Where Are All the Men?

Ziana Kotadia, Women Leadership Editor

Ziana Kotadia (MBA ’22) reports on the role of men in helping achieve gender equity.

As part of the International Women’s Day celebrations the WSA organised a talk with Colleen Ammerman, Director of Gender Initiative at HBS, to discuss the role of men in helping achieve gender equity. For those unable to attend the session, we wanted to share some of our learnings from Director Ammerman in the hope that they will encourage and support you in your journey to becoming a male ally. 

Why are men missing from this discussion on gender equity to date? While a minority believe it is a zero sum game, that women’s success will necessarily come at the expense of male advancement, the majority of men are concerned about backlash and whether it is their place to speak up. A few years ago, the WSA and the Harbus did a survey among students to better understand male attitudes towards gender equity. When asked how big the issue of gender equity was, on a scale of one to seven, where one was “not important” and seven was “very important,” the average score of respondents was six. Men know this is a problem but question their psychological standing and ask, “is it ok for me to be in the conversation, is it my place to engage and participate, and how do I enter the conversation in the right way?” Research shows men are also worried about the potential backlash of speaking up. This concern is validated by social norms where men are seen as the breadwinner, or are not entitled to long periods of paternity leave. 

 While barriers exist to men talking about gender inequality, their engagement is critical. Men can be allies in five distinct ways: as a mentor, a champion, an inclusive manager, a repairman and a role model. Mentorship and sponsorship in the workplace is important. We were given the example of one incredibly successful woman, Michele Hooper, who was mentored by the CEO early on in her career and given the responsibility of leading the Canadian subsidiary of the business. Hooper was a black female in a white dominated company and support from the CEO, who silenced the executives with doubts, gave her the opportunity to be a success. While Hooper’s fight to the top was undoubtedly still more difficult, as a result of her gender, race and other social prejudices which were all too common in the 1980s, this male allyship was invaluable. Similarly, Douglas Conant, ex CEO of Campbell soup, intentionally ensured protégé Denise Morrison was given a series of high profile leadership roles within the organisation over a period of six years, so that when the Board of Directors was deliberating who should succeed him, Morrison was a well qualified contender and set up for success. In these cases, the male mentors did not let homophily determine who they supported, a key lesson for us all. Inclusive management is another way for men to help the gender equity cause, and there is room for considerable impact given how many people we are likely to manage over the course of our careers. Director Ammerman gave the example of Jack Rivkin, who managed the equity research department in the 1980s at a large Wall Street bank. Rivkin encouraged equity research analysts to develop their own strengths, and eliminated the expectation for women to mould themselves to fit into the male dominated environment. Rivkin saw the differences that women brought to the team as an asset. 60% of women in the team were given star ranking, which was more than double versus peer institutions, and became the highest performing department. Other examples of male allyship include refusing to speak on panels when women are not present and challenging HR policies, particularly when women are underrepresented on interview lists. 

With just 6% of CEOs in the S&P 500 being women, the remaining 94% of male CEOs are in a considerable position of power. This skewed distribution of power is similar across industries. In VC, only 12% of decision makers are women, and most firms do not have a single female General Partner. Given this, it is clear that men’s collective influence has the ability to change some of the biggest organisations in the world, and their actions can make considerable impact. Having their allyship is critical. Men’s words are seen to be more credible, they are seen as being less self interested when pushing for gender inclusivity. Engaging men in this discussion, shifts the conversation from being “a woman’s problem” to “our societal problem,” and encourages us to frame gender inequality as an issue that we are all responsible for solving. 

Indeed, working towards a more equal society and breaking down gender norms is in everyone’s interest. From firms, which can leverage more diverse perspectives, to families, who can share child care, we all benefit from greater freedom and choice. We hope that after reading this article, men will feel encouraged to be a part of creating a more gender equal world, because it cannot be achieved without them. 

We would like to thank Director Ammerman for hosting the session and for her invaluable insights. If you would like to learn more about the role of men in helping solve gender equity, her latest book, Glass Half Broken, which is co-authored with Professor Boris Groysberg, will be released in the coming month. 


Psychological standing: whether a person feels they have the legitimacy to perform an action with respect to a cause or issue.

Homophily: the tendency for people to seek out or be attracted to those who are similar to themselves.

Ziana Kotadia (MBA ’22) is from the UK, and most recently made the move from London to Boston. She loves to travel, learn about new cultures and enjoys eating her way through cities. She loves to cook and is passionate about great food.