Vitesse Media Diversity Series: Male allies and gender parity dissected

From encouraging relatable role models to sparking an ‘a-ha’ moment in men, we speak to eight gender parity advocates on how to develop strong male allies.

Most large organisations in the UK are aware of the gender pay and promotion gap in some capacity. From implementing a transparent pay policy to encouraging women to pursue leadership roles through mentoring and entrepreneurship, major players seem to talk the talk. But can they walk the walk when it comes to taking action? The first edition of the Vitesse Media Diversity Series explores the potential power of male allies, as well as challenges to being an advocate in an increasingly polarised world. Here are the highlights.

On 15 January 2018, the GrowthBusiness team were joined by eight impassioned advocates and allies to deep-dive into the murky waters of diversity, inclusion, and what it will take to challenge lip service.

Sexism isn’t just a women’s issue

Research reveals that male allies might be what tips the scales in favour of women in the war against wage and gender inequality. But what qualities or actions make advocates and male allies? Are women in the corporate world actively benefitting from male advocacy?

Developing male allies is key, says Gaia Mazzucchelli, ESG analyst at MSCI, because sexism isn’t just a women’s issue. According to her, men are missing out on the advantages of having women high up on the team, and she pointed to research that backs this up. When more women are added to work teams, the collective intelligence rises. And when it comes to financial performance, companies with the highest number of women on boards perform better.

But how do you align with a male colleague? And what makes a male ally an asset? Top leaders on the panel – which included Economist Vicky Pryce, Schroders diversity and inclusion expert Rafael Campos Valdez, Flagship Communications MD Mark Pinnes, Smart Leaders Sell founder Jessica Lorimer, Shine4Women co-founders Anna Baréz-Brown and Caroline Whaley, and ADP UK managing director Jeff Phipps – gave some suggestions:

Male allies can benefit from the female perspective

A popular narrative around male advocates supporting women in senior roles is a late-to-bloom feminist streak, usually brought on by fatherhood. Rafael Campos Valdez explains this phenomenon as being a turning point for men as they finally see the world from a female perspective, that of their promising young daughters.

“Every time I hear the world ally I think of the LGBT context and I remember when I came out to my mother,” he says. “I saw her view of the community changed because she was worried now of the hurdles that I would have to overcome if I was to be openly gay. I think this question you had about whether it takes a man having a daughter to be an ally, I think it’s because that’s the ‘a-ha’ moment. They want their daughter to have the best future.”

“I think the challenge for us when we create allies in the workplace around any kind of diversity, is getting people to jump into the shoes (of non-dominant groups) without actually living through their experiences.”

Campos Valdez has spent the better part of his career as an advocate for diversity and inclusion, previously as TSB and now at Schroders. In June 2017, he was a finalist for Advocate of the Year at the Women in Finance Awards for his contribution towards challenging and changing non-inclusive environments in the tough-to-crack financial services industry.

According to him, making a strong business case for diversity is just the first step. “People understand it from a business sense. Yes, it makes business sense, we get that, but in terms of changing cultures, attitudes, and behaviours to make real change, we need to really put ourselves in (others’ shoes) and get that message across, just like how (London Mayor Sadiq Khan) did when he had his daughters.

In terms of capitalising on the ‘a-ha moment,’ Jessica Lorimer explains how a simple email experiment did wonders for one of her clients that had a big problem with the customer service team. He found that a lot of his female employees were leaving very quickly, so Lorimer put a process in place to look at why that was.

“Consistently, the feedback from the women, the female customer service agents, was that actually the way that they were spoken to by male customers was so inappropriate that they felt that they just wanted to leave,” she says. 

“So we set up an experiment and we had the same person answer every email; one as David, and one as Davina. Hard evidence showed that actually when people were talking to ‘Davina’ they were ruder and happy to push boundaries a little bit more. They wanted to yell and scream! Whereas when they had been dealing with ‘David’ they were quite happy to accept whatever compensation they were offered.”

When that company in Lorimer’s example circulated their findings, the male employees were so shocked that they immediately became allies, she explains. “Perhaps we need a wider way of showing men and women how we are treated, rather than trying to tell them, because telling doesn’t work,” she says. “Everyone has a story and that’s great, but until you can see it in front of you, you can’t expect to really get through to people and organisations.”

