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Why we need to engage more men in the gender agenda and where to start

Last week I attended the Women on Boards Gender Matters conference with a group of sphinxx members and while there’s more coming on the educational outcomes in a subsequent post, the biggest a-ha moment for me was that this gender agenda is on a fast track to no where if we can’t get more men engaged in the conversation.

Around 200 delegates attended the conference in Sydney and from my seat during the first session I countedonly 3 men in eyeshot.  There may have been a few more about the place, but there clearly wasn’t enough to have a balanced conversation.

With the business case for gender diversity firmly established now, I wonder why more businessmen didn’t make the time to come along to what is widely regarded as a key fixture on the gender balance calendar, to join in the discussion and take away some learnings for implementation.

My guess is there’s a host of reasons why more men weren’t in the room, with a key issue being a prevailing perception that the advancement of women must come at the expense of men.  This is something that the business community as a whole needs to address if we are to make progress in advancing women to leadership roles, into executive ranks and onto boards.  And its something for conference and event organizers to consider in planning their delegate mix and marketing activities, lest all their good work be written off as just more “secret women’s business”.

We already know of course that at key executive ranks we are preaching to the converted. I see complete agreement among the mostly-male leadership teams I work with that they need and want more women in leadership.  But from the top down this level of support wanes, with fewer men than women seeing gender balance as a strategic priority driven at least in part by self preservation and fear as well as an ignorance of the issues and experiences of women as they progress through the ranks or drop off the ranks altogether.

At this point I should say that its not just men who hold this view.  This feedback from this female reader – who I’ll refer to simply as “A” – to my blog about women-less boards illustrates that some women too are fearful of the change:

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I am really sickened reading this ant-male website. You really have a much inflated view of yourselves as women. I think the list of all-male boards is a good idea – it shows women are not required to run successful companies. Have you ever thought all-male run companies can do a much better job than having females on the board? Are you that that sexist and anti-male? In my view, you just want to vilify men as a group and are no better than the communists, nazis and fascists that existed last century. For me, I’m happy my man provides for me and am enjoying far better lifestyle than you. I certainly dont want my man being replaced by a woman or report to a woman. How about starting being women rather than trying to be men?

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OK so I realise there’s some fairly emotional language here that’s probably not very helpful but it goes to the point that there are plenty of men and women too who really don’t want to see any challenge to the status quo. For now, anyway.

In advancing women to leadership roles, it’s our job to convince them otherwise.  Which means we have a fairly significant engagement piece that we need to get right: with the men who fear the impact on their earning potential; with the women who fear the expectations gender balance may create for them; and for the women themselves who will be stepping up through the ranks.

It seems to me this will be eminently more achievable if we’re able to bring the genders together for the dialogue rather than engaging in separate conversations.

Your thoughts on the issue?


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