This fall, I have been speaking at several major conferences and women’s leadership forums within organizations. While “women’s forums” have traditionally been designed as “women-only” events, I like to shake up this assumption a bit. I ask companies to have women attendees not just invite other women to attend, but also to bring along a male supporter of the initiative.
It’s time we start cracking the isolation factor that has often accompanied female leadership forums. This calls for men and women to start having this important conversation not only on gender-balanced leadership but also on how can can work together towards shared business goals, challenges, and opportunities. The only way to effect real change in this arena and better understand each gender’s unique but important differences is to reinforce a unified voice. And it is only when we begin to experience this journey as partners in a shared purpose, rather than as insiders and outsiders, that the alliance can truly be powerful. When it comes to advancing women’s leadership, men and women working together as allies should be a primary goal for our teams, our organizations, and our world.
What needs to happen? Men need to feel invited, for starters. Last evening, I keynoted an event for women in financial services. Expectedly, the room was largely filled with women—however, five men also showed up on their own initiative, which I was so pleased to see. This was a big step for these male executives. Being outnumbered and unsure if they were welcome in this female-focused forum, they seemed visibly awkward participating until the women attendees validated the men’s choice to join in by inviting them to share their viewpoints and experiences as an integral part of the community.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again until everyone, both male and female, hears it: as women, we may feel more comfortable “talking amongst ourselves” to other women in the same boat since we can validate each other’s experiences—but that’s not the best way to help ourselves and other women advance. Since men currently claim the majority of the executive positions, their support is vital in moving more women into these top spots. For this reason alone, it’s foolish for women’s leadership forums to take place in a vacuum, without the input of supportive male mentors and sponsors who can help shift the gender balance more quickly at the leadership level by better understanding women’s challenges and helping to create more opportunities.
The bottom line is, women should step into their power and prioritize engaging men in ways that facilitate advanced reciprocity for two-way partnerships of mutual value. Here are five questions you can ask yourself to break the ice and the old patterns:
- What’s the value proposition? To bring men to the table with women, it helps to first identify and reinforce the value proposition for the enlightened idea of seeing men and women together as allies. Depending on your organization’s mission and priorities, this value prop might include any or all of the following: increased engagement, better team collaboration, wider cognitive diversity, greater innovation, and a more inclusive culture.
- How would I feel? Women are certainly used to being outnumbered around the table, particularly in the boardroom or other executive meetings. Tap into this experience of being in a room filled with primarily men, where there are only one or two women. While each gender faces its own unique issues around inclusion and exclusion in such situations, it can increase understanding to recognize that how you’ve felt before may be how men feel walking into a conference room filled with women.
- What’s my bias? Women’s leadership forums often understandably focus on male bias in relation to women’s leadership. While helping men grasp how their unconscious biases may affect women’s advancement opportunities, though, don’t exclude yourself from the bias examination. When collaborating across genders, pause first and recognize that we all have biases, both male and female. Help men understand how to expand their lens when engaging with women and encourage them to be open to seeing and valuing gender-based and cognitive differences—then be willing to take your own advice as you look across the table. True collaboration comes from seeing how you each view things differently—and how those different leadership perspectives are what maximizes the brainpower of the entire team.
- How can they help? In my experience coaching and consulting a wide range of companies and executives, it’s clear that many men are eager to help solve the problem of gender imbalances at the leadership level—but they often don’t know what they can do to make a difference. Let men know specifically how they can help, whether it’s by sharing their experience to add value in a development session, or engaging them as mentors, advocates, and sponsors.
- What language is inclusive? In gender-blended meetings, inclusive language is a must on both sides and is key to increasing participation and mutual engagement. Talk to the men in the room about your goals and challenges, including how it can be hard to speak up in meetings filled by men—especially if the language is non-inclusive. Men, like women, should be encouraged to step into the other half of their whole self, if you will. Our goal as leaders should be to create teams of people who are not just strong, competitive, and vocal but who also have enough heart and emotional intelligence to step confidently into collaborative leadership. This goes for both men and women.
As you work through the five questions above, don’t be afraid to step up, speak up, and get more men engaged so that they too can become allies. The future of creating inclusive leadership lies in understanding and facilitating what both men and women can do to ensure all voices are heard and valued. In its most basic form, the work to engage male allies and crack the code on unconscious bias that gets in the way of productive conversation and relationships is based on creating a high level of trust. Trust between women and men cannot be manufactured, only earned—and it’s a critical part of the solution to creating work cultures that welcome, support, and retain women at the highest levels of an organization.
Have Rebecca speak at your organization on Cracking the Code to Achieve Gender Balance: How Men and Women are Allies for Each Other"
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Rebecca Shambaugh is a contributing editor for Harvard Business Review and blogger for the Huffington Post. She 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.