Challenge unconscious biases

What lies at the core of developing authentic and powerful diversity allies in the ‘dominant group’ is addressing unconscious biases. Flagship Consulting’s Mark Pinnes believes most people are rational. “I think if you were to ask to any of those customers (in Jessica’s example) if they are more pushy and rude to female operators than to males, they would probably all say no,” he says. “The conditioning happens really early on, and set these unconscious biases in motion.”

Pinnes explains that babies are exposed to gendered behaviours and expectations as soon as they’re able to open their eyes. On a TV experiment, a number of babies were randomly dressed in pink and blue onesies regardless of their gender. They were placed in a room with gendered toys; “boys’ toys” being tractors and cars, and “girls’ toys” being dolls and stuffed animals. In this experiment, random people were assigned to interact with these babies, and without exception, every single person who was dealing with a baby in pink gave it dolls, while babies in blue were given tractors. 

“Now this kind of conditioning that we put in place happens so early, it’s very hard to be aware of as you go through life. It does take somebody to actually push and say ‘no, I’m unhappy with the way that you’ve just spoken to me,’ because the bias is there,” Pinnes says.

“Granted, there are some people who no doubt are deliberately trying to keep others down, but I think that’s not the majority. The majority of people are just existing with the societal norms that they’ve got. There really is an urgent need for a strong push.”

From sensitivity training to name-blind CVs may readdress what is an inherited norm, he adds. “The inherited norm is about 14 per cent wrong, which we see in the gender pay gap.”

The business case for diversity still matters

“If I think about my main clients, most of them had external pressures to hire more senior women, so there was a real business case there,” Anna Baréz-Brown, co-founder of Shine4Women, says.

“It would be their clients asking why are there only six men in the room. It was a business reason, because it’s not good for business to pitch with five men in the room, because on the opposite side there may be four women and two men, and they’ll be thinking, ‘what’s wrong with your system?'”

At Shine4Women, Baréz-Brown and her co-founder, Caroline Whaley works with with women across the globe to help them get to the top of businesses after a rewarding career in financial services and leadership coaching. “This is where the external pressure really comes in and matters. The clients were complaining that they looked bad because their boss had just one – possibly trophy – woman on the board, so it was really the industry and their clients forcing them to do something,” she adds.

Pinnes agrees. “One of the things that we always think about in our workplace is ‘are we doing the best work?’ And it just comes down to how do you do the best work? We came across a lot of unconscious biases when asking ourselves that question, which prevents people from having the best ideas and doing the best work,” he says.

In the communications sector, women make up about 70 per cent of the workforce, Pinnes adds. “It would be foolish for me as a businessperson to not pay attention to this. It’s my job to grow the company, and because I work with amazingly talented people, many of whom are women, it’s absolutely my responsibility to create safe space for that work to happen. Gender equality is just part of that picture, but a very important one.”

Of course, any sort of pressure to challenge the male-dominated status quo is for the best, Campos Valdez explains, but for true, long-term change, it’s about looking at the issue beyond its impact on the bottom line.

I think to create allies, real allies that actually stand by women in the full sense, it’s more than that you’ll sell better. I think it’s about changing people’s lives, and making a difference in the world. This is bigger than a sales pitch.”

Motivations for change come to play when it comes to men stepping up as allies, according to Jeff Phipps. “Let’s not pretend otherwise, (being a dad) is absolutely a factor. I want my daughter to grow up in a world where she has the same opportunity as men. But I also have a wife, and I have a mother and I have lots of other female influences in my life. From a business point of view, I want to go in and not be completely cold-hearted about what I do. I want to be a good human being, and I’ve got some values and drive those,” he says.

More role models are a must

According to City heavyweight Vicky Pryce, the gender gap isn’t just about salaries or promotions. It’s also the job roles themselves that pigeonhole many women. “Many women get ghettoised in areas with less opportunities for career progression and lower pay, so you can’t actually see that from the pay gap itself,” she says. “You can certainly see it if you look at women’s earnings per hour as against everyone else’s, and of course, there are women who come back from having babies to lesser roles or part-time, and the gap is then enormous. Worse, they get no training or support and wonder why bother at all?”

