How to enlist men as ‘agents of change’ for gender equality

Emma Watson addressed the United Nations in 2014, urging men to join the feminist movement; Barak Obama supported the cause when he proclaimed he was a feminist. Many companies recognise “men as allies” as a critical component of their diversity and inclusion efforts. And yet, support by men for gender equality is waning. Particularly in companies.

According to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace report, “[a]lthough company commitment to gender parity is at an all-time high, companies do not consistently put their commitment into practise and many employees are not on board. ” This is supported by research. A 2014 Pershing Harris poll found that younger men were less open to accepting women leaders than older men and a 2014 Harvard Business School (HBS) survey of MBA graduates showed that three-quarters of millennial women anticipated their career would be at least as important as their partners, while half of the men expected their own careers to take priority. Likewise, less than 50% of the women MBA graduates believed they would handle most of the child care, while two-thirds of their male peers believed their wives would do so.

The privilege of invisibility

Why, I ask myself, does this gap in perceptions exist and how do we bridge it?

One reason is the so-called 'privilege of invisibility'.  Michael Kimmel – eminent sociologist and high-profile women’s rights campaigner – explains that because people in power set the norm, they fail to see the privilege this bestows on them. An example of this is race. A white woman looking in the mirror sees a woman; a black woman looking in the mirror sees a black woman. Because ‘white’ is set as the norm by white people, white people don’t understand that other people’s skin colour impacts on many aspects of their lives. Their own skin colour is invisible to them. Similarly, because men think of gender as ‘women’, they do not see its relevance to them and don’t engage with gender equality; they see it as a “women’s agenda” – with little benefit to them.

Societal norms and expectations

There are also societal norms at work. Attitudes rooted in the 1970s predispose men to reject characteristics associated with femininity and define success as wealth, power and status. Men are supposed to be strong in a crisis, take risks and be daring and aggressive to others. Think Axe from the TV series Billions.

Although much of the above is still the benchmark for masculinity, we know that men are moving away from the stereotype and want to embrace some typically-feminine freedoms. They want to spend more time with their children, show feelings beyond the limited repertoire of lust and rage and enjoy life outside the office.

However, most boys are penalised for displaying emotions and are considered ‘weak’ if they are seen in any way as ‘feminine’. They are encouraged to be brave, ambitious and powerful and suppress individualistic urges to express oneself. This type of restrictive behaviour has been linked to an increase in suicide rates in men and underachievement at school for boys.

Compare this to the ideal of sharing responsibilities at home and at work, seeing girls and women as equals, allowing oneself to choose between career paths and redefining success for oneself. Wouldn’t that liberate men from the shackles of societal expectations?

So how do we engage men?

In a sense, men are right when they say gender equality is all about women. What I mean is that, while focusing on equalising the playing field for women, we have neglected men’s voices, concerns and horror stories. There has been a lack of interest in listening to men talk about their experiences and to delve deeper into what they truly think, need or want.

My suggestions, therefore, is to start with an open and honest, non-judgmental conversation that is based on a foundation of support for each other. We need to understand how gender stereotypes disadvantage men and give men a platform to be more than what society expects of them. After all, inclusion is about giving every individual space and freedom to be themselves. In that spirit, perhaps engaging men as change agents for women’s equality is as much about engaging women in understanding the restrictions and stereotypes that society places on men.

“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.