It’s time to rethink the narrative

On 24th August 2016, the Male Champions of Change in conjunction with Chief Executive Women released a paper titled “In the Eye of the Beholder – Avoiding the Merit Trap“. This publication outlines the pitfalls of applying “merit” and seeks to confront the unchallenged belief in merit that many individuals and organisations still hold. The publication also outlines a number of case studies from member organisations such as the KMPG, ANZ, Qantas and the Army and the efforts being made to minimise the bias inherent in applying merit based decision making in these organisations.

Both the Male Champions of Change and Chief Executive Women should be commended for the ongoing efforts in naming the issues facing many organisations on the path to a more gender balanced workforce and calling out the behaviours that stand in the way of attracting, retaining and promoting the best talent available.

As outlined in this publication and reiterated on 24th August in the Financial Review, organisations focused on greater gender balance are finding a backlash amongst the mostly white, heterosexual, male middle managers to gender targets and diversity initiatives. What the CEOs quoted in the Financial Review reveal, is that these middle managers are often threatened by gender targets and see the merit discussion as yet another way to minimise their chance of advancement in favour of women.

As a wise person once pointed out – “to the privileged, equality feels like oppression” and if we agree that middle aged, white, heterosexual men have historically sat in a position of privilege, it makes sense that it is this demographic that is having the most issue with this discussion.

The Financial Review headline covering this story reads: “Resentful men: adapt or push off”. This sentiment has been echoed many times recently when discussing diversity by well-meaning CEOs who are pushing for change at a rate that is making some of their subordinates exceedingly uncomfortable.

The question then needs to be asked whether it is good enough to simply say to men who find the ongoing push for greater gender balance unpalatable – if you don’t like the current changes, then just leave? Put simply – like it or lump it? As tempting as this sounds to many people who have been working for greater gender balance over the years (including this author), we feel that this may not be the best way to engage with the demographic that could be the greatest driver of sustainable change.

Gender balance and inclusive work practices need not be a zero sum game. There don’t need to be winners and losers. We can all be winners. By developing a more successful organisation, using every tool at their disposal, including greater diversity, CEOs can create an environment which can provide a plethora of opportunities – for both women AND men.

However, the message needs to be sold in a way that resonates with the very demographic that feel that they are being marginalised in this discussion – men. After all, it is these men in middle management positions who are making the decisions on a daily basis that most impact the career options of women – from recruitment to promotion and retention decisions. We need to find the right narrative that resonates with men who are feeling cornered and uncomfortable. This is often not a “one size fits all” narrative. For some men, this narrative needs to revolve around daughters and wives being treated fairly. For others it needs to be about the clear link between gender equity and better business outcomes. For others still, it needs to be as simple as reassuring them that they will be recognised for the commitment that they have shown to the organisation, through the opportunity of advancement.

We need to be wary of the diversity discussion descending into a so-called “war of the sexes” and creating an “us and them” approach to the issue. It’s about engaging men in the discussion and challenging them to come up with solutions. It’s about inviting men to be part of the discussion rather than demonising them as being the problem.

By alienating the very people that we need to bring about change, we are diminishing our ability to drive change at an accelerated and sustainable pace.

It’s time to rethink the narrative and be more inclusive of all – especially those that don’t seem to get it.