Lose the fear boys

by 10 Jun 2008

Diversity continues to emerge as a key differentiator between a progressive and successful organisation and one that is lagging behind – and it is men who are at the forefront of leading the change.

At the recent international Catalyst conference in New York it was found that progressive and forward-thinking men who are not afraid to stand their ground and advocate gender equality are key to women’s advancement in the workplace.

The conference, which attracted gender equity experts from around the world, found that it is in men’s interest to develop women and promote them in the workplace and that only through championing such men will organisations excel.

One thought-provoking panel discussion was the topic of “including men in gender equity: techniques for successfully engaging men as diversity and inclusion champions”.

The topic explored how it is in men’s best interests to advocate for women’s advancement in the workplace. According to conference delegate Maureen Frank, principal consultant to the Diversity Council of Australia and founder of diversity consultants Emberin, it is men who can play a pivotal role in the advancement of women in Australian workplaces.

She said the discussion was relevant to some of her work with leading Australian corporations such as Telstra, the Commonwealth Bank and PriceWaterhouseCoopers and that she and many others at the conference realised how much their corporate success was based on the support of some amazing men.

“Although I still believe workplace diversity is a critical issue and that women generally need help to build their confidence levels; I have now realised [that] a big part of the formula is to understand the essence of men who are ‘champions’,” she said.

“The people who knew my business, who pushed me, who challenged me and who believed in the way I did business – all were men,” she said.

The Catalyst conference found that supporting these men and getting them to spread the word was essential to women’s advancement. Although trends such as increasing globalisation and fierce competition for talent have led to many firms realising their future success depends on their ability to leverage women’s talents as well as men’s, the conference brought attention to organisations failing to engage men as a critical constituency.

According to Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University, men have come out in the workplaces as fathers, just as women have as mothers.

“Men don’t think diversity is about them,” added Michael Whelp, a consultant in the field.

Both panellists described deep-seated male tendencies – such as the fear of being perceived as “less masculine” if they adopt a nurturing role – as barriers to what they believe are the last frontier for moving gender equality forward.

Frank said the work to break these barriers down so men could commit to gender equity initiatives and help women advance their careers was now beginning in earnest.

“We have to make it safe for men – we have to invite them into the fold,” said Frank. “We have to realise that it’s ok if they make mistakes as long as we know they have our best interests at heart – otherwise how will each of us learn?

“What I have found in many organisations is that the business case for gender diversity is not publicised and not made clear. It makes a very big difference when all stakeholders understand all of the facts,” she said.

“Fundamentally, I believe the rules of masculinity are such that it is men who have to teach other men about this. Yes, we can play a role, we can include, we can share, we can educate – but we need to empower a man to want to teach the next man,” Frank said.