How Many Indian Men Does It Take to Change a Workplace?

01/01/2015 8:03 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
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BHOPAL, INDIA - JULY 31: Call executives attending calls after inauguration of the CM-Helpline call center by Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan on July 31, 2014 in Bhopal, India. The helpline number 181 will help people of the state to get information about all the schemes of government and status of their work. (Photo by Mujeeb Faruqui/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Question: "How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?"

Answer: "Just one, but the light bulb must really want to change!"

How many Indian men does it take to change a culture, a workplace, a team, or even one woman's career? It can start with just a few--but it can't stop there.

Research shows that women really want to advance in the workplace, and it's not their choices or aspirations that are holding them back, but a lack of inclusive workplaces. Part of the solution is to engage men in the conversation to #DisruptTheDefault.

The past year, and especially the past month, has seen a momentous shift in mindsets about men's role in fostering gender equality around the world, particularly in India. With Emma Watson converting thousands of sceptics into believers with the UN's HeForShe campaign, online communities such as MARC, and the series finale of the Indian television show Satyamev Jayate, which asked us to redefine traditional notions of "mardaangi" (manhood), awareness of men's key role in advocating for gender equity is a noticeably heightened.

Drawing from these broader movements, from my own role models and experiences and from recent events, I'd like to share the following reflections.

1. Charity--and the business case--often begin at home.

Time and again, senior Indian male leaders cite examples from their personal lives when asked how they became champions for gender equality at work. Whether it's discovering powerful role models in their mothers, or empathy for their wives' struggles to balance home and work, or recognizing that their daughters aren't being set up to succeed, many men have strong personal reasons for challenging the status quo. In a recent event I attended, a man named RC shared that growing up, he was "keenly aware of the different standards my sisters were held to" compared to him--even by his loving and 'liberal' parents in urban India. This realisation later motivated him to get involved in his company's women's network!

2. Why don't we ever ask, 'Can men have it all?'

In VJ's company and team, flexibility is the norm. In fact, the culture of flexibility is so ingrained that a manager needs to ask VJ's permission to refuse a request for flex work, not to approve it! By setting this tone at the top, VJ battles gender stereotypes by reminding employees that everyone benefits from flexible work options. It's time we consider whether our traditional way of working keeps all employees, including men, from 'having it all.' In an example closer to home, I grew up with both my parents at home--my father left his 'office' job when I was nine or ten to be an independent consultant, and my mother left hers when I was born. The money my parents might have made in the corporate world was nothing compared to the satisfaction they derived from raising their kids together, making every financial and domestic decision as a real team.

3. It's not about quotas or tokenism; it's about capitalising on differences.

BS, a managing director of a large successful company, first thought about the power of gender diversity while reflecting on a particularly tough decision his team had made. When he was repeatedly urged by the only woman in the team to consider a particular perspective, he was at first annoyed, but later he realised that her lone voice ended up improving the outcome. Now he knows it's not about one gender being better or worse; it's about celebrating--and leveraging--the differences. In conversations about whether women or men make better leaders, I always remind people that some women do and some men do! By discounting half the population, we aren't tapping into the entire available talent pool--and that's the opportunity for organisations.

4. Labels and language matter.

Men in India often hesitate to join gender diversity/inclusion efforts because of how they are positioned. 'XYZ Women's Network' and 'Gender Sensitisation for Men' are labels that repel men, even those who support the intention behind the effort. Instead, a male leader, RS, suggests it's better to invite men into the diversity council or network and call it a 'gender equality' forum, an 'inclusion' initiative, or even a 'talent network.' A man named MC suggested that instead of 'employee resource groups,' we should call them 'business resource groups' and encourage men to join and even lead them.

5. Remember, you can show your support in many ways, but benevolent sexism is not one of them.

In India's patriarchal culture, supportive male colleagues can often appear paternalistic. Considering the challenges women face with respect to safety inside and outside the workplace, managers (often men) in India currently seem to have an obligation to ensure the safety of their women employees. A savvy manager named YR realised that this 'protective' attitude can itself be a form of sexism, in that it reduces access to hot jobs and influential networks for women. YR's advice? Never assume a woman will decline an assignment out of safety concerns or family priorities--whenever such a chance comes along, just ask her! From my own experience, I know that stereotypes are often disguised as well-meaning advice by authority figures--and those are exactly the kinds of 'defaults' we have the opportunity to disrupt with intentional leadership efforts!

Men in India are at a crossroad today. They have the choice to remain silent and be a bystander to continued inequity, or to get actively involved in the effort to have an equitable society and workplace for all Indians. All it takes is a few actions by a few men to snowball into a real movement with benefits to everyone.

Please share stories below about men in your organization who DisruptTheDefault--and what others can do to help create more inclusive workplaces!

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