Men’s Work: Whose Work?

As part of The Impact Seat research agenda, I am interviewing men, particularly Caucasian men in positions of organizational influence, to probe their expected and actual roles as champions of gender equality in the workplace. We start with gender because I have more than a decade’s scholarly experience researching gender impacts on people, teams and organizations. Also, because companies tend to look to women’s advancement first as an agenda for moving their diversity and inclusion needle.

These interviews are part of a research project, “Men Who Get It”, that I’ve designed to make the unspoken spoken – to understand the perspective of men on the rules of gender at work. We’re not trying to find men who agree with us, but rather men who are on the journey with us, to build more inclusive companies.

The Impact Seat is committed to this project because we want and need the voices of white men in corporate leadership to be part of the conversation for inclusion. The evidence is strong that asking the under-represented to be responsible for changing the organization to include them is a failed strategy. We also believe that men up-and-coming in the hierarchy need to see role models of men before them who are working for inclusion because its smart, useful and the right thing to do.

So, here are my ideas from the field at research milepost 1.

How to Build Gender Equality at Work

For a long time, business has debated the role of values; whether they relate to performance and how, and whether it matters. This certainly holds true for diversity. We talk about the payoff to diversity being social, i.e., good for society, and perhaps financial -- at least in theory.

How do champions think about this, and talk about it?

“You cannot expect that people are going to be driving equity and driving diversity because it’s the right thing to do. You have to help them with that. If you put a formal process in place that is fair, chances are you’re going to move the company’s needle on diversity...” Jim*, age 45, global financial services company.

This exemplifies Jim’s role as a stealth champion. He is personally committed to more gender equity at work, but he doesn’t talk about it. He implements his vision by hiring more women as direct reports and by encouraging their promotion based on potential, not performance. (Note: women are more likely promoted based on past performance rather than potential, as compared to men.)

“If you see potential in a young woman, they’re going to grow very quick and get there. Don’t wait for that person to have the experience, because by then it’s going to be too late.”

Michael, on the other hand, sees a diversity objective as a counter-claim to meritocracy. (Meritocracy: selected on the basis of ability.)

I think at the leadership level we’re stuck in the trap of saying diversity is important, but also trying to say, "But we're a meritocracy." So, if ever you're trying to compare two people for hiring or promotion, you can't take into account the diversity they may bring.” Michael, age 39, health tech manager.

This point of view looks only at individual resumes, and not at the overall value an individual brings to the organization – now and later. It also fails to consider how “meritocracy” is too often “mirror-tocracy” – in other words, we value more what we are. A bias for similarity, and against difference.

What’s the value of difference? And how does a champion manage for it?

“I've been in meetings to evaluate who succeeds, who gets promoted… or meetings about feedback for various individuals amongst the managers. I try to push conversations, and I've seen other people do the same, making sure that we're not seeing a negative where it's just a difference. Making sure that we are giving people coaching advice that is agnostic – regardless of gender or race.Not just to be more like the average, which in our case, is white and male.”

One of my take-aways from writing this blog is thinking about how much managing for inclusion is embedded in the day-to-day tasks of management. It’s about values -- but not espoused values. Those can’t be sincere anyway, if they are not supported by work on the ground, in the rhythm of the business.

Check back for more musing as this project unfolds.

Barbara Clarke