The Blog

Women Leaders: For Workplace Equality, Engage the Men

Why should men wish to discuss 'women's issues'? Because they are now everybody's issues. Today, the main workplace debate is often about 'work-life' and family, and these have no gender bias.

Somewhere online men are talking about workplace equality. Not snidely or resentfully, but by story-telling and sharing advice in the same way as women do in their networks. Catalyst, the women's advocacy group, has set up a website to allow this to happen. Participants are 70 per cent male, though women aren't barred, and the age range is surprisingly diverse.

Why should men wish to discuss 'women's issues'? Because they are now everybody's issues.

Today, the main workplace debate is often about 'work-life' and family, and these have no gender bias. At a recent gathering of senior businesswomen, one of the main topics of discussion focused on how to engage men in both parental responsibilities and in the promotion of more flexible workplace arrangements. Men need to be part of this conversation.

Our values and workplace expectations are changing. Both men and women now see work-life balance as a more important measure of career success than money, recognition or autonomy, according to at least one study.

The old "male definition of success, money and power" has proven hollow, says Arianna Huffington's 'third metric' post: "Its not working for men, and it's not working for women. It's not working for anyone. So what we need is a more humane and sustainable definition of success that includes well-being, wisdom, wonder, empathy, and the ability to give back."

There is a systemic issue yet to be tackled: men are often overworked and need to 'break out', while women can't get in. The economic argument for greater workplace equality and women on boards has been won. But the labour force remains unequal, and in the real world, flexible policies are often trumped by a culture that rewards presenteeism. Parental leave may be acceptable for women, but it's often frowned upon for men.

Calling all conscious leaders

So we need leaders who genuinely espouse inclusiveness at work -- open-minded men and women who are unafraid to defy masculine stereotypes and can collaborate with diverse stakeholders to solve problems.

These are 'conscious leaders', who develop their own presence and do it lightly, being neither too aggressive nor too quiet.

Such leaders also foster conscious organisational cultures and lead by example, are very clear on their values and are therefore very 'real'.

We also need the 'converted' men to act as role models for less aware peers - inclusiveness does not happen naturally, and it doesn't always come from the top. Often, the higher men climb on the corporate ladder, the less they understand work-life balance.

Bringing about change

Some of the change will be systemic - creating '21st century fit' organisations. But if leaders aren't open-minded or committed to flexible work, the changes won't go deep enough.

We need processes that run through the organisation, then the appetite to enable them. The two have to run in parallel - with women stepping up and men stepping towards.

In practical terms, if you have workplace networks for women, consider opening them up to men. Coaching may also help iron out misinterpretations: day-to-day problems often arise when different work styles clash. For example, a woman may feel cowed in predominantly male meetings, while her male peers may wonder why she doesn't speak up.

Men don't want to be seen as part of the problem, but some may be inhibited by peer pressure, saying the wrong thing, or ignorance (the zero-sum attitude). So it's important to celebrate those men who are already aware, and to create opportunities for others to discuss their take on workplace equality without being pilloried or ridiculed.

What's in it for the business?

Just as when I began talking to organisations about sustainability, it's about making the business case - this is a talent issue that will only intensify as we climb out of recession.

Greater complexity calls for more inclusive boards, whose members mirror the diversity of their stakeholders. It also speaks to a sense of fair play that women and men share.