In an interview Meryl Streep was asked why the story of the suffragettes hadn't been made into a film before now. She said that in Hollywood the men with the power to make films didn't see this subject as anything to do with them. 'It wasn't their fight,' said Streep. In 2014 Emma Watson made the same case at the launch of the UN "HeForShe" campaign: 'Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend you a formal invitation,' she said. 'Gender equality is your issue, too.'
The need to improve gender balance in the workplace has long been topical, with strong arguments showing the enormous benefits by achieving this. It's not surprising that research shows over 75% of UK businesses believe that gender diversity should be a strategic imperative. But whose responsibility is it to translate this "imperative" into something sustainable and real?
What Watson was highlighting is the fact that many consider this to be an issue solely for women. All too often CEOs choose to delegate responsibility for this to their HR departments or to special committees. There are no shortage of organisations with initiatives geared towards women: women's networks, mentoring programmes, development programmes... the list goes on. But the focus is often on ticking the diversity box rather than the more challenging issue of inclusion - do our female employees feel included and engaged? How many female leaders do we have? How many empowered decision-makers? How many women are serving as role models for the rest of the organisation?
Men often feel alienated by the gender diversity debate and may find it hard to know where to start. So how can companies move beyond declarations of intent to substantive engagement?
A sensible starting point is to look at recruitment and promotion practices, to ensure selection decisions are based on merit. Systemic discrimination is all too frequently present in recruitment and promotion practices due to historical reasons. However, whilst representation is one aspect of the diversity puzzle, it's not enough just to "add women" to solve the issue. Unless you have a culture that is inclusive it doesn't matter how many women you employ.
Straight from the top
If it's not already there, put this on the agenda as a key organisational imperative. The change in approach needs to come from the top - organisational change happens when the CEO takes personal responsibility for a strategic objective and sets clear targets. The only way to truly empower women at work is to give them the chance to sit at the table where important decisions are made. There are already many initiatives here in the UK to increase female representation on boards, and the men who sit on these boards should be continually educated as to the benefits of a more diverse boardroom.
To combat this problem companies need to be willing to require their leaders to undergo specific training on how to overcome unconscious gender bias in the workplace, allow them to step back and recognise this sort of behaviour and then hold those individuals accountable. Until the impact of this unconscious behaviour is recognised, the pace of change will remain "glacial."
Women often seek out other women as mentors. But research shows that women who also have male mentors get more promotions and make more money than those who have only female advisors. If you are a male in a senior position, you could sponsor or mentor a female employee so that they can make the right connections and increase their visibility throughout the business. Let's not forget the inverse too - women can be superb mentors for men, often providing a different approach and perspective.
The way we work has changed dramatically over the last 10 years and the advancement of technology means it will continue to evolve. A business might have employees who are part of the same team but are based in different offices, or who work from home full-time. In order to advance gender equality in the workplace, flexible work arrangements must be available to, and actively supported for, both genders.
Be an ally
Whatever your role or level you should feel empowered to call out injustices that don't impact you directly and take the time to notice what may be happening systemically in your organisation. If you notice an injustice, act.
There is a powerful impetus for engaging men in the workplace on gender equality. They are part of the solution, alongside women. Many attitudes and behaviours, on both sides, will need to change in order for gender equality to be achieved. These steps can be big or small, and you don't have to be a manager to tackle inequality at work by changing company cultures, shattering glass ceilings and challenging the status quo.