Twenty-three years ago, I embarked upon my professional life as a physics student in Belfast. This foray into adulthood included two immediate discoveries: my commencing class was only 10% female, and I was to be taught almost exclusively by male professors. Needless to say, it became obvious that doing well would mean not only mastering the intricacies of quantum mechanics but also dealing with some fundamental laws of nature: getting along with the guys.
It was a valuable lesson learned at a young age. Engaging men in the support and advancement of women matters not only at an individual level, but this involvement also holds the key to driving meaningful change through collective efforts to achieve gender equality.
Over the past twenty years of attending and speaking at women’s events, one of my greatest frustrations is finding myself in a room full of women, talking to other women. Don’t get me wrong: I applaud these efforts, as there is great strength and comfort in women learning we are not alone in the challenges we face. However, all-women events aren’t going to move the dial.
Until we engage men in the dialogue, until we have their buy-in with these efforts, and until we leverage them in their roles as fathers, partners, and colleagues, the numbers alone will dictate the outcome. At a time when there aren’t enough women at the top to drive real change (at least not quickly enough), enlisting men as allies is the only way to go.
How best to accomplish that is a complex question with no one-right answer; it’s also something men can’t be expected to figure out by themselves. As is my philosophy on many such things, women need not only to ensure that men do engage in the effort, but can also shape and influence the manner in which that engagement occurs.
Where it all begins
I’m the eldest of five children (three girls, two boys), and for as far back as I can remember, my parents never distinguished between gender when it came to household chores. Mowing the lawn and hauling around buckets of coal were as much tasks for the girls as the boys.
My dad was self-employed and had a business putting up television aerials and satellite dishes. While that may not sound tough or dangerous, imagine doing it in rainy Ireland where cold, wet, and blustery days are the norm rather than the exception! In the evening, my dad was often found in the garage, tinkering with the insides of television sets and putting parts together for the next day. Curious me would climb up on a chair beside him and inquire as to what he was doing. Rather than dismissing me back into the warm house, he would let me hang out and show me things like how a circuit board worked.
As a result, I knew how to solder before I could knit, and I could change a tire long before I mastered how to bake a lasagna. It’s only in retrospect that I’ve come to appreciate how important and impactful that was in my life.
A memorable and amusing moment happened one day right after Christmas. There’d been a big storm, and lots of folks in our town were without a television signal. So my dad went to work, allowing 13-year-old me to tag along. Being small and nimble, my job was to go into the attic and run the cable from the aerial down into the living room. This day was particularly cold, so I was dressed in an overcoat and skull cap. As one of the customers thanked my dad, he remarked, “That’s a grand lad you have with you there. He’s a great help.”
In that instant, I remember not being sure how to react but caught a knowing glance from my father. I had run directly into a stereotype I didn’t even know existed: this man simply assumed I was a boy.
It was my first lesson in preconceived gender expectations. However, the experience also enlightened me to the fact that my dad was the type of man who had confidence in me, regardless of my gender, to get the job done. Research has now shown the extent to which fathers influence their daughters in an incredibly impactful way—from shaping our ideas about gender roles and body image, to building our self esteem and even impacting our levels of ambition.
Warning: Men at Work
Naturally, much of the discussion around gender equality has focused on the workplace and how best to engage men in the efforts to reach equality.
The obvious place to begin is with the business case. Despite the madness that we still need to make a “case” for the population segment constituting 52% of the U.S. workforce, the good news is that countless research studies have proven that companies with a higher representation of women at senior levels—as board directors, C-suite executives, etc.—outperform those with less.
To illustrate, an HBR study found that “going from having no women in corporate leadership (the CEO, the board, and other C-suite positions) to a 30% female share is associated with a one-percentage-point increase in net margin—which translates to a 15% increase in profitability for a typical firm.”
However, the business case clearly hasn’t proven to be enough. The number of women in senior positions and on boards is not increasing with any type of velocity or urgency.
The best approach may be to start with men who have daughters, as several recent studies have shown them to be more empathetic towards the challenges and to act as stronger public advocates for things like pay equality. One study found that male CEOs who become fathers to daughters are more likely to help shrink the gender pay gap in their firms, with firstborn daughters decreasing the gap by almost three percent.
Another study by the Journal of Financial Economics even discovered that CEOs with daughters have a corporate social responsibility rating that is 9.1% higher than compared to a median firm, demonstrating the altruistic impact that daughters have on fathers.
For the most part, I’ve found that the vast majority of men—including those without daughters—support the advancement of women or, at a minimum, don’t see it as a zero-sum game. One impediment, however, is that they are often unable to see the challenges women encounter, even while working in the same environment. As someone once put it, “Men are like fish in a fishbowl…they don’t see the water.” Privilege, after all, is blind.
Change the engagement
To move us forward, what matters is how employers and managers put their support for diversity, inclusion, and gender equality into practice.
“Mangers need to have honest conversations with their female employees about their aspirations and ambitions”
For starters, managers need to have honest conversations with their female employees about their aspirations and ambitions, particularly with women who have families. Once, an extremely talented female executive I mentored told me she’d lost count of the number of times her career trajectory was shaped by male managers who assumed, because she had a “long commute and four children,” that she was “okay where she was.”
Training supervisors and managers—especially those who work with young women starting their careers—is essential in this process, as studies show that men are promoted at a 30% higher rate early in their careers and that women are more likely to spend five years in any one role.
“Mentors are people who will speak to you; sponsors are those willing to speak about you…The distinction is important”
Creating mentorship and sponsorship programs can also contribute to women feeling they have adequate support. My husband promotes the idea that women need coaches who help with tactics to make doing the job better today, mentors who advise on both current and future careers, and a sponsor who willingly advocates on one’s behalf. The distinction between these is important. I remind women all the time: mentors are people who will speak to you; sponsors are those willing to speak about you.
A shared responsibility
The best way to encourage gender equality is to hold everyone responsible. It’s not just incumbent on men or women to promote change, as no one can do it alone. Women must continue to step up and voice their ambitions, surface their challenges, ask for coaching or find mentors when they aren’t being provided, and point out exclusionary or biased microbehaviors as they experience them.
Just as my father helped me become the woman I am today, so too do mothers play a major part in ensuring our daughters and our sons are raised to be open-minded when it comes to the daily societal and cultural norms they face. Teaching our sons how to cook is every bit as important as our daughters knowing how to change a tire.
We must focus on building a broader culture where roles, responsibilities, chores, and jobs aren’t gender-specific. And that means we are all on task when it comes to ensuring and promoting (no qualifier necessary) equality. If so, then perhaps one day soon, what was once considered to be a “woman’s work” and a “man’s world” will simply be work and the world.