Men As Allies

Gender Balance, Leadership and The Role of Male Allies

As part of Women in Banking and Finance’s strategic plan, there is a ‘Men As Allies’ pillar, and the Men As Allies (MAA) team undertook a series of face to face interviews with Executives and Senior Leaders to gain insight as to the current landscape, the challenges faced and the role of male allies, as well as potential steps which could be taken to further turn the dial on gender balance together.

There is a wealth of research and reports which document the positive impact of gender balanced leadership within both organisations and economies. One of the most interesting statistics the MAA team came across during this exercise was research from McKinsey showing that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to have industry leading profitability.

Organisational benefits also include improved colleague retention and engagement, employer brand appeal (particularly to women) and the ability to access a diverse range of skills. Economically the main benefit is increased disposable income levels among women, which sparks further economic activity.

The MAA team wanted to reach out to a number of senior leaders and executives to better understand gender balance from a male perspective and gather feedback to help shape our Women in Banking and Finance UK plan. This is with the aim of creating an inclusive Men As Allies community to progress gender balance together.


The purpose of the interviews were to:

  • Understand the current situation in terms of gender balance within the individual’s organisation;
  • Explore the challenges that hinder gender balance; Find actions which may help to remove these barriers;
  • Find out how the individuals perceive the role of a ‘male ally’ and their involvement; Gather ideas for how an organisation such as ‘Women in Banking & Finance’ can better engage, guide and support men.


A series of 12 interviews each lasting lasting 60-90 minutes, were undertaken by members of the Men As Allies (MAA) team, over a period of 3 months. A series of five set questions were established and followed at each interview, to provide consistency of approach.


All interviewees were of a senior level, typically CEO, COO, Director, President/Vice President or Head Of Area. 92% of respondents were male and anonymity was assured, to encourage open observation and contribution.

Key Findings

Our industry has not achieved gender balance. Difficulty in achieving work-life balance and confidence or self-deselection from senior positions are still seen as part of the reason for this. Flexible working, supportive corporate cultures, gender targets and mentoring all emerged as possible solutions.

More specifically to males’ involvement, most struggled to define the concept of being a male ally and some males feel nervous about saying something which may offend so avoid active involvement.

Many of those we spoke to also viewed gender balance through a somewhat intersectional lens. Respondents saw a need to look beyond gaining equality for one historically underrepresented group and expressed a willingness for society to consider gender, ethnicity, the LGBTQ community and beyond.

In our research we saw the full spectrum of what Jennifer Brown calls the Continuum which she uses to frame allyship. This ranges from being aware (has some grasp of the issues but not at all active or engaged in addressing them) to active (well-informed and willing to engage in gender equity efforts, but only when asked) to advocate (routinely and proactively champions gender inclusion). In our research, we had no one from the apathetic (clueless and disinterested regarding gender issues) category. The question to be answered is what are the underlying reasons for the range of understanding and what can we do to support our male allies.

What’s Next?

The solution to encourage male engagement is to send a clear message or invitation that males are welcome to join the efforts of organisations such as WIBF or employee resource groups, and to then share information and knowledge to aid in understanding gender balance and challenges.


Question 1

We asked interviewees to describe current gender balance, particularly at a senior or board level, in their industry and organisation.

The significant majority of respondents stated imbalance from a gender perspective:

92% advised or confirmed that it was unbalanced, while 8% did not share the current status

42% of respondents provided data to demonstrate the current gender split at Executive/ Board level , and from those who did the average was 24% female;

The splits ranged from 0% to 37.5% female; In one instance, while the board displayed a gender split of 36% female, at Director level, 100% were male.

The remainder of responses ranged from 15% Female to 36% Female. All respondents, including those who did not provide percentages or share the current status, provided observations of imbalance. This included references such as “it (sic) was better at a lower level of management,” or that another’s Board is ‘unrepresentative’ of the organisation from a gender perspective.

