Engaging Male Colleagues to Build a More Gender-Balanced Workforce

Tuesday 30th March 2021

In March, we celebrated International Women’s Day all month long by spotlighting some of the extraordinary women change makers in our network — from female fintech founders to women’s market managers to CEOs. In quick ten-minute chats, we went deep into when they became aware of gender inequality, the challenges they’ve faced as women building their careers and how they overcame them. These conversations were both engaging and powerful, and we highly recommend watching a few (or all eighteen), which are viewable on our IGTV channel.

While we anticipated some of the themes that emerged from these conversations, there was one that surprised us: Men.

Almost all of the change makers we spoke with mentioned certain men in their lives who helped them overcome challenges they’ve faced. Whether it’s the partner who took on childcare responsibilities or a mentor who helped pave a new path to the top, men play an important role in supporting women on their journey to developing self-actualized career and home lives (a quest for which we need all the help we can get).

If male partners and colleagues play such a key role in championing gender equity in individual households, is the same true for large organizations? Simply put, the answer is yes. There’s an emerging consensus that — while they serve important purposes such as creating space for mutual support and network-building — exclusively women-led initiatives can fail to break down barriers to inclusion by inadvertently marginalizing women within the organization. And, that engaging men is critical to moving the needle on gender equality at companies.

But there’s no consensus yet on how to bring more of our male colleagues into the efforts to build gender-equal workplaces, which have thus far been led primarily by women (as exemplified by the participant gender ratios at most of our events).

Through our work at the Alliance, we know that there are many men who actively push for gender equality inside and outside of their organizations. We’ve seen the impact of CEOs like Steven Puig at BHD León and Selim R. F. Hussain at BRAC Bank, who are true gender equality champions. Their activism is crucial to developing the business case for gender balance.

The question is: How do we get more men to take up this work? According to Robert Baker, former head of D&I at Mercer and collaborator on our current working group on the How-to In Action: The Future of Work, engaging men on gender equality issues is a process — and it may not work for everyone.

“There are some men who get it, some who might get it and some who will never get it because they don’t want to,” Baker told us. “For those men who might get it, the first step is to make them aware of women’s experiences. In the groups of men that I’ve worked with, once they became aware of challenges that women in their workplace face, men — especially those who are naturally interested in justice and fairness — want to do something. They might not see a clear way to help. They’ll ask ‘So, what can I do?’ This is when we have to take the step to engage them by inviting them to take part in groups, events and conversations so that they can take action. It’s important not to frame it as just as a women’s issue.”

Recent research around how to engage men has focused on the efficacy of awareness-building programs like unconscious bias trainings to shift men’s attitudes and behaviors. Indeed, we have seen the measurable impact that culture-change initiatives have had on Alliance members, including HBL in Pakistan, where gender-intelligence trainings boosted both D&I and business results (as highlighted in our recently published case study on the bank’s D&I journey).

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, a global authority on gender balance in the workforce and the home and CEO of 20-first consulting, who joined us as a guest speaker at the latest Working Group session on the How-to in Action, has called for rethinking traditional diversity efforts — particularly those that engage men as “allies” or “champions.” Avivah believes that using titles like these makes gender balance the exception; the goal is to make it the norm. Instead, she recommends making workplace gender equality a business issue (in the same way we think about targeting the women’s market) and measuring leaders’ ability to build balanced teams as a management skill. “Stop fixing women. We’re beyond that now. This is more about change management, building cultures and reviewing the processes to reflect a more balanced world,” she told Working Group participants. Hear! Hear!

From our #changemakers campaign conversations this month, we have seen the incredible impact that just one change-oriented person can have. Regardless of their gender identity, we need as many change-oriented individuals as we can find behind us. And so, as we continue to push for a more gender-intelligent sector, we ask ourselves: How can we bring more of our male peers into these conversations, events and greater mission? We hope you’ll join us in asking yourselves the same.

1.Stanford Social Innovation Review, “How Business can Engage Men as Allies for Gender Equality,” 2020.