Pryce is a strong supporter of using quotas and targets to bridge the gender gap, having authored a book on the subject, Why Women Need Quotasbut that’s only the first step. It’s also about challenging gender roles and assumptions, which may need a top-down shake-up.

“It’s fantastic if you can get allies on your side, for exactly what Mark says; to challenge biases. It goes much deeper than that,” she says.

“I think one of the things that we don’t have is enough role models so that people get used to seeing women being something different to what they assume all women are like until now. People of all genders and backgrounds need to see women in positions of authority so it becomes normal,” she explains.

“Yes, we have a woman Prime Minister, but that hasn’t altered the view towards anyone for the moment; and we’ve had one before. We need a much bigger push and regulation,I’m afraid. Government intervention matters hugely here.”

Ultimately, allies can help open doors for women to get them in those senior, decision-making roles. “On boards, you make a third of the difference if you’re a woman. You really have to be an executive to make a real impact.”

The more relatable the role models, the better

According to many of the speakers around the table, most women struggle with the pressure to be perfect, which comes from childhood conditioning and from external pressures in the working world. “Women need to become role models in their own right, and that does not mean stiff senior women standing on stage giving keynote speeches about totally clever things,” Caroline Whaley explains.

“It means about being human, real, and bloody good at what they do. It’s about being confident and having days when they’re not. That’s what we see over and over again, this concept of a role model needs to be redefined so that women actually see women that they aspire to.”

After years of working in the fast-paced world of sports marketing and branding, Whaley has seen the double standard up close, as well as the opportunities that have emerged since then. “I worked with Paula Radcliffe, an amazing athlete, and an amazing woman. She’s very bright and everything else, and yet if you look at the way we sell sport to men, it’s very linear. You put men who are fabulous at what they do in great kit and young boys and men will buy that kit. It doesn’t work for women like that.”

“Young girls and women could look at someone like Paula in her great kit and go, ‘really? Do I really want to be that? Can I really be that? No.’ It wasn’t till she became a mother, a commentator, and being known for being a human being that she actually became an aspirational person in her field.”

Mentors can come in many forms

Role models and mentorship go hand-in-hand, says MSCI’s Mazzucchelli. She credits her mentor for helping her career grow and progress over the years. “My mentor has always encouraged me, even when I’ve doubted myself. For example, when the nominations for the Women in Finance awards opened last year, he said ‘you’ve done great on this report, I think you should apply.’ Interestingly, my manager didn’t see value in putting myself forward for the awards, but my mentor did. I ended up winning the award (for Rising Star 2017). I couldn’t believe it! It’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t have gone for unless someone close to me encouraged me to leave my comfort zone.”

She believes that companies across sectors need to set a culture of mentorship. ” We need to have this set because otherwise people will be afraid of speaking up, of going out there and asking for help, advice, or growth.”

Of course, putting yourself out there in any context takes courage, she adds. “It takes courage to actively seek out role models. It doesn’t matter if it’s a man, because at the end of the day you still have 80 per cent of men at senior management positions. As long as it’s someone who inspires you and has time for you, it’ll work. In my case, I had a mentor naturally. I love asking questions and he loves talking, so it’s a perfect match! He’s based in the US, but we still have regular catch-ups. We talk about everything that’s important to my development, from career growth to even how to approach different people at work in various scenarios.”

Authentic leaders are natural allies

When you think of relatable role models and mentors, the discussion hints at the power of authentic leaders, ADP UK’s Phipps posits. But the most important part of that is the culture it promotes. “When we live in a world where there is this war for talent, you’ve really got to be thinking about opening up your sphere of options. You’d better make sure that you’re appealing to the masses, so that you can get the best people in your organisation,” he adds. “The data says that organisations that do better at (diversity and inclusion) are more successful. People with a smaller gender pay gap, for example, are on average more successful than those with a bigger one. This is something that authentic leaders are aware of, and could be the eye-opener that others need to really become an ally.”

Role modelling can goes multiple ways, Phipps explains. “I’ve read a lot of stuff about how women can be as biased towards other women, just as men can. So this is where authentic leadership again comes to play.”

