Giving Gender Equality a Brand Makeover: An Interview with Adrian Warr, 2021 Champion for the Advancement of Women

By Stephanie Chan

What is the best way to get men on board with gender equality?

“Not talking about gender equality, remarkably,” says Adrian Warr, the co-founder of Male Allies Hong Kong and AmCham’s 2021 Champion for the Advancement of Women.

“It’s a little bit like if you’re trying to do a diet,” continues Warr, who—as the Southeast Asia CEO for global PR firm Edelman—is very much the expert on messaging. “Talking about dieting constantly is a nightmare. Whereas if you talk about changing the delicious foods that you’re going to have, then suddenly dieting is okay.”

Warr’s parents

Warr grew up with a strong role model in his mother, an Oxford-educated chemist and the main breadwinner for the family. But, he frankly admits, “[I was] very much riding a wave of white male privilege for a good chunk of my early life,” he says.

When Warr assumed responsibility for a larger team at Edelman six years ago, however, gender inequality became harder to overlook. The firm was facing a retention crisis, losing mid-career women in droves.

At roughly the same time, Warr and his wife, Tamsin, were looking to adopt a child. The process opened Warr’s eyes to what women are expected to give up for their families. “The lady at social services turned to my wife and said, “And of course, you’ll have to stop working.” The Warrs learned that would-be adoptive families in Hong Kong are disadvantaged if the prospective primary carer is a man, or if both parents are working.

“You have a system structurally designed to push women out of work,” he says. “The more you look at that particular dynamic, the more you realize that it’s true all over the place.” (The Warrs’ twins, Rufus and Oscar, are now seven years old.)

Warr and his wife at the orphanage meeting their boys for the first time

Through his boss at the time, Bob Grove, Warr started volunteering with The Women’s Foundation. In 2017, he co-founded the Male Allies, a TWF-affiliated group for male business leaders who want to promote gender equality in their workplaces.

Warr also sought to make policies more female friendly at Edelman: for example, increasing maternity leave and renaming it primary/secondary caretaker leave, and allowing employees to set their hours instead of adhering to a rigid schedule.

Another priority was changing the work culture—perceived as unfriendly toward people with caregiving responsibilities—through unconscious bias training.

“When you’re [as a business] predominantly female, the unconscious bias displays itself in a very different way,” Warr observes. “If I leave the office as a man at 4 PM for my kid’s school play, you’ll get a chorus of women, especially, saying, ‘Oh, you’re such a good dad.’” And if a woman does it? “‘Gosh, she always leaves early.’”

Warr and his team also sought out talented local women to promote, taking women from 25% to 55% of Edelman’s senior management in Hong Kong.

Warr remembers being intimidated when he first started advocating for gender equality. “You say the wrong stuff all the time. And [as a man] you’re part of the problem.” But he says the discomfort is worth it—not just because it’s good for business.

It’s all about those delicious foods that we could be enjoying as part of our gender equal diet.

“If your company or your government creates a more gender equal society, that comes hand in hand with a bunch of nice things. You’re going to see more of your family, you’re going to have better work-life balance, you’re going to have greater mental health,” he says. “All sorts of amazing things become possible in the context of us creating this more balanced society.”