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How to Be a Male Feminist at Work

This piece is part of an in-depth series on Women at Work. For regular updates on gender issues ‘like’ our Facebook Page and sign up to The Gender Agenda weekly email digest.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year I sat on a panel with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who managed to out-feminist a group of speakers that included Sheryl Sandberg and Melinda Gates. His now famous rationale for gender parity last year – “because it’s 2015” – sums up our exasperation at a situation that seems illogical, yet remains pervasive across most organizations.

As a freshly minted CEO a few years ago, I sent personal letters to each top leader in the company outlining my goals for talent development and gender parity at ManpowerGroup. Besides it being the right thing to do, I believe having a gender balance also leads to better decision-making and better results; you need diverse perspectives to navigate a rapidly evolving world, where old assumptions can be dangerous to the long-term health of the business.

Still, changing the entrenched thinking and unconscious biases that have prevented women from advancing for so long can be challenging – even in 2016.

Depending on which study you believe, at our current plodding pace it could take anywhere from 22 to 118 years (see the World Economic Forum’s research) to achieve equal opportunities for women in the workplace. Setting aside for a moment the unfairness of that, it’s also unsustainable from a demographic perspective. In our annual Talent Shortage Survey last year, 38% of employers reported difficulty filling open employment positions. As we enter the Human Age – an era in which talent overtakes capital as the key economic differentiator, with populations ageing and workforces shrinking – the pressure is on for employers to tap every available source of talent; just ask Japan, Italy or Germany.

Tackling 'an entrenched male culture'

Obviously gender parity is not an overnight transition, and that is particularly true in leadership roles. It takes a certain track record and set of experiences before anyone will trust you to lead a company, so making sure women get equal and purposeful access to those opportunities from the start is critical. As with any leadership decision, the key is asking yourself, where does the organization need to be in 10 years, and then taking the practical, deliberate steps to get there.

At ManpowerGroup we recently interviewed 222 leaders globally – 72 from ManpowerGroup and 150 from other organizations – to better understand the obstacles preventing women from reaching senior positions. Our research culminated in the report Seven Steps to Conscious Inclusion: A Practical Guide to Accelerating More Women into Leadership, intended to offer actionable solutions for organizations that are serious about gender parity in senior roles.

By and large, both women and men agreed the key challenge is an “entrenched male culture”. That can range from something as basic as who the CEO invites to lunch, to more structural issues like workplace policies or promotion criteria. I don’t think most male leaders are intentionally biased against their female colleagues, but we do need to take a hard look at the culture we create and whether it is aligned to produce the results we want. If you have no female candidates for your organization's top jobs, it’s probably time to look in the mirror.

To reach our goal, male leaders need to challenge assumptions. Women are often less confident about their ability to take the next step up, and if you look at that through a traditional lens you might think that they don’t want it as much – you’d be wrong. Instead of saying, “she doesn’t have the experience,” why not ask, “what do we need to make it work?” With a little self-awareness and imagination, we start to see ways around these cultural stumbling blocks.

From 'pink ghettos' to talent pipelines

It’s also important for organizations to take a hard look at their talent pipelines. Women tend to be clustered in certain professions or functions – “pink ghettos” as our female chief human resource officer likes to describe them. To really shift the needle you need women in the more technical or business roles too, managing revenue streams and driving the business in P&L and operational roles. Organizations that primarily look at women’s participation as a programmatic issue many times miss this and then wonder why they don’t have any women on track for senior-level jobs a decade later.

Ultimately, our research confirmed what we already know – change starts at the top. Culture is not the sort of thing you can delegate. The CEO has to own it, communicate it and measure it. My senior leaders know that growing workforce diversity is one of their key performance indicators each year. It’s basic accountability; people can come up with a reason to justify every hiring decision, but they can’t explain away a trend backed by data.

At ManpowerGroup today, a third of our board and half of our emerging leaders are female. I am pleased with our progress but not yet satisfied. We are relentlessly committed to doing better, and I'm optimistic we’ll see more of it from ourselves and others in 2016.