Men as Allies

Gender inequity does not just hamper women—men suffer too. Fortunately, those barriers are breaking down. And men are leading the way.

Photography by

You are sitting in a meeting, and a male colleague commands the floor. He talks forcefully and eloquently about the topic at hand. When he finishes, a female colleague offers up her opinion. The man who just finished speaking doesn’t interrupt her, but he doesn’t give her his full attention, either. He may surreptitiously check his smartphone or get up to grab a cup of coffee.

Steve Pemberton, divisional vice president and chief diversity officer for Walgreens, has seen this played out many times. It used to be, he says, that this scenario would be ignored—business as usual. Nowadays, he says, this sort of behavior requires some gentle correction.

As Pemberton recalls, “When I saw this happening once, I went up to the man afterward and told him, ‘I noticed that when you spoke, you did so with the command that required everybody to pay attention to you. But I noticed that when a woman is talking, you find the need to wind your watch. So your body language is saying that her opinion is not all that important.’ He was surprised. But I did notice a genuine change in his behavior and in the functioning of that unit after that.”

Pemberton, as a member of his company’s senior leadership team, was describing a dynamic that is now being recognized in Corporate America: gender inequality does not just hamper women; men, too, suffer when a workplace is gender biased.

“The belief used to be that accepting and nurturing women was the right thing to do,” says Pemberton. “But now people are realizing it goes beyond that—that this is about the health of the company. The most effective and efficient way to run an organization is to be fully inclusive and have every single member of the workforce engaged in driving the success of the company forward.”

Therefore, men have a responsibility not only to avoid blatant gender (or any other form of) discrimination, but also to go a step further and assess their interactions with all members of the team and, whenever possible, serve as allies, helping those who are underrepresented in the company feel included.

“The key to accomplishing this is buy-in, so men understand that engaging their female cohorts as partners benefits them and the entire organization as well as boosting women employees. “An organization with diversity of opinions and perspectives is a healthy one,” says Reginald Van Lee, executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton.

Jorge Quezada, chief diversity officer of Kraft Foods Group, says when he sees that buy-in happen, it can be like a lightbulb going off. “In the inclusion courses we teach at Kraft, the big ‘aha’ moment for us is when men have said, ‘Oh, thank you, we are finally part of this conversation!’ That has been really exciting when they realize they are not being told what to do, but are being invited to be part of the solution.”
“It is not sufficient to say the challenge for women’s diversity in the workplace is the women’s problem,” Van Lee continues. “It’s on all of us. From the senior leadership to the managers on down, we are responsible for making sure there is an inviting environment for not just women, but for all groups.”

Each company has its own unique programs and processes for promoting workplace inclusion and helping women crack the glass ceiling. One of the commonalities is an emphasis on formal and informal one-on-one mentorship and sponsorship relationships.

“There are many programs you can set up, but nothing supplants a senior person mentoring and advocating for a junior person,” says Van Lee. “Here at BAH, we want to make sure that our high-potential women get to take advantage of those connections.”

Jorge Quezada emphasizes that these relationships are multifaceted. “Ideally, I as a man would mentor a woman, and a woman would mentor a junior male in the organization. Perhaps a Latina woman would be mentored by both another Latina woman and a white male.

“I recently got some great advice that I now pass along,” Quezada says. “Find someone that you feel comfortable with who is like you. Then find someone who is totally different from you, and also find someone who will just shoot from the hip and give it to you straight. I am Latino, so it’s important for me to have someone who is also Latino—as well as someone who isn’t. Since I’m a male, I also want to find a woman as a mentor. I don’t have problems with confrontations or being outspoken, so I also want to find someone who is an introvert and processes things differently to work with me. Good mentorship and sponsorship encompass every dimension of diversity, not just race and gender.”

Pemberton agrees that mentorship and sponsorship need to be a two-way street.
Accordingly, a woman who wants to advance and grow has the responsibility to seek out those relationships and not just wait to be invited. “Don’t wait to be discovered,” he says. “Always be actively seeking a mentor. And make sure that you are willing to challenge and be challenged. Both women and men in a company, no matter where they sit on the org chart, have a responsibility to lead and a responsibility to learn.”