“One of the best bosses I had in this regard, who has become a really good friend of mine, actually interviewed me while feeding her baby daughter on a high chair. It was like, ‘this is how I’m going to work. This is how I’m going to live. You need to adjust to my world.’ She’s a tremendously successful professional in her own right, and that really had a bearing on me and made me think, ‘I now understand, I get that perspective. I now understand how she can live her life successfully.'”

This even helped Phipps look into his way of working early on. “I generally leave work early on a Friday because I want to see my kids. They have long days and it’s just a nice time for us to get together on a Friday. At work, I really make noise about the fact that I’m going home to see the kids. If I’m really honest with you, it’s still an element of guilt there now, you know. I do think, it’s four o’clock. Is everyone thinking, ‘he can leave early because he’s Jeff, but I’m still working here!”

On the plus side, Phipps knows he leads by example so that everyone at work knows that it’s okay to put family first within reason.

Pinnes believes that the one thing male leaders can do as allies is set the tone at the top. “The guilt that Jeff mentioned he feels when he leaves at 4pm on a Friday is something I can relate to, as well. I know that there are people who perhaps don’t have kids at home who are thinking, ‘why do I have to carry the slack for this guy when he runs off to see his kids? That doesn’t seem right.’ So it’s up to me to make sure they know I pull my weight. I might be working at 3 in the morning when they’re all sleeping, furiously getting things done. I think setting the tone has an important leadership role in this area.”

Dispense with the guilt

For Pryce, the word ‘guilt’ says it all. “I’m glad he mentioned guilt because of course women feel guilt for the same reason. I have three girls and two boys and I’m worried about them all equally, I have to say,” she adds.

“The real problem is what I see with my daughters who have children now. They think they have to be perfect.”

Pryce’s daughters, she says, are under self-imposed pressure to be perfect about bringing their children up, which is counterproductive. “I keep reminding them, look, remember me. There we go. I was back at work after three months (of having a baby),” she says.

Worryingly, this self-deprecating task-master approach to life is exacerbated by peer pressure via social media, Pryce explains. “Social media is encouraging it. They feel that they have to be the perfect mothers, the perfect employees, and be ambitious at the same time. The contradictions are enormous!”

Final thoughts

Vicky Pryce – Economist and former Joint Head of the UK Government Economic Service:

“I think one of the favourite quotes is that you will know we have achieved gender equality when a mediocre woman runs a big company. Because we’re thinking about how you get there, about role models, and mentoring, the truth is that for those women who have made it and who’ve moved forward, they’ve had to work incredibly hard to do that, and probably sacrificed all sorts of things to get there. It shouldn’t be like that any longer, because why should women have a harder time getting there than the men?

“It’s about getting company culture right. I did work for a company quite some time ago, where we fired our male HR head because we didn’t make it into the Sunday Times best places to work for. We actually did make it at the top for a number of years after that.  Just having a woman on top doesn’t necessarily do it. It’s really the culture of that matters, it’s a combination of the two.”

Gaia Mazzucchelli – ESG Analyst, MSCI:

As women, we need to speak up more. We need to make the effort and leave our comfort zone. But I also think to make change part of our culture, we need to start at childhood, making sure young girls have the opportunity to leave their comfort zone. The culture we have at the companies is already built up. It’s male-dominated. So we need to work on the unconscious bias, but we need to also acknowledge that we’re all human beings. We tend to look for and accept people who are very similar to us. So even if you are going to work on the unconscious bias, it is still going to be very difficult.

“That’s why the regulatory movement is really important. That’s why building quotas at the workforce level at the board level can improve situation. Yes, it’s going to be difficult. There’s going to be a lot of resistance and attrition in the short term. But we need to have a long-term view. Men will get used to having women there, will get used to listening to them, and this will help us in the future to have even more women at the top.”

Rafael Campos Valdez – HR Business Partner, Diversity & Inclusion, ‎Schroders:

I think there’s a fear amongst men, particularly men trying to become senior at the board level or whatever, that this is a loss for them. That women’s gain is a loss for them. They have this view of it being a zero-sum game, where if women gain, I lose. Where are my chances of getting promoted, I’m a heterosexual white male with no disabilities, and I think we need to address that 100 per cent. I think we need to tackle that fear.

