Creating male allies Article icon


Three years ago, actress Emma Watson issued a formal invitation to men across the world to join in the conversation about gender equality: ‘How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?’ she asked.

It was an issue that Transport for London (TfL) had already recognised, and was determined to resolve. Its Women's Staff Network Group (WSNG), which has just reached 1,000 members, welcomed men to its meetings, but there was a question mark over how men could support an organisation for women, run by women, effectively.

Thus the Male Allies group was created. Launched this year on International Women’s Day, by Graham Daly, head of operations for enforcement and on-street directorates at TfL, and two colleagues, the group is designed to support the Women’s Network without intruding on the needs and objectives of its members.

‘One of the goals of the women’s network is to create positive change for women coming into the organisation and support women who already work here. We don’t want to water down these issues,’ says Harriet Glen, chair of the WSNG. ‘We have a diverse membership. There are men on our committee and we’ve just welcomed our first trans colleague. The majority of our membership are women. The majority of the workforce is male. If we’re really going to make change, we need to get men involved in the conversation and tackle the problem.’

About three in four TfL employees are men who may be unaware of issues that affect the women on their teams; the Male Allies group aims to give them a space to learn, as well as support.

‘Men have always been welcome in the women’s network but our branding was very gender specific. I thought we should be direct in our branding and target men directly with the Male Allies group,’ asserts Glen. ‘We thought of a name like ‘equality allies’ but it’s a clearer message when we address men directly. It made sense; if we don’t have men involved, we can’t effect change.’

Daly adds: ‘There is a place for men in achieving gender equality. We need to get that 75 per cent engaged somehow. I don’t think I could get that number to join the women’s network group so the Male Allies group is a really useful way to get men involved in the conversation. There has to be constant activity. Gender equality is not just a woman’s issue. It’s got to involve everyone.' 

Daly and Glen list a number of barriers that prevent men getting involved with supporting women’s issues, including apathy, fear and lack of awareness. Many of those targeted by Male Allies are described as ‘dormant men’, who mean well, but don’t necessarily realise that there’s an issue until it’s pointed out to them.

Daly explains: ‘Our mission is to encourage awareness within, to help men understand the issues whether its recruitment, the pay gap or flexible working. Once you bring awareness to an issue, the more likely it is that you’ll have people willing to help.’

‘We have three steps,’ says Glen. ‘Get them involved in the conversation, educate them on actions that they could take away and empower men to challenge the status quo.’

But therein lies the next problem. Once the issues have been understood, what practical steps can men take to tackle them? In April, one month after launch, the Male Allies group held workshops for 300 colleagues who had already signed up. ‘We had a brainstorming session and compiled a list of actions that members can turn to, that reflect our core vision,’ says Glen. 

The workshops gauged how people think they can help, from behaviours all the way through to recruitment campaigns and policies such as maternity leave and flexible working. A list comprising 40 actions was shared on specific WSNG and Male Allies groups on enterprise social network tool Yammer.

But the groups are already having an impact. When a recent recruitment drive for taxi and private hire compliance officers attracted fewer than 20 per cent female applicants, action was taken. ‘We looked at the recruitment process, spoke to human resources, looked at removing unconscious bias, adapting the advertisement for more audiences. By the end, 35 to 40 per cent of our applicants were women,’ says Daly.

‘Positive action can be done once people have been made aware of the problem. When we recruited, we held focus groups and asked women what were the good or bad things about the recruitment process. We also held male focus groups for balance. Holding those focus groups to see how it is to work for our organisation is useful.’

The groups are supported by TfL’s leadership and Daly recently took part in a road show, visiting a variety of locations in which the company operates, sharing the message of gender equality. ‘We find out before we arrive what our statistics are,’ he explains. ‘We tell them <i>These are current gender equality issues - this is what it’s like in your local area.</> We show them the action plan. Then they’ll run with a life of their own.

‘That’s the organic nature of Male Allies that we’re actively trying to create. It’s a hearts and minds thing.  We have movers and shakers and those people who need to be woken up. There will be some hard nuts to crack and we’ll keep chipping away. There tends to be a snowball effect with these things. People may be sceptical but they may notice the difference when they see other men talking about it. It’s worth bringing out the interest that might be sceptical in order to dispel those myths. [Education] is what it’s built on.’

Daly has also sought inspiration from other organisations tackling gender equality, such as the Chartered Institute of Managers’ report, The Missing Middle, which considers the lack of women in managerial roles even though they are well-represented at both entry and higher levels of the business.

He explains: ‘The missing middle is the hardest part. We’ve got to bring equality up through entry level. Get excellent women in and they’ll find their way up.’

‘Nothing like this [programme] has ever been done before at TfL,’ Glen says. ‘There’s a push around becoming a more diverse and welcoming city to live in. TfL represents the city we live in and we want to reflect that.’

The WSNG and the Male Allies group have been created to effect change. ‘We want the workforce to be 50/50,’ she says. ‘That’s the boost and drive behind what we’re doing but essentially the aim is to one day be able to disband the group.’

But with PwC predicting that the gender pay gap in the UK, just one of the issues the WSGN and Male Allies group hope to tackle, will only close in 2041, TfL’s support networks are sticking around for now. They may have left the platform but it could be some time before they reach their destinations.