Getting men and women together to sit around and talk about gender. Sounds ordinary enough. Might happen around a dinner table but when was the last time it happened at work? Maybe it never has? Tim Muirhead and I recently ran a full day ‘Partners for Change’ workshop and were delighted with the results. Attendees came in male/female collegial pairs. Women mostly did the inviting, asking a male colleague to come to the workshop with them, with the intended focus of strengthening their capacity to work individually and together to tackle gender issues in their shared workplace.
In previous blogs I’ve highlighted that I believe it is essential, if we are to make more substantial progress, to engage men in the gender change effort. And as I explored in my “what about the men?” blog, we need to do more than ask men to help women to make workplaces better for women. While engaging men as allies is a big step in the right direction compared to expecting women to fix it for themselves, it doesn’t go nearly far enough. What is required is partnership – where men and women tune into the difficulties experienced by their opposite gender colleagues – and commit to work for change. This is a new space; a new approach to doing gender equality work that was entered into with enormous goodwill by our participants.
It quickly became apparent that men and women share some common struggles in the workplace. We also share, to a degree, a sense of powerlessness in changing cultural and structural issues that we identified as contributing to gender inequality.
Given the shared struggles – ‘greedy institutions’; ‘work/life balance’ – there can be a temptation to ignore gender. ‘See? We’re all experiencing the same thing really’. But deeper exploration of this reveals powerful gender dynamics at work. Many men, it turns out, are feeling an overbearing pressure to climb the career ladder, while yearning for more connection with home and family. Women, on the other hand, feel pulled away from that career ladder by home and family roles and expectations. Gender stereotypes put different demands and pressures on men and women, with both genders paying a price for restrictive expectations that are reinforced by workplace norms and practices.
The workshop structure enabled these deeper questions of gender to be explored. Participants particularly appreciate the opportunity to discuss gender issues in single gender groups – men talking with men and women talking with women about the gender issues they face themselves and those faced by their opposite gender colleagues.
This gave men an unusual opportunity, reflected in the Blog title, ‘I never expected to be talking about men’s issues today’. In the ‘safety’ of an all male conversation the men were able to openly discuss, for example, the gender-based pressures of ‘succeeding at all costs’, even if the costs are, say, stress, depression, or connection with the kids. The pathways to seniority are generally ‘male-friendly’. But the conversation we haven’t explored adequately is: do we really want to follow that path?
The women’s conversation was equally rich. While some women have had the opportunity to discuss their issues in all women groups, others had not. For these women, the process of validation - ‘it’s not just me who experiences this’ - is important. The list of challenges became quite long and it was hard to move on to the less familiar question of what challenges men face in the workplace.
The day had begun with everyone identifying changes participants would like to see in their workplaces, that would improve gender equity. The list was long, and there was a feeling of powerlessness. And yet by the end of the day participants had come up with their own set of achievable actions – most of which could be achieved almost immediately, within their particular working environment and within their capacity to make a difference.
The Partners for Change workshop epitomizes the ‘bifocal approach’ of linking individual development to organizational change. This is an enormously hopeful and positive approach where men and women begin to see how their interactions, their actions can contribute to change in their organization. Working together, from different perspectives, different power bases and different positions in organisations will bring strength to partnership. Working with willing volunteers, as we did, to strengthen this capacity to work for change can mean immediate results.
I hope that there were some interesting discussions around dinner tables that night, and again the next day in participants’ workplaces, as the exploration of gender partnership for gender equality continues.
The next post exploring our Partners for Change work will be Challenges for men: The expectation to lead and succeed. The final post in the trio will be titled Women’s Work, Men’s Work, an exploration of the different roles women and men need to play, as partners in moving the gender equality agenda forward.