“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.

In Praise of Show-Offs

You may have come across the twitter hashtag #ImmodestWomen and wondered what it’s all about.  It caught my eye because it seems another excellent example of the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ behaviour asked of women:  on the one hand, we are expected to be humble, compliant and supportive of others; on the other hand we’re told to promote ourselves – particularly in the context of our careers – showcase our strengths and talk more about our own achievements.

To give you some context, #ImmodestWomen is a hashtag introduced by Dr. Fern Riddell who dared to insist that her hard-earned PhD title form part of her twitter handle. A backlash of comments from men berated her for being immodest, lacking humility, even being vulgar. By simply showcasing her expertise, Dr. Riddell was publicly shamed for not conforming to society’s expectations of women to be modest, well-behaved, not showing off.

How do we strike the balance between society’s – and frankly, our own - expectations of humility with the need to self-promote at work so as not to lose out to those (mostly men) who do it so well?

At Voice At The Table, we have a talk entitled ‘The Art of Female ‘Blagging’ with Integrity.’ Here’s how it works:

My good friend and associate Cara Moore and I recognised a while ago the double-edged sword society had dealt us. To generalise, men seem to be at ease ‘blagging’ their way into promotions and pay rises by exaggerating their achievements and abilities, while (again in general) employing those tactics made women feel uncomfortable.

After much discussion we came up with a way of ‘showing off’ which we think feels more natural to women. In other words, turning blagging into bragging – but doing so based on actual achievements and confidence in our potential. Hopefully it negotiates the fine line between what feels right, and what we as women need to do to be seen and heard.

We came up with our own acronym BLAG which captures the elements that make the term ‘blagging’ more palatable to women:

B stands for Bright: Being visible by speaking up, contributing without hesitation or self-doubt, confidently applying for stretching tasks, and asking for that title, promotion or pay rise. We should aim to be bright like a beacon and be known for our strengths and unique talents.

L stands for Learned: Many of us are experts in our fields, and this is important. Whatever we say or do, we need to be comfortable that we can back it up with substance. For many women, this is the reason the term ‘blagging’ feels unnatural – we think of it as a cover-up for actual knowledge. Not so for most of us, who know much more than we give ourselves credit for. Learned means not only knowing our ‘stuff’ but remembering that we do!

A stands for Audacious: This is where we must ask ourselves to ‘just give it a go.’ Often, before we try something new or more daring, we talk ourselves out of it before we even begin: ‘I’m not good enough. I don’t have the experience. They would never agree to it,’ pipes up our unhelpful inner voice. We have dozens of reasons for not doing something instead of just going for it. So being audacious is about silencing that inner critic and ‘JFDI’*.

G stands for Gutsy: Gutsy is about being brave enough to tie these three elements together and take action to BLAG by being visible, known for our expertise and knowledge, and unafraid to step up.

So, while shouting from the roof tops about how good we are is something we prefer to leave to others, there is no shame in adding those well-earned initials that follow your name. Thank you, Dr. Fern Riddell for standing up for yourself and for BLAGging with integrity.

* For those of you who are wondering, JFDI stands for Just Flippin’ Do It!

3 Reasons Diversity Initiatives Fail to Shift the Dial on Gender Balance

Advances in achieving gender balance in the corporate space are slow, at best.  Despite the deafening cries for progress towards gender parity, progress is, indeed, evading us.  The latest gender pay gap statistics in the UK prove the point, with the largest pay gap reported in the construction sector at 25%, followed by finance and insurance sector at 22% and education at 20%.   The World Economic Forum predicts it will take the world another 217 years to reach parity, and many other reports show that, while we appear to be inching closer to a more diverse and inclusive world, progress is, well, patchy and sometimes questionable.

I have to ask myself the question why?  After all, in my conversations with clients and other companies, it seems diversity and inclusion is an important part of the business agenda, and gender balance even more so.   Most have already spent copious resources on various initiatives that intend to support and advance women - and, more broadly, diversity - within the organisation.  And yet, few would claim genuine parity at all levels.

If you ask me, part of the problem is the belief that we’re doing all the right things whereas the truth is that most of the current initiatives fail to shift the dial on diversity.

Here are my 3 reasons for it:

All female leadership and other initiatives

The intentions behind programmes that support the advancement of women in the organisation are great, but there are a number of problems with this approach: (i) when programmes cater to women only, the overarching message the company is sending to its women is that there is something wrong with them and that it is trying to ‘fix’ them.  This is particularly true of leadership programmes which intimate that women need more development than men to become leaders; (ii) even successful female-only initiatives tend to backfire because, to the extent they succeed to motivate and engage women, by the time women go back to their unchanged work environment, frustration starts to set in as they continue to perform in an environment that fails to recognise the value of their authentic contribution; and (iii) initiatives that are aimed at a specific segment of the population tend to be divisive and fail to attract the requisite amount of support and inclusion to harness lasting progress.

Appointing a female head to ‘tackle the problem’

In many cases, executive teams are genuine about their desire to advance women.  But they don’t recognise it as a central business priority and look at it as a project to be managed.  Having identified it as an issue, they tend to look for the right person to address it which, in many cases, happens to be the one woman on the executive team.  I have heard this story so many times.

These women, or other senior women in the organisation, are anointed as Head of People, or Gender Diversity Sponsor or similar, and are expected to single-handedly ‘solve the issue’.  If they’re lucky, the board will agree to authorise resources to support the position in the form of additional help and/or budget. Yet in most cases, all the resources are going to be insufficient because the ‘problem’ cannot be solved by one or few individuals, and certainly not this particular ‘problem’ (because it’s not so much a problem but an unexplored opportunity).

Parachuting women into senior roles

In many cases, gender imbalance exists primarily at the very top.  Many companies tackle the issue by bringing in lateral hires as they don’t appear to have their own senior female pipeline to address the disparity.  Sadly, this is one of the worst solutions to this issue.  Having spoken to a number of corporates who have taken such measures it becomes clear very quickly that there is no substitute for ‘growing your own’.  Attracting senior women from elsewhere is, at best, a temporary solution.  These freshly-hired women – like the the women who have been at the company for years – will be exposed to the very same culture that failed to produce the senior pipeline in the first instance.  As a result, the new senior female leaders are likely to become disenchanted with their roles as they come to realise that they are not hired for their expertise and contribution but, instead (to put it bluntly), to tick a box.   Even if they do succeed in making a contribution to the company that is genuinely valued, companies have to carefully guard these women from being hired away by others with a similar agenda.  The reality is that there are not that many senior women out there who seem to satisfy the existing requirements for board or senior level hires (although, of course, many more women can indeed to the job) so, unless companies develop their own female leadership pipeline, they stand to lose those recent hires to others that have a similar approach to gender balance.

These are but a few reasons current initiatives fail to advance gender balance at work, and there are a number of others.  If you would like to explore this topic further, email us for a longer version of this post.