How the “Good Guys” in the C-Suite Think About Gender Equity
And thoughts on helping them become stronger advocates
By Patrick Ford
This qualitative dive into male perspectives serves to create a snapshot of the beliefs of corporate, senior-level men who are regarded by female colleagues as supporters of gender equity in the workplace. I wanted to know the following:
- What motivates these men to care about gender equity in the workplace?
- What do they believe causes the underrepresentation of women in senior levels?
- What do they believe are the best ways to promote gender equity?
- What are the gaps in their knowledge and/or commitment?
I spoke with fifteen senior-level men who had been identified by female colleagues as champions of gender equity in their workplace. The men came from several different industries including finance, consulting, retail, and technology. The companies were all medium-sized to large, spanning a few thousand to a few hundred thousand employees. While these leaders have varying opinions and perspectives, this post highlights seven fairly consistent perspectives and findings:
- Male champions see diversity as a competitive advantage
- Male champions see women’s role as primary caretaker as the main obstacle to female representation
- Male champions’ views are linked to personal experiences rather than complex analysis
- Male champions haven’t fully grasped the extent of the impacts of unconscious bias
- Male champions think overt sexism and sexual harassment is largely gone from the senior levels of the companies they work in
- Some men think biology contributes to the lack of gender diversity in the workplace
- Male champions see change happening, albeit slowly
This post delves into each of these seven perspectives and findings, before exploring perspectives linked to #MeToo and the role of men in promoting gender equity. A “Takeaway” is listed under each section to aid equity advocates.
A note on intersectionality and the gender binary
I focused on gender to limit the length and scope of this post and also because the conversation on gender in the workplace is the most widely had (e.g. googling “gender in the workplace” produces almost twice as many results as “race in the workplace”). Other aspects of identity are very important to someone’s experience of the workplace — and so are the intersections of multiple identities.
Additionally, the language in this post falls into a gender binary. This post is meant to be a snapshot of perceptions and beliefs, and I believe the language in the post accurately reflects the reality of corporate conversations and research about gender, which fall into a gender binary. This post does not accurately reflect the reality that many people don’t identify as being a man or a woman and reject the idea of a gender binary in the first place.
1. Male champions see diversity as a competitive advantage
Most of the men interviewed are familiar with research on the business case for diversity and believe that diversity is a competitive necessity, not just a moral imperative or PR strategy. One interviewee said, “We have data that shows that diverse leadership teams are more effective in terms of business results than non diverse leadership teams.”
I wondered if interviewees viewed the “business case for diversity” and corresponding academic studies touting the value of diverse teams as causational or correlational. I asked one interviewee what he would say to someone who believed that diversity isn’t truly a strategic advantage. He responded, “you mean after I stop laughing?” These men had read many studies showing that diverse teams perform better — both from universities and institutions, as well as internal studies — and also had their own anecdotal experiences confirming it. Furthermore, they see inclusive environments as prerequisites for retaining the best people. One said, “all of the data shows the major competition for talent out there, and how easy it is to lose your people, to lose really good people.”
Takeaway: Explaining (and backing up with research and anecdotal evidence) the competitive advantage of diversity and inclusion can be very persuasive for those already aligned with equity efforts and is a way to garner additional support for equity efforts.
2. Male champions see women’s role as primary caretaker as the main obstacle to female representation
The main obstacle to equity, that almost every man cited, was the societal practice of women being the primary caretaker. The prevailing sentiment is that when it comes to families and business, “one cannot have it all.” Many of the men I spoke with are frustrated with the current popular belief that individuals can be both primary caretakers and achieve the same level of advancement and success in the workplace as those who are solely committed to their careers. One man put it this way: “Women take off more time from work for childbearing than do men. More women drop out of the workforce than do men. Therefore there are fewer of them available as capable and as experienced. It’s just math.”
A few of them cited women who had become senior leaders but who had a male partner who did the primary caretaking: “Successful, high powered, female executives are not working flex time and home for dinner every night. They’re not spending time with their kids. They’re working.” One of them said that he took a backseat in his career at one point in order to become the primary caretaker for his children.
Most of them agreed that companies certainly can optimize the experience of parents in their departure for a child, reentry after time off, and balancing parental roles with work, but that there simply are tradeoffs for career advancement. One man was very pointed in his views on this subject. He said, “If people are putting in more work and providing more value, then they’re going to be better rewarded. There’s a prevailing view that we need to come up with a system whereby there are no tradeoffs. This isn’t possible and we’ve ended up with a facade that there aren’t tradeoffs. But there are. And most of the C-suite is white men who all made the tradeoffs we’re claiming don’t have to be made.”
I include more comments on this subject because it was the primary reason in most men’s minds as to why women are underrepresented. Understanding their perspective is vital to making any progress on gender equity.
