Women’s History Month serves as a reminder that women still face more obstacles in the workplace than their male counterparts. Most of the “Great Resignation” — the millions and millions of people who left jobs during the pandemic — was about women. Typically being the primary caregivers in a family, women were much more likely to leave their jobs during Covid to care for remote-schooled children or ill relatives. According to McKinsey & Co., a consulting company, they found in September 2021 that “in the past year, one in three women has considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their career — a significant increase from one in four in the first few months of the pandemic.”

So the pandemic made things harder for working women.

“Even before the pandemic, we certainly weren’t on equal footing. There were still gender gaps in pay, in climbing up the ladder and in women represented at the highest levels,” said Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College and a cognitive scientist. “The pandemic made that worse.”

This was particularly noteworthy in business leadership. McKinsey noted in 2021 that while women’s rise up the leadership ladder has improved, actually getting on that ladder is as hard as ever:

“Women are promoted to manager at far lower rates than men, and this makes it nearly impossible for companies to lay a foundation for sustained progress at more senior levels,” according to McKinsey. Another study from McKinsey and LeanIn.Org concluded that at the current pace, “it will take more than 100 years for the upper reaches of U.S. corporations to achieve gender parity.”

Gender equality is a win-win

According to CEOworld magazine, it is well established that talented women leaders change the work environment for the better, delivering improved financial results, retention and productivity, and deepening the talent pool. A 2015 report from McKinsey Global Institute estimated that $12 trillion could be added to global growth by advancing gender equality in the workplace. An oft-cited annual report from Credit Suisse Research Institute found that companies with women directors outperformed those without women directors in average growth, price/book-value multiples, and return on equity.

“While at pains not to claim a causal relationship, our prior research has highlighted how the business model of companies with more gender-diverse leadership has displayed higher returns on capital, higher margins and lower volatility through the cycle,” Credit Suisse reported. “The valuation and share price performance of such companies has also displayed a premium versus their less-diverse counterparts. We find the best-performing companies in terms of share price display superior diversity in both the boardroom and the C-Suite.”

Sodexo — the giant international food services and facilities management company — conducted an internal study of their 50,000 managers around the world, comparing gender-balanced (male-female ratios between 40–60%) management teams against teams that were not balanced. They found that the more gender-balanced units had greater client retention rates and customer satisfaction. They also found that units with gender-balanced management were 13% more likely to deliver consistent organic growth and 23% more likely to show an increase in gross profit. Indeed, 71% of gender-balanced groups showed positive operating profit during the last three consecutive years, versus 60% for others.

In summary, they found that “teams with gender-balanced management achieved operational, organizational, and performance benefits that included employee engagement, enhanced brand image, greater client and consumer satisfaction, increased organic growth and an increase in generating profit and cash.”

One answer: Men as allies

The majority of senior leaders in today’s business world are still men, so they are in the best position to influence cultural and organizational change. One question to ask now is, how can men help support their female colleagues in the workplace? How can men become allies?

An ally is “someone who is not a member of an underrepresented group but who holds a position of privilege and power and can advocate and take action to support that less represented group, without taking over their voice.”

For many, being an ally is not a natural thing. It’s usually easier to duck your head and think that it’s not your issue, it’s none of your business, it’s better to not make waves. Sometimes, being an ally can feel like taking sides, including standing up against existing company culture or even the bosses themselves. In some companies with an internally-competitive culture, helping someone by being an ally may be detrimental to your own career.

Catalyst.org research found that before someone will support efforts to right an inequality, they must first recognize that the inequality exists. The findings also indicated that men who were more aware of gender biases were more likely to say that achieving gender equality was important to them.

The conversation about men and women in the workplace thus has to include acknowledging each other’s differences and strengths.

“... for companies to understand that women can generate powerful results without mirroring male expectations or style. Male leaders should have confidence when they assign a talented woman a challenging assignment, even if she doesn’t approach the work in the same way a man would,” according to CEOworld. “To male leaders, this may feel uncomfortable at times, but the best leaders recognize the immense and inherent value of diverse perspectives, strengths and temperaments.”

There is data to support this. A recent study surveyed 101 female faculty in male-dominated departments across 64 research universities in the United States and Canada. The researchers concluded that “having men as allies in male-dominated workplaces seems to help women feel like they belong, and this helps them function enthusiastically with their male colleagues on the job.” But, the researchers found, it’s not just the women who benefit.

“Men who were more likely to act as allies to women reported proportionately higher levels of personal growth and were more likely to say they acquired skills that made them better husbands, fathers, brothers and sons,” stated the recent study. “This tendency suggests the possibility that being a male ally creates positive ripple effects that extend beyond the workplace.”

So how do you make “ally-ship” happen?

In our next post, we will provide ten ways that men can become allies in the workplace.

Image by Drazen Zigic on Freepik; used under license.