A major reason there has been so little progress in ending gender inequality is the fact that few men are actively working to end it. In Beyond Bias: The PATH to End Gender Inequality at Work, a new book I wrote with my husband, Alton Harris, we delve into this problem. We conclude that, without more men in the game, half of the team remains on the sidelines — and the often more powerful and better-resourced half at that. So why are so many men AWOL?
The lack of men working to end gender inequality is both surprising and explainable. On the one hand, surprising: A national survey from Equimundo, found that two-thirds of men believe that women face “major barriers” that men don’t in order to advance in their chosen professions, and 60 percent of men support having more women in positions of leadership in their workplaces. A Pew Research survey similarly found that almost half of the men in the United States (49 percent) believe that women and men should have equal rights; 58 percent of these men believe that society has different expectations of women and men; and 55 percent of them believe there are not enough women in positions of leadership and power. These findings are consistent with a recent national survey of 2,000 men conducted by The Coven, a self-described “network of shared workspaces designed for radical changemakers.” The Coven survey found that 68 percent of men think “it is important to address diversity equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) in the workplace.” Among these male supporters of DEIJ, 75 percent take time to educate themselves about DEIJ-related issues on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. And 70 percent have attended DEIJ-related workshops, sessions, or committees.
On the other hand, however, both we and The Coven have found that men who believe in gender equality have serious reservations about actually working to accomplish it. We identify in Beyond Bias five principal reasons for this reluctance and how this reluctance can be overcome:
- Not their fight. Men do not think that gender equality will make their lives better and, as a result, they don’t feel that it is their fight. To change these attitudes, leaders need to shift the focus of DEI initiatives away from the advancement of women to building fair, equal, and inclusive workplace experiences for everyone. By framing the DEI objective as establishing equal and equitable workplaces, it should become readily apparent to men that they have as much to gain from gender equality as women. Therefore, it is their fight too.
- Backlash. Men fear backlash if they actively advocate for gender equality. This fear is driven by negative stereotypes about men who support women’s advancement. The solution is for men to support each other in their DEI efforts and ensure that everyone has detailed information about the serious discriminatory consequences of workplace inequality for everyone. The more knowledge men have about the concrete, adverse consequences of workplace inequality, the more willing they are to ignore backlash.
- Don’t know what to say or do. Men worry that if they get involved in DEI initiatives, they will say or do the wrong thing and be thought of as unenlightened, ignorant, or worse. To make progress, both women and men must be willing to enter into non-defensive, blame-free conversations. Such conversations can be tricky because one side or the other can so easily be misunderstood. If women and men are patient and willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt, such conversations will help bring more men into the fight for gender equality.
- Too busy. Men can feel as if they are too busy to spend time on an effort that doesn’t seem to have a personal payoff for them. Most of these men, however, can come to realize that the time required to play an important part is worthwhile, given the real benefits of successful DEI initiatives.
- Don’t know how to be helpful. Men are often unsure about how, where, and when they should join the fight for gender equality. The Coven focuses on this concern in its study, where it found that many men are confused and anxious about DEI efforts. They don’t know where or how to apply themselves or how they can be helpful. They want to know what actions would be welcomed, and that they will not be criticized if they misspeak or make missteps. They’re looking for “direction and opportunities to participate in a judgement-free zone.” In short, they seek clear, specific instructions about the role they can and should play in DEI efforts.
The first thing men need to do is take steps to ensure that all their colleagues enjoy positive workplace experiences. They must be prepared to step in to prevent exclusionary behavior of all sorts: incivility, rudeness, microaggressions, disregard, dismissal, exclusive networking, assumed superiority or entitlement, harassment, intimidation and bullying. A workplace free of exclusionary behavior is inclusive, welcoming and supportive. It is an environment in which all people can thrive without regard to their social identity or personal characteristics.
The second thing men need to do is ensure that the processes by which personnel management decisions are made are fair, objective and transparent. Structures and practices need to be designed to insulate personnel decisions from the stereotypes and unconscious biases of decision-makers. In other words, subjective discretion must be taken out of personnel decisions.
Finally, men need to be on guard against discriminatory processes in the selection of those who are to be given management training, leadership development opportunities, career-enhancing experiences and complete, honest and action-oriented feedback. For example, men need to mentor women just as frequently as they mentor other men, and they need to give women just as much support and encouragement as they give to other men. This is a critical and often overlooked aspect of workplace inequality, and it is one that men are in a unique position to address.
When men are concerned that they don’t know how to get involved in DEI efforts, they simply need to be reminded of the positive, proactive steps they can take.
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