Gender Equity – It’s men’s business too

Having recently attended an event where a number of the guest speakers discussed the issue of gender equity as a business imperative, I was struck by an interesting realisation. It seemed that the men in my direct eye-line didn’t seem to be actively listening to the discussion. When the conversation turned to global gender parity trends and the facts and figures that supported the very real gap that still exists between men and women, some of these men thought that this was their opportunity to check their mobiles for emails and missed calls.

This made me take pause and consider the possible reasons for this seeming disinterest. After all, they were obviously well meaning and aware of the situation, had obviously made the effort to attend the event and seemed to genuinely want to make a difference. So, what is it about an in-depth discussion about this important issue that men find disengaging? The one conclusion that I could come to was that these men felt that the issue was one that only affected women and therefore women were the best placed to make the changes that are so obviously necessary. The topic was being spoken about by women, so could this be why men felt that the issue was too far removed from their own experience to matter to them?

Often when we talk about gender parity, it is precisely from an “us and them” perspective. Women talk about their challenges which many men feel that they cannot directly relate to and therefore aren’t able to engage with. Many times, the male voice in this discussion is shouted down and therefore men learn not to engage in the conversation.

However, gender equity is not the same as women’s rights. Gender equity talks about the fair and equitable opportunities available to both men and women across many different areas of society – including access to education, political representation, job opportunities, health and wellbeing and workforce participation.

The fact is that gender equity affects both men and women – albeit differently. The very issues that hold women back from workforce participation and the opportunity for career advancement, are the same issues that tie men into traditional, stereotypical societal expectations, which may work for some, but at the same time, make other men miserable.

I am by no means suggesting that women’s voices should be quietened to allow men to speak on this issue. This would be counter-productive. What I am suggesting is that both female and male voices belonging to those who feel deeply about this issue should be amplified so that everyone can hear and not have an excuse for disengagement. As humans, we are programed to view the world from the perspective of our own interests and experiences. Therefore, if we are to move the needle on this discussion, we need to find a way for everyone to have their voices listened to with respect and empathy.

Some may suggest that it will require the new generation of leaders to enter the workforce to really break down the gender stereotypes of previous generations. However, as a cynical Gen X-er, I remember too well that this was said about my generation as well. We were idealistic and yet pragmatic and we were going to change the world – including solving the issues around gender equity. And although we have made great in-roads, the challenges of our parents still plague a lot of us today. The reason for this is that each generation learns from the previous one what is required to get ahead in life. At some point, every generation realises that they have to play within the system to be able to change the system. There is little to suggest that this will be any different for the millennials. We cannot wait for another generation to become the leaders we need, to drive sustainable change.

Gender equity is a shared responsibility. We need all women and men, of all generations and backgrounds to come together and solve the issues that will ensure we all have a fair opportunity to be carers, CEOs, health care workers, entrepreneurs, business leaders and community leaders.

Gender equity is not a zero-sum game. A gain for women is not a loss for men. Rather, gender equity it an opportunity to view our collective opportunities and ensure that we can all have access to what will fulfil and empower our lives. However, to achieve this ideal, we need to be engaged and listen with curiosity and empathy before this change can occur.