Thought leadership from our experts

A few good men

Allow me to introduce you to Chris. Chris Parke is the CEO of Talking Talent, a consultancy that has been specialized for more than 10 years on gender diversity consulting and women's leadership programs.

Chris contacted me this summer asking for comments on a draft article that he is planning to publish. The article was talking about his experiences as a male leader in the gender diversity space some of which were again triggered at a recent event, a forum to celebrate 50 years of women1 at INSEAD.

The forum2 was attended by around 500 delegates the vast majority female alumni of the school, where Chris first conducted his diversity research back in 2005. We both discussed what a shame it was that more men weren't at this fabulous event and wondered why that was.

Chris, is a white, strait, father of three. I would describe him as a confident and successful business man, with a beautiful British accent and a natural talent for public speaking. To my surprise his article described how, as one of the few men attending the event at his old Alma Mata where it had all begun, brought back early memories of how difficult he initially found his new role. He explained that within female dominated events he "found public speaking a lot more difficult" and that at times he "felt like an imposter3, sat on the outside looking in". Chris described how, despite being a relative expert on the field of diversity he "played it safe, often choosing not to say what I really felt or thought for fear of offending or not being included".

He recalls vividly that in smaller groups he found himself "waiting for others to speak, often choosing to stay in the background as an observer". He even noticed that he spoke softer, and that occasionally people had to ask him to repeat what he said, or they had to lean-in forward to hear what he was saying. "There were times when I felt the conversations were on topics that I had little or nothing to add because I wasn't knowledgeable or a woman. Chats on women's fashion, breast feeding, how unsupportive husbands were, chauvinist managers and how men just don't "get it"".

Chris was reflecting how interesting it was that he experienced many of the same challenges that women present when they are working in male dominated environments and just how uncomfortable that experience can be.

I read and re-read his piece with eagerness and I was surprised to indeed recognize so many of the feelings and anecdotes he was describing. It was not only a feeling of déjà vu. It was more like: yes, I have been in that exact same situation, as recently as a few weeks ago, and I know exactly what you mean. I had flashes of very recent events while reading his text: a woman speaking in a 90 percent men conference (shall I wear my favorite office dress or play it safe with pants?); a woman observing a small act of discrimination in a mostly men meeting (shall I call it out, discuss it later with the culprit or forget about it?); a woman proposing an idea that goes unnoticed in a business strategy meeting, while 10 minutes later a male colleague proposes the same idea and it is a great idea (shall I make a joke about mansplaining, get upset or just look at the other women in the room and roll my eyes?).

It surprised me how quickly all those events and a few more came to my mind. It hurt. And yet, my main reaction to Chris's reflections was not: well, now you know how it feels like, that is learning! My reaction was: he described it so well… and I couldn't have imagined: I am sorry.

His text also made me realize that although I am very vocal advocate of diversity and inclusion, I have not given enough thought to the role of men in these processes. Yes, I have thought about the man I admire at a competing firm because he is able to walk the talk and make the numbers change. I have seen my own husband trying to make sure his team is diverse and the personal cost and time spent trying to achieve that. I think, a lot, about the fear of men losing status particularly when subjects like quotas and positive discrimination are discussed. And I have even wondered, when another women diversity initiative starts: is this one one-too-many and when is the backlash coming?

But I never thought, that men could try to avoid taking an active role on diversity initiatives due to fear of being judged by women and other men or fear of making mistakes in the process (like dropping the wrong joke on a speech about diversity), or simply because they did not know how to start.

While wondering about this, I read a very good study by Catalyst4 describing how fear, apathy and ignorance prevent men from participating on gender diversity initiatives, and we all lose. The study includes very specific and practical advice on how to engage more men on the gender diversity agenda.

My friend Chris came out with his own tips based on his experience with Talking Talent and his "aha!" moment at INSEAD. Allow me to replicate his advice in full here:

  • If men are wanting to be male advocates, sponsors, change champions, "manbassadors", then make sure you encourage them
  • Recognise that it takes a big shift for many men to move from verbal support to active and public advocacy. They will feel that they are opening themselves up to being judged by women and potentially also by the male majority some of whom are apathetic
  • Some of the male majority will see their advocacy as being disloyal to those in power or the "brotherhood" – they will need help in overcoming their fears of this especially in very masculine, male dominated or machismo environments
  • When they do take to the podium recognise that it takes courage to speak out
  • Recognise that they won't get all of the language or messaging exactly right – this will be one of their greatest fears in getting it "wrong" – feedback sensitively
  • By all means ask difficult questions but don't try and trip people up in public or show hostility. One person doesn't represent all male leaders and you will only serve to discourage them and other potential advocates
  • They need mentoring, coaching and support just like the rest of us – this is new territory for many of them. Clear frameworks for support help because there are lots of men wanting to support, they just don't know how best to do that
  • Recognise their efforts – positive reinforcement goes a long way

We could use a few more good men like Chris to push for change. My wholehearted thanks to him for co-authoring this piece and providing me with the inspiration.

  1. Yes, it is only 50 years ago that INSEAD started to accept women at their MBA program: Harvard, in 1963.
  3. Manfred Kets de Vries has wrote extensively about this "imposter syndrome". See for example Harvard Business review of September 2005: The Dangers of Feeling Like a Fake.