It’s International Women’s Day on 8 March, but realistically gender diversity is not only about women and men are more than just a topic of conversation.
Some boardrooms are actively committed to gender equality while others are still finding their position. The barriers to engagement are attributed to the fear of men losing power and privilege or of being regarded as part of the problem, to lacking concern – a sense that gender issues are overstated and the business case is neither understood nor accepted.
Either way, in complying with ASX Corporate Governance Council diversity guidelines, executives (male and female) have to take ownership of incorporating the precepts of inclusion into core business practices and objectives.
In challenging the unwritten rules for the advancement of diverse talent, male directors, CEOs and executives are in a good position to lead by example encouraging change through persuasion.
They can be public advocates, share their experiences and strategies, be generous sponsors or mentors, refer qualified women, address systemic barriers, invest in new ways of working, set and audit measurable targets, integrate gender equality into their operations, lobby for affordable, accessible childcare; and hold themselves and others accountable.
For some men, taking the lead on women’s representation draws on a set of new competencies. Difference, to be fully understood, needs to be known. The workplace experience of their female relatives, particularly daughters, is only partially edifying. Many successful male executives have not knowingly encountered discrimination at a personal level.
Men listen to other men. Unpacking the many issues in creating inclusive cultures is a start. Providing judgment-free opportunities to discuss gender leadership, including with those men who champion women, may reduce concerns about making mistakes or being deemed sexist.
Female mentors can also be insightful advisors. Many senior women would willingly engage in peer-to-peer mentoring with male colleagues to learn from each other and share perspectives on the two-gender economy.
When asked what keeps men from supporting gender initiatives, a study by Catalyst pointed to a zero-sum mentality – a belief that gains for women necessarily mean losses for men. Organisations moving from this win or lose mindset to one of mutual benefit can create greater advocacy.
To differentiate is innate and each of us has biases. Catalyst went on to find that men who were committed to fairness had personal concerns about inequality; their awareness of gender bias was heightened and they became more likely to take corrective actions.
Stereotypes and gender imprinting engulf definitions of success, merit, advancement, commitment, role value and work ethic. This typecasting also works against men – as managers and fathers – limiting their choices. Navigation around these norms is rarely easy. It may be that this is the issue where women’s representation and men’s ‘liberation’ are aligned.
What’s in it for men when practices are gender neutral? They gain personal benefits such as freedom to be themselves or redefine their career, participate in new or more flexible ways of working, access expanded networks or opportunities, have shared financial and family responsibilities. They also create a better future for their daughters and sons.
Concerned boards and executive committees recognise that everyone benefits when men and women are partners in designing an actionable business case for gender-inclusive workplaces that is delivered.
Dianne Jacobs is founding principal of boutique talent capital consulting and executive coaching firm, The Talent Advisors, and a former partner at Goldman Sachs JBWere. She tweets on leadership via @talentadvisors.