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Three tips for talking about gender equality in a social setting

/ Sep 30, 2013 8:58AM / Print / ()

Three tips for talking about gender equality in a social set...

Discussing women in leadership, or gender equality in general, in a social setting can be illuminating. If your companions are supporters of the cause the conversation will flow and there is, usually, much for us to learn when this occurs. However, if those in your company are not on the informed side of the ledger, it can be tricky. In that instance it's helpful to know what you can expect so here are a few tips to think about.

Tip 1: Be prepared for a variety of reactions

Research has shown that the responses of men and women to gender balance initiatives tend to be spread across 3 categories:

  1. The progressives (who understand the challenge and are committed to making a difference no matter how small)
  2. The fence sitters (who may be unfamiliar with the area or have yet to make up their minds)
  3. Those who deny there is an issue.

According to Wittenberg-Cox & Maitland, women's responses typically fall within the first two categories. I recently had dinner with a high profile 50-something white male who fell into the third category. Being prepared for this type of response is very important when considering how to engage colleagues, peers, friends in gender balance or inclusiveness discussions. Chances are you are not going to get 100% of the people 100% of the time.

So it is important to be able to constructively challenge what you are hearing and be able to offer an alternative perspective. In my recent dinner conversation it was really useful to be able to talk about the fact that talent and intelligence is spread equally across both genders, so the fact that it is not translating to decision-making roles is not one of nature but one that is man made.

Tip 2: Make it tangible

A key challenge in ensuring discussions on inclusiveness are open and engaging is being able to identify the WIFM ("what's in it for me?") for both men and women. This was another obstacle I hit at dinner – a zero sum argument that says if more women are promoted there are less jobs for men. A great comeback here is to remember the positive outcomes of more diverse teams – one being that they result in more growing and innovative businesses. In other words this is about building and sharing a bigger piece of a bigger pie.

On this note, studies show inclusiveness initiatives (think flexible working conditions as an example) benefit the entire organisation and can result in all of these advantages: higher job satisfaction; lower turnover; higher productivity; improved problem solving throughout the organisation; increased creativity and innovation; increased organisational flexibility and wonderfully, an ability to learn from people at all levels.

If the conversation still remains tricky, remember to hit where it hurts – the back pocket! Commercially there is a growing trend in many industries where clients are requiring tendering firms to report gender statistics in their RFPs (Requests for Proposals). As a result, leading organisations are taking responsibility for regularly reporting on who is working on critical client matters, ensuring that the organisation is maximising their diverse team and including them in key client interactions. Not surprisingly, clients want to work with women and it is now having a bottom line impact too.

Tip 3: Recognise the limits of gender norms for men too

Increasingly, men are more actively involved in efforts to promote gender equality in their workplaces. Whatever their personal driver for this (they may be partners of talented women, fathers, brothers or they may naturally recognise the leadership qualities that exist within women, just like they do in men), validating their thinking and encouraging their ongoing action is vital.

However, it is also true that some men are less inclined to do so (members of category 3). Studies suggest there are a number of barriers to men's engagement, including apathy or indifference. From a facilitating change perspective, don't underestimate how your different perspectives can be a catalyst for change in them.

Importantly, research conducted by Catalyst in 2009 showed that gender imbalanced organisations work against men as well. Think about how often you have heard your male colleagues talk about their preference for more time with their partners/ their family/ their passions. Being penalised for not being the "ideal worker" (available 24/7 and so on) is alive and well for men too.

Additionally, I am sure it comes as no surprise that some men find the burden of being the main breadwinner overwhelming. So by including this awareness in your conversations, asking questions and helping those around you notice these limitations, you are again taking a powerful step to maintain their engagement and potentially their commitment to act.

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