 academic year. Moreover, a McKinsey report from 2016 suggests that women and men in corporate jobs ask for promotions at the same rate.
Key barriers to full participation include gender-related bias and systemic barriers that often favour men. Let’s start with the recruiting process: a Harvard University study shows that job descriptions in male-dominated fields such as engineering, sciences and business use more words associated with male stereotypes such as competitive, dominant, leader, which appeal more to a male pool of applicants as supposed to support, understand and interpersonal, which are more associated with female stereotypes. Unfortunately, there are double standards in acknowledging leadership qualities as well, such as assertiveness. Women are more likely to be labelled pushy, rude, emotional, or aggressive when holding their ground. For similar reactions their male colleagues might receive praise for being an assertive leader.
Roles and responsibilities at home add to the gender inequity problem too. Women are expected to and more likely to shoulder most of the housework at home, or take a break from their careers when they have children, which can lead to them accumulating less relevant experience required to get promoted on par with their male colleagues.
There are many points to tackle to get gender parity right. While allyship is not the direct solution to any of the problems mentioned here, having allies is an enabler to solutions that close the gender gap. Closing the gender gap would then have a positive effect on participation, opportunities, promotions, on companies’ bottom line and relationships with partners at home.
“How do allies look like and what do they do?” I hear you ask. Allies are individuals who actively support gender equity within organisations. An ally can be any gender: not only does arguing about allies being women only risks making gender equity a women’s issue, it is unrealistic to expect people from disadvantaged groups who have historically not had a seat at the table to drive significant change. A 2022 survey went a step further and defined a list of behaviours women valued most from a male ally, the top four being: calling out someone for saying inappropriate things at workplace, publicly defending victims of sexual harassment, crediting female co-workers for ideas and successes and advocating equal pay.
However, being an ally is not a role that can be fulfilled by ticking the four boxes mentioned above. It is a major responsibility that needs to be shouldered over time by companies, partners and colleagues that might be more in a position to drive change. And it comes with cost. A Harvard Business Review article shows that men who support gender equity are more collaborative and are more likely to be perceived as less competent. Male allies are more likely to face backlash from women they are trying to support as well, as the latter perceive their supportive male colleagues to be put far too quickly and unfairly on a pedestal simply for showing up.
Being an ally is clearly complex: there is an art to helping progress the gender equity cause and the result is worth it. The evidence shows that when men are proactive in gender parity programmes, 96% of organizations see progress — compared to only 30% of organizations where men are not engaged. Researchers at the University of Kansas found that a male ally increases empowerment, anticipated respect, belonging, trust and support while reducing feelings of isolation. These findings were anecdotally supported by three senior leaders I interviewed for this article, Nicola Bond (Business coach and executive leader; full interview below), Sara McCabe (VP Global Commercial Capabilities at Amgen; full interview below) and Gilles Marrache (SVP and Regional General Manager, ELMAC region at Amgen; full interview below). All three interviewees agreed that when supported by allies, colleagues felt empowered to bring their true selves to work, which in turn led to better science, better decisions and better execution.
Allyship is nuanced. During the interviews, Nicola and Sara highlighted rewarding performance and role-modelling being a woman ally, while Gilles touched upon supporting allyship for a diverse workforce spanning across multiple geographical regions. While there is no clear roadmap to becoming an ally, a good starting point is to be aware of inequalities and biases, which a leader can foster by creating a speak up culture within organisations, which invites diversity of thought and feedback. That culture should then be leveraged to assess how allyship is being applied over time. A second aspect is creating stretching opportunities that are accessible to all employees. Recognising talent, achievement and growth by assessing impact to the bottom line should ensue, to value employees that rise to the given opportunities and excel. And finally, repeating the above to role model being an ally and inspire younger employees, be it future male or female leaders.
In addition to their leaders’ behaviours, companies should amplify the voice of employees that come from disadvantaged groups and support their causes. One example comes from Amgen where Women Empowered to be Exceptional (WE2) is the largest Employee Resource Group (ERG) and is sponsored by C-suite leaders. This group is focused on progressing the agenda of gender equity by tackling various root causes that hinder parity. Not only is the group raising awareness about gender parity, it has also recently launched mentorship programmes that are specific to women with the aim of personalising advice.
While there is a lot to be expected by companies and senior leaders, you, my reader, should also take a proactive stance. Ask for support, for an opportunity to be involved with a group inside your organisation, or a possibility to meet a mentor or a coach that can help your cause. You will be able to find an ally, or be an ally and make your community a better place.
*While I have a connection to Amgen, opinions are my own and do not represent Amgen’s position
Boston Consulting Group, 2017. Five ways men can improve gender diversity at work. Accessed 24 September 2023 https://www.bcg.com/publications/2017/people-organization-behavior-culture-five-ways-men-improve-gender-diversity-work
Forbes, 2022. Five reasons why women can make great CEOs. Accessed 24 September 2023. https://www.forbes.com/sites/theyec/2022/03/17/five-reasons-why-women-can-make-great-ceos/
Grant Thornton, 2022. The role of male allies in progressing towards gender parity. Accessed 24 September 2023. https://www.grantthornton.global/en/insights/articles/the-role-of-male-allies-in-progressing-towards-gender-parity/
Harvard Business School, 2018. How men can becom better allies to women. Accessed 24 September 2023. https://hbr.org/2018/10/how-men-can-become-better-allies-to-women
Harvard Kennedy School, 2011. Job advertisements that use masculine wording are less appealing to women. Accessed 24 September 2023. https://gap.hks.harvard.edu/evidence-gendered-wording-job-advertisements-exists-and-sustains-gender-inequality
McKinsey, 2015. How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth. Accessed 24 September 2023. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/employment-and-growth/how-advancing-womens-equality-can-add-12-trillion-to-global-growth
Nordea, 2021. Diversity and inclusion lessons from top business leaders. Accessed 24 September 2023. https://www.nordea.com/en/news/diversity-and-inclusion-lessons-from-top-business-leaders