Raising The Bar On Gender Equality & How Men Can – And Must – Play A Role

March 21, 2017

Happy Women’s History Month.

Just like all the weeks and months dedicated to driving awareness or celebrating some cause or group, Women’s History Month seems kind of odd. A period of 31 days during which we think about 51 percent of the globe’s humans and their journey from the beginning of time. At www.InternationalWomensDay.com (the day of the month we’re especially supposed to give thought to women), we’re encouraged to #BeBoldForChange… to help forge a better, more inclusive and gender-equal world.

So I gave that a moment of consideration. I truthfully can’t say I’ve ever actively thought about what kind of impact I could make on behalf of women. I’ve always considered myself a feminist (I always feel a little weird saying that), but when it comes to giving women a fair shot at success and achievement in the professional world, it’s never been entirely clear to me what I could do. How am I, a white guy in his 40s, supposed to #BeBoldForChange and create a more equal world, exactly?

Then I came across this book.

Athena Rising (Bibliomotion, 2016) introduces, and then tackles, the subject of men mentoring women. The topic captured my attention because it’s something I’ve never thought of in any serious way. The book outlines some of the concerns and societal judgments that can come with a (usually) older man spending time nurturing the talents and advocating on behalf of a (usually) younger woman. In many industries and companies, and perhaps certain regions of the country more than others, it might seem uncomfortable — maybe even taboo — for both a mentor and a mentee thanks to something as simple as the rumor mill or the proverbial office water cooler.

The authors, W. Brad Johnson and David Smith, however, encourage guys to get past their anxieties when it comes to mentoring women. They encourage us to do it “deliberately and transparently,” and I couldn’t agree more.

In corporations throughout the United States, women hold a slim minority of senior leadership jobs, even though — as the authors point out — they make up nearly 60 percent of college graduates. Ad Age last year cited a study that found women only make up 11 percent of creative directors in the advertising industry nationally, yet they occupy nearly half of the industry’s jobs as a whole.

These aren’t good statistics. Unfortunately, hard as they try, women can’t level the playing field on their own. And I’m not saying that in a misogynistic way… the fact is, current power structures simply serve to keep the powerful – men – in power.

That’s a problem for so many reasons, but it’s also where opportunity knocks.

Sheryl Sandberg may have said it best in her book, Lean In: “It should be a badge of honor for men to sponsor women.”

In every company and every situation, mentoring women is the right thing to do, but it offers so much more than that. Athena Rising points out that for men who step up to mentor rising female stars, there are a host of benefits that come with their effort. Male mentors often develop a greater sense of purpose and enjoy genuine gratification when they spend time growing the next generation of leaders. When you think about that – the notion of gaining deeper purpose in your profession – it’s pretty powerful.

One of the most interesting parts of Athena Rising is the veritable handbook it offers, guiding guys on how to successfully mentor women and offering tips on things to avoid doing or saying. The advice it offers is wide-ranging, but some of the recommendations, while simple, are also profound:

  • She’s more like you than you think – don’t assume there’s a chasm that separates men and women in the workplace; chances are your aspirations and talent aren’t so different from hers
  • You are neither the first nor most important man in her life – seems obvious, but it’s important for guys who mentor women, or anybody, to check their egos at the door
  • Listen – perhaps the hardest thing to do for some, but truly listening can be the most important gift you can offer to developing talent
  • Be her friend + Affirm that she belongs – this speaks to inclusiveness and the importance of making sure women, especially those in male-heavy workplaces, feel like they are an important part of the company’s culture
  • Challenge her – what is mentoring if not issuing challenges and helping a mentee achieve success?
  • Open doors and put her name forward + Brag about her in public – this is advocacy in action; the power of a mentor to help his mentee advance in her career begins with his willingness to help her star shine brightly
  • Champion her assertiveness – we’ve all heard the difference between men being “assertive” and women being “bossy”… it’s wrong, and we need to fight the misconception everywhere it exists

While I really enjoyed and learned a lot from the book, the topic of gender equality in work settings still drives me nuts.

I know this probably sounds too idealistic and perhaps naïve, but gender should hardly be a factor at all, professionally speaking. We shouldn’t be looking at whether somebody is a man or a woman when what we should focus on is bringing out an individual’s strengths. Their skills. What they bring to the table as an employee. We hire – or at least we should be hiring – people who have the potential to achieve a vision, contribute to our success and advance the cause of an organization. Does it matter if that potential is housed in a body that features either a penis or a vagina? Sure doesn’t seem like it.

But this is the real world, and unfortunately it does matter to some people and at some companies. So back to my original question: What can I do? How am I, a white guy in his 40s, supposed to #BeBoldForChange and create a more equal world for women?

Here is my conclusion:

I don’t have to be Martin Luther King Jr. or Susan B. Anthony or Mahatma Gandhi to make a difference or inspire social change. In fact, real revolutions are won when many people play a small but active role. And if that’s true, isn’t it our part – the men who give a damn about creating a professional world that is far more equitable for our female colleagues – to make that difference?

At Fast Horse, we have at least a dozen younger women launching their careers and growing every day. It’s exciting to watch, and I want them to know that they work at an agency that doesn’t just say it believes in gender equity, but actively strives to achieve it. Because I believe we do.

And to take it a step further, I want to be the kind of person those same women can look to for guidance, advice and advocacy. I want to be a mentor they can count on to recognize their skills, push for their success and celebrate their growth. They should always know that their talents and abilities are as important to me and the rest of the senior staff as the talents and abilities of their male colleagues.

I believe gender equity will be the most important social movement for the next generation, and by meeting it head-on, companies stand to gain a lot.

As it says in the book, “The only way to help your organization achieve genuine gender equality and become competitive for the long haul is for you to be that guy, the one willing to champion the careers of those rising Athenas around you.”

If we’re smart, those of us with XY chromosomes will challenge ourselves to be that guy. If we succeed, imagine all the greatness we might discover.