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How to Be a Male Ally in the Fight for Gender Equality



Smashing the patriarchy is a man’s game too, figures from the global ad industry tell Alex Reeves

How to Be a Male Ally in the Fight for Gender Equality

International Women’s Day tends to split the male population. On the one hand, there are the ever-reliable ‘WHY ISN’T THERE AN INTERNATIONAL MEN’S DAY?’ mob (lads, for the last time, it’s on November 19th). There are those who simply don’t care. And then there are those who respect and value the women in their lives, trying to figure out how to address inequality. For that last group – and in the spirit of positivity – we decided to speak to women who felt they had a positive experience with a male ally to get some concrete examples of behaviours that can help move the needle.

“Male allies are crucial to promoting gender equality, especially in the workplace,” says Stevie Holliday, director’s rep for production company Sweetshop in the UK and Europe. “When male bosses and colleagues cooperate with, support, advocate for, mentor and sponsor women, it’s not only good for our workplace culture, our professional and personal development, but it boosts productivity and ultimately the financial bottom line.”

There’s plenty of inequality to address, and it will take men and women working together to beat it. “I can’t think of not being an ally of women,” says Marc Wesseling, co-founder of Japan- and Singapore-based creative agency UltraSuperNew. His colleague, HR and finance manager Yenyee Chau, nominated him to be interviewed because she thinks he’s setting a positive example. “Here in 2019 it is ridiculous that we are still so far away from gender equality,” he continues. “I am proud that USN is a very open company for any religion, gender, sexuality, race etc. and cannot imagine working at an agency with different values.”

As managing partner of Irish agency The Public House, Catríona Campbell has also built a company that’s proud to be allowing women to flourish. Three out of five of its senior leadership team are women and this has changed the way the agency works. “Advertising agencies aren’t traditionally famous for their support of women, but as a small, independent advertising agency we do what we can,” she says. “We top up maternity pay. We’ve introduced flexible working hours for the parents in the office, enable parents to work from home when required, and never question it when a parent has to go due to a child emergency. Mums - and dads - at our agency know that work is really important, but family is the most important thing. I don’t know if that’s necessarily being a good ally, and more about being a good person, full stop.”

But it’s not just the women at the head of the industry making these changes. Catríona highlights the work that The Public House’s founder and creative director Colin Hart has played in driving towards equality. And he’s far from complacent. “Advertising is a weird industry. Underneath all the creativity is actually a group of people who are very much set in their ways and quite fixed in their opinions,” he says. “I do sometimes worry about some of the language that is used in advertising and how is can be perceived. We attract some of the funniest, smartest people to work in agency world but with that comes people who really push the boundaries. Then look a little externally, like directors. I’ve worked with a load of directors who are either sexist ‘80s directors or they are being ‘meta’ sexist ‘80s directors (which is still inappropriate), so it’s very difficult to think of gender inequality as not a thing. It’s very much a thing. It is a thing that gives women less of a chance than men.”

Be fair

Let’s get into the basics of what men should do to step up and play their part in fighting gender inequality. Sue Frogley, CEO of Publicis Media UK underlines the importance of a straightforward sense of fairness, something she feels her colleague Adrian Sayliss, global chief financial officer demonstrates. “Adrian operates with complete meritocracy at every level,” says Sue. “Adrian sees no difference between men and women in the workplace.”

Catríona from The Public House echoes this, talking about her chosen ally: “Fairness is something that is just naturally important to Colin. He’s also a straight-talker, so if something isn’t fair, he’ll just call it. I suppose Colin’s just a good ally to people who are really good - it’s as simple as that. If you work hard, he’ll go out of the way to make things easy for you.”

Shula Sinclair, global head of strategy at UK media agency Spark Foundry further highlights how a good ally should be fair, speaking about her colleague John Antoniades, global managing director: “He’s focused on outcomes and to get to these outcomes he fosters an empathetic and meritocratic culture that encourages contributions from everyone, regardless of professional or personal profile.” 

