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How to Get More Men to Take Gender Balance Seriously

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox


The organizer of a big finance women’s conference was asking how to ensure that men attended. The head of D&I of a large automotive company was trying to get a largely male leadership team to buy into his gender balance strategy. The head of a legal sector association was trying to get the sector to gender balance law firm partnerships. How, they were all asking me, do they get men engaged, convinced, and on board?

The short answer? Turn balance into a business issue run by leaders. After 15 years working with mostly male executive teams and CEOs across the globe and across sectors and cultures, here’s what I learned are three simple steps to engaging men in building better gender balance.

1. Don’t call them “champions”

A lot of women’s networks and women’s conferences are trying to bring men into the debate by awarding them congratulatory titles and awards. This is understandable since women are increasingly impatient with the idea that “fixing sexism is women’s work.”

The trouble with this strategy is that men then become a range of mildly heroic beings, with titles like “champions” and “allies,” slightly military terms to masculinize the otherwise suspect notion of appearing to be a feminist. This is embarrassing for women, as it puts them in the rather traditional role of rewarding good male behavior with female admiration and applause. It’s also embarrassing for men, write W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith, as “these efforts often reveal reluctance, if not palpable anxiety among targeted men. Sexism is a system, and while it’s a system that privileges men, it also polices male behavior.”

U2 rockstar Bono, who was named Glamour magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 2016, shared his embarrassmentin TIME magazine. “It seemed obvious to me,” he wrote, “that the sex who created the problem might have some responsibility for undoing it. Men can’t step back and leave it to women alone to clean up the mess we’ve made and are still making.”

The unintended consequence of this well-meaning approach is that it makes gender balance seem like a crusade requiring brave champions and heroes. This leaves the rest in enemy territory, likely to mutter resentfully against their singled-out colleagues, what Smith and Johnson refer to as the Wimp Penalty or The Pedestal Effect. While male role models are absolutely necessary in getting other men engaged, it’s worth treading carefully into this terrain.

Rather than making male support for gender balance the exception, the goal is to make it the norm. How do you normalize and mainstream gender balance among…everyone? By using existing male-dominated hierarchies. McKinsey research has shown gender balanced companies are twice as likely to have had senior leadership commitment with balance as a top business priority. It’s about getting all leaders to reframe the issue for all men and managers.

Reframe: Gender balance delivers better performance and returns. If leaders are accountable to shareholders and stakeholders, gender balance is part of their mandate. Let’s call them … leaders. Period.

2. Make it a business issue, not a diversity dimension

If you’re framing gender balance as a diversity issue, a women’s issue, or a moral principle (or even because you have a daughter and you’ve seen the light), you’re setting yourself up to fail — at least in terms of making it a shared responsibility for everyone. Leaders are often tempted to argue gender balance as a moral imperative. But in the corporate setting, if you want to get a broad base of support for balance from men, the business case is a more effective frame. (Many female colleagues of mine roll their eyes at this, suggesting it is terribly pass√©. But it’s news to most leaders I work with.)

An enlightening series of case studies comes from one of the more male-dominated organizations on the planet — the military. Robert Egnell and coauthors, in Women and Gender Perspectives in the Military: An International Comparison, describe how different national militaries around the world have introduced gender balance. The lessons they draw are readily transferable to the corporate world’s efforts to engage their dominant male majorities.

A key success factor, he explains, is how “the process is introduced and managed in a way that speaks to the core tasks of military organizations.” While “the most challenging task is to gain access to the organization to begin the work. This is closely related to the issue of how the process and its aims are described and communicated.” He says that a feminist-driven, rights-based approach may be less effective than more “instrumental arguments of operational effectiveness.” Because “equality is simply not perceived as having anything to do with military operations.” Nor, I would argue, is equality yet perceived in many men’s minds as having anything to do with business results. That is one of the key roles of leaders. To make the link explicit and credible.

Companies whose balancing initiatives involve men are more than three times more effective than those focusing only on women. But male managers take balance seriously only if their bosses do. This simple truth of hierarchical human organizations is the core of any change.

It isn’t enough for the CEO to say gender balance is important once a year in a management conference. Nor even to set draconian and highly publicized targets. In the gender balance analyses we do for companies at my consulting firm, it’s immediately obvious whether a leadership team credibly priorities balance – or doesn’t. The answer lies in the easily-measured perception of their colleagues. And on that simple reality hinges the success of any gender balancing efforts.

Until leaders are convinced that gender balance is a strategic lever for the business and become authentically and articulately convincing to their colleagues about why that is, balance remains a politically correct sideline. Many leadership teams say they are convinced and aligned about the need for balance. And yet, if you survey their colleagues, as we routinely do, they often aren’t buying their leaders’ commitment (see graph showing how individual men and women compare their own belief in the strategic importance of balance compared to what they perceive to be their Executive Team’s opinion).

I recently ran a Strategic Debate with the European leadership team of a tech company. The CEO assured me that the team bought the “business case” and didn’t need to discuss it anymore. All they needed to know was how to implement it. But as soon as the conversation started, there was a long and heated debate about the urgency, relevance, and priority of gender balance. It took the team time to align around a shared vision of what the issue, the goal and the drivers were.

After facilitating hundreds of debates among mostly-male leadership teams, I would humbly suggest this is the norm. Top teams need time to align and become skilled at pitching why gender balance is a business imperative. Until they do, their male colleagues don’t and won’t take it seriously.

Reframe: The CEO and their team consistently and convincingly drive gender balance as an essential lever to achieving strategic goals and boosting the bottom line.

3. Make balance a management skill, and measure it

The final step is to make balance personal, measurable and accountable. The tipping point? When managers know they will be recognized and rewarded for building balanced teams (and not if they don’t). When every manager is evaluated on their ability to work with 100% of the talent and connect effectively with 100% of the potential customer base. They’ll know when the topic shifts from “no women/men apply for this position/sector” or “no women/men buy this product” to “how can we help this manager build balanced teams and customer bases?” (See this related piece suggesting “if you can’t catch a fish, don’t blame the fish.”)


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    Gender Equity/Diversity

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