Achieving gender parity in the workplace has never been a simple goal. The obstacles to true equality are abundant. It seems that every time humanity manages to scale one, more pop up on the horizon. The good news is that the research is clear: Diverse companies perform better. Yet more recent research suggests that women and people of color who bring up diversity issues or hire a nonwhite or female employee are actually seen in a negative light by their coworkers. White men, though, don’t experience the same repercussions. In order to make teams more diverse, in order for a company to reap the benefits of diversity, the shift must be largely spearheaded by straight white men.
Elizabeth Borges, Program Manager for EverwiseWomen, says, she’d already been looking for better ways to bring men into the conversation around gender parity in the workplace long before the Harvard Business Review article was published. She found the perfect opportunity in February, when Everwise was given the chance to lead a roundtable at HR.com’s Leadership Excellence and Development (LEAD) conference.
“This is a hot topic in Silicon Valley and people are talking about it,” says Borges. “Yet I feel like a lot of what is happening is the same conversation with the same people.”
If they could get ten people together to have an organized and frank discussion on gender parity, would everyone emerge with a better understanding of how to move forward and turn these goals into reality?
First, men need to show up
They called the roundtable HeforShe, after the UN campaign that’s tackling gender equality issues by involving more men. The roundtable had only 10 seats. Participants had to sign up ahead of time, and the HeforShe roundtable sold out fast.
“There was a lot of interest in this topic which I think speaks to the need to actually have a real conversation about it,” Borges says. But when the participants sat down, there were nine women and only one man.
“That was disheartening. You can’t have a conversation about how to get men involved in gender parity if men don’t even show up to the table.”
Why weren’t more men interested in this discussion? Maybe there were more men interested, but women were more passionate about the subject and signed up faster.
“How you plan a conversation very much influences how people react in response,” Borges says. “I think HeforShe she does a good job of being clear about what it means — Yet, for some reason, even that rallying cry in the context of an HR conference wasn’t sufficient in getting men interested.”
It’s also possible that privilege blinders are in play.
“I had a college professor who used to say, ‘We’re blind to what we’re blind to,’” Borges says. “I don’t think men didn’t come because they see the problem but they don’t think it’s important. I really think that a lot of them just don’t see it. They can’t. And that’s a little bit about where the empathy conversation comes in.”
Ripping away the blinders
By empathy, Borges doesn’t simply mean imagining what it must be like to be a woman in the office. That’s not a particularly helpful exercise.
“When we talk about empathy a lot of the time the frame is: All you have to do is put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and you’ll get it,” Borges says. But that’s not enough. Privilege blinders are powerful and the truth is that while people in places of privilege can easily read up on the facts of discrimination, we need to help people emotionally connect with how inequality feels in order to enact real change.
In other words, in order to begin to strip away privilege blinders, we need to find ways to connect to discrimination we’ve never experienced ourselves. And that’s not an easy task.
One of the ways Borges helps men get a little insight into what their female coworkers experience is to search their own experiences. They did this exercise at the roundtable.
“I had everyone at the table reflect on a situation where they felt like they didn’t fit in. Some time when they were an outsider. What was the emotional experience of that? And what did they need, in terms of support, from other people?”
Obviously, this is just a starting point. But when men can connect to that feeling, the change can be a powerful one. The one and only man at the table discussed his experience on a community board. At the time he was young, much younger than the other board members. He remembered how awkward he felt, how the others didn’t seem to take his views seriously. Though the roundtable only managed to attract one male participant, he did find a way to connect with the feeling of being perceived as an outsider.
An easy answer
So how much could empathy change the conversation around diversity in the workplace? It’s hard to say. And real change will require more than ripping off the blinders.
“After you raise awareness you have to make a case for why it’s important to do something about it,” Borges points out.
So while it’s important to help men get a sense of what it feels like to be female at work, it’s just as important to point out all the ways that gender parity will benefit men.
“I think the better point to make is that diversity leads to better outcomes. The more different opinions you have in the room, the better your decisions,” says Borges. “There are so many studies out there that show that diverse teams make better decisions, that companies with women on the board have better bottom lines. For whatever reason, we haven’t made that case effectively.”
So, how do we make the case? What are the next steps to bring gender parity to the workplace?
“It’s so tempting to want an easy answer,” says Borges. “But the truth is that this simply isn’t how it works. That’s just not how it works.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands. This work is messy and complicated. But that’s why we have to keep at it, that’s why we must constantly re-think our methods and tweak our tactics. HeforShe manages to be a great example by coming at the issue from every angle, using education, politics, and other like-minded UN and non-profit campaigns to gain traction and boost visibility. The campaign is also tracking progress in unique ways, like mapping gender equity, counting HeforShe pledges, and loudly celebrating each victory.
So far they’ve counted over a billion gender actions. That’s something to be proud of. And just think of what we’ll accomplish once we get everyone gathered around the table.