Allyship: positively moving the conversation of gender equality forward

In this episode of the Acas Podcast, we explore the topic of allyship for gender equality, with:

  • Julie Dennis, Acas head of diversity and inclusion
  • Daniele Fiandaca, co-founder of Utopia and Token Man

We discuss:

  • what it means to be an effective ally
  • achieving gender equity at work
  • how the covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has influenced gender roles
  • how employers can help men become better allies

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Christine Adeusi: Welcome to the Acas Podcast. I'm Christine Adeusi, and on this episode, we'll be discussing the topic of allyship in regard to gender equality. And we'll be taking a deeper look into what the experiences of both women and men are like in today's working environment. And hopefully our guests can give you tips along the way on how you can improve any gender disparities that may be occurring in your workplace. So, speaking of guests, I'm joined by the wonderful Julie and Daniele.

Julie Dennis: I'm Julie Dennis. I'm the head of diversity and inclusion at Acas. And I'm absolutely delighted to be joining you both on this podcast today.

Daniele Fiandaca: Hi, I'm Daniele Fiandaca. I'm co-founder of Utopia and Token Man.

Christine: I'm really excited actually to have this conversation with you both today. But I just want to quickly start by defining what allyship actually is. So, the act of allyship is defined as when a person of privilege works in solidarity and partnership with a marginalised group of people to help take down the systems that challenge that group's basic rights, equal access and ability to thrive in our society. So, now we've got the definition out of the way, I'd like to ask my first question. Do you think it's important for men to be allies at work? And if so, why?

Daniele: As a man, I probably should start on this one because the answer is fundamentally, yes. I've never heard that definition before. But I really liked that definition because it recognises that the system is broken. And actually, allies and true allies are people that actually recognise that the system needs to change. And that the system right now is not equal. So, you know, we know in the workplace that, unfortunately, just by being a woman it is more difficult for you for a number of reasons. I think if we come back to why we started Token Man, which was about bringing men and engaging men, there is no minority in history which has ever affected change without the support from the majority. Unless we're engaging the men we are not going to create change. And if we can create that change, actually, we can benefit everyone and actually start creating gender equity in the workplace. So, as you say, women and other marginalised groups can really thrive.

Julie: I absolutely agree with that Daniele. And, as a woman, I know that allyship has helped me. I've worked alongside some amazing men who have been amazing allies. I also know if we look at other protected characteristics and again, like Daniele said, you know, the minority has not been able to overcome things without the majority help. So, if we look at race, for example, we know centuries ago it was white people who fought against slavery and stuff like that to overcome that. And so, yes, men can be amazing allies for women when we're trying to look at gender equality and improving gender equality within all workplaces, and within society in general.

Christine: Yeah, I completely agree with you both. I think the only way that minorities can truly overcome inequality is with help from those in a majority. So, what does men being effective allies practically look like in the workplace?

Julie: So that's a really good question, Christine. And I think, you know, for me, first of all, sometimes the best allies are people who just actually listen first. But the other thing is, for me, men as allies are really strong when they call out bad behaviour. So, let's look at sexual harassment, for example, you know, that's one area that we know, unfortunately, is still alive and kicking in society, in workplaces. So, men can be allies by calling that bad behaviour. So, when they hear that sexist banter, they can be the ones to go, actually, 'I don't find that funny', or challenge that, not leaving it down to the woman in the room to say 'I don't find that funny' or 'I find that offensive'.

Daniele: I think, for me, a lot of it does come from an understanding and I love that, you know, Julie 100%, I mean, I do a 10 tips to be become a better ally and number 1 is the listening one, we've got to listen first, but what we're very clear, it's not for men to dictate what the change needs to be. It has to be the women telling us what that change needs to be, and then working out how to do it. So, I do think that listening one is so important and how it feels to be in the outgroup.

You know, I have many, many privileges. But one of my privileges is that I didn't experience being in the outgroup in work until I was 39. And we go into the workplace now and we'll find a C suite leader who still hasn't experienced being in the outgroup in the workplace. And so, for them, and certainly for me going back, believe it or not you know 10 years ago now, but you know, for me, it was very hard to have any understanding of what it must feel like to be in the outgroup. I mean, Token Man, the name Token Man comes from a dinner I organised what was me and 12 women, and just walking into that room, something happened to me that never happened in my life before which is I lost my confidence. And yeah, it was like this magic hand, invisible hand, came down and pulled my confidence away. So, it's, you know, having that understanding of how difficult it is in just being in the outgroup in the workplace, and what impact that has is so, so important.

Christine: So, do you think that there any scenarios where men might struggle to express their allyship at work because of the fear of not getting it right and actually offending women?

