Are you surprised by this article’s title? I sure hope so.
As an immediate disclaimer: this isn’t meant to usurp or downplay the efforts women have put and continue to put towards the feminist cause. Heavens, no. It’s an open secret that the burden of fighting for gender equality has primarily fallen on women’s shoulder, and there’s certainly no shortage of advice for women who want a more level playing field (some of which I’ve doled out myself, in this very column!). According to dozens of self-help articles out there, women should learn to accept criticism, stop apologizing, dress professionally, learn how to negotiate, “lean in,” yet still manage to find that elusive work-life balance at the same time. But the truth of the matter is, no matter how many tips and tricks we memorize, we are playing a losing game. The numbers are simply not on our side.
Understanding the reality of gender inequality means understanding the political and economic power dynamics that favor men. Men control 81% of Congress, 95% of Fortune 500 CEO titles, and 70% of state judge seats. But it goes beyond just numbers. A recent World Bank report underscored that strong economies and greater education for women, once thought to be silver bullets against gender inequality, are effectively trumped by persistent social norms. And according to experts, most of those regressive social norms, attitudes and traditions are held or enforced, wittingly or unwittingly, by men. With those kinds of numbers and odds, one thing should be enormously clear: we as a society will never reach equality with only one gender putting forth all the effort. It’s men and soon-to-be-men who are necessary, if not outright obligated, to help create meaningful change. In fact, studies have shown that the best people to promote both gender and racial diversity at work are . . . white men. Seriously.
Still, it’s easy to see why men don’t necessarily have the same burning urge to involve themselves in the task of fighting for gender equality the way women do. For the most obvious reason, the lack of gender equality is still not seen as something that may hinder their professional or personal growth. Within the context of the developed world, however, there are other strings attached to the conversation around gender equality that can make stepping into the space intimidating for men. For one, men often feel like gender equality is exclusively a woman’s space. Without the requisite domain knowledge, it’s easy for men to feel like they are ignorant of much of what is being discussed, or overstepping in a conversation they should not be a part of. (Valid concerns both, since speaking over women or dismissing their experiences of sexism are traps that can easily be fallen into).
Certainly, it’s not women’s jobs to make the uncomfortable truths about gender equality more “comfortable” for men’s sake. But it’s also important to remember that this isn’t a war between the two genders. Gender equality is not about women fighting men, about women taking from men, or men losing parts of themselves. When men speak out against gender inequality, it’s a declaration that equality must be the result of a joint – not antagonistic – leadership effort. But to engage them, it is important to at least give them a guideline on how to help out and get involved with the cause of gender equality . So I’ve compiled three of my favorite ways boys and men can get involved in the fight for equality.
The first is simple: go out of your way to sponsor, encourage, and/or mentor women in the classroom and in the workplace. The idea behind this is pretty simple — people with sponsors or mentors are 23% more likely to move up in their career than those without sponsors, according to research out of the Center for Talent Innovation. Yet women are far less likely to have sponsors than men, since the trust required for such relationships tends to replicate within and not across gender lines, which puts them at a clear disadvantage. But awareness is the first step in making a change. Recognizing those patterns, men in leadership positions can take a more active role in sponsoring women.
The second one is a bit more complex: acknowledge that when it comes to gender equality, there’s still progress to be made. This can be hard to confess, in part because no one wants to acknowledge their privilege (understandable), and in part because empirical data shows that that’s simply what most men think. While 49% of women think gender bias is alive and well today, only 28% of men agree. But countless studies on equality say that the gender bias is definitely alive. And diversity in leadership benefits men just as much as it does women. According to the Global Leadership Forecast, which surveyed 13,124 leaders from around the world, companies that were performing in the top 20% financially had nearly twice the amount of women in leadership roles compared to those in the bottom 20%.
The last bit of advice is to simply keep an open mind to women’s issues. Simply showing a willingness to acknowledge and get involved in the conversation is a huge step in getting the ball rolling. It’s an unwillingness to engage that only perpetuates the problem. Bringing men into the conversation in a productive and open-minded way is a crucial step to actually making progress on issues of gender inequality. Before significant progress can be made, there needs to be a willingness to simply show up at the table and listen.