What does it mean to be an ally to women?

YPO posed this question to three male CEOs who lead organizations or sit on boards of companies with strong female representation on their leadership team. 

Themba Baloyi, former founder of Discovery Insure Ltd and Sithega Holdings and current Chairman of the Board at Constantia Insurance Group came to the conversation ready to dismantle the very question. 

“I don’t really see myself as an ally because it’s just a natural extension of who we are and who we should be. To me, the term ‘ally’ diminishes the importance of our humanness, of our responsibilities and of where we come from,” he says, adding with a laugh, “I have yet to meet a man or a woman who was not born of a woman.”

Still, men hold a majority of leadership positions across global regions or industries, and Themba agrees with Soren Trampedach, Founder and chairman of Work Club Global, and Alexandre Crazover, Founder of Datawords Group: Men in leadership positions have a responsibility to encourage gender parity and find ways to support women in the workforce. 

“And when companies are growing and doing well, these kind of goals are easy to implement,” says Crazover. “But I’m more inspired by the [CEOs] focusing on them during more difficult economic environments.”

Which brings up another point all three men agreed upon: For true success, gender parity in the workplace must be organic. 

It begins and ends with the company culture you create. 

With Work Club, one of Australia’s most established coworking and executive spaces, with locations also throughout Europe and Asia, Trampedach is in a unique position. He not only leads his own company, but he is also privy to how other companies, employees and entrepreneurs operate. His biggest takeaway when it comes to gender parity? It needs to be ingrained in your culture. 

“It’s not this big conversation about how we operate or our ethos. We don’t treat it like a big deal. It is just part of what we do,” he says, crediting intentional hiring to their strong company culture. “When we hire, we make sure skillsets align, and then we stress our culture of basic respect and humility. We follow the simple principle of treating anyone the way you want to be treated.”

Baloyi points out that a poor company culture can dissuade prospective employees from even applying. A company he worked with in the past once struggled to get women applicants for a role. It wasn’t for lack of qualified women, rather, it was an issue with how the hiring company was projecting itself. 

“Whatever you do internally, do not be mistaken to think it won’t come out. It does,” warns Baloyi. “Invariably people do talk to each other. So, if the projection is that your leadership is such that it’s highly male dominated, some women might say, ‘I don’t want battle the internal politics of gender.’”

Crazover says real gender parity in the workplace doesn’t happen because of a quota, and that when done with the right intentions, there can only be benefits.

“From my perspective, it’s ingrained in Datawords not to simply tick a box or even to be a good guy in society’s eyes, but because including women leaders is powerful. Having diversity at the table creates a good energy and more innovation,” he says. 

And for those who are simply hiring to tick a box? “Women who come in that way tend not to stick around too long,” says Baloyi. “But those leaders who understand the power of diversity tend to do much better in terms of retention and overall performance. [The companies] are much more attractive to all people, which begets more success.” 

Create opportunities for support. 

If gender parity is not yet baked into your company culture, there are programs and systems you can implement to make progress. 

Amongst the companies Baloyi has worked with, mentorship programs where members of the executive team partner with promising young women in the office has been hugely beneficial, providing the next generation with support and a pathway to success. He also has helped set up women-specific forums where employees can more easily engage with each other and grow in their careers. 

“It’s about creating moments where people are not just seeing each other as tools of the trade, but they see themselves as communities, whether through a mentorship program, the women-only forums or through social events,” he says. “When employees have friends at work they tend to perform better.” 

Above all, leave space for conversations, and LISTEN.

While Work Club hosts women-specific events in their spaces, and Trampedach shares that they readily sponsored Chief Executive Woman, an Australian organization representing prominent and influential women leaders from the corporate, public service, academic and not-for-profit sectors, with space as a natural collaboration, he finds more value in creating opportunities for everyone — regardless of gender — to connect and have discussions about what matters to them. 

“From a perspective of sharing and dealing with challenges, I think it’s much more powerful to include everyone,” he says. “It’s all about exposure, and opening your eyes to different experiences,” he says, adding that if the goal is to change men’s perceptions and positions, they must be included in the conversation too. 

And while it shouldn’t take having daughters and wives to identify inequalities as a male CEO, Trampedach says men in leadership should talk to their daughters, their wives, all the women in their life and the women on their leadership teams to ask about the issues they have faced, and what male leaders can be doing better in addressing blind spots. 

That was the case for Crazover. Awhile back, there was a structural issue within his company regarding pay rises that didn’t account for women who were out on maternity leave for a few months when the decision was made. When a woman came on as head of HR, she quickly saw the issue, they rectified past discrepancies and moved forward in a better way. 

“For me, to be a good ally is just to be a good listener,” Crazover says. He paraphrases an old quote from Ernest Hemingway: “It takes two years to learn how to talk, but a lifetime to learn how to listen. Sometimes that can be difficult for me, and I think many leaders might be like me, but I work on that every day.”