What men really think about gender equality

Many male CEOs say one thing in public and another behind closed doors, but progress cannot come without an open debate.

by Christine Armstrong
Last Updated: 22 Jul 2019

At a recent breakfast meeting in a smart London club, the audience listened intently to a Number 10 policy adviser talking about gender pay gap reporting and what a success the policy is. Lots of highly engaged people nodded and talked about how progress is being made and what more needs to be done. The problem? As usual at these events, the audience was almost entirely female.

To be precise, in a room of 35 people, only three were men – one of whom rushed off early "to deal with something important". This familiar dynamic means we know quite a lot about what junior and senior women think about gender issues at work but do not have much insight into the male perspective. Especially the opinions of men with power. So Management Today set out to ask them.

Aside from a few outspoken supporters of gender equality, many men seemed reluctant to have the conversation. The kind of people who would generally chat about almost anything were surprisingly unavailable. After prevaricating about the real issues for a while, one leader told us what he really thought. Only to email later and insist he "went off on one" and shouldn’t have said what he did.

"As a white, heterosexual bloke, you dare not comment. Whatever you say, someone responds with: ‘Well how would you know?’ I suppose the point is that it feels like it did to be a woman in a room of men 20 years ago. It’s belittling, you feel excluded and minimised," he told us.

"It can feel like you’re engaged in some sort of gang warfare, where no-one can express a divergent view. It drives the exact reverse of what they [supporters of equality] are trying to achieve. People disengage. They give up on healthy discussion, you can’t passionately debate things and disagree any more. It’s best not to say what you think."

Although the gender debate rightly continues whether or not men are in the room, this is clearly a lost opportunity. The business rewards of greater gender diversity are potentially huge, with benefits that accrue not only to women but to men and wider society.

McKinsey’s 2018 report Delivering Through Diversity shows that gender diversity in leadership correlates to better financial performance and value creation: companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 21 per cent more likely to outperform industry average profitability than those in the bottom quartile.

This makes sense when you remember that between 70 and 80 per cent of consumer purchases are driven by women, and that gender has been shown to be a better predictor of behaviour than ethnicity, class, age, income or geography. If women are your customers, you surely want your business to have a fair share of them in decision-making roles.   

Preaching to the converted

Such evidence is proclaimed widely at events such as the aforementioned breakfast meeting, but this preaching-to-the-choir approach doesn’t seem to be working. Indeed, given all the government, media and business focus on gender issues, especially the pay gap and the number of female business leaders, it is striking how little progress is being made.

The gender pay gap improved slightly this year (to a median of 9.6 per cent) and almost 29 per cent of board positions in the FTSE 100 are now held by women. Yet many of those women occupy non-executive roles, the overall number is much lower among FTSE 250 companies and the number of women in full-time FTSE executive roles actually fell last year, according to analysts at Cranfield University. 

Meanwhile, the gender pay gap for bonuses has widened and we still only have seven female CEOs in the FTSE 100. (Penny James, former chief financial officer at Direct Line, has taken over from outgoing CEO Paul Geddes, who will leave at the end of July, but Véronique Laury plans to step down as the head of Kingfisher once a successor is named.)

It is not just a UK problem – no country is forecast to achieve gender equality by 2030, according to the SDG Gender Index, which ranks 129 countries on their progress towards meeting the gender elements of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Even the highest-scoring nations – Denmark tops the index with a score of 89.3 out of 100, while the UK comes 17th with 82.2 – have much more to do, especially in relation to the pay gap, female representation in powerful positions and gender-based violence.

Of course, it’s entirely unreasonable to lay the blame for slow progress solely at the feet of men (indeed, the suspicion that they will end up being cast as the bad guys may be one reason for the lack of male engagement). It is also not true to say they don’t care.

Daniele Fiandaca, co-founder of culture-change business Utopia and the Token Man initiative, has been working with leadership teams that want to address this issue. He believes those CEOs who don’t care about gender equality simply do not realise the deep impact exclusion has in the workplace. Fiandaca says those boards that do make changes generally contain leaders from under-represented groups, such as women in senior management, ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ community.

Understanding is only the first step; many question whether we know enough about what actually works, from quotas and female-only hiring shortlists to mentoring schemes and explicit pay-parity targets.