Daniele: There's a number of things, I think, that contribute to it. I mean, I think if you look at the work that we do with our clients around inclusion and diversity, we do talk about the need to becoming more comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations. And that's so important. And I just think, you know, certainly my experience is where you've spent most of your career in the ingroup, you're just not used to having uncomfortable conversations. So, what they do is they shy away from it. I mean, I remember, you know, one of our clients we worked with their factory leaders. And at the beginning of the session someone got up and said, I think that there are women who have got jobs that didn't deserve them. Ok, that was a very bold statement but that's what he was thinking. Unless we could understand what he was thinking it was very hard to then address it.

I straightaway responded saying, do you think there are men that get promoted that didn't deserve it? And he straightaway realised that, you know, the stupidity of what he'd said because his answer was yes. So, the reality was he was showing his bias. But I think what was nice for us, as we did ask him, you know, after having educated him and spending 5 hours with him, we said, can we come back to you, and can we ask you whether you still think that? And we did come back to him and he said actually, no, my mind has changed, I now understand why we're making decisions that we are making. So, I think it's really important for people to be able to speak how they're feeling. But that does mean creating spaces that are psychologically safe, but also spaces because, you know, if we just allowed everyone to speak their truth the whole time, that could also be very damaging for people who are in those groups that are minoritised or have been excluded.

Julie: Yeah, I'd agree with that as well, Daniele. I think the uncomfortable conversation piece is really key, isn't it? It's around, you know, if you don't have that uncomfortable conversation, you're not going to find out how that person is feeling. If you look at one of the biggest conversations at the minute that's happening with employers is around, you know, women of my age group and around the menopause, you know, and actually having men as part of that conversation, getting them to understand how that impacts on us and how that impacts us in the workplace not only will make men better allies at work, but we know from research that actually it'll make men better partners as well, if they're in a relationship with a woman, they will have a better relationship because they'll understand what their partner's going through or their sisters or their mothers.

Daniele: And I think, Julie, that's so important. I mean, I was in, I think it was about a year and a half ago, 2 years ago, I went to hear a talk around the menopause and the person that was running it came up to me and said thank you so much for coming. And I went, my wife's about to go through the menopause, why wouldn't I be here? It was kind of like, you know, I was just surprised that I was being thanked for being there.

Christine: So actually, Daniele I would like to go back to the story that you mentioned earlier. I thought it was really interesting because, in order to tackle gender inequality, some organisations are noted for actually having schemes which specifically seek to employ women. And I'm just wondering if both of you think that men may fear that the workplace culture will swing too far the other way and become matriarchal?

Julie: Christine, I think we'll be long and gone before society gets to that, you know, and you're a lot younger than me, you know, so I don't think there's any danger of it going too far the other way. But I think for me, it's more than just bringing more women into an environment. You need to think about the environment. You know, I started my career in the fire service, where we were doing positive efforts to bring more women in, but they've not got the basic things right. So, you went on fire stations and women hadn’t got facilities. In fact, at the brigade I worked for we had to convert facilities that were for junior officers into women's facilities, or not having the right uniform for women. We're built differently. We have different-shaped bodies. So, we need the right kind of uniform. We also need uniform and a fabric that's breathable, you know, we talked about menopause earlier on, don't get putting me in polyester because I'm going to self-combust. It's about thinking about that whole piece when you're bringing women into a male-dominated environment, that you've made sure that you've got the systems.

Daniele: Well, I agree with you in terms of we've got a long way to go. I mean, the first thing I'd say is I do find this going into clients. We are seeing more men feeling that they're being left out. We're seeing more and more men feeling that their opportunities are decreasing. And the reality is that as we move to gender equity, those opportunities do need to decrease.

Ok, so you know there is a reality. And listen, I made the same mistake. And this was going back probably 5 years ago, is one of my friends, I used to work in advertising, he said, you know what, I can't get any jobs at the moment because they're just saying they want female candidates. And I said, I know a lot of Chris's so I'm not giving away who it is, I said, for God's sake Chris, you know, we've had all these advantages you can't really complain. He said, yeah, that's fair enough but that still doesn't help me get a job. And so, I wasn't being empathetic to him, and what he was feeling and what he was experiencing. So, I think we do have to recognise how people are feeling. But once we start to educate them, get them to understand that actually, yes, I might get less opportunity, but actually, that opportunity is still 50-50. 

Christine: I think that's really interesting that you touched on that subject of like, equity. And I think myself, and maybe some of our listeners, may be a bit confused about what equity is. Could you please explain what equity is?

