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How allies empower Women in Tech

Committed allies share their perspective and experience on how women can work with allies to achieve their career goals.

In brief

  • Allyship is an essential part of creating an equitable culture in which women can thrive.
  • Allyship can include sponsoring and advocating for colleagues and ensuring that women have equitable access to opportunities.
  • Employees of all genders should encourage inclusive behaviors to achieve gender equity.

In a recent Women in Tech webcast, two committed allies discussed the importance of allyship for women to achieve greater gender equity. Eileen Hahn, EY Women in Tech Global Program Leader, moderated a discussion between Richard Lord, Managing Director and CIO Wholesale, Asia Pacific, and Global Head of Wholesale Credit & Lending Technology at HSBC, and Stig Thorgersen, EY Nordics Consulting Leader.

Aspiring for allyship

In October 2023, the Allies-In-Action study1 of over 1,100 men and women working in medium and large companies across various industries revealed a stark gap in reporting of allyship actions. Around 95% of men said they had given credit to a woman for her contributions and ideas in a meeting during the previous year, whereas only 49% of women reported witnessing such behavior. It points to a gap in how men perceive they are supporting women in the workplace versus what women experience.

of men said they had given credit to a woman for her contributions and ideas in a meeting.
of women reported witnessing such behavior.

The importance of allyship

Fixing that gap in allyship can play an integral part in achieving gender equity in the workplace, and research shows that gender equality is crucial to delivering better business performance. In 2023, Blackrock analyzed Bloomberg’s MSCI World Index of large and mid-cap companies in 24 countries for women’s representation in the workforce.2 The analysis revealed that firms with the most gender-diverse workforces outperformed those with the least diverse workforce by an average of 29% a year.

Richard Lord from HSBC thinks the results are understandable because these firms will have a better market fit than lower diversity firms. “If all your product decisions are made by people who are unrepresentative of the markets you’re trying to sell your product into, then you are likely to take a big swing and miss,” he says.

Firms with the most gender-diverse workforces had a
higher return on assets than those with least diverse workforce.

In today’s competitive markets, that’s risky. Both Richard and Stig recognize this business imperative and thus have become active allies for women in technology, but from the very start of their respective careers, they have also recognized the moral imperative of doing the right thing.

An uncomfortable beginning

Richard grew up in a small Australian town, which he describes as “an environment with a fair bit of misogyny, a lot of prejudice, and a lot of bias.” Even as a young adult, it made him uncomfortable. Moving to the big city to study, he encountered a greater mix of ethnicities and women in leadership positions. However, it was still not entirely equitable: “I was always trying to find a way to reconcile the values that I held with the things I was seeing inside the workplace,” he explains.

I was always trying to find a way to reconcile the values that I held with the things I was seeing inside the workplace.

His first opportunity came when he started his own business and used his position to shape the organization and its culture. However, when he returned to the corporate world 16 years later, things had yet to improve. On joining HSBC, he realized he could again use his position to influence change.

Stig Thorgersen similarly started his career in a gender-biased culture with which he never felt at ease. He spent 14 years in the Norwegian army, which even today remains very male-dominated. He saw a significant amount of talent being wasted, especially as brain power began to overtake physical power in importance.

Having joined the global EY organization 23 years ago, he is now the DE&I champion for the EMEIA Consulting Service Line. Over the last six years, he has made it his mission to attract talent and, through sponsorship, provide an inclusive environment with equitable opportunities for promotion of women through the ranks, particularly in technology, which remains a significant driver for change.

Countering traditional behaviors and norms

Richard believes that allyship is about actively and visibly creating an environment of gender equity by actively countering traditional behaviors, cultural standards and ways of working. “It’s about creating a community of change agents to address those things that stop us from being a truly equitable and balanced organization,” he explains. “It’s about everyone being very willing to declare what they stand for and live and act by them.”

Stig has found building that kind of allyship among men is potentially easier than many women think. “The male population is not against being an ally,” he explains, “it is more that men are a bit blind to the blockers and challenges because they haven’t experienced them.”

