How can men be allies to women in the workplace?

By Robert Half on 8 March 2023

As Hong Kong prepares to celebrate International Women’s Day, we can acknowledge how far women have come while recognising there is a long way to go to achieve gender equality in the workplace.

Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) points to a $HK5,000 gap in median monthly earnings between women and their male counterparts. The EOC says this difference is attributable to various factors, including a higher proportion of men working in managerial rather than clerical roles. However, the lack of opportunity for women can extend all the way to the C-suite.

Fewer than one in ten (8.5%) CEOs in Hong Kong are women . In 2023, just 16.5% of listed company board seats in Hong Kong were held by women . This saw Hong Kong ranked 33rd globally for female board representation according to a Deloitte report.

On the plus side, this is set to change – driven by new listing rules that came into effect at the start of 2022. Hong Kong-listed firms with single-gender boards have until the end of 2024 to introduce greater gender diversity . Companies seeking to list will need at least one female director.

Improved board diversity is not just good for women in the workforce, it can also underpin better business outcomes and improved governance. However, achieving their full career potential remains a challenge for many women in Hong Kong.

While there is no silver bullet for the issue of gender inequality in the workforce, one pathway with the potential to nurture a culture of equality and inclusion is for men to be allies to women in the workplace. This can give women the confidence of an extra voice – when they are unsure if their own voice will be heard.

It may not always be easy for men to be allies to women in the workplace. It can call for courage. But being an ally at work can deliver powerful outcomes. A US study found women who have the backing of loyal allies at work feel a greater sense of inclusion, and bring more energy and enthusiasm to the role. This benefits everyone regardless of gender, and helps companies build stronger, more productive teams.

So, let’s start the conversation.

We recently caught up with three leaders across Robert Half for insights into how men can be allies to women in the workplace.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, Elaine Lam Managing Director Robert Half Hong Kong joined Andrea Wong, Managing Director Robert Half Singapore and Nicole Gorton, Director Robert Half Australia, to share their views on how men can be allies to women in the workplace.

What does it mean to be an ally?

Andrea: To me, being an ally means working in a partnership towards a common goal. In the context of ‘how can men be allies to women in the workplace’, I believe it means proactively upholding gender equality and counteracting unconscious gender bias so women can have equal opportunities to thrive in the workplace.

Nicole: Being an ally means supporting somebody in the workplace in regards to their career trajectory, and understanding how to navigate a situation. Inevitably things come up at work that are technical or become a challenge, often because we deal with a wide range of people with varying skillsets. So not everyone always agrees. Allies are important in times like these to help people who feel like their voice wasn’t heard or they weren’t able to partner with a certain group. People might find themselves in an environment that is not always equitable, or they aren’t invited to events. When they feel excluded, an ally can step in to advise on next steps.

Allies should challenge you – whether it be your thought process, or some of the decisions you make in the workplace. And when you have a reaction to something, they should be there to open your mind to other perspectives and teach you how to evolve and progress. In essence, the job of an ally is to help you reflect and grow.

Elaine: I see an ally as someone who shows support, almost like a mentor. It could be also someone who will partner with you to help get something done, or someone who is an advocate for you. It’s all about partnership.

How can men be allies to women in the workplace?

Andrea: It’s the small things that count. When inappropriate comments or jokes are made that embarrass women or put women in an inferior position, men can become an ally of women by speaking up to end such conversations and uphold a culture of decency and respect.

Nicole: Men can be allies to women in the workplace by inviting women to the table, and including them in certain meetings, events, or taskforce groups to ensure female representation. Turn to females for advice – ask ‘what do you think?’. Women will observe but not always speak up, so by giving them a chance to share their thoughts, they feel included. When men acknowledge women in the workplace, whether it be a difference in thought or a new opinion, it can bring new considerations to the table that may not have been factored in. As a generalisation, men have a networking ability to talk business and integrate a level of business acumen that feeds into conversations in non-work settings. Teaching women how to do this, and pivot from general chatting to the integration of business chat, is a great way to strengthen their position as a leader.

Elaine: Sometimes women can be less confident in voicing their opinions in meetings. This is a great opportunity for a male senior leader to ask a female colleague about her thoughts, and give support by repeating what she said and integrating it into the conversation. Men who have held senior leadership positions, can reach out and offer their support in the form of a mentor to a woman, particularly one who is stepping up into a leadership role. This allows men to share their experiences and how they dealt with situations to advance in their career.

Why is it important for men to be allies to women in the workplace?

Andrea: At Robert Half, inclusion is part of our Enterprise Values, and it’s very close to our heart. We want to make sure we create an environment in which everyone has equal opportunity and is treated with respect. If women are still a minority in an organisation, or are not part of senior management, we need men to be our allies. When the situation is reversed, women are happy to be allies to men too!

Nicole: We need to be cognisant that no two men – or women – are the same. However, we know that a very small proportion of CEOs are women, and this is on the decline. We aren’t getting further ahead in fixing this. We have both women and men in the workplace, and it is so important to allow women to reach their potential as this will benefit leadership, customers and communities.

Elaine: Both females and males have different strengths when it comes to leadership skills, and a blend of these is imperative to manage a company well. It is important to be open and to share our experiences. For me personally, working with Yewki Tomita, the male leader of Robert Half Japan, has enabled both of us to learn so much from each other, helping us run our regions to the best of our ability. Having Yewki as an ally has allowed me to brainstorm with him and use our combined strengths to make the company better.

What is some advice you would like to give women about this topic?

Andrea: The golden rule is ‘Do to others as you would have others do to you’. It’s not that complicated. Let’s commit to building a world – and workplace – of inclusivity.

Nicole: Women need to be proactive in accepting that they think differently. Acknowledging and accepting our differences, and integrating the strengths that both men and women bring to a business, can fundamentally pave the way for women to reach their potential. Understand the strengths men bring, learn from them and adapt these learnings in a positive and natural way to progress in your career.

Elaine: Finding the right ally will allow you to flourish and feel confident as a leader. A value-adding ally, who understands your goals, is the perfect place to start in learning how to capitalise on your strengths and take your career to the next level.

Find out about Robert Half's commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion.

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