“Where are all the guys?” Why men avoid entering the gender parity debate.

Guest blog by David Levenson*

This article has been a long time in gestation – novels have been written quicker. But its development, alongside the evolution of my views, has given me the confidence (yes, men need confidence too) to write for Voice At The Table. It is also the story of why the men who should be publicly leading on gender equality mostly stay silent.

The inescapable conclusion is that men are too scared to engage on a subject that is so often regarded by them as a hot potato. Alternatively, we just don’t get it – we don’t see it as a problem, certainly not in a business or work context. It ends up that women’s issues are for women alone to comment on.

However, what is needed here is less gender politics and more honest conversation.

To the women who I hope are reading this, my message is simple – get the men in the room, onto the social media feeds and get them talking. It’s time to engage the guys in the gender parity debate and stop them from finding reasons to opt out.

So, here is the tale of my journey through diversity politics and how it relates to the wider issue of male engagement.

Fifteen months ago, I stumbled upon an article by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox of  the consultancy 20-first in the Harvard Business Review. Her argument that gender equality is more than a “women’s issue” rang a bell for me and made me think about my position and indeed my role in helping to achieve parity for women on pay and in the boardroom.

Moreover, it convinced me that successful gender balancing requires convincing the majority of your employees that it’s a good idea. And that cultural change needs to be led from the top. Now, the majority of CEOs are male, so it follows that the equality agenda needs to be pushed… by men.

Having absorbed the article, I ran my eye down the list of comments on the LinkedIn posting that had accompanied the article.  Dozens of comments, all from women.  So, plaintively, I added a thought of my own – C’mon on guys, where are you?

As it turned out, my plea didn’t disappear into the ether.  Other men started to appear and contribute views in the discussion thread.  For me, this first tiny venture into the discussion was the start of a process which has culminated in this article.

Now, I may not be typical; I spent the best part of twenty-five years as a finance director in social housing during which time I worked for women CEO’s, and with many female executive colleagues and board members. It is fair to say that the experience of diverse groups generally, and women in particular, has been better than in most industries.  However, it is instructive to listen to the words of Terrie Alafet, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing and one of the sector’s most high profile women executives, in 2016:

“We know from our own research that as a sector, housing is actually more diverse than average…But at the top of our organisations, in our boards and senior teams, it’s a different story.”

It requires more from CEO’s than just a commitment to balance their executive teams, as Ms Wittenberg-Cox suggests.  It needs recognition that there is a duality of interest in gender equality.  Men have a stake in the decisions that women make about their roles as partners, parents and providers.  Economies and societies work best where there is openness and accountability for the contributions made by women and men in the workplace.

I like to think, notwithstanding all that the #MeToo movement necessarily represents and has had to undertake during the past year, that we have moved on from the battle of the sexes that characterised 20th century feminism and its machoistic counterpart.  Today’s workplace is less divisive and more co-operative.

But we are not there yet as all the statistics show and there is still a cultural battle, if not all-out war, to be fought and won.  And pivotal to this are the men who continue to occupy most top seats at board tables and in executive teams and who should constantly send out the message that striving for gender equality at the apex of companies, financial institutions, professions and public services is in the interests of all of us.

* David Levenson is an accredited executive coach and career strategy coach.  He founded Coaching Futures in 2016 with the aim of transforming people’s lives, careers and goals.

David is one of the co-creators of Raising Roofs.  He is passionate about the workplace of the future and fascinated by how technology is rapidly changing the way we work.

Changing the Rules of the Game: When is the right time?

guard-changing-ceremony-1564817-639x852A recent HBR article Women, Find Your Voice! talks about the struggle many executive women face in making an impact in senior meetings.  The article went on to list a number of ways in which women can alter their communications style in order to achieve this.  But in a short ‘throw-away’ comment, the authors make reference to the fact that, while it would be better to change the culture in those meetings so that women wouldn’t need to adapt their communications style, until power is granted to those who want to change the rules, changing the culture of those meetings is rather unrealistic.  So, the comment concludes, while women are operating in a male environment, women are encouraged to alter their behaviours until they have succeeded to gain enough authority to change this.

This struck me as an interesting proposition:  play by the existing rules, play well and win, and then change them.

Get to the top, then change the rules.

This is of course also what Sheryl Sandberg advocates in her Lean In advice.  Yes, she says, we ultimately want to get to the point when we can operate in an environment that is natural to the way women tend to behave; an environment that is characterised by the presence of strong emotional intelligence, collaboration, transparency and empathy (but is also strong, direct and decisive).   But until we can be the architects of such corporate culture, i.e. until women have enough support and/or influence to shape meetings to allow women to be women (and others to be themselves) without paying a price, until then we should adapt and attain credibility and influence by taking things less personally, speaking more assertively and concisely and in general become better conversant in the language and demeanour of current influencers.

But why change the women?  Why not change the men?

I often hear senior women say to me: “I’m tired of being asked to change the women in our company, why not start changing the men/male culture?”

While I acknowledge the sentiment, it isn’t a realistic ask!  People don’t change unless they have a vested interest in that change and for the majority of senior executives and politicians, Diversity & Inclusion is still not enough of a vested interest in order to embark on a journey of transformation.

So is the answer then as Sheryl Sandberg says?  Do we have to try to learn how to play and win by the existing rules until we, like her, get into positions of power and change them?  Maybe so.  Maybe workshops on ‘personal branding’, presence and gravitas’ and ‘how to make your voice heard in meetings’ do still have their place!  And yes, maybe they do appear to advocate changing women, but the way I see it, they simply equip women to succeed so that they can be powerful and fully conversant in any culture, so that they can be ‘multi-linguists’, speaking fluently with others of similar nature and behaviours as well as with those of a different persuasion.

In the end, if we are able to exceed that magic 30% gender representation figure at the top – and maybe even get to 50% - it will have been worth it!  For us, and for our employers!