The male population is not against being an ally. It is more that men are a bit blind to the blockers and challenges because they haven’t experienced them.

If women are in an organization where it is difficult to get male colleagues onside with allyship, Stig advises that staying silent isn’t the answer. Women encountering challenges should discuss them with HR and senior management so they can help address the issue by creating a safe environment where everyone – regardless of gender – can speak up and be heard. If men want to help, they can reach out to their closest leader, the person they report to, and explain their desire to contribute.

Using data and dialogue

In cases where men need more convincing to become allies, Stig has found that they respond well to data. Sharing data, therefore, that shows the disproportionate challenges women face in the workplace compared to men, or the male dominance in talent pools for hiring or promotions, can be a tremendous help. So, too, can data that shows how well a diverse and inclusive team performs compared to one that is predominately male.

Both Stig and Richard have also encouraged male colleagues to sit down with women in the organization and discuss their issues with them. Richard advocates for men to make themselves available to their female colleagues: “Be open to listen, understand and discuss their challenges, experiences or questions,” he explains.

Stig says that this open, constructive dialogue is reliant on building two-way trust. “It needs more than a regular monthly coffee meeting. It requires bonding through working together shoulder to shoulder, sitting down and doing stuff’.”

The onus for such open dialogue lies with men, particularly those in senior positions, to make themselves accessible to women and junior staff who can find it hard to initiate contact and identify allies. In Stig’s opinion, sharing data and experiences and creating an open dialogue generate the stimulus for change. “But then you have to change it,” he says, “you have to do something with the culture and the processes and how people act.”

Tone and actions must be set from the top. “If you only nurture good behavior but don't really confront bad behavior, you will never change the culture,” he adds.

If you only nurture good behavior but don't really confront bad behavior, you will never change the culture.

Aligning and advocating for allyship

Richard finds his seniority gives him a platform that enables him to act as a sponsor and advocate for a more equitable culture across the organization: “I have a little bit of a megaphone that I can speak into on behalf of all my women colleagues,” he says, “but I can also advocate for equal opportunity for everybody individually.”

He suggests that anyone can publicly support gender equity if leaders in the business equip all employees to feel confident that in any situation where somebody is not behaving equitably or is exhibiting bias, they can identify those behaviors and know what to do. “We get colleagues of different genders together in groups to share their experiences,” says Richards, “and we share tips and techniques such as the three-second rule: when you’re in such a situation, you’ve got three seconds to act.” There are also techniques for addressing inappropriate behavior after a meeting or whenever an incident occurs, by talking to the person directly or raising the issue with a senior member of staff if that feels more appropriate. Whatever technique is used, it is important people take action.

Being in a position of power, he finds he can act quickly. “Sometimes I just call stop to a meeting and say ‘we do not talk like that’. This discussion is now over until we can get people to behave in a more respectful and equitable fashion.” This won’t work everywhere, of course. In some cultures or contexts, another approach, such as positively and actively advocating for women in meetings, can also be effective at achieving change. If a future opportunity or project is being discussed, he asks if female colleagues have been considered to make sure people in the room think about the talent on an equal basis. Richard believes this is something that everyone can do.

He does, however, recognize more junior people may not feel able to do so in certain situations. “It either won't be appropriate or will be too difficult for them,” he adds, “so, another important thing you can do as a leader is make sure that you're known to be accessible for those people, so they know that they can come to you.”

When a junior colleague, just out of the firm’s graduate program, had a particular issue with his manager's use of derogatory language, he went and talked to Richard, who put himself in a situation where he could start to observe, guide and steer the conversation in a more positive direction. “It doesn't mean I need to swoop in and bang the table,” he cautions. “It means going in and acting as a positive role model.”

He explains that there are always two sides to every story, and context is always important. “You don't have complete information; you never really know why somebody is behaving that way.”

