21 Nov How to engage men as allies in gender diversity and equality – bp’s story
In 2020, Mike Smith, Well Superintendent in the North Sea, set up ‘Men as Allies’, an offshoot of the Women in Wells group at bp. The network of male colleagues meets regularly to discuss and learn how they can support their local female colleagues and work towards bp’s gender diversity and inclusion goals*, recognising that everyone has a role in addressing inequality and supporting progress.
In our Q&A with Mike, (updated for International Men’s Day 2023 in November), he tells us more about this inspiring initiative and what individuals and organisations can do.
What was your aim in setting up the Men as Allies group at bp?
For three years I was one of a small number of men that took part in bp’s Women International Network (WIN) and Women in Wells (WiW) group. I loved the work that I was able to support in these groups. In 2020 a very inspirational female leader, Lina Serpa, motivated me to set up a Men as Allies group. Lina said: “it’s great to see the impact you are making as part of the Women in Wells group. But where are all your male peers? You have a unique position of influence within the majority, have you thought about leveraging it?”.
My aim for the group was to serve and support the women we work with. I was aware that many men simply didn’t realise some of the challenges that women face in our workplace. I wanted to start a journey of education through empathy and a network to show our female colleagues that many of their male colleagues care enough to drive some change.
What did it take to get you engaged on this topic? Was there a particular catalyst that drove you to set up the group?
Back in 2017 I started a new role for bp in Baku, was immediately welcomed on board and able to make a quick impact in the role because of my experience – it was a great start. I got to know a woman engineer who played a crucial role supporting the team and quickly realised something was wrong. She was unhappy and revealed that her own experience had been the complete opposite – she wasn’t welcomed into the team or given credit for her experience and her ideas weren’t listened to. Our careers and paths, however, were scarily similar and I remember being utterly bewildered. I would love to say that I recognised the impact that gender made in our experiences, but I didn’t. Back then I wasn’t educated and didn’t understand my own privilege. However, from a place of care I knew I had to work to make things better and call out the bad behaviours in the team.
We formed a great professional peer support relationship, and it was this person who introduced me to my first WIN meeting. Since then, I’ve been on the Ally to Advocacy journey. I know it’s said often, but I truly lived the fact that privilege is blind until it hits you smack on the nose! Once I’d connected the dots, I promised myself to continue to help others do the same.
What exactly goes on within the group?
As a group we are focused on serving the women we work with. We don’t take action on anything until it’s confirmed by our WiW group to be a good idea. This is a crucial as it ensures we stay firmly in the support role.
Our quarterly group meetings take place on Friday mornings in a hybrid manner and are used to organise and update each other on initiatives we run. We talk about our experiences (“who’s called out gendered language this quarter?”), share material and brainstorm ideas. This year we are focusing on our gender diversity and equity workshops.
Why do you think we need more men acting as allies for women in the workplace?
I’ve been blown away by the amount of work I’ve seen minorities groups do to try and drive change. I don’t think it’s fair that they need to push by themselves – I believe that majorities, who have huge leverage for change, should also be pulling! We were given our privilege for nothing, so it just feels fair that we pay it forward. Being a male ally provides two brilliant outputs – you can learn and better yourself in inclusivity and, in doing so, you may move from being part of the problem to being part of the solution.
What are the advantages of greater gender diversity and inclusion for energy companies like bp?
For organisations it’s the diversity of thought, skills and experience necessary for innovation and success. For us as individuals it’s kindness, happiness, peer support, healthy challenge … almost too many to list. When I think back in my career, the best teams I’ve worked with are the teams where there was no normal – people from different backgrounds and experiences coming together to offer different opinions. The output of teams like these (if they are led properly) can be exceptional and it’s a pleasure to work in exceptional teams!
Are we making fast enough progress to reap these benefits? What kind of inequalities do you think women still experience in the workplace?
We are making progress, but it’s not as fast as I would like. Unfortunately, I still see examples of discrimination from institutional unconscious bias, like facilities designed by men for men or micro aggressions in meetings. The positive is that this is becoming more visible – and visible to men, not just women.
Can you share some of the experiences from your workshops?
Some of the best workshops are where men have the confidence to really say what’s on their minds. We’ve talked about positive bias, the extra career coaching opportunities women are perceived to enjoy and even people saying they are scared to be themselves for fear of being ‘caught out’. Each of these conversations gives us the chance to correct misunderstanding and educate (with fact), and most often send people out of the workshop with a far clearer mind and general understanding about the benefits of gender diversity.
For you, what does being a male ally really mean?
Being a part of the solution and standing up for what is right. It’s also about learning and improving as a person to support my colleagues and finding a higher purpose than just doing my job. I’ve improved as a leader, colleague, husband and father through my ally to advocacy journey.
Do you have five top tips for any man wanting to become more of an ally to female colleagues?
- Educate yourself. There is a ton of amazing content available for free.
- Ask your female colleagues about their challenges.
- Be humble and listen properly to what you hear.
- If step 2 and 3 are uncomfortable for you, push through that and get used to it.
- Stay connected to the people you are being an ally to.
What are the next steps for your Men As Allies group at bp?
You need to ask my Women in Wells colleagues – we are here to serve them! But I hope we’ll continue to grow in the right way, by staying connected to local women’s groups. As the controlled growth continues, we’ll share lessons and best practices and find ways to measure our success.
What advice would you give to other organisations wanting to set up something similar?
Firstly, get help. I didn’t do this early enough and became a bottle neck to progress, but I now have co-leaders and our pace is so much better. But the key thing is that how you do it is much more important than what you do. I’ve said it a lot, but it really is crucial to stay connected to the women you work with. As men, we love to pick up flags and charge off to make things happen. If we aren’t charging in the right direction, then we’re wasting everyone’s time!
And then use this as your opportunity to pull other men into the conversation more easily – it’s one of the differentiators of having a Men as Allies group. We challenge ourselves to invite people along who haven’t or wouldn’t volunteer and with a bit of peer pressure, we can get them into the room. They are such an important demographic to reach, as they prevent us from preaching to the converted. By doing this we can pick away at the ‘majority’ and hopefully change some men from being a part of the problem to being a part of the solution.
- bp’s diversity goals include achieving gender parity for top levels of leadership by 2025 and for all executive level employees by 2030. bp is a member of POWERful Women’s Energy Leaders’ Coalition, a commitment by company leaders to increase gender diversity in their own companies and the wider UK energy sector.