Daniele: Of course, there's a fantastic image that shows it if you look online – go to Google, type 'equity vs equality'. But I think the best way of explaining it is, equality is everyone having the same opportunities. But, unfortunately, because of the barriers that currently exist within the system, having those same opportunities doesn't mean you have the same outcomes because of the barriers that currently exist for certain groups. Equity is having the same outcomes. Equity is recognising that because of the systems that currently exist, we do need to give people additional support in order to counter the barriers that currently exist within the system.

Christine: And Julie, what ways do you think businesses can best apply equity into their workplace?

Julie: So, I think it's again, it's recognising what those barriers are to begin with, and what Daniele is talking about, it's about changing the culture, you know, it's no good, I see so many organisations do lots of initiatives as part of their gender equality work, but they don't change the culture. So, they'll expect, bring women in and then you've got to conform. I call it the Borg syndrome. I'm a Star Trek fan, apologies for that.

They've actually taken a step back, looking at their culture and looking at how they can remove barriers in their systems. And it's about making sure that you may have a policy that is for everybody but, actually, it may disproportionately impact an individual. So, a good example of that is your attendance management policies in organisations, you know, everybody may be expected to have, you know, it's recognised that people may have a certain level of absence, but you're only allowed so much absence. And if you have any more than that, you'll have to go through a formal process.

Now, if you look at that through the diversity lens, you may then recognise that, actually, people with disabilities may need, may have more time off because of their disability. So those good organisations will flex that policy, will make adjustments, to make sure that's the issue. And again, if we look at it through the lens of women, you know, we don't have a second thought now, well most organisations don't, I mean I know at Acas we still get cases coming through, but when we look at pregnancy and maternity, you know, organisations will automatically know that if a woman's pregnant and she needs time off for the appointments, she will not face the detriment for that, that's built in law now. But, it's also about organisations now thinking when they're looking at attendance management, well, what does that mean in terms of menopause? Because, actually, I may need a bit more time or I may need adjustments to enable me to bring my whole self to work.

Christine: Yeah. So, in general, I believe, or as a society, I believe we're becoming more aware of how the patriarchy has negatively impacted women. But do you both think that the patriarchal society negatively impacts men as well?

Daniele: 100% yes. We have to remember changing the system also helps many, many, many men. We have to remember that, firstly, men are intersectional. When we talk about minoritised groups, the challenges they're facing, you know, a lot of men fall in that camp. You also have introverts who, for many workplaces, find it very, very hard. I think also, when we start to look at men and some of the challenges they face in the workplace and mental health is a huge issue. So, and a lot of that does come from the stress and the pressure from being the breadwinner and thinking that you have to be this certain type of man.

So, you know, when we talk about a changing culture, I'm not suggesting it's easy, but what it does do is it's going to open up opportunities. It's going to open up opportunities for men to talk about when they have some of those challenges around their mental health. It is going to open up opportunities for men to be able to take time off to spend time with their kids. And, as I said, you know, if we started to think about the intersectionality of men, you know, a change in the workplace is going to help so many people.

Julie: Absolutely, I agree with that. I think it's actually saying it's ok for you not to want to be right at the top of the tree, you know, we all have a place in an organisation and it's about you being able to achieve your fullest potential. But both sides of the party have a role to play. So, men as allies in terms of gender equality but, I think, again, women, we can be allies to men.

Christine: Some really interesting points there. I just want to lastly bring the conversation to COVID. I think the fact that we're even recording this podcast virtually is a testament to how COVID has impacted the workplace. And I'm actually interested to know if you think the pandemic has influenced gender roles at all? And if so, do you think it's been a positive or negative influence?

Julie: Absolutely, 100% COVID has had a negative impact on women. If you would have picked a group of diversity specialists and put us in a room in January 2020 and said there is going to be this pandemic and it's going to have a disproportionate impact, who do you think it will be, straightaway, we would have said it will have a negative impact on women. It will have a negative impact on people from different ethnic minority backgrounds. It will have a negative impact on older workers and younger workers and on people with disabilities. Why would we have said that? Because we all knew inequality in the workplace was alive and kicking. And I think there's been this smokescreen in organisations and in society where we all thought equality was there. We all thought that women had equality because we're seeing women in senior jobs, and we're able to stay in employment and all of that kind of stuff.

And what COVID reinforced is, actually, when it really hit society, and when our children were sent home, and we had to home educate, who was more likely to be educating those children. who were more likely to have to be furloughed, who was more likely having to take that primary childcare role, and the majority of cases it was women. Even if men wanted to do that, organisations were assuming it would be women who pick it up, you know, it's that system, it's that structure, that, well, women will be the ones that will give everything up to look after children. So yeah, absolutely, COVID. You know, in one way, I think it's a positive thing because it's really strengthened the need for what we're trying to do from Acas and what other organisations are trying to do.

