Between clubhouse and gender diversity conference

What do you do Chris?

Over the years, I have been asked this question hundreds of times. When I share that I am CEO and joint-founder of Talking Talent, a consultancy promoting gender diversity, the response is interesting.

Some men say nothing. Other men jump to show how much they do for gender parity: ‘Yes – we have a women’s network at work which I fully support’, or ‘I have 50% women on my team so I don’t really have a challenge in that regard.’ Others want praise: ‘I recently supported a colleague back to work after their maternity leave. It was a nightmare, but I think I did a great job.’ Others make uneasy jokes: ‘What I want to know Chris is when do we have international men’s day?’

My role in leading Talking Talent has had an impact on some of my relationships with other men. After all, it’s not every day that one of your male friends quits his mainstream consulting career to start a gender diversity practice. Good-humoured teasing around my career choice is one thing, but even amongst friends, persistent mocking and denigration of my role can become more than a cheap laugh. Nobody likes being made into a punch-line. The experience has only deepened my respect for the women I coach, some of whom negotiate this aspect of male-dominated environments on a daily basis. 

Whether conscious or not, behaviour like this exists to enforce the status quo; some men will perceive my work as part of the growing challenge to the male majority in senior roles. On some level, they believe that gender equality is bad news for men. Others will believe that the topic of gender diversity doesn’t warrant serious attention in the context of business.  Their behaviour can make becoming a male advocate daunting.

Negative responses bother me less and less, because I can see the fabulous results of our work at Talking Talent on both an individual and organisation level. In the earlier years as a new advocate, in the midst of a start-up with a social purpose, and already feeling like an outlier, being ambushed in social situations was very draining. 

For men, particularly those in male dominated environments, part of becoming an advocate is overcoming the tug-of-war between your “mates”, some of whom will want you to help maintain the status quo, and those people you know feel less included. Being the rope in between can be painful.

To succeed in promoting gender equality we require male advocates, so men need to be invited to participate in finding the solution. We need line-managers and sponsors to drive systemic and cultural change. It is worth therefore noting that some men will feel a sense of being disloyal to the organisation and/or the majority. They will fear ridicule or even negative career consequences. Other men will want to provide support but don’t know how to go about it. It takes courage and clarity of purpose.

To deal with potential hostility, male advocates may benefit from mentoring or coaching, and a support network is essential. We have to recognise that it takes a big shift for men to move from verbal support to active and public advocacy, because in doing so they risk being judged by both a female audience and male majority. We also have to accept that those new to the cause might not get all of the language or messaging exactly right. The fear of getting it wrong is far more dangerous, as it might stop potential male advocates speaking out at all.