So at the UN Emma Watson asked men to support female equality efforts and internet trolls threatened to leak nude photos of her on the internet. Clearly some men have a problem with being asked to help? Luckily the trolls seem to have strengthened the campaign. And the Guardian has reported a University of Colorado-Boulder study suggesting that white men who support equality efforts are more likely to be seen as high performers than their female or BME colleagues? Could it really benefit men to stand up for female equality?
I am a self-confessed Oxbridge educated, middle-aged, middle class, heterosexual, white male. For the last decade I have been heavily involved in spreading the D&I agenda – working for global firms in 20 or so countries.
1. Early influences are critical
I well recall my first gender based intellectual discussion. I was five or six and my mother was uncompromising; it was not a question of equality, women were quite simply superior. And what I saw backed that up; she was clearly in control of things at home, she had what I came to recognise later as work-life balance and emotional intelligence, she loved her job in a way that my father simply didn’t. In addition, of course, I had an inspirational female teacher and two wise grandmothers. I saw little of my (working) grandfathers.
Of course, none of this passed through my conscious brain. But in later life I often ascribe many positive attributes including deft thinking, ability to work smartly, reading complex social situations and putting people at their ease to the female gender. While I am really struggling to think of anything positive that I think of as being a function of being a man. I’m still thinking! Sporting trivia doesn’t count.
2. Women’s equality hasn’t always wanted my help
As an early, albeit subconscious, adopter I was a little disconcerted that 1980s feminism (or at least that bit of the movement that I encountered) eschewed my attempts to support the movement. In the movement’s defence, I didn’t try that hard and I probably looked like someone with little to offer. But we have subsequently learnt how dangerous it can be to make decisions based on stereotypical assumptions. At the time I remember thinking ‘surely if everyone who cared pulled together, it would be better.’ But I got that I didn’t understand how it felt to be a woman.
3. Early movers in the D&I space were even sniffier
Getting into the club of D&I facilitators was even trickier. In 2004 one of my clients paid a large amount of money for a ‘diversity professional’ to travel from the US to the UK to spend three days accrediting me to facilitate their program. She was later described to me by the wonderful man who became my inclusion mentor as someone who saw negative intent in every interaction she had with non-members of one of her trinity of minority statuses (stati?)
Whatever the reason, our interaction was spectacularly poor. I was sceptical that the material would engage the audience my client had bought it for. She was more than sceptical about my aptitude for the role of facilitator. Just as you apparently had to be a woman to be a feminist, you had to have suffered oppression to facilitate discussions about including people whatever their background.
4. When I got in, people said I did quite a good job
I don’t really know why that might be. This, of course was before the majority of business leaders understood that diverse teams improved the bottom line, when we were an ideology without a clear business case. People always talked about my passion for the subject, my enthusiasm. They sometimes mentioned that I was ‘not preachy.’ Of course, I can be preachy, but I have this sense that a big part of my success is that when I tell people that they ought to think about this stuff, it doesn’t sound like hectoring, it’s not threatening and there are fewer defensive reactions. Because I am apparently in-group.
5. Many of the women I speak to do need help
Nowadays I often talk to women about ‘everyday sexism in the workplace’. Their reactions are instructive. Much, of course, depends on the context in which we are talking and on how safe they feel. Often that is directly about how strong their individual manager is. Many of those women deny that there is a problem, often focussing on the intent of the miscreants rather than the impact sexism may have on women. ‘They don’t mean to do it.’ So that’s all right then? Those who do accept there is a problem downplay its severity and/or are at a loss to suggest what can be done about it. It’s when they say something that sounds like, ‘that’s what men are like isn’t it’ that I want to start shouting. ‘No it’s not.’ It’s not what I’m like or what the vast majority of men I know are like.
But if we are going to show people that, we need to take a stand, to support Emma in her campaign, to question our colleagues, to start discussions about this stuff.
6. It absolutely is our problem
Thanks to my friend Huw who over lunch yesterday gave me the line. He said he always starts his talks on discrimination with the line ‘If you want to know about discrimination, you want to listen to a middle aged, white bloke. It starts with us.’ It so does. It’s our problem. It’s a product of our (often unconscious) minds. We started it and we can stop it because at least in the workplaces I work, we run the show and we can influence our brothers to bring an end to the everyday sexism that stopping our organisations being as good, as profitable, as creative, as effective as they could be.
Go on, question some sexism today!