Breaking the Bias for Women in the Workplace through Male Allyship

March 8, 2022

In celebration of International Women’s Day, Andy Woolnough, Global Head of Advocacy at Women’s World Banking, and Sonja Kelly, Director of Research and Advocacy, discussed the importance of male allyship in breaking gender biases in the workplace and creating more inclusive environments for women to thrive. Watch the full video here. Below are excerpts from their conversation.


Andy: What can leaders do to help create gender parity in the workplace and ensure that women’s voices are heard, represented, and help shape workplace culture?

Sonja: You can’t preferentially hire women, but you can increase the number of women or representation of women in the pipeline, so that there are more women to choose from in the applicant pool. In terms of culture and in terms of raising the volume on the voice of women, some things I’ve seen is men very intentionally giving women the floor in meetings and saying, “What do you think of that?”

One thing that I’ve really appreciated in the culture of my team that I manage is there are shared note taking responsibilities. We don’t always assign the woman in the meeting to be the note taker. It’s just whoever is not leading the meeting and whoever has the least amount of responsibilities volunteers to be the note taker, and we end up having a pretty good gender balance.

I also appreciate when men are aware of, and intentional about, the way they talk about women—not making jokes, but rather, empowering women in the way they talk about them. Talking about their daughters or their female partners as being impressive or strategic, or showing ways in which their colleagues are making a really significant contribution as a leader or to a project.

We’ve done some research on algorithms and unfairness in algorithms, and if an organization is only 10% women and 90% men, the culture is going to be built around men. With a larger critical mass of women in an organization and increased representation at all levels (not just looking at the most senior leader), that will be what naturally creates culture change.


Andy: What leadership styles have you seen and noticed that are effective at creating workplace diversity, and which styles shut it down?

Sonja: [Mentorship is] tremendously effective at encouraging women in leadership—and not just women mentoring women. In our Leadership and Diversity program, we encourage more senior men to mentor the women who are participating in our program, because that doesn’t place undue burden on senior women leaders to serve as mentors to all of the upcoming women, but also it breaks down these gender barriers, and it creates a male champion who has systematically more powers.

Where I have seen challenges is where there’s just not a lot of opportunity for women. I worked in a large bureaucratic government organization for a while, and it was mostly male senior leadership, and they stayed in their positions. There was just not a lot of mobility and not a lot of movement. The institution ended up losing their best women employees, because there was nowhere for them to grow either laterally, because of the constraints of this bureaucratic organization, or upward.


Sonja: Thinking back in my career, I’ve reported to a lot of men. I think in many places there are a lot of structural inequalities [in the workplace], with senior roles being held by men and more junior employees. [As a male manager], are you self-aware of that, and do you think about that in your management?

Andy: A lot of it is based on my background and cultural upbringing. Certainly for a lot of men, they are a product of their experiences and their culture and how they were raised by their own parents and their own role models. They bring that into the organization, and it extends from my background that I’ve only ever had one male manager. The fact that I’ve always reported by and large to women has definitely shaped my outlook on life.

I’m very conscious of my own unconsciousness towards my own biases. We all have these experiences that shape our natural reactions to things, and I think checking yourself as a leader should be just something you do automatically, whether you’re in an environment where you’re managing diversity or whatever it is you do. Self-awareness is a huge attribute as a leader, being open to people giving you insights into how you come across, because ultimately, you are a little bit closeted in a leadership position.

In hiring we naturally tend to a bias of hiring ourselves. Therefore, I think naturally checking that and just making sure you’ve got a diverse panel of candidates and a diverse set of people looking at that panel and then making the best decision on the best person naturally brings diversity into things. As a leader you’ve got to be consciously paranoid about your own biases and ruthlessly stamping them out as much as you possibly can.


Sonja: What’s your prediction for [how changes in organizational culture] might increase the number of women leaders in the financial sector?

Andy: These things are sort of very slow moving, but I would probably look less at women as the head of certain things and more the mix of women on management teams and what they do. Of course, we want to see equality in women CEOs; there’s not enough women CEOs in financial services. But often, I’ve witnessed in financial services leadership teams where women are in these gendered roles, like HR or marketing or communications. When you start to get women in innovative roles like innovation in products, in finance, and start to see that shift changing, that’s when I think you’re going to start to see really positive change, because that means the women themselves have come through a system in order to get to that point.

Getting more women into STEM, getting women into more traditionally male studies, is going to be as equally important as trying to engineer diversity in management teams. At the end of the day, organizations have a responsibility to shareholders and to success, and you don’t want to put people in positions that they’re not capable of doing, because that doesn’t work for the organization. It doesn’t work for the person. It’s going to take time to come through.

Having said that, though, the environment we’re in at the moment does give everybody a bit more flexibility, and I think that flexibility is really going to benefit women, in particular.


Andy: Drawing from your experiences as a woman working in financial services, government, and research, what are the most important takeaways for male allies on this International Women’s Day?

Sonja: The goal of breaking the bias is so women can be fully themselves. The goal is not no bias; the goal is what happens as a result of a world where there is no bias.

Women should be able to fully be themselves as leaders, not having to use soft skills to get ahead, but being able to be really visionary and forward-thinking and aggressive if they need to be, if that’s part of who they are. Allowing women to be that and not exhibiting bias against them when they use those qualities in their leadership.

The one thing that I think is really important is making sure women are not alone. Women being able to be fully themselves means they see other people like them working with them. I think these are all things that male allies can help with as we seek to #BreaktheBias today.

Watch the full video here.