What men can do to advance gender equity

19 July ’21 By Alison Maitland

Some of us have been saying it for years: achieving gender equity should not be the job of women alone. Indeed, it’s unlikely to happen unless men are deeply involved in driving the change, especially the men who are still the majority in many boardrooms and executive teams.

Why then, given the well-evidenced business benefits of balanced teams and organisations, is it hard for a lot of male executives and managers to engage with the issue? And what can be done about this?

Useful lessons emerged from an in-depth panel discussion last month at the Business School (formerly Cass), hosted by its Global Women’s Leadership Programme, whose Executive Board I chair.

Here’s my selection of highlights, first published by IWE in my regular column:

Educate yourself

David Smith, co-author of ‘Good Guys: How men can be better allies for women in the workplace’, was clear on what the problem is when he responded to an incisive question from moderator Canan Kocabasoglu Hillmer, Director of the Programme.

‘The research shows most men think they’re doing everything they can to support and create equity in the workplace. The reality is that’s not the case,’ he said.

‘White middle-aged men don’t always have a good awareness of how people experience the workplace differently. The first part about being better allies and public advocates is developing an awareness of that. You should start by self-educating: read great books, attend events like today … look into your own workplace.’

Men often hold back from talking about the issue for fear of making mistakes, causing offence, or opening themselves up to personal and professional risk, especially in light of the ‘Me Too’ movement, he said.

Yet those conversations, however uncomfortable, are important. Research shows organisations in which men are actively involved alongside women achieve greater progress on gender equity. When men understand how women are experiencing the work environment, interventions like mentoring and career sponsorship are likely to run more smoothly and be more effective.

Exercise humility

Smith advised men to ask permission to have a conversation, be thoughtful and humble about it, and provide some context. For example, say to a female colleague: ‘I’m trying to be a better ally. Would it be ok if I asked you about your experiences here? If there was one thing I could do more or less of this week, what would really help make a difference?’

Building relationships of trust with a few female colleagues enables men to have ‘gender confidantes’ who can provide support and feedback – such as telling them what it was they said that caused women at a meeting or event to roll their eyes, he said.

I would add that if men are not yet comfortable about even asking women to have these conversations, they could start by seeking out other men who are more at ease as gender equity advocates and talking with them. Growing numbers of men want to see equity at work, as the attendance at the event demonstrated.

Be intentional and persistent

Also speaking was Nikhil Rathi, Chief Executive of the Financial Conduct Authority, which regulates the financial sector. When he took the job last year, he made clear that diversity and inclusion would be a priority for the organisation and its engagement with the sector. ‘We expect to be using our powers progressively more in this area.’

Six out of 10 of Rathi’s executive committee – the FCA’s senior executive decision-making body – are women. How was that achieved? ‘The instructions I gave to the recruitment firms were: I want you to go and search far and wide and hard and get me the best possible field and the most diverse field. As we evaluated the candidates, in each case we hired the best person for the role.’

Use ‘sharper tools’

Rathi said sharper tools were needed to get the required momentum across the sector and to interrupt the tendency to recruit people like themselves. ‘There are countless cases of situations where men are hiring men they’ve worked with previously.’

One sharp tool for leaders to use is transparency – analysing and sharing data, not only about gender and diversity representation at different levels but about how many women are returning from career breaks, who gets shortlisted for jobs, and how the shortlisting process happens, he said.

Driving change through performance management and accountability is another tool. Rathi mentioned the FCA’s five-box performance rating, in which highest performers reach the top two boxes. ‘We’ve said that you don’t get in there unless you’re demonstrating behaviour that is consistent with our values, including our commitment to diversity and inclusion.’

Guard against ‘fake empathy’

Women in financial services, especially black women, struggle to gain recognition for their performance at work, according to a recent report by the LSE and Women in Banking and Finance. The ‘Good Finance Framework’ report found a ‘tendency for managers to fake empathy when managing women, recognising the trait was now seen as valuable’.

Rathi said ongoing training was needed to address ‘fake empathy’, along with 360-degree feedback to illuminate ‘where the empathy is not authentic and there isn’t action flowing from it’.

Smith added that it was important for male leaders to talk openly and often about diversity and inclusion to convey the clear message to middle managers that these things impact the success of the organisation.

In building inclusive work environments, it’s important we all take responsibility for the impact of our assumptions and comments. Rathi noted that micro-aggressions could happen in a range of contexts, giving the example of remarks by women about ‘too many pale males’.

Advance equality at home

Men as well as women could do well to listen to the advice of speaker Pavita Cooper, Chair of CMI Race and Deputy Chair of the 30% Club, a global campaign to increase gender balance at senior levels. The most important decision women make is their choice of life partner, she said.

That choice will guide how responsibilities are shared at home and shape the attitudes and expectations of the next generation. Parents can ensure progress by teaching sons how to cook, showing them that men can also do things like write shopping lists and remember birthdays (activities now being described as cognitive and emotional labour), and making clear that they must treat girls and women as equals.

Smith said boys and girls often receive different messages at home and school about being ambitious and expressing that ambition, or about the desirability of studying science, engineering, and technology subjects. ‘Men in particular need to understand their role in how this affects both their boys and their girls.’

To gain further insights, I recommend watching the event recording.

What resonates with you here?

What have you seen work?

What else do you think men can do to support gender equity?

©AlisonMaitland 2021, all rights reserved

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