Alumni Insights - Men As Allies

Awards Alumni Networks Sponsor
Awards Alumni Network Sponsor

On January 16th 2020, the WIBF Alumni hosted a fireside chat with Shriti Vadera, Chairman of Santander UK and Michael Cole-Fontayn, Chairman of AFME and Chairman elect for The Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment (CISI) - both Patrons of WIBF - discussing the important topic of ‘Men As Allies’. Kindly co-hosted by the 2019 Alumni sponsor, Santander, and chaired by Vivienne Artz, WIBF President, this important discussion delved into the challenges and opportunities for change with two leading figures in the banking industry. Exploring how to best leverage the collective influence and personal engagement of male business leaders to advance gender equality. WIBF Alumni were asked to attend the event with a male ally.

Tim Hinton, Head of Corporate and Commercial Banking and Executive Committee gender sponsor at Santander, opened the event with an impassioned introduction highlighting that gender equality is very much a mainstream issue. Citing his own professional experiences, Tim discussed the many strong female managers he has had and strongly felt that the exposure and experience he had of female leadership early in his career resulted in him becoming a “passionate ally for gender parity”.

Vivienne Artz, President of WIBF, began the fireside discussion by announcing the formation of the WIBF Men as Allies Community, created in [2019] in recognition of the importance of men being equal participants in the conversation in order to deliver change.


Discussing whether barriers exist that prevent male colleagues from fully participating in gender equality, Shriti kicked off the discussion by highlighting the need for gender equality to be recognised as a fundamental management issue and paramount in understanding how best to grow a business. She went on to emphasise that “this is ultimately about the performance of your business. Research has consistently shown that the more diverse the team, the better the performance. And it is this crucial point that propels the discussion from being just a female-only issue”.

Shriti voiced her concern about men possibly being slightly fearful of saying or doing the wrong thing and recommended that “people should be flexible about getting men into a space where they are comfortable and able to voice opinions”. She also raised the “elephant in the room, which is if the playing field has been stacked in your favour for a considerable length of time, the prospect of the playing field completely levelling out may be a little threatening and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s not”.


Michael - observed that “we have been talking about this realistically for ten years and a lot of men assume this is now done”. Michael went on to highlight that “there is an assumption that women have got what they want – there is equal access and there is open opportunity, but there clearly isn’t yet because we can see it in our organisations and different businesses. We still have work to do.”

Michael discussed the importance of organisations ensuring that “all pipelines to executive management are filled with great talent, and that talent should be as diverse as possible”. Also, importantly, “not all organisations are using a metrics-based approach to ensure these changes are happening, ensuring that diversity is embedded in performance management systems. And making sure that for every opportunity, there is a diverse list of candidates and it’s not just about women but diversity across the board”.

Michael emphasised that “to some extent, we’re talking about intersectionality much more in organisations now. And if we’re going to succeed and solve the really complex issues and challenges we have in our businesses today, real diversity of thought is needed. And we need to deploy all the opportunities and tools available to give all our talent the greatest opportunity to succeed”.


When asked for an example of where she has seen the most progress on creating gender parity, and what/who has been the key driver, Shriti cited the example of BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, of which she is a Senior Non-Executive Director, which has made progress on meeting its target of 50% gender parity by 2025, despite some initial challenges, and remains very much a leader for the sector. “What turned the tide was the use of their sophisticated stats system to analyse the performance of diverse and non-diverse teams”. Referencing data recorded that “the diverse team’s safety record was better, productivity levels were higher and their forecasting ability was better. Suddenly all the business leaders were interested”. Shriti went on to provide additional context: “In this business, safety is a key issue for all people in the organisation. Highlighting a better safety record meant people were clamouring to be part of the support systems that make men allies. But there was little take up until they understood that this was important and relevant to what they do and how they work. It has to be important to all employees, not just women”.


According to Michael, “the financial services business is hyper-competitive and what makes the difference is whether your customers and clients feel your staff are engaged. If your staff are engaged, clients can sense that. They know it when they can go to any level within the organisation and experience a consistent level and quality of response”.

He added: “the other benefit is if you’ve got that level of engagement and pride from employees in the organisation, there is a firm line of defence where the vast majority of employees are much more comfortable and inclined to protect the reputation of the organisation. The bottom line is, the greater level and quality of a diverse workforce, you’re going to engender a better risk-managed organisation which in turn allows the organisation to take more risk for clients and they can sense that”.


“If you break through a ceiling, the natural assumption is that the ceiling is broken and the opening is there for others to come through but that isn’t always the case”, said Shriti. “There is a difference between exceptionalism and being a genuine role model and fostering an inclusive environment”.

She continued, “What do you do if you’re the only woman in the room? It’s simple, you pitch to have more women in the room! Research will show you that women are not as effective in securing diversity of thinking and adding that value without critical mass. 30% is not an accident – that number is not about parity or equality, it’s about the threshold you need for the culture and the environment to change to be more inclusive. And it does need a critical number”.


In Shriti’s view, we have seen much more progress in the financial services sector in the last five years. Highlighting Santander as an example, with two women on the Board when she joined as Chairman in 2014, Shriti recognised that its easier at the Board level given it’s a singular group. However, it is more challenging to make meaningful progress at the Executive Management level. “Reaching and maintaining the minimum 30% at the ExCo level is very difficult because you’re competing for highly-prized talent. As organisations, we have to focus very hard on the level below to bring talent through and that requires all the support mechanisms you have such as reverse mentoring, unconscious bias training among others”. Acknowledging and recognising different styles is also key to success as employees need to “bring who they are to work”.


Sharing best practice, learning from competitors and clients, joining industry networks are all important steps organisations need to take to address gender equality. The 30% Club and WIBF were cited as strong examples of an innovative approach to creating appropriate networking opportunities.

“Ensuring programmes have an element of creativity is important” according to Michael. “Management needs to be engaged with the talent being mentored through the programmes. Be as engaged as you’re able to be in a confidential environment with the mentors as well and recognise their contribution to the development of talent. That demonstration of gratitude is a very important part of the feedback loop”.

Reinforcing an often-repeated observation, Shriti questioned if the industry is focused enough on having champions for women as much as having mentors for women. “Essentially, men progress quite well by having a number of people sponsor and champion them. We focus on giving women mentors when in fact what women need are sponsors and champions”.


Addressing an audience question on recent moves by TSB to reduce compensation of management for failing to meet gender targets, Shriti was unequivocal in her support of having all elements of diversity and team performance be tied to compensation. “It isn’t about women, it’s about making your team work better, that is the bottom line. We incentivise on the profit line, and we know the profit line for the organisation at the macro level is improved with better diversity – there is enough research to support that”.

Efforts are already underway to challenge the Treasury to update criteria in the Women in Finance Charter that enforces commitment rather than intention to link diversity to pay.

By Rebecca O’Neill

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