Daniele: And I think, I totally agree, but I think if there is a positive it is that men got to see that. Men actually were witnessing it, witnessing the challenges that they face. They also spent more time with their kids. And you know, even before COVID there was research that showed, you know, something like 70, 80% of men wanted to spend more time with their children. And certainly, it's not a huge sample survey, but I know all the dads that I know don't want to go back to a world where they weren't seeing their kids, you know, that, if you look at remote and hybrid working, hybrid working is so much more inclusive for primary caregivers.

In a world where children are at school, and let's be really clear, a lot of the extra time was driven because children were at home when children are at school, it actually provides far more flexibility, which is why I have to say, you know, when I see these businesses who basically are trying to enforce the world as it was before, that just says to me those businesses just aren't inclusive. You know, those businesses don't understand the challenges. They don't understand how more accessible the workplace has become for many people, people with disabilities where it was hard not to go in, people who, for example, and again, it would depend, but you know, for many people who are neurodivergent, you know, this can be a much better way for them to contribute.

Julie: Yeah, I'd absolutely agree Daniele. And I think it's also that bit of where there is that hybrid working, companies need to make sure it's not all the women opting for working from home and the men are coming in the office. Because that's just going to get the gap going bigger, isn't it again? So, I think it's having that concerted effort for managers not just to think, oh, well, I'll give this piece of work to so-and-so because I see him every day and I'm not going to give it to her because she's not here. It's about actually managers thinking about their whole team and not just the ones that are underneath their noses 24/7.

Christine: For all the managers that are listening, what do you think that they can do to support men in terms of things such as childcare, or mental health or paternity leave or any things like that?

Julie: So, I think, first of all, it's about having the conversation. So again, when I talk about maternity, I always talk about the fact that there's a different conversation isn't there, with staff, depending on what their situation is. So if, as a woman, I turn around and say to my line manager, I'm pregnant, I'm having a baby, that conversation normally after, congratulations, what are your plans, how long are you thinking of having off, these are the policies.

Now if that's the other person saying, my partner's having a child, normally it's just congratulations, well done. Where, actually, the manager needs to be having that same conversation. Oh, congratulations. So, what are your plans? Are you thinking of sharing childcare? Do you know we've got a Shared Parental Leave policy, do you know you're entitled to this? These are the policies, these are the kinds of things, not a lot of managers would have that conversation. They'll only have that conversation to the person who's carrying that baby. So, it's changing those conversations.

I think it's also making sure your policies as well are gender inclusive. So, you know, by making policies gender neutral, men will read those policies and will say, actually, yes, this isn't just for the women in our organisation. This is for parents, you know, this policy, the Shared Parental Leave is for parents, all the nursery stuff and the vouchers and stuff, they're for parents. So, it's about neutralising that language, sometimes.

You know, I have seen really good practice, where some male managers are actually sharing that parental responsibility and they will put in their calendar, I'm picking the children up. That may not seem a lot, but when other people see that in your calendar, again, it's given permission that this is normal, and I might be high up in the organisation, but actually, I am saying it's ok to take time out to go and pick your children up or to go to sports day, or to be doing caring responsibilities. So, it's changing the narrative of it's this is not just a thing that's for women, this is a thing that's for men and women in the workplace.

Daniele: And it was really interesting, I saw a piece where a guy had given up his job to support his wife. And, you know, there was a big article on it. And, I did see someone sharing going, why is this man getting all this coverage? You know, it was a lot of people saying, women do this every day. And I do understand that frustration, but at the same time, I was like going, but we do need to see those role models. So, while I understand why you're frustrated, why don't women get this praise, let's look at what we're trying to achieve, and sometimes when we're trying to achieve things, it does mean putting people and celebrating people that yeah, of course, they shouldn't be celebrated, they should be doing it naturally, but at the moment, we don't have enough role models. So, I do think, you know, having more of those role models, more people who are actively talking about giving up their careers to support their partner. And if that's a man then, you know, I think it comes down to that long game.

Julie: Absolutely. Because it's those little things, isn't it, Daniele, that make the difference? Those little tiny things, you know, men have seen what's happened to women, haven't they, and thought, well, if I take 5 months out, is it going to happen to me what happens to women? So, it is about, you know, permission and also recognising that actually you won't face, or we'll try to make sure you won't face, a detriment.

Christine: And unfortunately, I'm going to have to end it there. But that was a lovely conversation, it was really interesting. I think we touched on so much. So, yeah, I just want to end this by thanking you both.

Daniele: Absolute pleasure. Thank you, Christine.

Julie: Yeah, same here. I could talk to you and Daniele for hours. Thank you so much for asking us today, Christine.

Christine: Well, this has been the Acas Podcast. For more information on how to improve gender disparities in your workplace, please visit our website at All related links will be included in the episode notes below. Thanks for listening.