One thing we do know is that even the best gender-equality policies will achieve nothing if unsupported by cultural change. One woman told me her business had a great flexible working policy. However, anyone who actually dared to work from home was seen to be having a TTP – taking the piss – day.

Achieving the necessary cultural change will happen all the slower if men are not wholeheartedly on board with the mission. That may mean letting them say what they really think, not shutting them out for fear their ideas might be deemed unacceptable or politically incorrect. The mixed results we are seeing on gender diversity at work may be linked as much to what isn’t said as what is.

There are a few stand-out examples of male business leaders who are prepared to speak out in public. Sir Philip Hampton, outgoing chairman of GlaxoSmithKline, heads the Hampton-Alexander Review, which aims to boost the number of women on FTSE 350 boards. And Roger Whiteside, chief executive of Greggs, was awarded an OBE in this year’s New Year Honours for promoting equality. But they remain the exception.

As can be seen from the comments below, Management Today did eventually manage to talk to a number of men – on the basis of strict anonymity – to find out what they really thought and foster a more honest, open and productive debate.

Exploring the wide range of largely unspoken but honestly held beliefs leaves two big questions: what will it take to encourage men to engage more, and what happens next? In terms of change, it is clear that the current position, where women mostly talk to other women about gender and men mostly stay silent or are excluded, is not the answer. Businesses need a more open debate so both sexes can pull together on this. But in the age of social media, where controversial or unpopular opinions can be met with a tirade of online fury, who wants to make the first move?

Judging by some of our anonymous comments, some men won’t truly sign up to gender equality but many of those who remain silent are already basically supportive.

Human resources managers will privately admit they are squeamish about having these conversations because of the risk that what emerges is uncomfortable and divisive. They can also see that once the genie is out of the bottle, closing down such debates might be worse than not starting them in the first place. Resentments could fuel a damaging backlash. So even when the spirit is willing, it feels safer to do nothing and hope things improve.  

Yet without the full participation of men – particularly leaders – we may never move the dial on gender equality. If you want to persuade, first you have to listen – even if sometimes you don’t like what you hear.


"It’s a meritocracy, men just happen to do better"

"I am proud to discriminate," says one CEO in the technology sector "in favour of talent." Another says he doesn’t "see" gender because he is Spanish and has a lot of sisters, which means everyone in his business can flourish. Both believe their companies are meritocracies and that if men dominate the senior roles, it is simply because they outperform women. They work harder, longer and deliver more value – and if a woman does the same, she is equally welcome at the top table.

However, according to one CEO coach who works with FTSE clients, plenty of men simply don’t care about the issue. "They see themselves as big swinging dicks who know how to get stuff done. They are control freaks who have no interest in divergent views," he says. "If you look at the high-street banks, it is rare to see women in the ‘street cred’ roles, the operational heads. Alison Rose at RBS is very unusual in that respect."

One banker explains what he sees in the level above him: "The alpha men see calls for more women as ‘PC gone mad’. They don’t think women are up to the job because they have only ever seen men do it. All the leaders they look up to are aggressive men." 

A head of team at an investment bank describes a senior woman for whom he has a lot of respect: "She is unusual in having that role. She behaves just like the men do and, if she were a man, they would say she is ‘tough’, ‘a bit rough around the edges’, ‘a big guy’. But because she is a woman they call her ‘crazy’ and say she ‘has issues’ and ‘a bee in her bonnet about gender’."

Women who do enter those environments, adds the CEO coach, "often struggle to achieve their goals because the culture is wholly at odds with how they work, so they leave to go somewhere more supportive. This confirms the view that women aren’t up to it."


"Women have the advantage at the expense of male colleagues"

When asked about gender equality, one board member describes hiring a chief information officer. There were no women on the operational board so headhunters were asked to look for strong female candidates. A woman was found and offered the role at the same salary as the previous job holder. She told the board she wanted an extra 10 per cent because female CIOs are highly sought after. The CEO was furious and considered withdrawing the offer but the increase was agreed.   

A civil servant says that all his male colleagues think there is no point in men applying for promotions because "women must now be given the jobs to improve the metrics". He adds that it doesn’t feel right, even if you philosophically welcome more diversity.

Women in many businesses report that the men around them are increasingly irritated by policies designed to help women get and keep senior roles.

A female partner at a large consultancy says the men in her business openly talk "all the time" about how they are overlooked and under-supported compared with women, who get coaching, mentoring, more access to flexible work, regular talks and a support group. "They wonder if they are second-class citizens these days," she says. 

