OPINION7 March 2024

Driving change: Gender equality and male allies

Asia Pacific Europe Inclusion Latin America Middle East and Africa North America Opinion UK

To mark International Women’s Day, Tilly Lewis hears from several men about what male leaders can do to become allies and to foster greater equity in the research sector.

female business leader addressing a group of employees

As we commemorate International Women’s Day, it’s important to reflect on practical steps towards gender equity in the workplace.

While much attention on IWD rightfully focuses on the experiences and perspectives of women, it’s also crucial to recognise the pivotal role that men play.

I spoke with four male leaders in the market research industry to gain insights into their perspectives and share their practical advice for fostering gender equity.

1. Reflect on your own experiences

Sam Gardner, founder at Boxclever, emphasised the influential women in his life and highlighted the disparity he observed in how they were addressed compared to him in client meetings. 

“As I progressed in my career and became increasingly exposed to the senior levels within our clients’ organisations, I started to experience situations where women were not treated equally,” said Gardner. “For example, when my business partners and I met with senior teams at some client organisations (not all!), the male members of the teams would address me more than my female business partners. This really jarred with my own experience and felt profoundly unfair.”

Practical tips:

  • Take stock of the influential women in your life and reflect on the biases you may observe in professional settings
  • Actively seek opportunities to mentor and support women in your organisation or industry.

2. Advocate and support

Motivated by a belief in fairness and meritocracy, allies actively advocate for women’s leadership.

Sam Curtis, head of digital analytics at Kantar, highlighted the importance of mentorship and creating supportive environments for women to thrive. Curtis said: “I have strong belief in equality of opportunity and could clearly see this was not happening.”

Mark Thorpe, board director at Truth Consulting, reflected on his experiences as a Black, working-class professional in a predominantly white industry. He emphasised the need for systemic change and recognised the experience of women who navigate similar challenges. Thorpe said: “My personal story is one of many strong women – survivors who overcame some of the biggest challenges society could throw at them.”

Practical tips:

  • Advocate for mentorship programmes and initiatives that create inclusive environments for women to advance in their careers
  • Support initiatives that address systemic biases and work towards creating equitable opportunities for all.

3. Challenge biases

Challenges facing women’s leadership include cultural assumptions, implicit biases and lack of flexibility.

Gardner highlighted how outdated biases can create barriers to recognition and career progression. “The research sector has a constant challenge aimed at it around ‘not having a seat at the board’ in many organisations. I think part of the problem is that research is typically seen as a female dominated discipline, and individuals from other more male dominated disciplines such as finance look down on the sector partly because of this female bias. In my career, I’ve come across so many incredible female insight professionals. They clearly face an uphill struggle gaining recognition and career progression compared with their male counterparts,” he said.

Ben Leet, founder of Stratify Consulting and a mentor for WIRe, stressed the importance of acknowledging and openly discussing under-representation. He said: “I think the vast majority of people these days do think of women as equal to men, which is great, but a consequence of that can be the unconscious denial that we still have quite a way to go.”

Discussing the challenge of the lack of flexibility, Thorpe said: “I have seen women sacrifice too much to get into, and stay in, leadership positions. There are too often really unfair decisions to be made – family or profession, for example. These are also challenges for men, but women more often hold greater responsibility for children and family.”

Thorpe added: “We need to be reflexive and explore our culturally embedded ‘taken-for-granteds’ and ask honest questions about what they ‘do’ to women and other minoritised groups. We need to be clear that assumed best practice isn’t good enough.”

Practical tips:

  • Challenge stereotypes and biases in professional settings by actively engaging in conversations and advocating for equitable practices
  • Foster open dialogue about under-representation and work towards creating awareness about the remaining challenges
  • Foster a collaborative and inclusive work environment where diverse perspectives are valued and celebrated    
  • Encourage open conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion in your workplace to create a culture of transparency and accountability.

4. Educate yourself

Key advice for those looking to be better allies included educating oneself, listening effectively, recognising diverse qualities and benefits, challenging traditional leadership models and fostering diverse teams.

Gardner emphasised the importance of highlighting systemic biases and educating others to effect change. He suggested: “Sharing examples from other walks of life and making people draw parallels with their own lives can be incredibly powerful.

“Read Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez. As a researcher, it will definitely appeal to your evidence based leanings and help you spot ways in your own personal and professional life where gender inequality exists.”

Leet said: “Consciously put yourselves in situations where you are in the minority, to experience how that feels.”

Practical tips:

  • Educate yourself on gender equity issues and share insights and examples to raise awareness among your colleagues
  • Seek out opportunities to understand the experiences of women and other under-represented groups by stepping into their shoes.

To aspiring women leaders, Thorpe said: “Recognise that many boards are dysfunctional because they are mono-cultural – your gift is to disrupt this and to help evolve the lived experience of leadership.”

It’s crucial to remember that progress often hinges on the voices that speak up when others are silent. In many instances, women may not be present in the room to advocate for themselves, making it all the more important for male allies to step up and champion their cause, as well as questioning existing norms.

By advocating for inclusive, flexible policies, challenging biases and fostering environments where women can thrive, male allies play a vital role in driving meaningful change towards a more equitable workplace for all. Let’s stand together, amplify each other’s voices and pave the way for a future where gender equality is not just an aspiration, but a reality.

Tilly Lewis is marketing manager at Boxclever