While we have seen some progress in women's status politically, socially, culturally and economically worldwide, there is still a lot more to be done to increase their representation at workplaces. If women are paid equal to men, there will be a substantial improvement in the prosperity, health, stability and security of societies. Research indicates that increasing the level of employment among women could lead to an increase in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of many countries across the globe, for example by 27% in India, 12% in the United Arab Emirates, 11% in Italy, 9% in Brazil and Japan, and 5% in the United States.
We need senior-level leaders who can actively support equal rights for women—men who can play an important role as sponsors and mentors.
Yet Catalyst research indicates that many economies are missing out on the talent of their women workforce. One of the major reasons for this is the existence of an unconscious bias that holds women back. Some of the other barriers to women's advancement at work include gender bias and stereotyping, lack of role models, lack of or fewer mentors and sponsors, and exclusion from informal networks. Even people who believe in and strive for gender equality have unconscious biases, and it is time for people to be aware of these issues and respond proactively by combating their existence.
What needs to happen?
We need people—especially men—in positions of power to support and make a change to the status quo. We need senior-level leaders who can actively support equal rights for women—men who can play an important role as sponsors and mentors. They are a critical yet often untapped resource in diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts. For companies looking to eliminate gender bias and create a more inclusive work environment, seeking resources from such engaged leaders—those sponsors and mentors—leverages untapped opportunities to promote real change.
We need to figure out how to better engage men as allies, particularly in intentional and bold ways. However, before putting in efforts to support the achievement of equality, it is important to first acknowledge that inequality exists. Most men see equality as a "women's issue" that is irrelevant to them. Endorsement of women's networks establishes an "us-vs.-them" mindset among some, while others simply choose to be ignorant of the issue. Some even fear that encouraging women will lead to fewer opportunities for men. According to Catalyst research, apathy, fear and ignorance are the barriers that can undermine men's support for gender initiatives. They need to be addressed by communicating the benefits men can gain from a more diverse and inclusive workplace. There is nothing to fear from equality.
Organizations can remove these barriers and engage men to promote gender equality by appealing to men's sense of fairness, exposing them to male leaders who champion inclusion, providing them with women mentors, and inviting them to discussions. Research also shows that men gain substantial personal benefits such as freedom to be themselves, better health, and the ability to share financial concerns with a spouse or partner when working in a place free of gender bias.
Apathy, fear and ignorance are the barriers that can undermine men's support for gender initiatives.
Engaging men as allies involves trust between men and women, which cannot be imposed but must be earned. It is quite a time-consuming process, but it starts us on the path toward creating an inclusive work environment. Several organizations and communities have been formed for the purpose of getting men to champion this cause. One example is Men Advocating Real Change (MARC), which is a learning community for professionals committed to achieving equality in the workplace. MARC empowers community members to engage in candid conversations about gender and inequality, its impact in the workplace, and how to lead change through insights and best practices.
In the journey of engaging men, it is essential to have intentional leaders who can bring in change and diversity through team citizenship, employee innovation, and an inclusive culture at the workplace. Such leaders make a conscious choice to involve every individual and embrace their differences. They see others' struggles as their own, and fundamentally believe that strength as a team doesn't lie in establishing similarities, but in leveraging differences. This way, we can expect a bright future ahead with a level playing field for one and all.
By Shachi Irde, Executive Director, Catalyst India WRC