Over the past few months, I've had many conversations about gender inequality in the workplace with people at work and at home. Not only have I learned tons about the issues and what we can do to solve them, I've also discovered something...interesting...
Women who are concerned about gender inequality - a coworker, boss, friend, significant other - have been excited to hear my male point of view and have been extremely supportive in wanting to hear more. Not because I'm particularly insightful (I'm still learning), but simply because they don't really hear what males think about gender that often.
Sure, lots of men, especially those in executive roles, tout the benefits of gender equality and talk about what we're doing to better enable women to succeed in the workplace. That's not what I'm referring to. I'm talking specifically about how these issues impact males, and how males impact these issues. Everything from our thoughts and feelings on caregiving and parental leave, to our conscious and unconscious actions that may create gender unequal situations.
I think there could be many reasons why men tend to be mum on these topics, but primarily I believe it's because of fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing; fear of unknowingly offending someone; fear of sounding sexist or misogynistic; fear of sounding uninformed. I've faced the same feelings too. We live in a society of political correctness, and no male - let alone a business leader that relies on public perception - wants to say the wrong thing about gender, so best to say nothing at all, or default to the standard and proven female empowerment tropes.
However, I believe that our lack of involvement in the gender conversation is a great detriment to feminism and gender equality. Men need to face the issues head on and rethink our own actions and mental models to generate true change (the way we value our own role as caregivers is a great start). This can't just be a women's issue.
So, without further ado, here are 5 tips for men to engage in gender conversations at work based on my own experiences chatting with coworkers, senior leaders, friends, and family. Hopefully by following these too, you can have productive discussions about gender that further the conversation and mitigate any fear of backlash you may have.
1. Get over yourself
Like it or not, there are a lot of ways we males are shaped by society and our own outdated value system that contributes directly to gender inequality. So, a great way to enter into any conversation about gender is to understand that you might be the problem to begin with. This doesn't mean you're a bad person. It doesn't mean you're sexist. But what it does mean is that you might be doing things or have opinions that need to change. It can be easy to get your back up and make excuses when you hear things like men question women's expertise more just because they're women. You'll have to accept that you might hear things that on the surface you don't agree with and target you just because you're male. Get over it. Your job is to understand these issues and work to find solutions, not question their validity.
2. Lead with inquiry
Whether you're talking about gender, race, or any other issue with multiple viewpoints, one of the core tenets to a productive conversation is to 'walk a mile in someone else's shoes'. Unfortunately, this adage is easier said than done. A big mistake we can all make is stating our opinions as hard facts instead of what they are: our interpretation of our experiences based on our viewpoint. So, a better way might be to lead with inquiry. Start by asking questions that seek to understand the root causes of the issue. Then, when you feel informed, try to present your own thoughts in a way where others can add their own perceptions. You may see a situation in one way, but when you open the door for others to provide their input as well, you'll end up with a more balanced and comprehensive discussion about the issue.
3. Have an opinion
This is the most important - you need to bring something to the conversation that isn't just a regurgitation of what others have said. For men, this means bringing our own thoughts about our own experiences. When we hear things like we don't respect women's expertise as much or we tend to talk over women more, let's not just say, "okay we'll stop doing that". Let's go deeper. Why do we do these things? What about our unique 'male experience' leads us to do these things? And lastly, what can we do to solve the issue? These are the things we need to have opinions about, always presented through inquiry and with the mindset that it's our responsibility to change for the better.
4. Open the conversation
Gender issues can be a sensitive topic, and maybe not something that you should bring up during a first interview or a meeting with a big-time client. However, sensitivity isn't an excuse to ignore the topic. Men at all levels of the organization need to open the conversation with both men and women to start driving more change. To date we've had great progress on the women's perspective of gender issues. It's time now for men to open the conversation on their own about what they can do to be more productive members of society - regardless of actions that women are taking. Each conversation is an opportunity to learn something new and further your own thinking. You'll be surprised how much passion and insight those around you can bring to these issues.
5. Have a confidant
Still feeling uneasy about discussing gender at work? Find yourself a confidant: someone close to you (ideally female and informed on feminism) to whom you can ask the tough questions and present your most 'controversial' ideas. For me, it's my wife. We have countless conversations on gender where I can test my thoughts and opinions in a safe space before I present them to anyone else (every post on Mate Modern gets her seal of approval). I don't have to feel nervous about saying something wrong or having my thoughts misinterpreted. After our conversations though, I can feel much more informed and confident that I'm adding to the gender inequality conversation, not detracting.
I believe men need to step up to the mic on gender issues and start talking about our own opinions and experiences. Hopefully through these steps, men at all levels can feel more confident and enabled to start participating and contributing. If we want true gender equality in life, we'll need gender-equal voices in the conversation as well.