Many well-intentioned gender initiatives are still focusing on the differences between us, rather than our shared humanity. That’s what was so refreshing about attending the HeANDShe conference this week. The premise of this event was to think about what we could achieve if we came from a place of our similarities, rather than our differences. Unsurprisingly, the wise words of Jo Cox were used in the introduction, “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
Gender inequality isn’t working for anyone. From the gender pay gap, to the male suicide epidemic in this country, we simply cannot pretend that the status quo is beneficial, certainly not to young boys and girls growing up in our digitalised, globalised world.
This week alone, I’ve had two large global technology organisations on the phone asking how to engage more men in the fight for gender equality. However, something struck me whilst talking to these businesses. It’s not uncommon to hear of an all-female ‘Women’s Leadership Group’ (or similar) and then their ‘Friends of’ (read male ally groups). Male allies are great, and anyone who hasn’t seen Michael Kimmel’s TED Talk on the subject should watch it now! However this mentality, and that of a HeforShe approach implies that the men are doing this to improve the lives of women – a noble cause, but what about improving the lives of men at the same time?
I’ve written this blog to share some of the learnings from the event that really caught my attention, and will hopefully make you think about this a little more deeply.
First up was neuroscientist Dr Jack Lewis who busted some myths about the differences between male and female brains, and suggested that nurture’s impact on our neuroplasticity (use it or lose it capacity) is actually what creates our social constructs of gender, rather than our genetic makeup.
From how babies are cuddled or picked up, to how parents react when the child falls over – all of this affects how our brains become wired in a certain way. Of course we’ve also seen this movingly demonstrated in Verizon’s fantastic ad when it comes to girls, and the ‘The Mask You Live In’ video for boys.
Next up was the wonderful Natasha Devon MBE, who’s recently been vocal about how the government is really tackling children’s mental health (she’s amazing, look up her articles). She shared with us that a woman’s number one shame trigger is body image, whereas a man’s is appearing weak. Therefore urging men to ‘be ok with being vulnerable’ just isn’t going to cut it. Instead she urged us to redefine what it means to be ‘strong’. What if being strong was knowing when you need help? I urge you to watch this moving video that she shared.
Interestingly from a technology perspective (I head up our tech division), Natasha noted that we are seeing lots of praise for girls taking up STEM subjects (which is long overdue), but we now need to see the same level of praise for boys expressing emotions or showing vulnerability. Food for thought.
Thirdly, Harriet Minter from The Guardian opened with a controversial statement – that men should ask for more and women should do less. What she was discussing was parental leave and she raised some fantastic points. Citing a PwC study which revealed that 80% of 20 year old men want to take parental leave, and yet only 30% would actually ask – she highlighted something that we see a lot in our work on inclusion at PDT Global. Policy change alone does not create behaviour change. The fact that companies are improving their parental leave policies is fantastic, but until the cultural perception inside the business is addressed, we will not see this shift. Harriet called for men to demand far more of their employers to make life better for everyone. She also called for women to do less- to make space for men to be able to enjoy shared parental responsibilities. Again, something for us all to ponder as we look at how we make working life more inclusive.
Lastly, Paul Frampton of Havas Media referenced Melbourne Business School research and asked men to not merely be bystanders, but rather supporters for gender equality. He explained that he thought that all organisations had a responsibility to undergo unconscious bias awareness training as a necessary first step, but that of course is only one part of the solution.
He shared some pretty shocking stats from the media perspective. For example in adverts, only 1% of ads show women as funny, 2% show women as intelligent, 3% show women in management /leadership roles! The media has a key role to play which is why it’s great to see companies like Unilever making commitments to this.
Paul also asked us to stop thinking in binary ways – we can be tough and empathetic, vulnerable and successful. Indeed as the panel Q&A section wrapped up the evening there were many comments around not thinking of gender equality as a zero-sum game. If we could get this right we’d all reap the benefits.
In light of everything happening in the UK right now, this seems more important than ever. We cannot let inclusion be ‘a nice to have’. So ask yourself, what are you going to do about it?