What 25 men think about women in leadership

There's one question rarely posed in discussions about workplace gender diversity: what do the men think?

Gender consultant and Creative Coaching Company director Karen Barr has sought to find that out, spending nine months interviewing 25 senior male business leaders regarding female talent and how we can increase the number of women in leadership positions.

What she found was a missing link in what men believe is the key benefit to getting more women into leadership positions. And by speaking with them on the condition of anonymity, she also received some honest answers on the difficulties they believe men face dealing with the issue.

"The men did not believe it was a business critical issue," Barr told me on the research. "There was a lack of understanding on the impact of women on your ROI, or your numbers."

Sure, the men could see other benefits of getting more women into leadership – diversity of thought, innovation, a need for different styles of leadership – but when it came to the numbers they were missing the bigger point.

If men miss the link on the financial benefits of including more women, then women face an uphill battle for long-lasting and sustainable change. Broadly-supported action on targets, quotas and the cultural and structural adjustments required to better promote the participation of women at work will be hard to achieve, if possible at all.

Barr says some men went so far as to disbelieve the figures she was quoting during her interviews on the financial benefits of women in leadership – outlined in various studies from McKinsey & Company, Catalyst, the Rebey Institute and the Grattan Institute. "They wanted more information on the studies and to see the results themselves," she says.

And while the men – in executive, non-executive, chairman, director and c-suite executive positions – were unanimously in favour of getting more women into leadership positions, they didn't necessarily see it as their responsibility. Barr says her respondents largely saw it as the responsibility of their CEO or whoever heads up the organisation they're in. If that person's not interested, the issue is ignored.

"I found that these men were a little stuck for ideas," she says. "They know there's a cultural shift that's required but they don't know how to do it."

Some extremely honest comments (all published anonymously) from the interviewees showed just how much of a cultural shift needs to occur. "Women go missing and that's their major downfall," said one. "They need more time on the clock to be able to compete with the men. The 10 years of going missing means that women are lacking the experience of time necessary to take on these roles."

With most men declaring they're against quotas, another had this to say on targets: "Companies think they need to give the role to females and this really ticks the men off. I know a very high calibre male who cannot get a directorship because he keeps losing out to women. Women now think it's a right to have priority over men on boards."

Other comments reflected the notion that men and women exhibit different behaviours at work. "Women tend to give rich and detailed information which is often read by men as overcomplicating the discussion," said one. Another: "Women talk too much – they need to ask few better questions; the powerful ones. This will lead to greater respect."

And a comment on office behaviour: "In a recent meeting where there were no women present, I commented to my colleagues that our meeting are different when women are not in the room; words, behaviours, swearing etc. Men need to learn new behaviours to deal with women."

Another said change is a two-way process: "Women need to develop greater confidence and assertiveness but must be able to find the balance between that and aggression. Men on the other hand need to develop their emotional intelligence."

Despite these comments, Barr believes the men she interviewed were genuinely interested in change. They all offered ideas for what men and women could separately do to promote a shift – particularly that men could rethink the career cycles of women, factor in life choices, listen more, offer strategic solutions to make certain positions more attractive to women, include women in more conversations and accept men and women do things differently.

Meanwhile, organisations have a significant role to play too, starting at the very top. The research found organisations should encourage more flexibility and better foster career cycles, influence at the tertiary education level to attract women into male-dominated industries, look out for 'testosterone based' leadership and open more opportunities for networking, mentoring, sponsoring and pathways for women to upskill.

And how about women? As Barr outlines based on the 25 interviews, the men believe women should:

  • Focus on building networks.
  • Use mentors and sponsors to develop experience.
  • Become role models for the pipeline of women behind them.
  • Articulate what they want from a career.
  • Have a plan, and get themselves out there.
  • Get the necessary experience for executive roles.
  • Acquire governance and risk experience, as well as hands-on technical and P/L skills.


Check out the full report

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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