Instead, he advises the conservative and respectful approach: “Be the person who says, ‘Hey, look, that's not really fair’ or, ‘So and so is trying to speak, do you mind not talking over her? Have we heard from everybody in the room?’ Everybody's opinion and contribution are important.” The aim is for everybody to have a more positive experience.

Overcoming skepticism

While more leaders know that culture change is about emphasizing the positive side of equity principles, they must also be aware of the risks. “You get accused of quota-ism, which is devastating for any equity or diversity program,” Richard says. “People should not feel others have an opportunity because you're trying to satisfy a ratio.”

People should not feel others have an opportunity because you're trying to satisfy a ratio.

Stig has also found men can be skeptical. He has been questioned on whether companies are missing male talent because of the perceived bias towards women. He considers it important to acknowledge those emotions and worries that otherwise, they could become quite dangerous. “Transparency, data-driven, open and honest discussions are important elements to address those emotions,” he suggests.

Richard agrees. “When somebody challenges and says, ‘I think I should have had that opportunity, and you gave it to this candidate from an under-represented group,’ you need to sit down and explain the other person’s relevant skills, experience and qualifications.” This is an opportunity to justify the choice of candidate and demonstrate the benefits of injecting diverse perspectives overall. Then typically, Richard finds that almost no one leaves the conversation saying, “It’s a bad decision; it should still be me” when presented with objective facts.

Activating allyship in talent processes

Encouraging allyship and inclusive behaviors within the business helps to build a more equitable culture, but equity also has to be implemented in the talent processes. Richard’s original leadership team at HSBC when he joined half a decade ago was 11-strong with one woman. As he tried to increase the size of the team and the gender balance, he realized he had a problem. Initially, the prospective candidates for his leadership team were not gender diverse. When Richard reviewed the job descriptions, the perceptions around the roles, and where opportunities were being communicated, he found that he was neither fishing in the right pond nor with the right bait.

Today the leadership team has grown to 20 people, including 11 women. He has shifted the gender balance, working with HR partners and the firm’s gender diversity group the positions were made more accessible and attractive to everybody. Filling the roles with the right talent then became easy.

Stig experienced the same challenges and tried similar techniques, such as using a diverse team to create the adverts or to interview candidates and help ensuring external recruiters knew the expected proportion of female candidates he was seeking to consider. Even so, the gender balance remained unbalanced, especially among senior hires. That’s why his team tried an innovative approach. They searched the market for women who were considered future leaders and talked to them about potentially joining the global EY organization later in their careers. Although unusual, starting the conversation early gave these women plenty of time to consider their options, and decide whether or not to switch companies. It’s early days, but Stig believes it will pay dividends in the future.

Overall, achieving gender equity requires a fundamental culture change, which can be supported by intentional inclusiveness, and allyship. Enabling a community of allies to support and advocate for women and work with women to achieve equity is one of the most effective tools an organization can use today. Training, for example, helps people at all levels of an organization learn to recognize inappropriate behaviors, and how to address the potential inequities they witness in meetings, either immediately or later, either directly or indirectly. EY people can undertake the “Upstanding” training program for instance, which helps people develop the necessary skills and encourages them to speak up, no matter who they are or how senior they are in the organization. By equipping everyone with the ability to address behaviors that can lead to potential inequity, to surface concerns about bias, and enable everyone to intervene effectively and positively, businesses can create a culture befitting of a modern, competitive, inclusive and equitable organization where all genders can thrive together.

The views of third parties set out in this publication are not necessarily the views of the global EY organization or its member firms. Moreover, they should be seen in the context of the time they were made.


A meaningful culture shift is needed to achieve gender equity in the workplace. It’s essential because better business performance depends on it. One of the most effective tools for such change toward inclusiveness in any organization is an empowered community of allies who support and advocate for women across the firm.

With education and encouragement, allies across the organization can, should, and want to help address unhelpful behaviors, potential barriers and mitigate bias. Using strong leadership combined with transparency, respect, and sensitivity, it is possible today to cultivate allyship and a modern, nurturing environment in which all genders will thrive together.

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