If we really want to create allies, we need to get rid of that fear that this is a loss for them. In fact it’s a positive. We’re going to make a better workplace, we’re going to make better business. As a guy who goes out with other guys and talks about this stuff after work, this is my insight. I think that men don’t want to say it, but I think it comes up all the time, and I constantly have to remind them that this isn’t the case. I think maybe that’s a subject we as business or The City haven’t touched on it quite yet. I think we just assume that people know that it’s for the greater good.”

Mark Pinnes – Deputy Managing Director, Flagship Communications:

“In my world, communication is really important. That’s what I think about most of the time. I think we need to overdo it (in the case of gender parity issues). We need to over-communicate on this. The unconscious bias is there, so to deal with them we need to face up to it. That means that we need to talk about it more than we should be, and more than actually makes sense, because we need to move the needle. One of the very few things that leaders can do is set the culture, and communication is a big part of that.”

Jessica Lorimer – Founder, Smart Leaders Sell:

“There are three words I take away anytime I think about anyone in the workforce and how we get people to the top; inspiration, empowerment and balance. It’s about inspiring people to better versions of themselves as people. The second is about how can we empower other people to have the inner strength, that inner confidence that we’ve been talking about today, to actually make it to the top and stay there. Often retention is a huge problem, particularly with women because they do have the unfortunate part of giving birth, that’s how you can’t take that away. We have to do that, but it’s about retaining women and empowering them to come back to the workforce and actually enjoy what they’re doing again outside of being a mother. And the third thing is about balance.

“I think we are seeing a huge shift in the world as a whole. We’ve recently seen Saudi women allowed at football matches, they’re now allowed to drive. We’ve seen huge shifts in the world in developing countries about illnesses and how we teach women about sexuality, and more. So to me, it’s about bringing that balance to the workforce.

“It’s about saying ‘it’s okay, you can be male, and you can support women. You can be male and you can want to take on a stronger parental role.’ It’s about saying ‘you can be female and you can want to do those things too.’ But most importantly it’s about showing both parties that it’s not trying to take anything away from either person. It’s not saying that if you want to be masculine you have to work late and never go home and never see your kids, and it’s not about saying if you’re feminine then you’re female.”

Anna Baréz-Brown – Co-Founder, Shine for Women:

“Having worked with around 5,000 women from all over the world in the last four years, I think what really comes up for us again and again, is the need to address this little voice in the head that tells them they might not be good enough and they shouldn’t rock the boat, they’re safe, and maybe shouldn’t get out of their comfort zone. 

“It’s also interesting to see there’s this awakening which I had too, that we’re not alone. I don’t know what it is about women, but asking for help is much more difficult for them. When we say, ‘well, why don’t you just ask,’ they’re like, ‘oh! There are others with the same problems? How amazing. I thought it was just me.’

“We’re also at this beautiful moment in history where the women are now confident to speak up, and men don’t want to be alpha males anymore. So it’s actually a happy marriage for the next generation. And I think we will get there. I’m really optimistic about all of that. And we do need male advocacy obviously, because we love men and we want to do this together and fuel each other’s strengths.”

Caroline Whaley – Co-Founder, Shine for Women:

“Culture comes from action, and so the real shift in culture will come when we act. I have enormous faith that if we truly invest in women that they will create change that they want to see. And it’s not just that they want to see, that everybody actually wants to see. It’s organisations investing in women so that women can come back to work feeling clear about what they want and confident in whatever that form. I love that idea of it, that confident doesn’t mean extroverted. Confident means competent. When they come back, the organisation needs to be ready for them to come back in, and that’s where the magic will happen. That’s where we’ll see shift.”

Jeff Phipps – Managing Director, ADP UK:

“I was at an event on discussing gender equality last year to an audience of over 200 women. I found myself thinking, ‘now you know how the other half sometimes feel’. But afterwards I was really taken aback by women who came up to me and said, ‘it’s really great to hear from an advocate. Did you mean it?’ And that was the really telling thing for me.

“The thing that I took away was as a male, you can’t just be soundbites. You’ve really got to get yourself out of your comfort zone, challenge those biases that we talked about, and fundamentally ask yourself what you really are doing every day, every moment, to change your organisation. We’re talking here about having fair businesses. Businesses that appeal to people from different genders, different backgrounds, because those are the businesses that do best. That’s my closing thought.”

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