Related to this is the increasing concern about legal complaints since the rise of #MeToo. Following cases of inappropriate behaviour, subtle messages have circulated through many organisations warning men to be careful about taking younger women to business lunches or travelling for fear of further complaints. As one leader puts it: "Men may see more reasons not to hire women. An American asset manager told me that, since #MeToo, they’ve decided not to hire women – it’s just too much hassle."


"It’s the family that must adapt, not the firm"

"Law firms are not a job-creation scheme. Like a Premier League football club, they hire a lot of people and only a few make it on to the pitch," says a former legal partner. "The truth is that it’s hard to have two parents doing super-big, well paid, 14-hour-a-day jobs, something has to give. Nine times out of 10 it is the woman who steps back."

Changing working patterns and technology may actually exacerbate the situation, he adds. "I see the hours getting worse. It’s become much easier to work from home – or anywhere – all day and all night, and lawyers are as bad as everyone else at responding to that."

As for sharing roles and, therefore, compensation, he is unconvinced: "Look, I never imagined that I would be paid what I ended up being paid as a partner. But once I was paid that money, I couldn’t imagine what costs I could possibly cut. I had a colleague who said the middle-class minimum wage was really £300K, once you took into account school fees, a skiing holiday and a decent house. He said that a few years ago." 

The view is that women, like men, have a choice. They can choose to work this way or they can choose to drop out or change roles. The choice cuts both ways – a CEO in hospitality, who is proud of his company’s very small gender pay gap, admits: "I support senior women… but would I hire a 32-year-old woman who’d just got married? Honestly, probably not. The business would invest too much time in her and she probably wouldn’t come back after having kids."


"It’s the PR that matters"

Stories abound of huge panics before the publication of gender pay gap reports and screaming rows between communications and HR over how to account for bad results. That resonates with one board strategist, who says he nearly got kicked out of a recent leadership meeting when the subject of gender pay gap reporting came up.

"Last year I stealthed in a bunch of stuff on diversity of experience and background, because we can’t lead in an industry that is being transformed by external factors if we are still using the same thinking and experience gained in 50 years of incumbency," he says.

"The CEO had it on his tick-box list of things he had to report to the board. And, of course, we either haven’t hired people like that or, when we have, they have left fairly quickly. He demanded to know why we hadn’t hired more people who think and act outside the box. But he only says this because the board asks him and he thinks they worry about the headlines."


"I do care but saying so publicly doesn’t do me any favours"

Speaking out on gender issues at work can pose risks, say some senior men. "It doesn’t seem a very manly thing to do," admits one leader. Others believe that less progressive senior male colleagues may not like it, while one transport leader admits that it’s been clear ever since he was a child (and was hit in the face in the playground for preferring to play with girls) that supporting women is sometimes best done discreetly.

Meanwhile, another issue gets flagged by one leader, who says you have to bear in mind the potential for relationships and office gossip. "It can be hard to do the right thing," he says. "I always try to hire teams with a 50:50 gender split but even my wife always asks me if the new hires are pretty." He fears his colleagues may wink at each other and say: "Oh him, he’s a fan of the ladies," which isn’t quite the reputation he is hoping for.


"We need to do more on gender but I’m not sure what works"

"There are two kinds of CEO when it comes to gender equality. Those who don’t give a shit and the rest of us who do give a shit but have no idea what we are doing," says a retail chief who gets points for honesty. He goes on to describe a support process that is being driven by a small group of senior women in the business.

The CEO has given them a budget and is largely guided by their thinking. He has tried to involve men in the process but often feels unsure about whether the best decisions are being taken. For example, a recent public celebration of successful women drew fire from women, who thought it patronising, and men, who felt excluded.

Another CEO describes hiring a country manager using an all-female shortlist. The headhunter objected, as did the previous holder of the job, but the process went ahead and a strong candidate was chosen. "Having an all-woman shortlist took gender off the table and meant I really was evaluating on the basis of talent alone," he says.

But the boss now admits he is unsure about whether to tell the candidate or the management team about the all-women shortlist. "I want more women in the senior team and I want to do the right thing: but I don’t want her to feel like a special appointment and I don’t want others to think she was selected unfairly."

Image credit: Pixabay/Pexels

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