In 2018, being a straight white man and CEO of a consultancy promoting gender diversity and female leadership can raise a few eyebrows. Back in 2005, when my wife and I launched Talking Talent, it was even harder; gender diversity wasn’t yet understood as an urgent priority and I didn’t know any men whose role was dedicated, solely, to promoting it.
Fourteen years on, there are still only a few of us. When I attend gender diversity events as a brand ambassador, the audience tends to be dominated by women. Recently, I attended a celebration of 50 years of women at INSEAD. At least 90% of the 500 delegates were female. Even though I had spent six months at INSEAD writing a thesis on how organisations could better retain talented women, an area I have now worked in for 14 years, I found myself reliving a strong sense of imposter syndrome.
In the early years of Talking Talent, I was desperate to be accepted by the female majority. The impact was that I played it safe. I often didn’t risk saying what I really thought for fear of saying something that would offend, or appear flippant. In groups, I found myself choosing to stay in the background, as an observer. In some conversations my lack of female experience seemed to disqualify me and in others — about misogyny, for example, the menopause or breast-feeding — my presence sometimes felt inappropriate. I became more softly spoken, which I noticed because people often leaned in to hear what I was saying. Networking situations became more challenging, particularly because I was often asked why I was at an event.
Most of the time, these questions came from a good place. Others, less so, and when women challenged my relevance directly, it could be hard to convey my vision, purpose and enthusiasm. As a man, what right had I to talk about any of this? Some women were understandably frustrated with the current system and became hostile. Any man raising his head above the parapet can become the de facto spokesperson of the system, even if he is trying to change it. On a few occasions these questions and the way they were delivered became extremely challenging: Was I not perpetuating the trend of white male CEO’s? Why didn’t Talking Talent have a female CEO and wasn’t that hypocritical?
Let me be clear: I am not comparing my experience to that of being a minority — conferences are temporary, and as a white man, my privilege remains. But, being put in those situations gave me a glimpse into the discomfort, anxiety, and self-doubt that can accompany being an outlier. It has been invaluable in giving me an insight – however small – into the experiences of many of the women we coach, who are in a minority in their professional lives on a daily basis.
Outspoken male advocates for gender equality are still in the minority but we can learn from our experiences. Before Talking Talent, I knew conceptually that being an outlier in your professional role could make you feel isolated, impact on engagement and even wellbeing. I have more empathy to that now and I know first-hand that without clarity of vision, resilience and support networks it is near impossible to maintain belief in your own potential let alone realise it!