It Can’t Just Be The Good Guys! (The Role of Men in Gender Equality?)

Image by Author - Gender Equality Begins at Home

Back in April, when announcements were made about the easing of lockdown restrictions, my husband made his own special announcement - “Just letting you know I’ve booked a haircut, I’ve sorted a dentist appointment and I’m getting my eyes tested”. Whilst I felt an immediate burst of pride at his ability to self-manage at the age of forty-five, I couldn’t help glancing at the unopened text messages on my phone, reminding me that all the children needed their much overdue routine dental check-up. I remembered that I hadn’t had a chance to ring the orthodontist (no-one told me that after a decade of nappies, I’d spend the next one looking at X-rays of teeth). I also felt a huge surge of guilt at ignoring my youngest daughter’s comments about squinting to read the classroom whiteboard and the hair, well don’t get me started on their desperate hair situation. “Life admin”, “domestic labour”, “household management”, “general drudgery”, call it what you like. At times, it has consumed me, it is a second job, an endless to-do list and a burden that falls primarily on me. For many women, it is this unequal division of labour at home which either makes or breaks their capacity to fulfil their potential in the workplace.

Gender equality begins at home…?

Gender equality is not a topic that excites. It has many negative connotations and it is incredibly divisive. When I write about it, I usually enrage a few women. Some are completely opposed to involving men in solutions and therefore to say, it begins at home is to open up yet another inflammatory can of worms. But, I think this has to be our starting point.

Last week, at Ulster University, our Wo/men’s Network held a lunchtime session on ‘The Role of Men in Gender Equality’. On reflection, I could have given this a better title - perhaps the title of this piece. We heard from four good, kind, decent men across the organisation who were willing to share openly and honestly about their personal and professional lives. I left the session with a real sense of hope. Fundamentally, they are men who care, who said ‘yes’ immediately when approached to contribute to this conversation. And when asked about why gender equality mattered to them, they talked about home. They are dads, brothers, sons, husbands. They acknowledged the harder path that women often face, of seeing family members forced to postpone or give up careers. They spoke passionately about wanting to ensure their daughters, wives, sisters and colleagues had access to the same opportunities as them. They had all been greatly influenced by strong mothers. Some had only realised the additional domestic load carried by their partners when the pandemic forced them to be at their kitchen table rather than commuting to an office. They wanted to support them and pick up more of the slack. They agreed that children had sharpened their focus around equality. Whether boys or girls, their future matters. Shaping early cultural norms, role modelling and equipping them with the tools to question inequalities had become a priority so the next generation could have a better experience than this one.

Is there an ethical obligation?

And so if home is where gender equality begins, then it is the workplace that profits from the out-workings of this. Each contributor was asked for a response to this statement - “With regard to gender equality, I have an ethical obligation to promote positive change - just because I have benefitted from the system doesn’t mean I can’t challenge it”. There was consensus that where you have a position of influence, whether as a line manager, a senior leader or a policy-maker, you must use it. Otherwise, you are complicit in promoting inequality. There is a collective moral and ethical obligation that goes beyond gender. We need to stop blaming and admit that gender inequality is not solely caused by men - women can be just as guilty of pulling up the ladder behind them.

And so, if there is a role for men to underpin societal progress by embracing gender equality at home and if there is also an ethical obligation on them to challenge inequalities in the workplace, what else can be done? Three suggestions emerged from the session:

1. Ensure ability is recruited and rewarded…

All the panel had been managed by both men and women. They had enjoyed or endured good and bad leadership. Gender was irrelevant. They noted that there will always be poor male leaders and there will always be poor female ones. They recognised, however, that gifted and competent women cannot be over-looked by or lost to an organisation because of systemic inflexibility. Organisations cannot promote male mediocrity because longevity of service is rewarded through stealthy ascent of every single rung on a hierarchical ladder. This fails to take account of the increased likelihood of women stepping out of careers for periods of time and it also fails to grasp broader, more agile opportunities for skills acquisition and development. Without doubt, there are many mothers out there who could line their CVs with an impressive set of skills gained during maternity leaves rather than having to describe these as ‘gaps’ in their career.

This all has to start at the recruitment stage. That’s where organisations can truly demonstrate they are interested in gender diversity. Just one sentence on every advertisement to say “we welcome a flexible approach to meeting the outcomes of this post” would encourage women to apply knowing they didn’t have to negotiate a suitable work pattern. Fairer recruitment then needs to supplemented by effective talent management in order to reward and retain the abilities of those women.

2. Increase visibility of men working flexibly…

Obviously, the last year has changed everything. The panel highlighted how work is now what you do rather than somewhere you go. Hybrid working is the buzz topic that just will not go away. We know that women often have to choose part-time hours to accommodate childcare or other caring responsibilities. This compromises careers - there are limited senior-level part-time roles and with the prevalence of presenteeism, reduced presence means reduced relevance. Men see what happens to women who work flexibly and they don’t want to be similarly side-lined. One contributor shared how it took reaching crisis point at home, before he realised his 7am to 7pm absence was part of the problem and therefore, he needed to be part of the solution. It wasn’t easy, it was culturally unheard of but he asked for the flexibility to work occasionally from home.

Men, particularly those in leadership positions, need to become much more visible working flexibly, to be seen leaving their desks to do school pick-ups or check on elderly parents. This normalises behaviours, removes stigmas and drives cultural acceptability. It also increases trust. Being present does not equate to being productive. One dad said having previously never been able to do it, he now does the school run, mornings and afternoons. It has had zero impact on his productivity but it has had a massive impact on his relationship with his kids.

3. Listen to build empathy…

Sometimes men just do not know what women are experiencing. They are not intentionally discriminating, they are just oblivious to their privilege. Listening exercises to hear the realities of what women are facing, to unpick the obstacles they are encountering and to understand the consequences of policies, processes and systems on them is an excellent first step to building empathy. The next step is action. We want to avoid ‘drive-by gender equality’ where men acknowledge the issues but stop short of engaging in any change activity.

One of the goals of the Wo/men’s Network at Ulster University for 2021 is to have 100 men sign up as allies. This means not only being willing to listen to the voices of women in the organisation but also being willing to act as mentors, sponsors, advocates and change agents for them.

But, it can’t just be the good guys who engage in this, those few who care. It has to be all men, both those who influence the policies and those who benefit from them.

And so, to end on a positive note. The children’s hair has been cut, the eyes have been tested, the teeth checked, the braces progressed. And I did none of it. I explained about the burden being placed on me. I was listened to. The injustice was acknowledged. I delegated to a capable man. Gender equality can indeed begin at home. And who knows where this could lead…

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Deborah Sloan

I’m a mum of four girls who recently left a career to focus on writing. I write about leaving, change, career, motherhood and life. @deborahjsloan on Twitter