Gender at Work Is Not a Women’s Issue

Is gender a women’s issue? Many women still seem to think so. Which is why many men think so too.

At a huge tech conference last month, I was invited to give a speech on “Women in Tech.” Given this (typical) label, it attracted a majority of women. I assumed that the men attending would be a fairly progressive subset, and there to learn something about how to get a bit more balance in their male-dominated sector. So I was taken aback to hear the aggressive tone with which some of the women addressed their colleagues: “What are you doing here?” “This isn’t for you.” “This is the only place at this conference for women.”

Too many women still think that gender balance is a battle between the sexes. A typical narrative is the one offered by Suffragette, a powerful movie opening this month in the US after a successful UK launch. It is a moving portrait of the women who fought for suffrage 100 years ago. It is also a damning portrait of the men in their lives. The women are courageous, hard done by, and united. The men are weak, duplicitous, and sometimes cruel. In the end, women finally get the vote in 1918 Britain. What the film doesn’t mention is that so do a vast swath of men, at least those that didn’t die in the mud of WWI without ever having voted.  Nowhere does the movie make the point that it was an all-male parliament that voted women’s suffrage in. If we continually ignore or misjudge the men on our side, we sap our own strength.

The reality is that, all over the world, gender balance isn’t a battle between men and women. It’s a battle between progressives and the rest. This is best understood in countries where the modern world is seen as a threat (Middle East, recent Turkey). Men there know — better than most — that gender equality is the dividing line between modernity and its deniers. They know what they too will lose if women lose their rights. In the West, the most powerful leaders on gender are usually innovators; those most potently pushing other 21st century agendas: from sustainability and globalization to governance and deep democracy.

The (mostly male) leadership teams I work with are working to adapt their businesses to the times. Most are genuinely committed to gender rebalancing as part of this package — if not always skilled at leading it. Yet they are receiving a lot of mixed messages. They are often told — by women — that gender is a women’s issue. Women are asking them to create women’s networks, empower women, and run women’s conferences. The head of the US operation of a global company was incredulous when I suggested this wasn’t the most effective way forward. “But that’s what the women in my organization are demanding I do,” he exclaimed, totally perplexed.

The tide is starting to turn. Millennials, like Emma Watson, are correctly trying to reframe gender balance as an issue that unites men and women, rather than driving them apart. And they are increasingly skeptical of the one-sided waythat the subject is still being handled in too many companies.

Boomer women, who have seen the issue play out over their careers, are joining them. In the US, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s new book Unfinished Business argues that both men and women need to drop deeply entrenched stereotypes and that companies need to adapt to more flexible, performance-enhancing ways of working for everyone. In the UK, Peninah Thomson, who is CEO of the Mentoring Foundation has just published The Rise of the Female Executive: How Women’s Leadership is Accelerating Cultural Change. In it, she quotes Lord Davies (who led the push for voluntary quotas on UK Boards) saying, “discussions of Venus and Mars are now generational. The new generation Y/Z is omni-channel. CEOs of today’s businesses need to get it, or they won’t be around in 20 years… Culture’s critical.”

This isn’t just about “engaging men,” or having them as “champions” or “sponsors” of a variety of women’s initiatives. That still puts them in some “other” category of supporters, rather then as directly accountable for the change. It’s about reframing gender balance as a business imperative. A push that unites progressive, future-oriented leaders in a common cause: the performance and sustainability of their businesses. Or, as the leader of one consumer goods business told his team this week, “This is a no-brainer. It connects us with half our customers, makes us more attractive to top talent, and produces higher-performing teams. Is there someone in the room that doesn’t speak to?”

So if you are serious about gender balance, gender-neutralize your efforts. Here is a short audit to see if you’ve got it:

  1. Are leaders accountable for the gender balance of their talent — and customers?
  2. Have you switched from maternity leave to parental leave?
  3. Do you need women running women’s networks, or a balance network for everyone?

The underlying question for everything you choose to do is simple: does it bring men and women together, or artificially push them apart? That’s where leadership is most needed today.

 

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