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In the Nation's Interest

Help Wanted: Male Advocates

By Paula Stern

Research shows that empowering women economically invigorates corporate America and could lead to an increase in U.S. GDP. Yet, female representation on corporate boards in the U.S. is fourteen percent nationwide.

While the CED report, titled “Fulfilling the Promise: How More Women on Corporate Boards Would Make America and America Companies More Competitive,” shows that there has been some progress in gender diversity, women clearly need allies to advocate for equality. Although women make 85 percent of all consumer purchases in the U.S., women still earn less than men, and men largely control access to greater economic opportunities. How can women break into this “men’s club” and achieve equality?

One answer is male advocacy. The National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) published a recent study that provides ten tips for men who wish to advocate for a greater role for women in the workplace. These tips, though formulated for the technology sector, have broad applicability, in the boardroom and out. Here they are:

1. Listen to women’s stories, and find inspiration to act: Women can expose men to various workplace biases that otherwise go unnoticed, and inspire men to step up and advocate for change.

2. Talk to other men: Getting other men involved is crucial to changing the status quo, because men have more success in determining which of their peers will be receptive to serving as “champions of change.”

3. Seek ways to recruit women: This may include inviting qualified female applicants to apply for open positions and insisting on a hiring pool that includes women. Rather than implementing a quota, this strategy ensures that women and men have the same chance to be interviewed for, and hired for, the same opportunities.

4. Increase the visibility and number of female leaders: Raising the number of visible, qualified female employees, particularly in leadership roles, indicates that women are valued contributors and that their achievements will be recognized and rewarded.

5. Mentor and sponsor women: Mentor/sponsor relationships help women navigate “hidden rules” in a company’s culture and spotlight their contributions to the enterprise by promoting their accomplishments and assisting their advancement. Sponsors benefit from the high quality work generated by a protégé, and the protégé benefits from the sponsor’s advocacy and access to the upper echelons of company management.

6. Notice and correct micro-inequities and instances of unconscious bias: The most important step a male advocate can take is to raise awareness of these biases in the workplace, because they frequently go unnoticed by other males.

7. Establish accountability metrics: When gender diversity is a metric upon which employee performance is evaluated, changes will occur.

8. Model alternate work-life strategies and encourage use of existing policies: There is a common belief that women are held back professionally by focusing on child rearing or caregiving instead of work. However, forty percent of professional women do not have children by age 40, and still find themselves stuck and unable to advance. Flex time and work-life balance policies exist in many companies, but company culture can discourage their use. If leadership takes advantage of these benefits more openly, others in the company will not hesitate to do the same, making work-life balance an ingrained part of company culture.

9. Make discussions of gender less risky: Men are more easily able to address gender issues in the workplace because they are not seen as speaking in their own self-interest. Establishment of a “safe zone” where junior employees can air their concerns without fear of retribution can facilitate these difficult discussions.

10. Work with formal and informal women’s groups: Apart from attending meetings and listening, male members of these groups can serve as liaisons between the group and other more male-dominated teams within an organization.

To persuade men to advocate for women, there are both a business and a moral case. It just makes good economic sense to promote female talent; the CED report established that the presence of females in top leadership has a positive impact on a company’s performance. Ensuring a competitive workforce with equal pay and a diverse corporate environment equips companies to reach a wider customer base and encourages more innovative thinking and outcomes.

Business arguments hook men into the initial conversation, while the moral argument – “it’s just the right thing to do!” – motivates men to take action. Both arguments are essential in convincing men to step up to be advocates for women in the workplace.

Paula Stern, Ph.D., is Chairwoman of The Stern Group, Inc. in Washington, D.C. Dr. Stern has served on seventeen different public corporate boards over the course of her career. She has been a member of the Committee for Economic Development since 1999.

Trustee blogs are the views of an individual trustee and not the official policy of CED.