How to Integrate Gender Allyship into Your Organization

October 5, 2020

How to Integrate Gender Allyship into Your Organization

No matter your leadership role, it’s time to turn your attention to what you can do to fix the broken system we’ve all ignored or tacitly accepted for far too long. Many critical ally actions such as developing self-awareness, understanding others, demonstrating empathy, creating an inclusive work environment, advocating for others and helping employees achieve their potential are all essential—both to running a successful business and creating a workplace defined by respect, fairness and equality. 

You can’t be an effective leader without also being an all-in ally. And allyship has to come from the heart. Your equity and inclusion messaging have to be personal and authentic to have legs. If your followers don’t see you owning, modeling and fully engaging in programs and initiatives to drive equity in the workplace, chances are they’ll tune out. Too many leaders merely delegate or outsource allyship messaging without providing the resources, commitment and support to make real lasting change. Here are three ways that HR leaders can design allyship into the fabric of an organization. 

1. Purposefully Use Your Influence. 

What leaders say and do demonstrates what’s important and what’s valued. Role modeling and setting the example starts at the top. Use your positional power and influence to call attention to gender disparities and look for systemic ways to include women fully at all levels of leadership. Sometimes that means being the guy insistent on doing what’s right and fair despite the inevitable resistance from some quarters. Staying true to your purpose, practicing transparency and mustering some moral courage can help overcome this resistance.

Many of the senior leaders we interviewed for our research were notable exemplars of visible and vocal allyship. As an illustration, Laura Adams, CEO of Rhode Island Quality Institute, told us that her board chair, George Vecchione, boldly supported her initiatives in creating a health information exchange. Vecchione took a real hit within his own organization when he used information from her health exchange to reduce unneeded or redundant medical tests and procedures. The problem? It reduced his hospital’s revenue. He was attacked because this didn’t appear to make business sense, but he knew it made moral sense. She said, “By supporting my exchange, he opened doors and gave me credibility. He’s the ‘800-pound gorilla in town’ with the power and influence in the industry, so when he decided to support me it made it almost impossible for other people not to do the same.”

It’s even more important for senior leaders to walk the talk by showing up at events, conferences and any initiative promoting gender inclusion and equality—this encourages other men to engage in allyship. In attending these events, male leaders demonstrate support, develop empathy, diversify their networks and identify high potential female talent. Of course, the benefits extend to women through diversifying their networks with male allies, connecting with career sponsors and fostering gender partnership. Publicly supporting these groups and events is a best practice. Be that leader who not only attends but stays the entire time, engages fully, takes notes and asks great questions—do allyship right!

Similarly, Rachel Thomas, Co-Founder of, told us that she usually talks to companies about what they can do to right the imbalance around gender equity in the workplace, and is usually looking out in the audience and seeing mostly women. All the heads are nodding because she’s preaching to the choir. However, sometimes a very senior man will sponsor one of these events and be explicit with the men who report to him that he expects them to attend. For example, she said that, “Jon McNeill, COO of Lyft, sponsored an event last year. He was loud and proud about sponsoring it, why he was sponsoring it, why it mattered to the business and he was explicit with the men in the organization that he expected them to show up.”

2. Connect Women’s Initiatives to Leader Responsibilities. 

Advocate for full funding of women’s initiatives, inclusion events and employee resource groups. Tie these initiatives to leadership development. This makes it less stigmatizing and more likely leaders will feel responsible. In their busy everyday lives, you have to help leaders prioritize gender equity. When leaders have a reasonable expectation that others will hold them accountable, that they’ll have to explain their resourcing decisions in light of the organization’s transparent commitment to inclusion, they make more equitable decisions

First, integrate gender and inclusion initiatives with leader development training and mentorship programs and hold leaders accountable for achieving these goals as a business outcome. Organizational field research demonstrates that unconscious bias and diversity training delivered in isolation—not connected to leader responsibility and business outcomes—are not effective. When programs for women involve male leaders, it increases men’s sense of responsibility and social interaction—leading to more gender equity. Consider how you can best embed accountability, authority and expertise within each business unit and make that leader responsible for reaching the diversity and inclusion goals.

Second, fully fund women’s initiatives, leader development and employee resource groups. Travis McReady, CEO of Massachusetts Life Sciences Council, is holding himself and his leaders accountable for reaching their diversity and inclusion goals through a women’s venture capital initiative—putting their money and strategy where their mouths are. As a black male CEO, he is fatigued with reports and posturing about diversity that rely on the bad habit of “analysis paralysis.” As a leader in the health sciences industry, he is pivoting their resources and strategy to executing. He said, “We launched a multi-million-dollar initiative investing in women entrepreneurs in the life sciences with unrestricted capital and we built a diverse executive coaching team that provides counsel, mentoring and capacity-building to our young cohort of women entrepreneurs with the specific intent of bending the curve on the amount of venture capital that goes to women entrepreneurs.”

3. Create External Accountability for Your Organization. 

Develop formal policies that establish requirements for doing business with your organization. Committed to being a leader in allyship? Time to put your money where your mouth is!

First, your company doesn’t sponsor or participate in conferences without equal representation of women or do business with companies that don’t have at least 30 percent of board members or C-suite leadership who are women. And if your company is not at these goals yet, set accountable, time-focused goals for yourself. We get it, this may seem really challenging in the early stages of creating equity in your organization, but you have to start somewhere. To help, we have several examples of companies that are leading by example—and it’s working!

Bob Coughlin, President/CEO of Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, decided to formalize their policy for doing business exclusively with organizations that meet minimum requirements for gender diversity and equity. Coughlin explained, “If you want to change how things are, you have to change how you do things. I’m never going to sit on another ‘manel’ (all-male panel) and I challenge every other man to do the same thing.” It is now a MassBio policy to not have any events with all-male panels, their employees will not sit on all-male panels, and they won’t partner with any events that have all-male panels. Coughlin stressed, “We didn’t do it to get good press. We didn’t even do it because it was the right thing to do. It was a good business decision. Diversity is good for business; you have better outcomes.” In our follow-up with Coughlin, he says that he is encouraged that other companies that work with MassBio are following his lead and creating their own policies, changing the way they do business.

Second, require that women are represented when your team travels to do business with other entities. Sheryl Sandberg shared that Vittorio Colao, CEO of Vodafone, requires meetings and events with Vodafone to have at least 30 percent women. She said, “When he brings his team to Facebook, he always brings at least 30 percent women on any trip like that. He reaches into the organization if he needs to in order to get to that.”

Finally, extend diversity and representation requirements to your suppliers and customers. Romy Newman, CEO of Fairygodboss, finds that you can put pressure on suppliers to change the way they do business. She offered, “Companies like Microsoft are not working with suppliers who don’t provide paid leave to their female employees. HP and Verizon are not working with advertising agencies that don’t show up with diverse teams. Nothing speaks louder than money.” You see, this isn’t that hard and companies are doing this in lots of different ways—be intentional and transparent. Remember—no guts, no gender equity!

Hear more from David Smith and Brad Johnson at Visionaries 2020, a virtual event October 19-21, 2020. Learn more and register. 

The Authors: 

David G. Smith, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology in the College of Leadership and Ethics at the United States Naval War College. He is the coauthor of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women. He also coauthored Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace with W. Brad Johnson.

W. Brad Johnson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law at the United States Naval Academy and a faculty associate in the Graduate School at Johns Hopkins University. He is the coauthor of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women, The Elements of Mentoring, and other books on mentorship. He is coauthor with David G. Smith of Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace.