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09 May 2008

Teaming with Men for Success

Last month, I attended the Catalyst awards in New York and, as I wrote here at the time, participated in a fascinating workshop on gender equity and male involvement.

Many of you have now seen the handouts from this session and I hope have found them to be as interesting and thought provoking as did I.  One person whose interest was also piqued by this approach and topic was award winning Australian business woman Maureen Frank, creator of the “My Mentor: Challenging Women to Step Up” programme currently in use in PwC Australia (which is due to be profiled in the Global Initiatives section of www.pwc.com/women any day now) and best selling author of the book “You Go Girlfriend”.  Maureen will also be running a half day workshop on mentoring at the Working Mother conference in South Africa later this year, at which PwC South Africa and the Gender Advisory Council are Gold level sponsors.   

I have completely forgiven Maureen for dedicating my copy of her book to “Chloe” and, to prove it, asked her to write us a guest piece for the Gender Agenda blog.  Here are her views on teaming with men for success in gender diversity.

M_frankWhen women won’t support each other – ask a man!

Men are key to our success. As an advocate for women in the workforce – I never thought I would write that.

Recently I attended the Catalyst Conference in the US – Catalyst being the global leader in research on working women. Here I had an ‘ah – ha’ moment around the significance of male involvement in the gender equity challenge.

Whilst hearing global experts on ‘teaming with men for success’ and ‘white men as advocates for gender diversity’, one point crystallised for me – my own corporate success was assisted by the support of some amazing men. Yes, there were women too – in two categories: supporters who were not closely connected to my business; and, sadly, what the Americans term ‘bully broads’ (translation - bitch).  The people who knew my business, who pushed, challenged and believed in the way I operated, were men.

These men were treasures, champions, mentors. They are people to whom I owe a large debt and many are still great mates. There are others like them in corporate Australia and doubtless elsewhere in the world – you just have to turn over a few rocks to find them.

In gender work with major organisations our inclusiveness strategies tend to focus on women. Whilst this is critical, I now also see the need to understand the essence of men like my champions.  How do we increase the numbers and their consciousness of gender diversity?

At Catalyst I saw men from around the globe who ‘get it’ and are outspoken about it. A sneak peak at the latest research with these men was shared, identifying four main barriers to commitment to gender equity:

Firstly, the fear of blame or mistakes, that they “won’t get it right” leads to “doing nothing at all”. I’ve frequently heard colleagues claim ‘I don’t know what to say – can you speak to her?’, or in a case when the woman in question would benefit from some direct feedback: ‘oh I couldn’t do that, what if I upset her...’

The challenge for us is to make it safe, to invite men into the fold and to forgive mistakes made with our best interests at heart. We have to swallow our pride, knowing that we can’t do it without them. Not popular feminism I know, but words that do need to be spoken.

Secondly, the approval of other men seems to be a significant barrier that I had never really understood before. Certainly, peer pressure exists, but what do men really say on the subject when we’re not there? How do we find out? How do we change this? Clearly men need strong role models on the subject to help shape these moments from within.

I believe that most men want to do the right thing, but we haven’t shared how ‘gender discrimination’ can be subtle and unintentional. We need them to understand not just the corporate and societal costs and benefits, but the individual impacts for them too. For those that “get it”, we have to provide support in ‘spreading the word’ and influencing their male colleagues and peers.

Thirdly, the personal cost to men in not engaging is usually not spelled out.  Money talks – the cost of employee turnover, the gender differences in why people join, stay and leave organisations – these are the arguments that help men to ‘get it’. The impacts on their business unit, their bonus payout and their individual performance can be made clear.  Sadly in many organisations, this case for gender diversity is unclear or unpublicised. A compelling financial business rationale is hard to resist for any businessman who understands the FACTS.

I remember one CEO with whom I worked. Despite being a strong supporter of women he would not publicly endorse support for the initiatives: “What will my men think of me? They’ll think I’m being unfair.” We got there eventually when I argued “imagine that I am your daughter sitting in front of you in 20 years time!” We called the initiative a code name: ‘Project Lauren’. 

‘Lauren’ was his daughter.

Finally, apathy abounds.  Overcoming it requires understanding of the personal interest for each man, which may be different: perhaps deeply private, financial, or a broader sense of justice.

A self labelled ‘white heterosexual man’, who is now a gender diversity ‘champion’, told us his story.  Let’s call him Mr X. His CEO shared the business case with him, personally challenging him to “get involved, to take a risk”. He confesses to being stunned; the data was what hit him.  He declared ‘even if you are oblivious to whether you treat people fairly – you really cannot deny the compelling business case.’ Shocked that he hadn’t seen this before, he became determined to learn more and to share the newfound knowledge with other men.

Mr X became aware of the subtlety of the challenge: what it really meant to be aware and inclusive.  He changed the way he listened to people in his company, asking real questions of people, and was overwhelmed with the thanks he received for these simple acts.

Mr X now proposes these practical ways to involve men:

  • Ask them to engage in the solutions! Obvious but often overlooked;
  • Ask them in a way that doesn’t scare them - sharing the numbers with them and encouraging them to ask questions.
  • And he found a positive response when men believe it’s not just “secret women’s business”!

Another expert at the Catalyst workshop raised the concept of privilege and its invisibility to those with it. He shared that white men don’t see themselves as part of a group but as individuals, unaware of their gender. Understanding the privilege their status affords them helps with their journey: never having had to face the subtle exclusion, the internal dilemmas about children, the constant battle to retain your femininity and be a good business person, and so on.

The rules of masculinity dictate that men need to teach other men about this. Yes, we can play a role, we can include, we can share, we can educate – but we also need to support and empower men to want to teach men …


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