Men are Not the Problem, They are Part of the Solution in Advancing Women at Work

"Do you need to wear a skirt to get promoted round here?" asked a male finance worker about his company's focus on gender diversity. This half-joke comment is not that uncommon; I hear it often from the brave souls who dare speak up when confronted with diversity efforts. It also indicates a 'zero-sum-game' mentality that is prevalent in men's attitudes to women's advancement at work - if she advances, it hurts me, as well as feelings of apathy (it's not relevant to me) and fear, according to Catalyst research.

Dr Michael Kimmel, a leading US sociologist and educator whose work centres on engaging men in the campaign for gender equality, said: "We need to make gender visible to men in order to be able to engage with men. At the moment we see this zero sum thinking "a woman stole my job" they say, but where did you get the 'my' and why did you not think the woman got 'the job' or 'a job'?"

The default setting is what is most interesting when talking about gender diversity.

Last year, I was leading a workshop with middle managers about inclusion in the workplace. During a break, a manager came up to me and said: "I have no chance at this company as a straight, white, middle-aged male". I was not focusing on gender specifically, but I could still hear his fear and frustration at the "unfairness of it all'.

Kimmel explains that privilege is invisible to those that have it; and with privilege comes a feeling of entitlement. Any dominant majority generally has the most privileges. These are unearned advantages or assets, and as Kimmel noted, most are unaware they have them. In the workplace in the western world, the privileged group tends to be white men, who face fewer barriers to their success, while a minority group will often feel 'different' and out-of-kilt with the predominant culture.

Even the First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama has spoken about how she has felt like an outsider or 'the other': "As potentially the first African American First Lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?"

This feeling of 'otherness' can be compounded when women feel also racially different to the majority. A Chinese-American woman MBA graduate said: "[There are] things out of my control, like my gender and race. First impressions [are that] either I am a dragon lady when too direct, or too meek. [It's] hard to process."

Men have a critical role to play in advancing gender diversity in the workplace. In Catalyst's 'Engaging Men' research we found that some men are reluctant to take a stand against gender bias because they fear that they may face disapproval from other men. A powerful way to alleviate this fear is to expose men to male role models who are championing gender equality and questioning the status quo.

Claudio Colzani, CEO at Barilla said: "Engaging men in increasing gender diversity is critical, as men are in positions to create change and take strong leadership roles in sponsoring and mentoring women in the organization. As a result, both men and women at Barilla will benefit."

Michael Kimmel believes that gender equality may be the best thing that's happened to men and women. Men's health and happiness can be improved when financial and parental responsibility is shared more evenly.

One way to tackle the zero-sum game thinking is to recognise that something is not being taken away, rather something is being added; the proverbial pie is expanding.

For business this is a pressing problem. Getting a range of thought around the table is key for companies to avoid group-think and to ensure that they are representing the market.

Colzani sums it up: "Gender diversity is not just the right thing to do, but good for business. Diverse teams perform better and make smarter business decisions than non-diverse teams."