How Organizations Can Engage Men in Advancing Women’s Leadership

When confronting the frustrating challenge of the dearth of women at the executive ranks, it’s tempting to point to men as the problem. Yet the model of Integrated Leadership shows that on the contrary, when properly engaged by their companies, men can play an important role in the solution.

Interestingly, while men as a group have spent the most time in senior leadership and comprise close to 80 percent of the executive ranks, companies typically don’t see the potential of harnessing men’s experience to help advance their female leaders. Many organizations have invested plenty of time, money, and resources into diversity initiatives and women’s leadership/networking programs, yet this hasn’t truly moved the needle at the rate that is needed for the 21st century. HR generally has sole accountability for these efforts and results, rather than considering the significant role that men—who, in most cases, constitute the most powerful stakeholder group in large corporations—could play if working in partnership with women and organizations.

Putting the Pieces Together
Leaving men out of the equation is a mistake and points to a hole in most companies’ attempts at a solution. I believe despite their best efforts, many organizations have missed the mark by failing to invite men to be co-creators of more gender-balanced leadership. What’s more, when pushed to the sidelines, men may feel unintentionally alienated and become more apathetic about supporting women.

When writing my book Make Room for Her, a male executive at J&J shared this with me: “It’s interesting . . . if I look back at my years as a manager in my prior company, we had a lot of diversity initiatives for women and yet they really didn’t include men in any of those programs or conversations. This put some (particularly young) men on the defensive, and if they allowed it to, they could really become paranoid and feel intentionally left out. So, for me, what’s most important in working toward a more balanced team of leaders (helping to advance women) is having men as an integral part of the equation.”

Also as part of my book research, I spoke with Jimmie Paschall, executive vice president of Enterprise Diversity and Inclusion at Wells Fargo, who told me: “Men need to be a part of what’s being created and a part of the dialogue when it comes to diversity and development of women leaders. If we put men outside of the process, how can we expect them to be a part of the solution?”

Bringing Men to the Table
When SHAMBAUGH partners with our clients on female leadership and executive development initiatives, one of the first questions we explore with them is: where are the men? How are you engaging them as part of the solution? We tend to make assumptions that men are not interested or don’t really see an issue when it comes to women’s leadership. The problem with this type of thinking is that engaging only women in networking/development events can only take us so far—I call this the “isolation factor.” While it’s counterintuitive, excluding men from these initiatives leads to a larger gap in joint collaboration, hurting relationships on both sides and keeping us from truly understanding how to embrace and leverage our differences.

SHAMBAUGH looks for opportunities to naturally engage men in our programs and solutions for advancing a broader spectrum of diverse talent/women in leadership. These include tactics such as:

  • Fireside chats, having men participate in panels or roundtable discussions with women on leadership topics
  • Engaging in learning topics together, such as building strategic relationships
  • Mentorship/sponsorship
  • Managing and leveraging gender differences
  • Raising awareness and managing gender-based biases about leadership potential

Consistently, every time we engage men in one or all of these solutions, a number of women will come up to me and say, “Becky I didn’t understand before, but now I see that in many cases, men and women experience their work/leadership differently.” Men will also tell me, “Now I know how to be a part of the solution for helping our company develop, advance, and retain our top talented female leadership candidates.”

Just Ask
Sometimes organizations get bogged down in the details of how to engage men in women’s leadership when all it takes is asking. We have found in our work at SHAMBAUGH that around 25 percent of men are willing and ready to roll up their sleeves and serve as champions for high-potential women, recognizing the value of this important aspect of talent development.

So if your organization is struggling to decide how to engage men in the effort of advancing women to senior positions, keep it simple: just bring men into the conversation! I can tell you from experience that once invited, men engage willingly and powerfully. To take just one example, SHAMBAUGH was hired to help an organization address its need to further develop and advance women in the leadership pipeline. This company had a notable turnover of top women in sales, with very few being promoted into sales management. Management had invested in career development initiatives for women yet continued experiencing a high attrition rate of female talent.

We conducted a series of interviews and focus groups to try to figure out what had gone wrong. When the SHAMBAUGH team and I presented our findings to the head of diversity and other senior staff members at the company, we emphasized that while they had traditionally focused on what women could do to improve the situation, it was important to enlist men in the effort as well. The men in the room—who were the majority around the table—reacted not by asking why but asking how.

It turned out that the majority of women in the leadership pipeline had male managers who were motivated to become engaged in their success. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t want to help—it was that they hadn’t been asked and were stumped about what they might do differently. Our solution was to implement a structured program for women, engaging men in the process. The solution involved:

  • Engaging both men and women and the broad spectrum of diverse talent in the company in a Fireside Chat which explored the importance of diversity and inclusive work cultures. This forum reinforced that to achieve an inclusive environment – Integrated Leadership it will call for men, women and the organization to be a part of the solution.
  • Bringing men up to speed on the Sticky Floors that hold women back, effective coaching skills, and how to be a powerful sponsor and mentor.
  • Inviting men to participate in roundtable discussions with women, exploring common challenges that women face on the path to leadership.
  • Creating mentoring pods to continue group discussions on a more personal level.

The results speak for themselves:

  • 90 percent of the women who started the program completed it.
  • The organization was able to retain several of its top female sales reps who had been considering other job offers.
  • Knowing they had internal support and mentoring, more women began applying for management positions.
  • Less than a year after completing the program, 25 percent of female participants were promoted into operational and P&L roles.

As a next step, try this personal audit for your organization to see how well you are currently engaging your men:

  • Does management leave the job of advancing women into leadership solely to the Human Resource or Organization Development department, rather than incorporating help from male leaders?
  • Has your organization taken the time to help men understand how their roles can be pivotal in helping women to succeed in their careers and advance to greater levels of leadership?
  • Has the organization invested substantial time and resources into diversity initiatives and women’s leadership/networking programs but failed to invite men to be co-creators of a better balance of leadership within teams and across the enterprise?
  • Does the company have formal mentorship and sponsorship programs in place, which channel men’s knowledge and experience from having spent the most time in the leadership ranks toward helping women advance?

To make a real difference, men and women together need to change their mindset and realize that we can’t make sustainable progress if women are the only ones charged with changing the status quo. Men have a crucial role to play in the process of advancing more women to the leadership ranks and creating a more integrated senior leadership team. When organizations facilitate men’s active participation in this goal, then men and women can work in partnership to break down outdated cultural barriers, address gender-based stereotypes, and help each other close the gender gap to achieve a better balance of leadership intelligence. To achieve the change we are striving for, we all need to be part of the solution.

In my next post, we’ll discuss what men can learn from women—including results from a SHAMBAUGH study that revealed what men think are the five most beneficial things they’ve learned from their female colleagues.

Rebecca is an internationally acclaimed and sought-after keynote speaker, leadership expert, and contributing editor for Harvard Business Review and the Huffington Post.

Interested in having Rebecca speak at your company, visit:

To learn more about SHAMBAUGH’s integrated leadership solutions, visit:

Rebecca is author of the best-selling books It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor, Leadership Secrets of Hillary Clinton, and Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results.


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