We’re in a critical moment when it comes to advancing women in the workplace. Leaders in most companies agree that women’s leadership is worth pursuing. They’ve given the green light for women’s initiatives and programs. Yet, the number of women in senior leadership and C-Suite positions is largely unchanged over the past decade. Why?
I believe the lack of progress is due to a lack of male engagement and a lack of understanding regarding why women are a critical component to any organization’s strategy and bottom line.
Mercer Global’s “When Women Thrive” report found only 39 percent of middle management and 38 percent of male employees are engaged in company diversity and inclusion initiatives. This means a majority of men are disenfranchised and may interpret someone else’s gain as their personal loss. These men will see D&I initiatives as a zero-sum proposition and may actually hinder an organization’s efforts to advance women’s leadership.
I’ve found there are four common barriers preventing active male engagement:
1. Empathy (“I don’t believe men and women are having different experiences in the workplace.”)
2. Apathy (“I don’t know why gender equity is important.”)
3. Accountability (“If it’s not important to my boss or my paycheck, why should I care?”)
4. Fear (“I may say or do the wrong thing or I will be judged by my peer group if I do this ‘women’s thing.’”)
For each of these barriers, we can identify actions that will help men to develop an understanding of both the issues and their role in creating a more equitable and inclusive workplace. The framework is listen, learn and lead, as outlined by Male Champions of Change, and, I’d add, have the will to change.
If you are not sure that men and women are having different experiences in the workplace, do one of these exercises:
Are all voices heard? In your next staff meeting, tally the number of times women are spoken over, interrupted or have their ideas stolen. This will draw a picture of the vastly different experiences men and women are having at work.
Ask and listen. Invite a woman you know and trust to lunch and ask her one simple question: Do you believe men and women are having different experiences at the company? Then be quiet and genuinely listen. Don’t interrupt, don’t be defensive or justify company policies. Just shut up and listen. After 10 minutes, ask a second time: What else don’t I know? Listen intently for another 10 minutes and ask a third (and final) time: And what else?
In that last 10 minutes, you will hear root-cause issues that you have never heard or imagined existed in your company. You will hear about differences that women (and perhaps other groups of people) are experiencing every day within your company.
These experiences have a direct correlation to work, performance, retention and advancement. By creating empathy, you develop both an understanding of the issue and a connection to it, which fosters interest and leads to changes in behavior and action or advocacy.
Apathy can be addressed by learning. For those who ask, “What’s the big deal?” and “Why all this focus on women?” lay out the business case and the role of women as leading consumers. Women influence upwards of $22 trillion in buying decisions for consumer goods, business-to-business expenditures and financial services. To bring the message closer, develop and share the business case that is relevant to your business unit or company. Identify your customers and the role women play in purchasing decisions. Now look at your company and identify where women are leading in R&D, engineering, product management, marketing and sales.
The barrier of accountability is resolved by leading. As a leader, ask tough questions, request data and metrics and dig deeper for insights. If you notice that one of your direct reports hasn’t nominated a woman for consideration, ask him about potential candidates in his department and remind him of the initiative to advance women to better meet the needs of your business. Probe to see if he is able to attract and recruit people who are different from him.Accountability is about tracking and measuring. This isn’t about quotas. There are numerous measurable actions and metrics to hold people accountable, such as: Are you advancing diverse slates of candidates? Have you cultivated ready-now female candidates? Have you completed pay equity reviews? Are you forming diverse panels of interviewers? What are your regrettable personnel losses? What is the composition of your team and does it reflect your customer base? Progressive companies that have been highlighted as best places for women to work, tie executive bonus compensation to the completion of a diversity plan.
Fear: Will to lead
You must have the will to lead and be visible and vocal in your support. There has never been a more important time for leaders to step up. CEOs and senior leaders need to talk candidly about sexual harassment and hostile work environments, implement zero-tolerance policies, hold perpetrators accountable and dust off their company values and start living them.
By removing or overcoming the barriers that stifle male engagement, we will finally create sustainable change in the workplace for all employees.