Essay competition winner: understanding and empathy can win over unlikely male allies
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Having started international initiatives for women in cyber security at two of the largest consulting firms in the world — and faced questions such as “Is it going to be like a knitting circle?” — I have learnt three key lessons on involving more men to help women succeed.
1. Influence unlikely allies
“Hey Power Woman,” Ryan said, walking into the office, jokingly referring to a recent award I had won. “How is the world of diversity and inclusion today?”
I looked at him. He had been teasing me about my Women in Cyber programme for ages. I smiled.
“I am presenting a keynote on diversity at a cyber security conference. You are my co-presenter,” I announced.
“I am pale, male and a little stale,” Ryan protested.
Over the next four weeks or so we prepared our speech. We were going to highlight the fact that diversity is not just about the visible differences (such as race, gender and age) but also about the invisible differences (such as background, education and mental health).
On the day of the event, Ryan made a really heartfelt speech. He said that he had experienced feeling “different” and “other” because he came from an armed forces background and felt he did not belong in the corporate world.
Through this experience, I learnt that making a sustainable change is about influencing the men who are natural allies for women but also about persuading the unlikely male allies for whom there are costs — being seen as a wimp or being perceived as fake, for example. Acknowledging this and showing empathy can help us to influence unlikely allies and bring them on side.
By thinking through the ideas of diversity and inclusion with me, Ryan not only became more self-aware but also more empathetic. He began to take an interest in the subject of supporting women in a field where only 11 per cent of the workforce was female, and became one of my most outspoken allies.
2. Truly include men
Data from Boston Consulting Group shows that among companies where men are actively involved in improving gender diversity, 96 per cent report progress, compared with 30 per cent where they are not. So, it is critical that we include men in gender diversity programmes.
In a speech at the United Nations in 2014, actress Emma Watson launched the HeForShe campaign saying: “I am reaching out to you because I need your help. We want to end gender inequality — and to do that we need everyone to be involved.”
Time magazine responded: “Sorry, Emma Watson, but HeForShe Is rotten for men.”
Essay: the judges
This article is an edited version of the winning entry to the FT’s eighth annual essay competition, organised with the 30% Club and Henley Business School, to win a free executive MBA place. The full essay question was: “How can organisations help women succeed by involving more men in their efforts? What strategies and actions are most and least helpful?”
The judges were: Ellen Carr, bond portfolio manager, Weaver Barksdale; Peter Cheese, chief executive of CIPD; Gregg Lemkau, co-head of global investment banking, Goldman Sachs; Claire Collins, Henley Business School; Pavita Cooper, 30% Club; and Harriet Arnold, FT Special Reports
It contended that the initiative asked men to “take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls” but said nothing about problems affecting men and boys.
This is a conflict we see all too often. Simply inviting men to attend women’s initiatives may make them feel awkward, like “the other” and sometimes even anxious. To truly make men feel included, they must be given both a seat at the table and a shared purpose. For example, my first Women in Cyber leadership team had a balanced number of men and women and by doing this, we cut through the noise of “where are the men?”.
We talked about inclusion, we talked about it positively and we talked about it often. We talked about problems and tangible everyday solutions. Slowly but surely, the team became more inclusive. Small changes such as making team socials more female friendly had become the norm and casual sexism had become totally unacceptable at our workplace.
3. Showcase female role models
Harvard Business Review notes that “too many organisations still miss the mark on gender equity efforts by focusing gender initiatives solely on changing women — from the way they network to the way they lead”.
Women are often told they are too bossy, too meek, too assertive, too giggly or too something or the other. The problem is exacerbated when there are not enough visible female role models.
Ten years ago, there were hardly any visible women leaders in cyber security and big conferences on the subject had hardly any female speakers. When we went to work at client offices, we were often mistaken as secretaries for our male colleagues.
When we started my first Women in Cyber initiative, we did a few focus group discussions to understand what really needed to change. The women we spoke to overwhelmingly told us one thing — they did not see enough female role models to believe that cyber security could be a long-term career option for them.
Inviting women to speak at bespoke events created by us and profiling them in our newsletters became a crucial part of our strategy. Seeing these wonderful women made us all believe the art of the possible and visualise what we might one day become. After all, seeing is believing.
At an international level, if we look at Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand prime minister, as an example, her style of leadership based on empathy is garnering praise worldwide. Women look at her and see a role model, someone to emulate. But more importantly, her example shows men around the world — both the leaders and the ones just starting out — that a different kind of leadership is possible.
The writer is chief information security officer at Danone
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