Engaging Men in Gender Equality: As Activists, Not Just Allies

International Women’s Day 2019 was an incredibly inspiring occasion and many organisations celebrated through the whole week! I gave three presentations about the importance of gender balance during the week: at Cisco Women of Impact event in Madrid, at the BMO IWD event in London and at Mercer’s client seminar in London on “Can you Thrive without Diversity?” Then on the 8th March, I participated in Mercer’s fun and interesting “Tweet Chat” on the key ways to drive “Balance for Better”. 

We had a great turnout at each event, including a number of men and it was really encouraging to see the keen interest in this topic. However it is clear that many men are still unsure about whether and how to get involved in “Women’s Day” events.

Rob Baker, Co-President PWN Global, Senior Partner MercerPreparing for these events made me reflect on the need for faster progress towards gender equality and encouraged me to write this piece about why the need for change has never been more urgent and why more men need to become not just 'allies', but 'activists' for gender balance!

Most organisations, and particularly businesses, have an imperative to innovate and grow if they are to thrive in an increasingly competitive world. Today, even the most seemingly enduring business models face disruption and challenge. Customer needs are changing rapidly and whole industries are being upended by automation, technology shifts and new business models based on the sharing economy. The competition for the brightest and best talent is increasingly intense, and we now have multiple generations in the workforce, with differing needs and values. In this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment, the skills and competencies our leaders need are changing dramatically.

When we look at the leadership structures that have dominated our businesses until now, we see that many of the required skills, competencies and working practices have been those that favour men. Not surprisingly, some 80% of senior leadership positions globally are held by men and the prevailing cultures in many of these organisations are similarly male dominated. However, to meet the challenges of innovation and growth, businesses need fresh perspectives and different ways of thinking and working. What delivered success in the "command and control" approach of yesterday is no longer effective in today's – and tomorrow's leaner – faster-moving and flatter organisations.

The work we at Mercer have been doing with businesses around innovation and growth has convinced me that we need a much more balanced approach to leadership: one where more of our future leaders are women. In order to achieve this, organisations need to embrace a culture and working practices that enable their women to thrive.

But it's not only women that want to see a wider range of leadership competencies, and more flexible and balanced working practices: many men coming into the workforce are looking for this too. They want more flexibly in order to be able to prioritise their career and family commitments. With a better balance between these key elements of our lives, employees and their leaders will be happier and more productive, and the organisations they work in will perform more strongly too!

So given that the majority of leaders in an organisation are men and that these men can play a major role in driving change that is good for women and men, it is vital to engage men in the drive for gender balance.

It is with this background that some six years ago, I was invited to join the Board of the leading women's network, PWN Global, with the mission to engage men, particularly male leaders, to support balanced leadership. My starting point was to develop the business case for this change and then to promote this with the leaders in the businesses and organisations I worked with. Initially I sought men who "got" the business and societal case for gender balance and who could be called "Allies". I was particularly looking to recruit male leaders who could have a significant impact on their organisation by expressing their support for gender balance and by leading their organisation through the change necessary to achieve faster progress to gender parity. My work has resulted in a significant number of men (especially male leaders) now being involved in PWN and being active in promoting gender balance in their own organisations. 

However it is clear that, while there are many men who are possibly supportive of gender balance, they do not actually get involved – partly because they are not sufficiently aware of the issues, or feel they do not have the expertise or “legitimacy” to speak up. A further barrier is that many men are unsure of what they can or should do to make a difference.

I had an opportunity to explore these issues within Mercer when the UK CEO asked me to lead an effort within our company in the UK to engage men in supporting the work we were doing to advance women and create more gender balance throughout the firm. That led to our "Men Matter" initiative, through which I reached out to men who I had identified as potential supporters. It was particularly interesting to hold a workshop with 60 men who volunteered to attend to discuss men’s perspectives on gender balance.

Many of these men were keen to be more open about wanting work / life balance through working more flexibly and taking sufficient paternity leave on the birth of their children. However they all agreed that they felt that it was culturally difficult for men to raise these needs and desires without being seen as less serious about their careers.

We agreed at that meeting that changing the conversation was critical: it had to be “safe” for men to discuss family and home issues openly in the workplace and to be open about their desire to have more balance in their lives. As a result of the workshop, a number of these men made specific commitments to take action to promote gender balance within their teams and throughout the company: in other words they moved from being allies to being activists.

This experience highlighted the key aspects of encouraging men to move from being allies to activists:

  1. Importance of the Issue: Discuss and agree the business case for change and highlight the importance of mens’ engagement in the change.
  2. Data: Show the data on the current situation e.g. on female representation in the organisation and the goal or targets for improving on it.
  3. Voice of Women: Men benefit from hearing and understanding women’s perspectives on their current challenges in the workplace and what they are looking for in terms of support from men. For the Mercer workshop, I had a video made of women working at Mercer speaking about these issues: it was very powerful and insightful for the men in the room.
  4. Possible Actions: Outline and discuss potential actions that men can consider and discuss what support they might need from the organisation and each other to make this happen.
  5. Personal Commitment and Accountability: Change won’t happen unless men take action, so there is a need for men to make a personal commitment and follow through.

I am encouraged that there are many men who are supporters or potential supporters of gender balance and who are just looking for guidance on how they can get involved to take action. In my own case, I know what a powerful personal development journey this can be and I encourage every man to become not only an ally for gender balance, but to move to being an activist. We need to pick up the pace of change and it is high time more men stepped up and took on this challenge to help create a more balanced and better world for us all.


Date: April 2019
Author: Robert Baker, Senior Partner, Mercer and Co-President PWN Global



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