Men of action needed for gender equality

Su-Mei Thompson says men who do support gender equality can do a better job of promoting it - both at work and at home. Here's how

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 July, 2013, 3:35am

When Warren Buffett issued a rallying call recently for men to champion the advancement of women, the world took note. Exhorting fellow men to get on board, he said the prospect of unleashing the talent of 100 per cent of America's human capacity made him an unbridled optimist about the nation's future.

Prominent leaders around the world have also been championing the cause. In Hong Kong, the 30 Per Cent Club of mostly male business leaders in support of bringing more women onto corporate boards has signed up 50 prominent members since the initiative was launched in March.

It seems that the gap between Mars and Venus may be narrowing and men are emerging as the new feminists. But what exactly does a male champion need to do to drive change within his organisation?

Here are some suggestions based on research by The Women's Foundation.

First, don't assume everyone gets it. Male champions need to be able to "sell" the cause of gender equality. There are a lot of progressive and sympathetic men who are quiet supporters of increased gender equality but don't want to speak up. They must. It helps to have relevant data at their fingertips - for example, the extent to which women are under-represented in a particular sector. This will help "sell" the idea to naysayers.

Secondly, companies need to shift their focus to changing the men, not fixing the women. The real obstacle to the advancement of women in most companies is not the women - it's the existing leadership mindset, culture and styles. Male managers need to realise that the environment they think of as a meritocracy may not be quite so equitable, and should be encouraged to seek feedback from their teams about their management style and whether this is inadvertently preventing or discouraging female colleagues and subordinates from speaking up or advancing their careers.

Third, while a lot is being written about unconscious biases, which undoubtedly exist, emphasising this aspect seems unduly negative. Much better to be like Buffet and position gender balance as one of the century's most obvious business opportunities - it's not just the women, but everyone wins because greater gender balance has been proved to improve the organisational culture, performance and the bottom line.

Fourth, companies need to spend time and money building skills among their leaders and managers - male and female - to ensure they are adept at managing and celebrating the differences women and men bring to the table.

Last but not least: Sheryl Sandberg is famous for exhorting women to make their partner a real partner, and women do need to get better at motivating and encouraging their partners to do their share of the childcare and housework. If nothing else, there is a substantial body of research indicating that active fathering makes for happier and brighter children. In results-oriented Hong Kong, that fact alone should persuade men to shoulder their fair share - or at least a greater share - of the childcare responsibilities.

Su-Mei Thompson is CEO of The Women's Foundation. This article is part of a monthly series on women and gender issues, developed in collaboration with the foundation


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