- “Should people advance at the same rate if they don’t do the parts of work that make being a parent difficult? Where do you draw the line on creating a special plan for an individual?”
- “I made tradeoffs by not being with my kids as much. My wife wasn’t willing to make that tradeoff. If someone’s going to put in more time and be more available and travel more, how can you compare that to those who don’t? There are creative ways to help, but you’re always paying a slight premium.”
- “You can be a caretaker for children or elderly parent, but you’re not going to be on track for advancement. So people do have to ultimately make a choice too.”
- “There are trade offs, and if you’ve decided that you want your primary focus to be your children for five or six or 10 years of your life, you’re not going to advance. You are going to lose momentum in your career.”
Takeaway: Because primary caretaking appears, to most of these men, to be the main obstacle for women’s advancement in the workplace, if we want to move this conversation forward, we need to show that the real problem lies with other obstacles (and how to address those) and either create plans that address their concerns or show that the real problem lies with other obstacles (and how to address those).
3. Male champions’ views are linked to personal experiences rather than complex analysis
I started each conversation by asking the following question: “Why do we see such a huge drop off of women in the corporate world from 50% entry level to 20% C-suite, and 17% to 3% for women of color?” The most common answer (as stated above) was related to expectations and commitments linked to caregiving.
In addition to “primary caretaking,” some men gave additional explanations for female underrepresentation, but there wasn’t consistency in these other responses. Also, the secondary explanations were almost always directly related to the interviewees firsthand experience (i.e. seeing a new mother leaving the workforce, seeing a lack of female mentors).
This contrasts with my understanding that there’s a self-reinforcing web of many interrelated obstacles, many of which aren’t obvious or even visible. Upon asking the interviewees about whether other obstacles play significant roles (i.e. unconscious bias, internalized sexism, personal and professional networks, etc.) they mostly agreed. When I brought up these other obstacles, the men would sometimes display an understanding of them, even though they didn’t bring these obstacles up themselves. This indicated that they knew about these different obstacles generally, but not in a way they applied to their own workplaces.
Takeaway: Leaders need a comprehensive, clear, and nuanced problem definition for what causes the underrepresentation of women in their companies. This is necessary to truly take on this issue in all of its complexity. Additional education is required for conceptual understanding and motivation to solve the problem.
Furthermore, women chose the men for this snapshot because they’ve demonstrated care and leadership for gender equity, but they do not see it as a top priority. One man put it this way: “if you’re about to go bankrupt, this is a pretty unimportant issue.”
4. Male champions haven’t fully grasped the extent of the impacts of unconscious bias
A common response to questions about unconscious bias was something along the lines of “this is a major problem and probably a bigger problem than I give it credit for,” though, again, unconscious bias was rarely cited as a primary cause of the underrepresentation of women in the C-suite. Most of the interviewees also defined unconscious bias primarily as “an over rewarding of familiarity and sameness” or “tribalism.” This leaves out the less palatable fact that stereotypes also create the perception of diminished competence in target groups, regardless of sameness. About half of interviewees stated that unconscious bias must be affecting their personal decision-making in ways, even if they’re not totally clear what those are. Unconscious bias affects people of all genders, so the fact that only half of the interviewees mentioned it affecting them personally shows a gap in their ownership of it.
Takeaway: Most men had a general understanding of unconscious bias, but couldn’t directly name how it is (or might be) affecting their companies in specific ways or themselves personally — further education that allows reflecting on their own biases will be crucial.
5. Male champions think overt sexism and sexual harassment is largely gone from the senior levels of the companies they work in
Almost all of the interviewees also said that unconscious bias plays a much larger role the underrepresentation of women in senior leadership positions than explicit sexism and sexual harassment. A lot of the men said they don’t see sexism and sexual harassment in their daily work lives. A few quotes on sexism and harassment:
- “Every time I hear about stuff like Weinstein I get really surprised. Then people say don’t be so surprised.”
- “I don’t think [overt sexism] has a big effect on careers at my company.”
- “It’s probably been 10 years since I’ve seen blatant sexism in the workplace.”
- “In high-level corporate jobs I think discrimination is almost all unconscious. I think there are very few people in the world of senior level corporate people who are sexist because they actually believe that women are inferior.”
Takeaway: I would imagine that many women in the workplace would have very different answers to the question of how prevalent sexism and sexual harassment are. These men also may not be thinking of different types of overt sexism, such as a manager not wanting to overwhelm a female employee so they give her less stressful work that doesn’t build her skills or career as quickly. This is another gap for these men to better understand — how common these incidents are and how big of an effect they can have on careers and lives. It is also important for leaders to understand that there are more overt sexism and subtle types of sexism — both are critical to understand and tackle.
