I have been reading a lot of online content on the theme of International Women’s Day which was celebrated this past week. This year the conversations somehow sound more insistent, perhaps even urgent. Charting the progress of gender equality in the work place and in business is a hazardous occupation. Some say women are doing better, others that we are going backwards. Which view is right?
One common aspect of nearly all of the articles, blogs, conferences, debates and every other forum and platform for which there are letters in the alphabet is that the gender equality issue is almost exclusively spoken and written about by women to other women. And I can’t help asking myself – where are the men in this space?
One of the most perceptive and interesting articles I have read recently is by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-first, a leading gender consulting firm. Writing in the Harvard Business Review (see link below) in the wake of Trump’s appointment of two men to head up his Women in the Workplace initiative, Wittenberg-Cox reflects on what she describes as the predictable reaction: How can men appropriately represent women?
Putting to one side the character of the man whose actions triggered this debate, Wittenberg-Cox correctly points out that gender equality is much more than a “women’s issue”. It is a matter for all businesses and organisations, and therefore should be owned by men and women alike.
Wittenberg-Cox makes the point that successful gender balancing requires convincing the majority of your employees that it’s a good idea, so it needs to be led from the top. Since the majority of CEOs are male, it follows that the equality agenda needs to be pushed by men and, she continues, the smart CEOs know that this requires getting business leaders, both female and male to own accountability for getting the gender balance right.
My question is, what evidence is there that the proposition being forwarded by Wittenberg-Cox is in fact happening in the workplace. International Women’s Day is of course as much about celebration as it is a call to action, but judging by the heightened volume about gender equality at his time of year, it suggests that there is still some distance to go. One conclusion that may be drawn from the anecdotal evidence is that the men who are in a position to lead are not stepping up.
I have a confession to make, most of my clients who come to me for executive or career coaching have been women. I think there are two reasons that explain this, which are in certain respects inter-related.
The first is that women tend to be more receptive to the idea of coaching when it comes to work or business related matters. Men are more reticent; it is perhaps a sign of weakness, a kind of diminution of their alpha-male status to seek out support, especially where exposure of personal issues and shortcomings to another person are involved, even in a personal and confidential setting. Coaching is somehow seen as a “feminine” activity.
The second reason concerns why women come for coaching. There are women who are definitely qualified and equipped to take on more demanding and stimulating roles as business owners or senior executives, and yet harbour reservations about their capabilities to do so. Such doubts are not borne out of women’s concerns about what others, especially men, may think. Rather they reflect a lack of inner belief. What lies behind their doubts may be due to all manner of personal, social and cultural factors and, because they are not real but imagined, it takes only one or two conversations to dispel them.
Returning to Avivah Wittenberg-Cox’s premise and my challenge, why are the men who should be leading on gender equality mostly silent. The inescapable conclusion is that men are too scared to engage on a subject that is so often regarded by them as a hot potato. Women’s issues are for women alone to comment upon. However, what is needed in the wake of International Women’s Day is less gender politics and more honest conversation.
It requires more from CEOs than just a commitment to balance their executive teams, as Wittenberg-Cox suggests. It needs recognition that there is a duality of interest in gender equality. Men have a stake in the decisions that women make about their roles as partners. parents and providers. Economies and societies work best where there is openness and accountability for the contributions made by women and men in the workplace.
We have moved on from the battle of the sexes that characterised 20th century feminism. Today’s workplace is less divisive and more co-operative. The men who continue to occupy the majority of top seats at board tables and in executive teams should constantly send out the message that striving for gender equality at the apex of companies, financial institutions, professions and public services is in the interests of all of us.
© David Levenson, March 2017
David Levenson is the founder of Coaching Futures. For further information, please contact David: