Diversity and inclusion echo chambers - where are all the men?

Written by
Sue Unerman

14 May 2019

14 May 2019 • by Sue Unerman

Chief transformation officer at MediaCom, Sue Unerman, explains why we need buy-in from men to make workplace D&I a true success.

There’s never been more discussion and activity around diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the workplace. Every week, evermore statistics, stories and initiatives are swirling around: from gender pay gap differentials to #MeToo fallout; from the focus on more diverse company boards to the prevalence of company-wide unconscious bias training, it seems that every company and organisation has finally grasped that change needs to happen.

But how much has really changed on the ground? Not so much. I’m often invited in by companies to talk about strategies for improving gender diversity and, more often than not, there are only a handful of men present at these events.  Increasingly frequently, and not unreasonably, a woman delegate will ask: “Where are all the men?”.

The cynical answer is, in the boardroom, still making decisions without most of the women. The statistics for the proportion of women on boards have remained slow to change. Although the latest report on FTSE 100 boards announces that the proportion of women has risen to an all-time high of 30%, most of those appointments are part-time, non-executive roles.

The number of executive women directors is still low, and in fact has dropped slightly since 2016: the proportion of executive roles held by women in those top companies is just 2%. This is despite a significant body of evidence that more diverse boards and cultures are positive for business growth and sustainability. The latest McKinsey diversity report, for example, found that gender-diverse organisations outperformed less diverse businesses by up to 21%.

Currently, too many gender-diversity initiatives are an echo chamber where women get together to talk about change but all too frequently nothing gets done. The converted are preaching to themselves, supporting each other, maybe influencing to the extent of starting the discussion – but they are ultimately failing to make real, practical progress or to effect long-lasting, organisation-wide change.

So why aren’t men more actively engaged in D&I initiatives in organisations?  Usually the answer is that they feel gender-focused events are not for them, or they would be taking spaces intended for women. Or that they have absolutely no interest in diversity initiatives, because they see absolutely nothing in it for them.

Many men do want change, in theory. But even the most open minded are often unsure how or what to do. They have no one to ask. They are unfairly characterised as ‘the problem’ which presents them with a zero-sum game, in which to play is to lose. They need help.

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, focusing on men to help them understand the barriers to workplace diversity, and providing them with some practical strategies to effect change, is likely to be more effective than focusing on women, who already understand all too well the challenges they face but are less well-placed to make a difference.

Empowering and enabling women at work should and must continue. But this will only take us so far. For diversity initiatives to flourish, men currently in power must be encouraged and supported to effect wider cultural change. Without the involvement of everyone in the workplace, diversity initiatives will not succeed.

We need to get men on board.

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom and co-author of The Glass Wall: Success strategies for women at work and businesses that mean business.