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#MeToo and the hidden difficulties of gender diversity

Clodagh Hughes wrote this article in The Sunday Business Post about the aftermath of the #MeToo controversies and questioned why more senior men are reluctant to mentor younger women and why too few senior male leaders are prepared to contribute to this debate, or even attend relevant events.


A different type of focus is needed on achieving better gender balance at senior levels within businesses – one which recognises that many men are either disengaged or feel threatened by it, yet have the power to do much to fix workplace inequalities. The uncomfortable truth about what has gone wrong with gender diversity programmes needs to be confronted, as does the reality that solutions are not easy to achieve.

The absence of women in leadership roles will take centre stage next month, when the government-appointed expert group Better Balance for Better Business publishes its recommendations. The group, led by Gary Kennedy, who chairs Greencore plc, and Greencore non-executive director Brid Horan, is expected to pave the way for gender targets for public limited companies (plcs), multinationals and large private companies. Gender pay reporting is also likely to be introduced.

Women are still hugely under-represented in leadership roles, despite growing female participation in the workforce, comparable if not higher academic achievements than men and countless awareness and other initiatives. Just 18 per cent of Irish chief executives are women while participation of women in management roles appears “quite static”, according to the 2018 research based on over 100 Irish businesses published by the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (Ibec) and the 30 Per Cent Club. Among Irish quoted companies, just 7 per cent of executive directors and 18 per cent of non-executives are female.

These are the statistics, despite the hard evidence that diverse teams perform better and having more women in senior roles delivers benefits to business. Most businesses that I’m familiar with get the business case, and buy into the arguments about fairness, but struggle to achieve higher female participation rates at managerial level.

Why? Because of the complexities of what needs to be in place to create the type of environment where capable women are willing and supported to progress to more senior roles. And also because of the roles males play or don’t play.

Females face considerable barriers particularly around corporate culture, which has been shaped over decades by men. These barriers either go unrecognised or are not considered to be significant by their male colleagues. That might imply a disregard by males, but that’s not so. Instead, they simply don’t believe the barriers exist, because of unconscious bias.

There are many myths about unconscious bias – that it’s all about prejudice, that when it comes to gender it only afflicts men and it’s easily fixed. Far from being about prejudice, unconscious bias is caused by how we are all conditioned to make quick judgements and assessments of people and situations based on our backgrounds.

In terms of gender and the workplace, females as well as males have unconscious biases. That was quite a revelation to a group of female executives involved in a female leadership initiative I co-founded. We all took a gender bias test. Little did we expect that all of us would display an “automatic association for male with career and female with family”.

Unconscious bias training is very popular among companies committed to better gender balance. However, it often fails to make a difference and can even make matters worse, because it is overly focused on men, and does not always connect the unconscious bias theory with the unconscious actions and behaviours in the workplace.

It can have the effect of making men feel defensive, and can contribute to a growing sense that the pendulum has swung too far in favour of women. They can feel threatened that the status quo is being rattled and that, as more companies adopt aggressive gender targets, they might miss out on career opportunities.

Men can feel fearful of saying or doing the right thing. Following the #MeToo controversies, more senior men are reluctant to mentor younger women. Too few senior male leaders are prepared to contribute to this debate, or even attend relevant events.

Men can also fear a backlash from their male colleagues. “It takes a lot of courage for men to stand up to other men on the topic of gender balancing,” Avivah Wittenberg-Cox wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “Too many progressive men are taken aback by some of the heated reactions they encounter and often decide that gender is not enough of a priority to fight for. So they let louder voices dominate - and then drown - the debate.”

What to do? Businesses should recognise that gender balance is not a women’s issue. Instead, it needs to involve and be influenced by men who, given that they hold most leadership positions, have the power to effect real change. More male leaders have to become more than mere champions on the sidelines. They need to lead their companies’ gender balance strategies, in full knowledge that males are likely to accept the business arguments better from men than from women.

Small steps matter. A senior leader recently called an end to habitual 8am meetings, sending a powerful signal to staff that the boss cared about work/life balance – and that benefited both men and women.

Businesses need to acknowledge male fears, plan interventions very carefully and do more to involve men. They need to reduce the threats and the fears, and be extremely careful about how they communicate how they will deliver on gender targets. Unconscious bias training, where actual workplace issues are role modelled and solutions co-created with participants, can be extremely effective, if planned and delivered effectively.

Businesses should be influenced by how others are involving males and learning from initiatives such as Dads for Daughters in the City of London, Men Advocating Real Change (Marc) and HeForShe. Ultimately, they need to be able to see how this makes business sense. Dell chief executive Michael Dell continues to make this a strategic focus because he is convinced that diverse and inclusive teams help to land business.

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