I was invited by my wonderful (and very feminist) friend Robert Baker to discuss ‘male allyship’ on his panel at last week’s She2 event held at Amazon. (I’ve also been honoured to feature in She2 Founder Nicola Grant’s just-published Wonder Women book.) ‘Allies’ is one of those labels that is both all the rage and unintentionally misguided.
Companies are rushing to develop ‘allyship’ programs just as enthusiastically as they were ready to invest in ‘women’s networks.’ Neither is a good idea in 2023. What’s wrong with the well-meaning momentum? It’s the wrong words focusing on the wrong thing at the wrong time. And framing is 80% of effective change.
I made my case for why allyship is a lousy frame for getting men and leaders engaged in gender balance:
If some men are allies - what does that make other men? Enemies. Hardly a smart way of getting men on board for gender balancing businesses at a time when most men feel women have an advantage.
Why are we using military metaphors - when what we really need to build is peace and better understanding between genders.
A dangerous game - in the age of heightened tension between the sexes, and where women are more educated, knowledgeable and networked than they’ve ever been in human history, why are we trying to set men up against each other in terms of supporting women’s rise?
The current challenge is to update our language, frames and fights for the reality we live in now. I’d argue, after 20 years working on this stuff, that the only companies that gender balance are those that make balance (of any kind) a leadership issue and a management skill, not a women’s issue. This may sound obvious, but it’s still rare. How do you know if a company has gender balanced? The quickest way is to take a look at their global Executive Team. Everything else is just noise and pink-washing. If all you find is a woman in charge of HR or Legal, they haven’t.
So the more companies pile on the programmes for women, or ‘allyship,’ the less skilled they are at doing the work that lies ahead - getting men and women (and all the other genders) in conversation with each other. And getting managers skilled at working across genders. For the moment, most male managers would be caught dead even talking about gender issues. They’re terrified, and think it’s an unforgiving, no-win topic they are determined to stay well away from. I don’t blame them. It’s a complex, emotive topic at the best of times. This ain’t the best of times.
A comment from the audience reminded me of how they feel. A lawyer in the audience, of Indian descent, raised her hand and said there was no more time for conversation, and that I seemed to simply be displaying ‘white fragility.’ As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and someone who lost most of her family to the Nazi gas chambers, I could only feel for all the men who have been bundled sexist because of their sex. I was also channeling David Baddiel’s excellent book, Jews Don’t Count. It reminded me of the last time I had been accused of being precisely what I wasn’t by someone who knew me not at all.
A Senegalese journalist living in France accused me of plagiarising a FORBES piece I wrote highlighting women’s stellar leadership during covid. The piece went seriously viral (over 8.5 million views), and this lady I had never met or heard of, wrote on the same theme in French, in a small French fashion magazine. Watching the relative success of my article, she accused me of copying it from hers and started a twitter storm among her (mostly black and mostly francophone) followers.
It was a great frame. The older, long-time, white feminist stealing the intellectual property of a young African female writer. She got thousands of people to gang up. I got a close up taste of the madness out there. My accuser, seeing the success of her alternate narrative, dialled up the volume, adding accusations of racism to the crime of plagiarism. People piled on with gusto, outraged at my perfidy. Most didn’t bother to read the two pieces, or couldn’t, since one was in French and the other in English. They took her word for it. Little did she care that my son lives and loves in her home country of Senegal, or that my grand-daughter shares both our cultures. That I’ve never plagiarised a word in my life. That my understanding of hate and racism is baked deep into my trauma-infused DNA. Those were details that didn’t serve her story.
Every progressive on the planet should be learning to adapt and adjust their language and frames. Women included. I highly recommend listening to the full seven episodes of The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling. It is an inspiring model of how to pace, structure and investigate complex conversations. Everyone involved in trying to evolve human mindsets and behaviours will need to upskill their approaches to becoming more inclusive of different voices.
Women can lead the way by showing how to work constructively with men and across cultures and colours to build win-win gender balance across the board. Too often, women assume the worst of men, and in my experience, men feel under-equipped to build balance. They need help, not accusations. But accusations sell better, and get everyone’s interest peaked by outrage.
I spent Friday at HEC Business School in Paris, speaking with a gender balanced group of global, students hand-picked to be in a coaching programme run by my friend Bernard Bismuth (his brother launched and ran the gender balance initiative at Schlumberger decades ago). I was sharing my work on nationality, gender and generational balance and how it might impact their careers and leadership. As ever, the creation of a conversation that is ‘psychologically safe’ for all is key to an honest exchange. The gender topic was a hot button for the whole class, but especially for the men, who had to be brought into the conversation. They admitted, collectively, that it was very scary to talk about these issues in mixed company. Whether Nigerian, Dutch or English, they had had few occasions to express themselves in mixed company. They had a million questions - for their lives, their loves and their future roles. Their relief in being to table them was palpable.
It’s exactly the same when I work with the Executive Teams of top companies. The relief at being able to learn and create innovative approaches in a collaborative context where they are not being accused of bias, privilege and white fragility creates the conditions to make change. In fact, it’s the pre-condition to change. Everything else just locks people into their pre-existing ideas and prejudices.
As ever, I’m inspired by the next generation’s interest in these topics. Of course they are, as women are increasingly powerful and part of their future. At home and at work. But that can be a win/ win for couples, companies and countries, or a lose/ lose. The difference is leadership, curiosity and the ability to listen. Really listen.
What also inpsired me, was my friend Bernard. At 80 years old, he has created this supper TEC program at HEC, and nurtured it over the past decade. A successful entrepreneur, he spends huge amounts of time listening and supporting these young MBA students. But three weeks ago, he had an 8-hour operation for liver cancer treatment. This week, he was dining out in Paris with me, and picking me up at 7 am to chair a day-long session with his programme. But that’s not all, he told me. He was also helping an old colleague in the UK sell his company, and had made several trips to Manchester in the last few months to negotiate the deal. He’s also been working with Paris’ Museum of Modern Art to make Raoul Dufy’s huge painting The Spirit of Electricity come to life. A painting in honour of the scientists and industrialists who created the modern age, each of the 100 people in the painting are now documented and their legacies and impacts explained. You can meet the scientists and discover their innovations. It’s a joy!
Which gets me back into the theme of longevity. How much Bernard has done and given in the two decades that separate his age from mine! What a role model he is, to me but also to all the young students he is so generously sharing his extensive wisdom with.
So of course, when I wake up Sunday morning to write this piece, what do I hear on BBC radio, but A Point of View’s perfect summary of all my thinking on the topic of longevity, including the gender angles, assisted dying and a global perspective. I had to pinch myself it sounded so much like my own brain talking. Writer Sarah Dunant eloquently delivers a powerful summary in under 10 minutes entitled Demographic Meltdown. I highly recommend a listen.
Because listening matters. Because we are deeply programmed to prefer people like us, but civilisation and science has taught us we win when we get over that programming. It’s the work of a lifetime not to judge a book by its cover. Including if it’s white and/ or male.
The future of women depends on the future of men. And vice versa. We need to be in this together. All ages, races, religions (including no religions) and colours. Not as ‘allies.’ Simply as humans.
PS. I learned while writing this that the BBC’s Thought For the Day does not allow humanists. It only allows people of a recognised faith. How’s that for listening?
PPS. The strap line of Nicola Grant’s SHE2 network is CURIOSITY - CONNECTION - CONVERSATION.
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It's sad how so much of the dialogue has become so binary, you're either an ally or not, progressive or not, on the right side or not.
Maybe I used to be more that way when I was younger, but at 59 I don't see a world of black or white, but mostly grey.