In terms of emerging themes, it was felt that US firms appeared more progressive in their work for gender balance in comparison to organisations in the UK. Others referenced a disconnect with the customer base or felt that gender balance was not coming naturally but they still remained cautious of targets as a tool to accelerate this.


Question 2

We then asked “In your opinion, what are the barriers or aspects which prevent or hinder gender balance at a senior level?”

Though a range of responses were provided in relation to this, several recurring themes emerged.

  • 50% of respondents cited challenges around Work-Life Balance as a key area where barriers exist. Sub-categories of Childcare and Family, along with Maternity and Roles/Responsibilities feature here;
  • 33% referenced self-confidence levels, a reluctance to put oneself forward for potential roles or self de-selection;
  • 25% of respondents used terminology such as “jobs for the boys” or “boys network” when describing a barrier impacting the progression of gender balance at a Board level.

This is of particular significance given that 92% of the responders were men. An example provided was of the typical steps following a change of CEO, who in turn brings in a trusted senior team. There is a high likelihood of them being male, middle aged and white, leading to no change in the composition of senior leadership.

Returning to work-life balance and caring responsibilities, some highlighted the requirement for a framework to be in place to support the re-integration of those returning from maternity leave or extended periods of absence. Another cited a risk that women with families may be perceived as less effective, and one respondent gave the example of a male leader calling him at unsociable hours without consideration for his home life and caring responsibilities.


Question 3

Having gained insight into the potential barriers, we then asked our interviewees “What do you feel needs to happen for gender balance to change?”

There were a significant range of aspects identified by the respondents:

  • 25% stated Flexible Working as a key factor. In particular the current situation with COVID-19 and the need for businesses to have viable working solutions has shifted the historic perception of flexible working
  • 25% highlighted the need for supportive cultures or environments, with particular focus on structured programmes in place for those returning from maternity leave or career breaks
  • 25% cited gender targets as a solution for progressing change given that “What’s Measured Matters” and balance is not coming about quickly enough without these. However, this was tempered with some cautioning that the requirement for any gender focused goals or targets to be realistic, defensible and merit based.
  • 17% Referenced both Mentoring and Reverse Mentoring as a solution. Having structured programme to support mentoring of Female Future Leaders with Male Executive leaders brings benefits and insight to both parties. In addition, extending mentor programmes beyond gender, to help support other minority groups such as LGBTQ or BAME individuals was discussed.

Leadership needs to be representative, not only from a gender perspective but of society or the customer base more broadly. This also came through in the perceived existing barriers which hinder balance.

Some also identified Recruitment Strategy as an area which could support change, ensuring roles were open to everyone and tactical measures such as removing names from CVs or applications. One respondent referenced that change needs to start earlier than recruitment and the education system should ensure it is encouraging more women into financial services from a young age. There was caution raised about considering visibility and diversity only on a gender basis. Attaining balance and equal pay for one historically underrepresented group will still leave others in need of support.

Question 4

Role of An Ally

We asked “What do you see the role of a male / female ally to be? Do you consider yourself as a male ally and if so, what is it like?”

According Karen Catlin, an ally is someone who is not a member of an underrepresented group but who takes action to support that group. Interviewees felt most challenged in articulating how they practically exercise allyship. From our research, the following activities and behaviours were highlighted as practical ways that men may use a leadership position to support the advancement of women in the workplace:

  • 27% mentioned coaching women as a method for approaching a variety of issues, such as promoting confidence, navigating an organisation, networking to find a new role, setting goals or stretching women to reach their full potential.
  • 9% cited sponsorship, such as vocally backing women and amplifying their contribution; championing mentees and encouraging them to apply for more senior roles.
  • 20% spoke of diverse hiring practices, ensuring that women are putting themselves forward and being hired into senior roles, and ensuring that gender targets are set and communicated from the top. Knowing your organisation’s gender split was evident in some but not all of those interviewed.
  • 36% mentioned being an upstander. Taking action related to ‘bad behaviour’ and the need to speak up and not let this go unchallenged. Examples were shared including non-inclusive conversation topics in meetings such as football ‘banter’ or not actively including everyone in the conversation.
  • 36% discussed reverse mentoring, where more junior women mentor male senior leaders, which leads to both parties understanding and acknowledging the others’ experience.
  • 9% discussed reverse mentoring, where more junior women mentor male senior leaders, which leads to both parties understanding and acknowledging the others’ experience.

