The Four Barriers to Male Engagement. And How to Overcome Them.

Tips to overcoming the lack of male engagement in D&I programs.

YWomen Jeffery Tobias Halter Four Barriers to Male Engagement

We are in a critical moment when it comes to advancing women in the workplace. Leaders in most companies agree that women’s leadership is worth pursuing. To that end, they have given the green light to various women’s initiatives and programs. Yet the number of women in senior leadership and C-Suite positions is largely unchanged over the past decade. Why? I believe it’s due to a lack of male engagement and a lack of understanding regarding why women are a critical component to your organization’s strategy and bottom-line.

While women and people of color have entered the workforce in staggering numbers, men still make up a large percentage of senior management — about 85 percent — along with a large portion of middle management and mid-level employees within organizations. Mercer Global’s When Women Thrive report found that only 39 percent of middle management and 38 percent of male employees are engaged in company diversity and inclusion initiatives. This means that a majority of men within your organization are disenfranchised and may interpret someone else’s gain as their personal loss. These men will see your D&I initiatives as a zero-sum proposition and may actually hinder your efforts to advance women’s leadership.

In short, many diversity and inclusion programs require men to attend yet have failed to address four key barriers head-on. In fact, most diversity training doesn’t work because it doesn’t make key personal connections for men.

Cultivating Male Allies: What’s Holding Men Back?

In my work to help companies develop and implement women’s leadership strategic initiatives, I’ve found there are four common barriers preventing active male engagement:

  1. Empathy (I don’t believe men and women are having different experiences in the workplace.)
  2. Apathy (I don’t know why gender equity is important.)
  3. Accountability (If it’s not important to my boss or my paycheck, why should I care)
  4. Fear (I may say or do the wrong thing or I will be judged by my peer group if I do this “women’s thing.”)

For each of these barriers, we can identify solutions that will help men to develop an understanding of both the issues and their role in creating a more equitable and inclusive workplace. The framework is Listen, Learn, Lead* and Have the Will to Change.

Empathy/Listen. If you are not sure that men and women are having different experiences in the workplace, do one of these exercises:

  • Are All Voices Heard? In your next staff meeting, tally the number of times women are spoken over, interrupted or have their ideas stolen. This will draw a picture of the vastly different experiences men and women are having at work.
  • Ask and Listen. Invite a woman you know and trust to lunch and ask her one simple question:

Do you believe men and women are having different experiences at the company?

Then be quiet and genuinely listen. Don’t interrupt, don’t be defensive or justify company policies. Just shut up and listen. After 10 minutes, ask a second time:

What else don’t I know?

Listen intently for another 10 minutes and ask a third (and final) time:

And what else?

In that last 10 minutes, you will hear root-cause issues that you have never heard or imagined existed in your company. You will hear about differences that women (and perhaps other groups of people) are experiencing every day within your company.

These experiences have a direct correlation to work, performance, retention, and advancement. By creating empathy, you develop both an understanding of the issue and a connection to it, which fosters interest and leads to changes in behavior and action or advocacy.

Apathy/Learn. Apathy can be addressed by learning. For those who ask “What’s the big deal?” and “Why all this focus on women?” lay out the business case and the role of women as leading consumers. Women influence upwards of $22 trillion in buying decisions for consumer goods, business-to-business expenditures and financial services. To bring the message closer, develop and share the business case that is relevant to your business unit or company. Identify who your customers are and the role women play in purchasing decisions. Now look at your company and identify where women are leading in R&D, engineering, product management, marketing and sales.

Accountability/Lead. The barrier of accountability is resolved by leading. As a leader, ask tough questions, request data and metrics and dig deeper for insights. If you notice that one of your direct reports hasn’t nominated a female for consideration, ask him about potential candidates in his department and remind him of the initiative to advance women to better meet the needs of your business. Probe to see if he is able to attract and recruit people who are different from him.

Additionally, accountability is about tracking and measuring. This isn’t about quotas. There are numerous measurable actions and metrics to hold people accountable, such as: Are you advancing diverse slates of candidates? Have you cultivated ready-now female candidates? Have you completed pay equity reviews? Are you forming diverse panels of interviewers? What are your regrettable personnel losses? What is the composition of your team and does it reflect your customer base? Notably, progressive companies, many of whom have been highlighted as best places for women to work, tie executive bonus compensation to the completion of a diversity plan.

Fear/Will to Lead. You must have the will to lead and be visible and vocal in your support. Progressive leaders realize that women are an integral part of the future. We can’t solve our business issues with only 50 percent of the talent pool working toward solutions. Other leaders are engaged in advocating for women because they have a personal connection through a working mother, spouse or daughter. They are aware of the issues and the need for men to be engaged allies and advocates to make change happen.

Due to the #MeToo effect, there has never been a more important time for leaders to step up. CEOs and senior leaders need to talk candidly about sexual harassment and hostile work environments, implement zero-tolerance policies, hold perpetrators accountable and dust off their company values and start living them.

If attracting and retaining talent is critical to your business, then it is imperative that your company programming and solutions integrate and involve men in your diversity and inclusion initiatives in a deep and meaningful manner. We can begin that work by removing or overcoming the barriers that stifle male engagement in women’s leadership advancement.

This is the way that we finally move the needle to advance women and create sustainable change in the workplace for all employees.

Jeffery Tobias Halter is a gender strategist and the President of YWomen, a strategic consulting company focused on engaging men in women’s leadership advancement. Jeffery is the former Director of Diversity Strategy for The Coca-Cola Company. He is the author of two books, WHY WOMEN, The Leadership Imperative to Advancing Women and Engaging Men and Selling to Men, Selling to Women and is a two-time TEDx speaker. His clients include Walmart, Barclays, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Bacardi and dozens of other Fortune 500 companies. @YWomen

*Note: The first three actions come from the Male Champions of Change, 15 male CEOs in Australia who have outlined exactly what men need to do to drive advancement for women in their organizations. The fourth action is my own epiphany and comes from a series of dialogues with senior leaders from a host of companies.

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