According to a Catalyst study, as of May 2014, women hold a mere 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and comprise just 5 percent of Fortune 1000 CEOs. No one will dispute that those numbers need to improve (and that this is just one small measure of progress). But the big question, of course, is how do we get there?

It begins at the top, says Van Lee. Senior leadership needs to demonstrate both in companywide actions—such as in instituting training programs—and in their personal interactions that everyone in the company is responsible for its success and feels that they each have the opportunity to contribute and advance their career within the organization.

Oftentimes, it is easier to institute employee research groups and training programs than it is to make personal behavioral changes. In recent years, the diversity and inclusion field has been focusing on micro-inequities. Go back to the scenario at the beginning of this story—the man who winds his watch while a female colleague has the floor. Chances are that man has no history of exhibiting overt gender bias in the workplace.
Micro-inequities are cumulative, subtle messages that promote a negative bias and demoralize. They tend to be directed at members of underrepresented groups in an organization.

Examples of micro-inequities include:
– checking emails or texting during a face-to-face conversation
– consistently mispronouncing a person’s name
– interrupting a person midsentence
– making eye contact only with men while talking to a group containing both men and women
– taking more questions from men than women
– confusing a person of a certain ethnicity with another person of the same ethnicity
– rolling the eyes
– mentioning the achievements of some people at a meeting but not others whose achievements are equally relevant

“We have done micro-inequity training here at Walgreens,” says Pemberton. “It’s important to know that the culture in which we live brings certain biases, that if you don’t have armor on, you may be a known participant, hence promoting micro-inequities. You may not even know that every time a woman talks, you don’t give her your full attention. Combating micro-inequities is a matter of awareness and education.”

One common manifestation of a micro-inequity can be counterintuitive. Sometimes, men are tentative about giving constructive feedback to their female employees, because they are afraid of being considered heavy-handed or even acting in a gender-biased fashion. But in a healthy organization, constructive feedback, as long as it is fair, should be welcome.
“Not giving your female employee constructive feedback because you’re afraid of the reaction is robbing her of the opportunity to grow and get better,” says Pemberton.

Quezada says that one of the ways to prevent micro-inequities is to practice “conscious inclusion.” “I think it’s critical that men really think about the environment they’re creating, not only for themselves but for all their employees to thrive,” he says. “You need to create an environment where, for example, in a team meeting everyone has a voice and feels like they belong. Women need to feel like they can contribute—and as males, it is our responsibility to encourage them to participate. If that can happen, then all of a sudden the opportunities, 
the access, the learning loops that are critical for development will happen.”

At Walgreens, says Pemberton, the company focuses on talent development and succession planning within the organization and aggressive recruiting. He is particularly proud that Walgreens is focused on creating a sustainable model for diversity and inclusion across the entire enterprise and, unlike some other companies, is driven by a desire for real change, not just landing on Top 100 lists of Best Places to Work. “I am less interested in how we compare with other companies. I’m a lot more interested in how we’re doing based on what the women in my company say,” he says.

Booz Allen Hamilton, says Van Lee, has a bottom-up culture, where the staff creates affinity groups and each group defines its own charter and agenda, elects its own leaders, and then expands up and out firmwide.

“Those affinity groups tackle all sorts of workplace issues around equity and fairness and how to succeed in the environment,” he explains. “It’s creating an environment that not only tolerates diversity differences but also celebrates those differences and finds ways to translate them into the work we do for our clients, to bring different perspectives to the client’s problems, and to find better sustainable solutions for them. So we found ways to make diversity not just a social program but also something that has seeped into our business structure.”

At Kraft, says Quezada, one of the many diversity and inclusion programs is Efficacy for Women, an interactive workshop that offers concrete strategies proven to help women develop and promote their upward mobility. One measurable result: More than 48 percent of the Kraft workforce in the United States and Canada are female.