6. Some men think biology contributes to the lack of gender diversity in the workplace
When asked directly about it, about half of men said biology relates to the underrepresentation of women in the workplace. They cited that aggressive men do better in male dominated workplaces. Most made clear that aggression is not inherently a better way to do business, but it is rewarded in today’s corporate climate: “Men are more aggressive, take up more space. This isn’t better for business, but it is the dominant culture.” Those who cited biology as influencing workplace behavior also mentioned that a female desire to caretake (and therefore leave the workforce to be mothers) is probably also biological. “There’s a reason why women are wired to have feelings for their kids that are different than men’s. But there’s obviously a distribution of this: not all men and women are this way. And some of this is social too.”
The other half said that biology does not play a role in how men and women behave in the workplace. One said, “I don’t think biology plays a role in men’s overrepresentation. We’re making partnerships and complex decisions based on data, not lifting weights. Furthermore, I think people who are very aggressive in a corporate environment don’t get very far.”
Takeaway: There’s no data that suggests men’s overrepresentation in the workplace has anything to do with biology, rather than cultural norms and waning historical trends. More education on this topic would be very useful, including on how aggression is valued and rewarded, as well as the double-standard around the word “aggressive” and how it’s mostly used as a compliment when describing men but a pejorative when describing women.
7. Male champions see change happening, albeit slowly
Almost all the men I talked to said something along the lines of “there have been big strides over the past few decades, and change is happening, but very slowly.” All men explicitly, or implicitly, agreed that the workplace has been and continues to be more challenging for women than for men.
Many of the men are hopeful that incoming generations will be more inclusive. One man said, “Progress is very clear. When I speak to my father about all of this he’s clueless. Then I look at my children, who this is so much more natural for — comfort with diversity, sexual diversity, gender diversity, racial diversity.”
Aside from that, the hopes and concerns were pretty individual. Some men were finding that most talk of increasing diversity and inclusion in both their workplaces, and more broadly, is just that — mostly talk. Others felt like their companies had made great strides in entry level hiring and inclusive environments, but advancement and retention at senior levels continues to thwart progress.
Takeaway: If leaders believe that they’ve done all they can, and that progress is simply going to be slow, then that’s exactly what’s going to happen. If we expect the status quo, we’re going to get the status quo. We need to move past the narrative that “change has to be slow.”
There was a wide split in how these men viewed the #MeToo movement. About a third of the men were worried about the effects of #MeToo on men’s willingness to mentor women or have individual meetings with women. The other two-thirds hadn’t really noticed any real changes in their day-to-day work lives. One comment bridges these two gaps: “Men ask me if is it okay to take this woman to coffee because they’re my mentee, but they’re worried about what it might look like, and I tell them ‘don’t be stupid’ of course they should go.” On the other hand, the men who do feel a heightened awareness of the risk of being called out for the appearance of inappropriate behavior were mostly already thinking about these dynamics before #MeToo. One of these interviewees said, “I absolutely think about my interactions with female colleagues. I’ve always been a little overly cautious about stuff like that cause you just never know. I don’t do closed door meetings with anyone.”
Takeaway: #MeToo was a wakeup call for many men, even if they don’t notice the sexual harassment and sexual assault themselves. There’s increased hesitance on the part of some men to interact with women.
So what can be done? The role of men in gender equity
The interviewees had a wide array of ideas on the role of men in gender equity, with each interviewee naming around 3–4 actions they thought men could do to be advocates. These were mostly consistent with their thoughts on what causes the underrepresentation of women. For example, if they believed underrepresentation was caused by a lack of sponsorship for women, they would say that men could sponsor women. Answers included that men can:
- Provide sponsorship and mentorship
- Acknowledge the long road ahead
- Continue to educate oneself
- Call out sexist behavior
- Make actionable DEI goals and make them public
Takeaway: The fact that each interviewee had named just a few actions (rather than pointing to a complex web of reasons) suggests, again, that they lack a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of this issue. Again, if men aren’t seeing the multifaceted nature of the different obstacles, they’re not going to be able to address them in their complexity.
I believe that most of the men I spoke with would agree that they have gaps in skills and understanding, and would like to improve the underrepresentation of women. The good news is that there’s a lot of eagerness to learn more. It also seems to me that most of these men weren’t sure how the various obstacles discussed (e.g. unconscious bias, sexual harassment, lack of sponsorship for women) affect their companies on a day-to-day basis. Naming the specific ways these obstacles manifest in their own companies could be a valuable beginning to a conversations about taking action.
Most of these men were white, and many of them brought up race and the underrepresentation of people of color in their companies and leadership teams. The men who brought it up did so because they felt like gender equity was at least getting ample air time (even if they didn’t feel progress was happening quickly enough). They felt that racial equity was rarely talked about. Additional conversations with senior leaders on how they view race in their workplaces — and intersections with gender, sexual orientation, and other identity aspects — could also be very helpful in moving the DEI conversation forward.