Listen to women

Yenyee Chau from UltraSuperNew cites the importance of listening as a prime trait in an ally. “Having a role model that is able to listen emphatically is extremely important,” she says. As a prominent male figure in the office, she appreciates Marc’s willingness to do this. “Him being able to make a concerted effort to listen to the experiences of our diverse colleagues will definitely allow USN to flourish together,” she says.

Understand what sexism is

Colin believes he makes a better ally to women by educating himself about the challenges they face as a result of gender inequality. He begins with the legal definition of discrimination. He calls these laws “rational, straightforward rules set out to stop inequality and unfairness. The choice of some people to not follow these rules is what makes me active about supporting gender equality. I know it can be interpreted in different ways but I do feel like understanding where the rules are allows me to step in when needed. When I can explain the law’s approach to any issues, I feel like I am able to be supportive and make some sense. However, I do actually think that the law somewhat mansplains. The idea that all law is written from the perspective of ‘The Man’ is somewhat ironic.”

Don’t accept sexist behaviour

“As business partners, Colin can get frustrated with ‘traditional’ mindsets whereby because he’s the man, people direct questions to him, and treat me like his secretary,” says Catríona. “It happens much more than you think. I’ve seen Colin actively steer the conversation back and be incredibly direct about my role. Sexism is outdated, and Colin is 100% transparent about that.”

Colin actually encountered this exact situation recently. “It was blatant sexism in the office,” he says. “The client addressed one of our female colleagues in a belittling tone and compared her to a ‘bossy school teacher’. We looked at each other, closed our laptops and told them the meeting had finished.”

Amplify women’s voices

John Antoniades, global managing director of Spark Foundry, has found himself in situations where the men in the room only directed their questions to other men. “In these occasions I would subtly redirect the questions to the women in the room who I knew had the answers,” he says.

When Yenyee first started at UltraSuperNew she’d never worked in a creative environment, and her voice had often been minimised as a woman. “I was used to the grinding hours of the brokering industry and guys cutting me off with their voices and shouting across the office,” she says. “Marc picked up on my introverted nature and always tried to make me feel welcome. My hard work and accomplishments always went recognised, no matter how small the victory may have seemed. Looking back, I'd definitely say he was a good mentor to me. That’s the glue that keeps the company together. During team meetings he does not hesitate to address any concerns by the women in the workplace and makes sure our voices are heard. He's a tough nut, but he's also one of the good guys.”

Sometimes women just need the right atmosphere for their voices to carry. Isobar Italy’s creative and strategy principle Lavinia Garulli has experienced this in what she calls her “women-driven agency.” She admits: “Usually creative men are narcissistic and self-referential. They fight for their ideas to win, just because they’re their ideas.” Male ally of her, art director Nicola Basile is just the opposite, she says: “He loves to work together, giving others a sense of confidence that opens their minds to something new. Nicola is the perfect ally, especially for me, his creative director. With his lighthearted soul and genuine creative hunger, he pushes me to be the inspirational guide he deserves.”

Be available to support women when they need it

As people progress through their careers, people often need guidance. For men in senior positions, supporting gender equality should mean making sure they are offering advice and mentorship to women as openly as they do to men. Adrian at Publicis Media has had to step up in this regard, making himself available and “offering support to newly promoted women taking on senior roles who have required counsel,” he says. “I enjoy and value working with talented colleagues, female or male, I make myself available to listen and support. I’ve found working with dedicated hard-working strong female leads, oftentimes mums with young families, to be inspiring and deserving of our wholehearted support. They should be our role models.”

Lavinia’s other chosen ally is Gabriele Salamone, senior art director. “His role is to help me to guide and inspire the creative team,” she says. “In Isobar Milan, he’s surrounded by women, as they are the majority in the agency. I mention him because Gabriele is authentically supportive, encouraging his female colleagues to feel confident to express their ideas. He does his best to build on these ideas, making his seniority available for them to make it real. He’s better than a guide, he’s an enabler of his female colleagues’ talent. From my point of view, he’s an ally to reinforce my authority, helping me to activate a creative vision into reality, involving all the creative department, without exception.”

