To Reach Gender Equality In The Workplace, We Need Men To Engage

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A few months ago, I met a young male lawyer at a diversity event hosted by a law firm. We began chatting about the Women’s Networking Group at his firm. He seemed to know a fair amount about what they did, but when I asked if he had ever considered becoming a member, he told me did not think he was welcome. He wasn’t wrong. The group was, in fact, open only to women.

The failure to include men in women’s initiatives is, unfortunately, quite common. Women spend a lot of time talking to other women about the importance of gender equality. While it may seem counterintuitive, men are actually a critical part of any women’s initiative. To achieve equality in the workplace, women need men’s active participation and support.

For starters, the majority of business leaders are men, so they are in the best position to effect strategic change. In addition, gender equality is not only a woman’s issue.  Men are also impacted by gender stereotypes and norms to which they feel pressured to subscribe. To really make a difference, men and women must work together.

Below are three things organizations can do to motivate men to join their gender initiatives and become champions for gender inclusion:

1. Educate Them. One of the primary reasons men are not part of gender initiatives is that they are unaware of how pervasive gender bias is within their organizations. Since most gender bias is implicit, meaning it’s unconscious, it can be especially difficult to recognize if you don’t know what to look for, and even more so if you benefit from it. To get men involved, they first need to recognize that there is a problem to solve.

Unconscious bias training is a key part of any gender initiative.  All employees should receive this training, but at a minimum, anyone in charge of managing people should be aware of the ways in which their perceptions impact their decision-making. Gender bias training should also include action steps that individuals can take to interrupt bias when they see it. Cultivating a culture of active bystanders can have a huge impact on creating a more equal and inclusive workplace.

2. Make it Personal. I recently attended a panel discussion about engaging male champions in the legal industry. Without exception, the number one reason each of the panelists gave for becoming involved in gender initiatives was that they had a personal connection to bias, whether through relationships with important women in their lives (mothers, wives, daughters) or through experiencing bias in some capacity themselves.

These sentiments are in line with research from Catalyst that found that making gender inclusion personal for men is one of the most effective ways of getting them involved in gender initiatives. By highlighting the ways gender bias and stereotypes negatively affect men, they will be more likely to want to seek solutions. Implementing programs like cross-gender mentoring can also bring gender bias to life in a way that will motivate men to fight for change.

3. Give Them Their Space. Have you ever walked into a room and gotten the sense that everyone was just talking about you? That’s exactly how many men feel when they participate in gender-focused programs. Men are often reluctant to engage in conversations about gender because they feel like the enemy. They may hesitate to speak openly and honestly for fear that their words may be misconstrued or that they will appear sexist.

One way to engage men is to give them opportunities to talk about these issues among themselves and to create training and programming specifically tailored to men and to how they experience gender in the workplace. This will give men the freedom to explore many of these issues in a safe space without fear of judgment, which can lead to some significant breakthroughs and ideas. Creating a “Men as Allies” chapter of a women’s networking group is another way for men to support and participate in the work of gender equality.

Gender initiatives are not one-size fits all propositions, and strategies will look different across organizations and industries. But one thing that remains certain is that gender balance will not be achieved by women alone.  Engaging men in these efforts will be a sure way to ensure equality for women in the workplace.

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