30 Apr. 2015 | Comments (0)

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A friend, browsing the UN’s HeForShe gender equality website, was surprised to see Matt Damon speaking out for women’s rights. The intervention by the Hollywood actor and ultimate tough-guy star of the Bourne trilogy went against perceived type. And it made a big impression.

Businesses now widely accept the case for gender-balanced leadership. But if faster progress is to be made, men in the corporate world need to take a leaf out of Damon’s book. It takes time and conscious effort to change patterns of behavior in organizations that were built by men, for men. However, when the impetus for that change comes from an unexpected quarter, it can have a galvanizing effect.

For too long, women have had to push on their own to gain access to top roles. I’ve lost count of the gender conferences I’ve attended where the audience has been almost wholly female. The default position in many companies still is to appoint a woman to head the “diversity” drive. Companies focus much of their gender efforts on women, not men: women’s networks, women’s leadership programs, mentoring and sponsorship for women. When men are enlisted, it is often as supporters and cheerleaders, on the sidelines.

Such steps are not enough. They will have little impact unless those who hold power acknowledge that they are accountable and become deeply involved in the change process.
Real progress on gender can only happen when men and women take joint responsibility for driving change together.

Elizabeth Broderick, Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner, knew this when she approached influential CEOs to establish Male Champions of Change, a campaign to persuade companies to do a better job of promoting women. They took up her challenge because they knew it made business sense. They have taken action on many fronts: introducing gender pay transparency, encouraging greater flexibility about how work is done, and refusing to speak on panels unless women are also represented.

Ansgar Gabrielsen, then Norway’s trade and industry minister, probably also had an inkling of the importance of a different voice in the debate when he pushed through a 40% gender quota for listed company boards to an initially hostile reception. He argued that legislation was needed to break the old pattern of appointments, and that it was a matter of economic competitiveness to make best use of Norway’s highly educated women. It was the first country to introduce board quotas, and today balanced boards are “business as usual” there.

Michel Landel, CEO of Sodexo, the French-headquartered international services group, is a still rare male business leader in Europe who speaks out on gender. Under his leadership, along with Rohini Anand, Sodexo’s determined chief diversity officer, the company has raised the proportion of women on its Executive Committee to 43%. His three pieces of advice for business leaders, given in an interview I conducted for The Conference Board, are that the drive on gender must report to the CEO; that it requires continued investment; and that the job must never be considered done. “The right objective is to be at least at 50% in all dimensions because this is the reality of the world, because if you want to attract talent and keep talent and be competitive in the world, you have to have the best people.” 

Why don’t more male business leaders speak out and take action like this? Is it, as many women believe, that alpha males fundamentally do not want to give up power? While this is no doubt true of some of them, it’s far from the full story. I’ve met many men who want gender parity. They long to escape from the straitjacket that dictates how men are supposed to behave in the business world. But they often feel excluded from the conversation, or they see it as someone else’s responsibility. Ironically, by failing to challenge the stereotypes that hold women back, they thus perpetuate the stereotypes about the corporate male.

There are plenty of reasons why men who want change should join the action now – not least because of the priceless legacy they will leave by doing so. But don’t just take my word for it. Listen to the men who are leading the way.


This blog was first published in French in Harvard Business Review France on Feb 4, 2015.

View our complete listing of Diversity & Inclusion blogs.

  • About the Author: Alison Maitland

    Alison Maitland

    Alison Maitland is a Senior Fellow, Human Capital at The Conference Board. In this role, Alison supports the Human Capital Practice which includes The Conference Board Human Capital Exchange™, r…

    Full Bio | More from Alison Maitland


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