Gabriele has had the chance to work in many different kinds teams, some of them with a very 'man oriented' perspective, he says: “Those situations worked on me in a strange way, showing me the person I don't want to be. So I simply found myself avoiding those situations, if not fighting them. I try to do my best to set a frame in which I am always available for my colleagues. Then I encourage everyone to express themselves at their best, considering me as a 'parachute'. Rarely I act if not asked, but if you need me, I'll be there for you. Clearly it is not THE solution, and sometimes you need to ask how things are going, but, at first, I always try to understand if I am needed or not.”

But be wary of ‘mansplaining’

Guess what dudes - sometimes women might not need advice from men! In fact, they often would appreciate a little less unsolicited advice from the men they work with who think they know best. 

Nicola at Isobar Italy is also careful not to overstep the mark between being helpful and mansplaining: “Going beyond this limit can be easy and it may happen that you do not realise it until another interlocutor makes you realise it. To avoid this unpleasant situation what I strongly repeat to myself is to try to talk to everyone in the same way, regardless of sex, colour, religion or any other detail not needed to work in a team every day and to have a respectful life in our society.”

Seek out and provide female role models

While men, with their added layer of privilege, can use that to help advance deserving women beyond what a gender-biased system would normally allow, female role models are also vital. That’s why Sweetshop’s Spencer is working on projects that are trying to shift the makeup of the ad industry towards more diversity of all kinds. Stevie says: “He was instrumental in Sweetshop’s sponsorship of the leadership masterclass for creative minorities in partnership with D&AD for RARE LONDON, which is designed to combat the challenges that diverse creative talent face in the workplace, by arming them with tangible tips and skills from industry leaders who’ve overcome these challenges over the course of their careers. It helps those from under-represented groups within the industry to reach their full potential and hopefully enables them to go on and become visible, recognisable role models and provide inspiration to others.”

On the production side of the industry, initiatives like Free the Bid are pushing the gender ratios away from the shocking disparity we currently see. “I’d like to see more female directors given the opportunity to diversify and flex their creative muscles,” says Spencer. “And I’d especially like to see more female role models within the industry. It gives those at the grassroots level potential mentors and people to look up to. At the same time, I think more visible female people of influence encourages those that might not have previously have considered the industry to get involved. This can only be a good thing for the future of our industry.”

Value women’s perspectives

Spencer has seen the value of female perspectives and input first hand in shaping Sweetshop. “Two of the founding partners, three of the MDs and one of the EPs are female. I consider that to be one of our greatest strengths,” he says.

When different perspectives and experiences are represented in the creative process, the resulting ideas are stronger. Marc at UltraSuperNew knows this and makes the case for gender diversity on all teams: “Some might say it’s logical for women to be working on more female specific or female-targeted brands, simply because it’s thought, assumed even, that they understand the target group better. However, I’ve also found that a men's perspective on a female targeted brand can also be refreshing and inspiring.”

Make structural change where you can

Not all men have their hands on the necessary levers of power, but those who happen to be in that position have a responsibility to step up and change the processes that shape the industry. Spencer has done exactly this, says Stevie: “It has been great to see Spencer not just being vocal, but actively addressing any imbalances he notices within the company and also our industry as a whole. At Sweetshop, whilst always hiring the best person for the job irrespective of gender, he has made a conscious effort to hire more women and we now have a 50/50 male-female ratio in the London office.

“He also understands that we all have a life outside of work and has created a healthy culture, where both male and female colleagues feel empowered to work flexibly. People are never judged if they need to leave work a little early or arrive slightly later to look after domestic responsibilities or childcare.”

One structural problem that’s often unfairly held women back from career progression is the norm of women taking more time off than men when they become parents. Conscious of this, Adrian and his team at Publicis Media introduced improved policies to support bringing women back into the organisation following maternity leave. “We need to focus on being an attractive workplace with flexible policies to ensure we don’t lose our most talented women,” says Adrian, “that they are able to maintain their career progression through whatever family or social circumstance, and that they are then in the right place for leadership roles."

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LBB Editorial, Thu, 07 Mar 2019 16:59:21 GMT