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Incremental progress toward realizing gender parity in leadership, coupled with men’s widespread fear of harassment accusations spurred by the Me Too movement, together make a compelling case for new thinking and strategies for achieving gender equality in the workplace.

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Part One of Men, Gender Equality, and Fear: It’s Time for a New Approach identified 7 elements that distinguish a new way of tackling perennial gender inequalities at work, highlighting two foundational principles: respectful behavior and a clear understanding of how stereotypes and archetypes differ.

This article, part two of the 3-part series, delves into characteristics of a revised approach that ensure a deep connection to the business and a more effective – and accurate – framing of gender diversity work. 

Gender Parity as a Business Asset

A rash of research studies have documented the business case for gender diversity, correlating greater gender parity with higher levels of innovationlower risk, less volatility in earnings, and higher financial returns in the form of income growth and return on equity, among other metrics. The value of greater diversity comes not only from bringing a broader portfolio of perspectives to the table but also from white men, with more diverse viewpoints, being more willing to share those perspectives.

Instead of resources spent on gender diversity being viewed as a cost, it should be viewed as an investment in retrofitting old ways of doing things. Similar to capital investments in new technology or in space for staff expansion, investment in diversity work enables greater value creation.

A powerful way to approach gender diversity work, one that directly links to enhanced value creation, is to explore how gender norms could be contributing to perennial business problems such as safety issues and ineffective decision making.

  • A major energy company found that on oil rigs, which were nearly all men, a  highly machismo culture dominated that led to problematic, sometimes catastrophic, safety issues. Men did not value the importance of safety protocols and thus did not employ them. The presence of more women engineers on rigs helped to change the culture in ways the put safety front and center.
  • For a global pharmaceutical company, the transition from zero to three women board members changed the dynamics of how the group operated. While the men  were more inclined to listen to a proposed change and subsequently vote –    thumbs up or down – the women asked many more questions before moving to the decision phase. Adding women to the board fueled not only more thoughtful  dialogue but also more robust consideration of important issues brought to the board’s attention.        

Powerful forces such as technology and globalization have profoundly sped up the pace of work leading to stress, burnout and an inability to focus. A huge barrier to finding more effective and healthier ways of working is a hero mentality – deeply embedded in masculine ideology – that equates commitment with rising up no matter the cost. While that approach may be necessary in special situations, as the day-to-day work practice that it’s become in many organizations, it is unsustainable and ineffective.

This hero mentality devalues good planning and boundary setting, facilitates a crisis culture, encourages tunnel vision, and inhibits exploration of sustainable work practices. Greater gender parity, coupled with recognizing and valuing the wisdom that working mothers (or caretakers of any gender) bring to integrating work and caretaking, would facilitate new solutions and ameliorate business problems linked to perpetual overwork such as rising health care costs and work quality issues.     

A Partnership Mentality: Instead of framing gender equality as benefitting women, the way in which it’s typically communicated, a far more accurate angle is to discuss gender equality as loosening the grips of societally-dictated gender norms for all. This enables women and men greater flexibility and more choice around their work, caregiving and life decisions.

The famous women’s rights leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton aptly said, “And when women and men think, the first step in progress is taken.”

While visiting a client site to launch a women’s network or to facilitate a task force of women leaders, inevitably a man not participating in the session would ask, “What are you ladies doing in there?” or joke, “They’re plotting a takeover.” The men were clearly curious, and concerned!

Several male allies have shared stories of reaching out to join a women’s network or indicating their desire to help, and being met with suspicion and quizzical looks from women network leaders.

Women network leaders and members may be understandably wary that men’s involvement could dilute their efforts. They fear men will seek to dominate – a key gender challenge for women in many work cultures – rather than to work alongside their women colleagues, together seeking to drive change. Male allies agree that a cardinal mistake some men make when first becoming involved in gender diversity work is behaving as though they’re riding in on a white horse to save the day. This approach communicates arrogance and is the antithesis of partnership behavior. 

Partnerships are characterized by mutual learning and by working together toward a shared goal. Gender competence is a skill that benefits not only men but also women. While women tend toward feeling undervalued and underutilized in the workplace, men are far more likely to feel misunderstood and unappreciated as fathers and husbands. Men who seek to support gender parity by working with women to drive change can set a positive tone by recognizing women’s efforts – over a very long time – to combat gender-related challenges in the workforce.

Women can help engage men in gender diversity work by allowing men to feel confused, not just about understanding harassment, but also about the broader changing dynamics in the workplace and the home. Too often women roll their eyes – literally or figuratively – when a man says or does something that demonstrates he’s not tuned in to the gender diversity conversation.

While it can feel exasperating for women (who know the struggles all too well), assuming positive intent and providing space for men to share authentically, to make mistakes and learn, and to clarify their understanding of gender challenges in the workplace, goes a long way toward creating a partnership that can endure. Furthermore, men also confront gender challenges yet have little – if any – avenue for feeling heard. 

Focus on Big Organizational Challenges:  We have become so accustomed to seeing the opposite gender in the other corner of the boxing ring, that too often we lose sight of what we are rallying against – systems, structures, and practices that need to be adapted for the reality of the 21st century workforce.

This approach supports women and men seeing themselves as being on the same team (not as adversaries), facilitates gender partnerships that are oriented toward problem solving, and results in organizational changes that benefit the business and the workforce simultaneously. Diversity evolves from being an HR initiative to being a helpful way to assess business challenges and generate more effective solutions.

Women’s voices often function like a canary in the coal mine, bringing attention to issues that have far reaching affects, and negatively influence men as well as women. Take for instance the perennial issue of work-life integration.

Women continue to be far more likely than men to be asked about how they combine their professional and caregiving responsibilities – yet men’s reporting of personal work-life conflict has surpassed women’s in recent years. Are men not caregivers’ as well? Are men’s roles as fathers less important than women’s as mothers? Are men not also struggling to be active parents while coping with rising workloads?

Instead of devolving into the adversarial stance of men vs. women or couching gender diversity efforts as helping women (when research indicates so many ways in which gender equality benefits men including higher marital satisfaction and enhanced well- being among others), a far more productive approach is exploring the connections between gender norms (think archetype not stereotype) and major organizational challenges. Focus on organizational problems such as stemming the rise of healthcare costs through efforts to reduce employees stress or strengthening client relationships through efforts to reduce disruptive turnover. 

Diversity and Inclusion 2.0: The Third (and Last) Installment

Stay tuned for the third and last installment of this 3-part series on Men, Gender Equality, and Fear: It’s Time for a New Approach which shines a spotlight on the elements of Diversity & Inclusion 2.0 that promote change.