“We are proud of those numbers, but more important, I am proud that the company is thinking about how to bring more diversity to its teams. It’s no longer considered a bolt-on. It is now embedded into our speaking, our thinking, and the way we lead. And when you do that, special things happen.” DW
Steve Pemberton:
Divisional Vice President & 
Chief Diversity Officer for Walgreens

Steve Pemberton, Walgreens’ first CDO in its 113-year history, is responsible for overseeing the company’s efforts to create and maintain a diverse and inclusive environment that reflects the culture, people, and perspectives of the company while reflecting its current and future customers and communities. He and his team are specifically focused on the following areas: strategic diversity management, diversity councils and business resource groups, disability initiatives, supplier diversity, and compliance objectives.

Prior to assuming his role at Walgreens, Steve was chief diversity officer and vice president of Diversity and Inclusion at, the leading global online careers property, where he had end-to-end management responsibilities for the Diversity and Inclusion business unit, which focused on helping employers diversify their workforce. He is widely considered a subject-matter expert on matters of diversity and inclusion and its importance to the sustainability of organizations and the communities they serve.
A graduate of Boston College, Steve was a ward of the state for much of his childhood. In 2012, he chronicled that experience in his best-selling memoir, A Chance in the World (Harper Collins). Steve’s extraordinary life journey continues to inspire audiences across the world; his tireless advocacy has earned him national recognition from The Trumpet Foundation and the Steve and Marjorie Harvey Foundation.

A resident of Chicago, Steve sits on several nonprofit boards, including UCAN, The Home for Little Wanderers, and The United States Business Leadership Network.
Jorge Quezada: Chief Diversity Officer, Kraft Foods Group

Jorge Quezada joined the Kraft family in 2013 from Allstate, where he held the role of director of Inclusive Diversity. In that role, he was responsible for ensuring that Allstate had inclusive diversity strategies in place to effectively contribute to the company’s growth initiatives. Jorge enjoyed 27 years with Allstate, where he began his career, as human resources representative and ascended to various leadership roles in human resources, sales, claims, and product operations and marketing.

Since becoming Kraft’s new chief diversity officer in June 2013, Quezada has been charged with enhancing Kraft’s diversity and inclusion efforts in the workplace, marketplace, and community. To seamlessly integrate diversity and inclusion into all parts of the business, Jorge is building organizational awareness and capability, uncovering synergies with the business units and functions, and turbocharging the company’s employee resource groups to advance its business goals.

Throughout the years, Jorge has been deeply involved in civic and community organizations, such as the Association of Hispanic Professionals for Education, the Urban League of Orange County (CA), and Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Los Angeles. In 2009, he was recognized with the Future Leaders Award by the National Society of Hispanic MBA, Chicago Chapter.

Jorge holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Whittier College and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Reginald Van Lee
Executive Vice President, Booz Allen Hamilton

Reginald Van Lee is an executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton’s Washington, DC location, where he leads the firm‘s Global Commercial business, with emphasis on the energy, financial services, and health-care industries.

Van Lee joined Booz Allen in 1984. Prior, he worked as a research engineer. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School as well as MS and BS degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Van Lee has coauthored a number of articles on the topic of strategy implementation and the book Megacommunities: How Leaders of Government, Business and Non-Profits Can Tackle Today’s Global Challenges Together. He has appeared on ABC-TV’s World News This Morning and on CNBC, and co-led the Urban Enterprise Initiative with the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation, which focused on driving enhanced competitiveness of small businesses in Harlem. He is a founding member of the Clinton Global Initiative.

He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2008 Black Engineer of the Year Award and the Joseph Papp Racial Harmony Award from the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. In addition, Consulting magazine named Mr. Van Lee one of the top 25 consultants in the world.

Deeply embedded in the community, Van Lee serves as chairman of the board of Washington Performing Arts, chairman of the board of the National CARES Mentoring Movement, and chairman emeritus of the board of Evidence, A Dance Company. He was appointed by President Obama to the board of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He is a trustee of the Studio Museum in Harlem board and of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology board.

Join the Diversity Woman Community

Join a network of career-oriented women and use the member directory to see all the members in your community and find world class mentors. Access exclusive leadership development packages to help you achieve your career goals. Work With Coaches. Take Career Development Courses, and much more.