Michael Kimmel, Sam Weiss and Peter O’Brien on what it takes to engage men as allies in gender equality

On Tuesday, 15 August, Xplore partnered with AICD’s 30%Club and PwC to host a breakfast panel discussion with Dr Michael Kimmel (visiting American sociologist specialising in gender studies), Sam Weiss (Chairman, Altium Limited), and Peter O’Brien (Managing Director, Russell Reynolds Associates) on how to engage men as allies in gender equality.

Xplore’s Founder Diana Ryall opened proceedings by noting the male-female split of the audience, before handing over to CEO (then, General Manager) Amanda Webb to facilitate the discussion.

Diana said, “In the room today we have 87% women and 13% men. One of the major challenges we face in the conversation about gender equality is that men don’t see gender equality as a men’s issue. Our event with a title, ‘Calling all men’, has brought just 20 men into the room. Of course we are grateful to the men who are here, on the whole men see gender equality as being only about women.”

Michael Kimmel agrees: “We (men) don’t typically see ourselves as stakeholders in the conversation. I think very often we see gender equality as fair and just, but what this does is it leaves it in our heads; it’s a cognitive thing. We need to bring men into the conversation so we see ourselves as stakeholders in gender equality.”

Many insights on how best to do this were shared by the panelists during the formal discussion,and also through the questions raised by guests, a number of which were covered by media outlets who attended the event (see links at the end of this article).

Here, we share the top three “golden nuggets” or actions that men can take to support gender equality in the workplace and beyond. We invite you to share these points with the men in your networks.

1. Step up and “talk your walk”

We know what it means to “talk the talk” and “walk the walk”, but Michael Kimmel calls on men to “talk their walk”.

Michael says, “Everyone here has been in a meeting where you’re the only woman – or there’s one other woman in the room – and a whole bunch of men, and somebody says something really sexist and stupid, and everybody looks at you. You get the eye roll, and they go, ‘Oh God, here she goes, she’s going to say something now that’s going to ruin it for everybody’. That’s the token moment.”

“So, here’s what’s likely to happen later. One of those guys is going to come up to you later and say, ‘I’m really sorry about what that guy said, I’m not down with that at all.’ And what you feel in that moment is, ‘Where were you when I needed you, publicly with other men?’”

Michael says that we are already – as fathers, as sons, as partners – “walking the walk”, at home, in private, in our personal relationships, and he sees the challenge for men now is to step up and ‘Talk their walk’. “This means saying,‘Yes, I believe in gender equality because I have these kind of relationships.’ That’s the next stage, not just ‘walk your walk’, but ‘talk your walk’ publicly, and that includes shamelessly advocating for women.”

Amanda Webb suggests that women in these situations be more overt in asking for support from men: “Be explicit in your request to your male colleague. Say to them, ‘There are times when I’m the only woman and the room goes silent. Next time around, can you please play this part for me?’”

2. Focus on the executive ranks

Peter O’Brien believes that the executive levels within organisations have a critical role to play when it comes to supporting gender equality. He says we need to find the males who can authentically lead and drive the executive agenda, and put support mechanisms in place for women to succeed.

“It’s one thing to appoint a woman to a P&L role, it’s another thing to make sure that that person is going to be successful,” Peter said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to authentic leadership; that those leaders actually deliver on what they say they are going to do and walk the floor, whether it be boards and directors getting to know not just the top levels of management, but three or four rungs down, and finding opportunities for people to succeed.”

Sam Weiss agrees that accountability within the executive ranks is key, and suggests we ask the males we know – the husbands, partners, friends, fathers, uncles, and particularly those in executive roles where they themselves are decision-makers – what they are doing to support gender equality.

Sam says, “While I believe young men are intellectual supporters of gender equality in the same way that they’re intellectual supporters of racial equality or religious equality – and they may even have some emotional recognition of the importance of it –on a practical level the progress is far less advanced. I quite often see conversations about hiring people default to ‘Well, we need to get the person with the most experience or the person who deserves the job based on merit’, and all too often this creates a default list of men, and getting women into the executive ranks of companies is a really big challenge. I think the real club that we need to form – not only here but in other parts of the world – is a 30% club for executives, and a 30% club for women in P&L jobs.”

“Profits come from having gender equality, and if gender equality isn’t present in the workforce, then those firms over the long term will be less successful financially. Firms that can demonstrate a superior return on capital and can do that because they have a better gender balance, are the ones that will succeed in the long term. To the women in the room, I urge you to get yourselves into roles where you have your hands on the levers of the P&L, in whatever firm you are in.”

3. Advocate for women

When Sam Weiss was chief operating officer at Nike Europe over 20 years ago and an executive sponsor of senior women across the company, he advised his colleagues to ‘advocate for women’, in response to their concerns about the low number of female candidates applying for senior leadership roles.

Sam says, “Men should advocate for women when roles become available. Men do this unconsciously for other men. Unconsciously they pluck out some young guy and they take him under their wing and help him in his career. I think women should also consciously advocate for each other.”

What we are talking about here is ‘sponsorship’, and Amanda called on the men in the room to take action: “If you are already advocating for men, start doing it for women.”

Sam says,“Supporting gender equality in the workplace is a business imperative as much as it is a moral one. The younger generation of workers will vote with its feet; they will not want to work for organisations that they perceive to be intolerant, and that will apply to both 23-year-old men, and to women. So organisations that have women in the workforce but who disappear the higher up the organisation you go, these organisations will find it increasingly challenging to compete for talent.”

Michael holds an optimistic view for the future, driven by a trend that he is seeing in companies he works with around the world. “What makes me optimistic is younger men – the Millennials – because they are coming into the workplace today with the exact same profile that women are coming into the workplace with. That is, they all want to have great careers, they want to be awesome parents. They are not there yet, but they are in the game and they know that this is what they want – to be able to balance work and family just as their partners and wives do, and what that means, I think, is that they are ready to have a personal stake in this.”

Michael says, “What gender inequality ultimately does, is it keeps women and men from living the lives that they say they want, so my feeling is that if we want to engage men as allies, the thing to do is make the business case to businesses, and also make the personal case to men – to say, ‘It’s in your interest to support gender equality.’”

“I’m an activist! Change is possible. You have to believe that, right?” says Michael.

We are on this journey with you, Michael, and we hope you are right!

Kata Petrovska

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