How to be a Workplace Ally

30 March 2017

As part of my work with IP Inclusive, I was recently asked to speak at a national breakfast webinar organised by Women in IP: along with Andrea Brewster, founder of the IP Inclusive movement. Our topic, “How to be a Workplace Ally”, is one that is of great interest to both of us: What practical things can women and men, particularly those of us in leadership positions, do to support and encourage women (and indeed other underrepresented groups in the workplace)?

IP Inclusive logoOur aim was to deliver key messages and real-life examples of how improved awareness and a few simple changes to working practices can help women to achieve their full potential and to contribute great things to their organisations.

The webinar was inspired by the “Lean-In” website (, and the six key principles of being a Workplace Ally:

  1. Make sure women’s ideas are heard
  2. Challenge the “likeability penalty”
  3. Celebrate women’s accomplishments
  4. Encourage women to go for it
  5. Give women direct feedback
  6. Mentor and sponsor other women

One important theme which was picked up in the live discussions around the country was about challenging “the imposter syndrome” (a sense of not being worthy or deserving of your role or responsibilities), by reassuring women that their achievements are well-deserved and their capabilities are fully consistent with those of others in similar roles. As well as making sure you give your colleague the credit she deserves, other good workplace practices such as helping and coaching her as she develops her role, following-up to show an interest in her key projects and tasks, and giving her fair, objective and actionable feedback, can all help to tackle imposter syndrome.

Another topic which sparked debate was the “likeability penalty”. This describes how we sometimes respond differently to the same workplace behaviours from men and women.

We might for example describe a man as “assertive “ and a woman as “bossy” or a man as “quiet” and a woman as “timid”. We have to be careful to apply the same standards and use the same language in assessing workplace behaviours. In a Columbia Business School study, two normalised groups of students each read a case study about a venture capitalist with just one single difference - gender. Howard was described by students as likeable, whereas Heidi was seen as “selfish” and “not the sort of person you’d want to hire or work for.” And yet Howard and Heidi behaved in exactly the same way, and were in effect the same person!

There have been many recent studies into gender differences in the workplace and some of the statistics that emerge are quite surprising:

  • One study found that replacing a woman’s name with a man’s on a CV improved the odds of getting hired, by 61% percent. Gender-blind studies consistently show that removing gender from decisions improves women’s chances of success. 
  • In a recent study of performance reviews, 66% of women received negative feedback on some aspect of their personal style or manner (as opposed to their performance) compared to less than 1% of men.
  • In a performance evaluation study, men who stayed late to help prepare for a meeting were rated 14% more favorably than women who did the exact same thing. When both men and women failed to help, the women were penalised with a 12% lower rating than the men.

There is strong business case for enabling women to make their fullest and best contribution in the workplace. All leaders and managers (women and men) can do their bit to level the playing field and create equal opportunities for all. Here are some practical things we can all do right now to show our commitment:

  • Make sure women are given equal floor time in meetings and that no-one is speaking over them.
  • Solicit their opinions and help them to get their ideas heard.
  • Present women with opportunities to tackle projects and to represent the business at events – show that you have confidence in them.
  • Be mindful of your own language and behaviours.
  • Be willing to challenge the language and behaviours of others. This doesn’t have to be hostile – it can be as simple as “what makes you say that?” or “would you say the same about a male colleague”?
  • Be as good a role model as you can. 

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