As the requirement for gender pay gap reporting approaches, more men are engaging in gender issues – some better than others. Chris Parke looks at why many men feel excluded from the diversity debate, and how to tackle the problem.
Over the past decade, I’ve seen many men in the corporate world feeling “alienated” by the gender debate. Just last week I was working with a client – a male partner in a legal practice – who had an abject fear of standing up in front of a female audience to talk about gender balance at the firm.
Resources on gender diversity
Diversity is a top business priority, however it is very often still the responsibility of the predominantly female HR department, or the organisation’s women’s networks. I am very passionate about there being room for more male advocates of gender balance; we need to create safe, inclusive spaces where both men and women can talk honestly about what they feel are the barriers to their career progression.
So why do so many men feel alienated by the diversity debate going on around them?
1. Feelings of self-interest
As diversity efforts continue to be centred on gender balance, some companies are giving the impression of entering a phase of positive discrimination.
Many men feel threatened that the status quo is being rattled, and that they are losing out on career opportunities within their organisation. Men see the justice and even the business benefits of greater diversity, but that doesn’t necessarily take away the sense of threat.
We need to acknowledge and examine these fears, to plan interventions and communications carefully, to continue to emphasise the merit principle; explicitly rewarding and recognising those men who are willing to engage in debate and action.
2. Anger at feeling ignored
For me, this is one of the most important reasons to look at diversity in its broadest sense; we must ensure men feel connected to the debate. Inclusion is such a core element of making progress. Everyone knows what it feels like to be excluded and included.
Men need to have the opportunity to talk about those instances in their own lives and careers. Not only does it help men understand that their own challenges are being taken seriously, but it may open the way for them to build greater empathy with the challenges faced by others.
The irony is that being in a minority is the same thing many of the women I coach face at senior levels in their workplace. It can feel quite exposing as a man, even if you are really passionate about the issues, but if men can find the courage to speak out, the pace of change can really accelerate.
3. Fear of being judged
There is still some sense among men that the diversity debate is about men being judged. And while in some organisations that judgment is not always unjustified, we need better ways to “hold up the mirror” for men so that they can learn without the fear that they are going to be judged or blamed. Men need to be given the confidence to find an authentic voice.
The good news is that more men are being engaged through campaigns like the UN’s “HeforShe” movement – where it is boys and men that are the agents of change for gender equality.
4. Fear of doing the wrong thing
The client I met last week – let’s call him Michael – had a real fear of using the wrong terminology to express his own views on a topic he was passionate about.
When you think of some of the acronyms and language surrounding this space, it’s no surprise men are worried they might look ignorant if they ask a stupid question or, as Michael explained, he might just step on a diversity “land mine”!
Many leaders at very senior levels are paralysed by the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. This is where coaching can be so important in building confidence among these male leaders and therefore enabling engagement and leadership.
If we want more male champions of change, everyone needs to accept that there will be some bumps on the road and the occasional derailing – not from ill intent, simply from lack of knowledge and practice. Men should get points for trying, some grace when they make mistakes while realising that the bar is going to be raised and that repeating the same errors over and over again is no longer acceptable.
5. Fear of being ejected from “the club”
I sense there is considerable fear among some men about “breaking ranks”; about being seen as a traitor, particularly in highly macho or male cultures. If men are seen taking action and entering into a debate which is likely to change the rules of “the club”, they risk cutting themselves off from their male friends and colleagues.
Part of securing progress is making sure that men truly believe there is an even better place for them to be than the existing club. Again, this comes back to the way that people are recognised and rewarded for the leadership they provide in this space.
So how can men remain authentic, while “leaning in” on gender issues?
Men need to find a way of expressing their own positions and experiences in their own words. Push the boundaries by trying to have conversations and dialogues with close friends, family or colleagues first to test your position and how you want to articulate that.
Be prepared to go outside of what is comfortable by challenging what’s being said and some of the behaviours happening around you. You will be surprised by how many others are supportive and thankful for your courage!
There is often a big difference between what men present and how they actually feel. And this can flow both ways. There are those that come across as being highly supportive but in private are purposefully obstructive. And then there are those that are quiet supporters who find it hard to have a voice and challenge the status quo. Ironically, this is often how women themselves feel in the workplace.
It’s this last population of men that I’m so keen to help and encourage. I’m seeing more and more male role models and I’m really inspired by this. My view is that once you have a critical mass of men championing this cause, with the confidence to have a voice and challenge in a positive way, that’s when change will really accelerate.
I’m pleased to say that we did eventually find a way for Michael to take to the stage with more confidence. Once we had got beyond the realisation that he didn’t need to have all the answers, he recognised the importance of being open and honest.
Michael ended up presenting to the audience on how nervous he had been and why. He explained why this was such an important subject to him and for the firm. He used real examples, not shying away from the fact that they were uncomfortable stories from within his firm.
Most importantly, he was his authentic self and it made his address compelling. The audience could see his vulnerabilities and that he wanted to hear from women and men across the firm on ways to accelerate change.