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The Me Too movement has shone a spotlight on the scale of harassment in the workplace and catalyzed new norms of accountability. It has simultaneously spawned widespread fear among men. LeanIn’s recent survey findings What Women Are Up Against at Work showcases the problem with 6 in 10 male managers reporting discomfort interacting with women in everyday work activities, such as mentoring and socializing, and senior male leaders being ten-times more hesitant to have one-on-one meetings with junior-level women as compared to men.

A January 2019 survey found a startling 4 in 5 men were very (55%) or somewhat (27%) concerned about false accusations of harassment and assault yet, only a third expressed strong concern about gender pay inequity or inequitable treatment with regard to professional development and advancement.

Thus, after several decades of organizational women’s initiatives, awards for companies that support women’s advancement, and study after study documenting the powerful business drivers for prioritizing gender balance in leadership, we’re at a point where men register greater concern about being falsely accused than about the substantial and persistent inequalities experienced by women.

The kicker is, false claims of harassment are rare and most experiences of harassment at work never get reported.

It’s Time for a Change

This disheartening situation highlights the rampant fear and widespread misunderstanding about why gender equality is important for women and men. Clearly, it’s time to reboot the gender conversation and that’s a good thing.

The truth is gender has long been weaponized and used to divide. The prevailing women versus men frame, in which gender is couched, magnifies and reinforces differences rather than providing a broader context which encompasses the many similarities.

Having spent most of my life as a close observer of how gender works in the world, as well as more than two decades professionally focused on the role of gender in the workplace and the home, I have come to believe that gender equality is far more linked to one’s world view than to the gender of an individual. In its truest form, gender equality is about lifting the constraints posed by gender norms that limit women and men alike and hurt us all.

Defining a New Approach

How can we approach the gender equality conversation differently, in ways that bring women and men together versus driving them apart? In ways that lead to substantial progress versus discouragingly incremental change (or backsliding) for women in the workplace? In ways that feel relevant and welcoming for men?

Think of it as Diversity & Inclusion 2.0., a way of thinking about and approaching gender equality that uses new language, asks new questions, and involves men in a new way.

This approach has several defining characteristics that distinguish it from the typical way in which organizations endeavor to strengthen gender diversity in their organizations.

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This article is the first in a three-part series and focuses on the foundational elements of Diversity & Inclusion 2.0.

Clarity on Stereotypes versus Archetypes

The topic of stereotypes is front and center in discussions of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Stereotypes are oversimplifications – of an idea, a characteristic, an individual or a group.

Our brains are wired to detect a new piece of information and subsequently search for an existing pattern in our minds where it can be stored. The problem is stereotypes are static and self-reinforcing – staying fixed in our minds – rather than evolving through time. Why is that? The human brain selectively takes in information that reinforces familiar patterns while discounting stimuli that do not. Thus, we selectively pay attention to information that supports what we already believe. It takes an open mind and effort to expand one’s understanding of something or someone.

Stereotypes are partially true – and partially false – and repeatedly confused with archetypes. An archetype is a model or strong example of something with particular salient characteristics. Like stereotypes, archetypes are built from patterns that describe objects or people. A helpful metaphor is the idea of the breed standard in the world of dog competitions.

But a visit to any park will make it clear that an archetype is not all inclusive. While a breed of dog might be judged by some constructed standard, even within the constraints of a single breed, dogs come in many shapes and sizes.

Stereotypes are highly problematic because the shorthand becomes the full story. While the average woman may be more emotional and talk more than the average man or the average man may be more passionate about sports or logical than the average woman, this does not mean – by a long stretch – that every single woman or every single man is representative of these archetypal characteristics. The variability across gender is great.

The concept of gender is especially complicated because it has been treated as binary, with two choices on the menu – male or female. The real story, based on biological and sociological research, suggests the picture is far more complex.

Gender characteristics are lumped into two big categories – masculine or feminine – with the expectation that men model masculine traits and women model feminine ones. Sadly, deviating from these prescribed gender norms has high social costs, even potential harm or death for those in the LGBT community (but that critical topic is beyond the scope of this article.) Instead of the binary model that we continue to reinforce, with two all-encompassing gender buckets, the reality is individuals possess a composite of masculine and feminine traits in endless permutations.

We judge others because they trigger our stereotypes and we stop there, not bothering to see the specific individual or group, not bothering to learn what is true for him, her, they or them. Stereotypes may be what we see at first blush but that’s all they are. They are incomplete. Only through additional exploration can we get the real story, the far more complex and robust picture.

Respectful Behavior

An important starting place for dialogue on gender – and myriad controversial topics – is respect. This means showing regard for the feelings and traditions of others, even when you perceive things very differently, and treating others as you would want to be treated. I am not suggesting that this is easy by any means, nor that I am particularly skilled in this arena with regard to topics that have great import for me, yet I observe over and over again that it is in this context of mutual respect that it’s possible to open a portal for insights and new beliefs.

Gender diversity work at its most effective requires women and men to listen and learn from one another, exploring how each experiences gender at – and outside of – the workplace. In this environment, it becomes possible to build a foundation of shared understanding that enables trust to grow.

A clear theme shared by male allies – across age, industry, and context for supporting gender equality – was the critical importance of listening. Terrific advice shared by a male ally was to approach discussions from a place of not knowing and in a tone that communicates a desire to know more. When emotions are high, it is particularly important to listen deeply, with the intent to hear rather than to prepare a response. When children’s behavior and words are challenging, parents are advised to get curious, not furious. This quality of detachment and observation is a practical way to demonstrate respect, particularly in discussions where individuals have differing views.

Among the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in my career as a diversity consultant, and in my life, is the power of seeking to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. The book Mind in the Making distills a series of critical skills that serve children throughout their lifetimes. Perspective taking is on the short list. Based on conducting research for my book The Libra Solution, with couples seeking to practice an egalitarian model of career and family management while raising children, I found a foundational characteristic enabling this partnership was a sense of walking in the other’s shoes. Perspective taking and empathy go hand in hand.

A male ally deftly described respect in action:

“Women’s stories can be easy to dismiss as you’re thinking, that’s never happened to me so it wouldn’t happen to anyone else. Or you think the problem’s easy to solve or I wouldn’t tolerate it. It’s important to have empathy for others, to hear another side of the story and to listen to women’s experiences.”

Diversity and Inclusion 2.0: The Next Installment

The second installment in this-three part series on Men, Gender Equality, and Fear: It’s Time for a New Approach will shine the spotlight on characteristics of Diversity & Inclusion 2.0 linked to business assets, partnership, and major organizational challenges.