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.

The meaning of RESPECT!

By now, most of us will have seen Oprah Winfrey's rousing speech at the Golden Globes. What a way to start 2018, as she reminded us that our truth is the most powerful tool we all have. At Voice At The Table, where our focus in on all things Diversity and Inclusion, we've been talking about what this means to us in the workplace - and we think it's all about respectfor ourselves and for others. It means having the courage to stand up for ourselves, and what we believe in. Really living our values.

Carrie Gracie's decision to resign as BBC's China editor is a great example of this.  Despite being offered a £45,000 payrise, she just wasn't willing to collude with a policy of 'unlawful pay discrimination'.  Hats off to her.
When's the last time you spoke 'your truth'?

In our last Voice Circles of the year, Emma Codd, Managing Partner for Talent at Deloitte UK, talked about their Inclusion journey and the decision to focus on respect for others and on the value they can bring.  Deloitte produced this inspirational video, challenging us all to question our assumptions and look beyond our biases.  It's our personal responsibility to treat others with respect.

So our word for 2018 is RESPECT and we'll be working hard to help our individual and corporate clients challenge themselves and others to appreciate and celebrate the contribution we all make and to respect one another, no matter how different.

My top 3 positive developments for women that took place in 2016

Reading an article on the Telegraph website about the amazing things that happened this year, I took their poll on whether I thought 2016 was the worst year in recent history.  I wasn’t at all surprised to see that, like me, 73% of those who took the poll thought that yes, 2016 was indeed the worst year in recent history.

So I thought some reflection might be appropriate.  What is it that made the year so bad?  And, more importantly, what are some of the highlights that I’d care to remember?  Having reflected on the many things that happened, here is my list of the top 3 things that progressed gender equality in 2016:

  1. Hillary Clinton was the first woman to win a major political party’s nomination to run for President of the United States. We all know how this contest ended; suffice it to say, Clinton made history not only by running but also by winning the popular vote by at least 2,000,000.
  2. The crackdown has begun on unrealistic beauty standards held up as the norm for women:
    • Award-Winning Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (famed also for her TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists”) will be the face of Boots’ makeup brand No.7! Who says feminist women can’t wear make-up?
    • Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, took a stand against the fashion industry by pledging to remove all ads from the Underground that pressure people to conform to unhealthy or unrealistic body standards. Finally, some political might wielded in the right direction.
    • A number of big brands such as Victoria Secret and Aerie have suspended their affinity with photoshop, showing models and actresses as they appear in real life instead of video games. Bravo!
    • Celebrities take a stance on fashion norms: Alicia Keys declared she won’t wear make-up on her face (as did Hillary Clinton after the election), and Rihanna took a stand against high heels (so bad for your feet!) by winning this year’s Shoe of the Year award for her collaboration with Puma in designing a fashionable alternative to heels.
  3. Male Gender Diversity Champion and Canadian PM Justin Trudeau has impressed us in 2015 by appointing a gender-balanced cabinet and further solidified his status as a feminist when he spoke at a UN conference in March by saying “It’s simply saying that I believe in the equality of men and women and that we still have an awful lot of work to do to get there.” The best part: Trudeau talks the talk AND walks the walk of a feminist.  Case in point: he became a He For She ambassador and launched an inquiry into Canada’s thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women earlier this year.

These are just my top 3, but a short google search will unveil many more ‘greats’ that took place this year, helping restore hope and equilibrium.

What were your personal highlights in 2016?