54% struggled with the concept and actually understanding what allyship is and how to deliver on it. Some had never come across the concept before and said it needed more explanation.

Others had never thought of themselves as an ally or were blunt in their reasons for not acting on allyship, for example if there is a need to hire quickly there may not be time to secure a diverse slate of candidates. Other reasons for not being an ally were basic human traits, like “wanting to fit in” or “just not thinking.”

A further reason cited for not being an active ally was lack of education on the topic, including unconscious bias, diversity and inclusion training and simply not being aware. One interviewee stated that they were a passive ally and not a ‘fighter’; another said it was not good to come across as ‘extremist’. Clearly the discussion about what a male ally is and what it feels like stirs up some discomfort and emotion.

A further aspect that was highlighted in some instances was about the role of a male ally and the penalty for getting it wrong, even personal risk.

The most successful and engaged environments seem to be those that have shifted away from labelling groups as Men or Women. For example, a bank which had recently moved from a female employee resource group to a gender diversity employee resource group, co-chaired by a man and a woman, appeared to be making headway in creating comfortable and psychologically safe spaces for both genders to understand each other and be heard. This in turn raised the question of whether keeping a strict binary option of male or female focused support groups is creating more exclusion, specifically for non-binary and trans employees.

Question 5

What Prevents More Male Allies?

Finally, we asked our respondents to share their thoughts on “What prevents more male allies? As a senior leader and influencer, what do you think could be done to encourage more visible and vocal male allies, and how can Women in Banking and Finance UK’ support?”

As identified in earlier questions, some males are nervous they will say what is regarded as the wrong thing about gender, or that this could be used against them even if it is well intentioned. This fear results in self-censoring and a default position of avoiding engagement, even if they believe that equality and balance is a good thing. For example, “I would not at all be comfortable speaking up in a formal setting [about support for gender equality] as this makes one liable for attack.” This is linked to Psychological Standing (see the Harvard Business Review article below), where males don’t feel like they have the legitimacy to act or get involved.

This lack of legitimacy may be overcome with a clear message or invitation that men are welcome to join the efforts of WIBF or employee resource groups, which was requested by 30% of respondents. For example, Barclays asked all colleagues to become supporters of their employee resource group and make one of a number of possible pledges such as becoming a mentor or mentee.

However, 50% of respondents were open to learning more in order to better understand and become more understanding of gender and challenges faced. Some openly acknowledged their lack awareness or knowledge of the topic.

Final Words: What can we do at WIBF ?

Our research has shown that there is still much work to be done to effect gender balance. While there were positive examples shared by some respondents, it’s clear that strides still need to be made in terms of a perception shift. Gender balance is not a ‘women’ issue - it is not them who need to change, but rather businesses themselves - removing conditions and obstacles that exist in the path to gender balance, to effect sustainable cultural and organisational design.

This is a journey. Individuals and businesses alike are all at different stages of education and understanding - this is clear through the insight gained around ally-ship. To help people move forward, we need to create safer spaces for people to share knowledge and make mistakes, and then learn more about how to understand each better to build better outcomes together.

There is also a need to look beyond gender, instead with a truly inclusive lens. Gender balance is under the spotlight, however, we have a moral responsibility to ensure no other underrepresented groups as left behind in the journey towards equality.

We can do this together!

Thank You

Thank you for taking the time to read our research. We really hope you found this useful and prompted some actions to take individually or at a group level.

We’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment below or message us directly at

Thanks to Chrisanna Martin, Conor Sharkey and Kristina Philip who put this research together.

Finally, biggest thanks to the leaders who gave up their time to share their knowledge and insights on this important topic.

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