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Bry on Business: Why men are crucial to moving gender-inclusive policies forward in the workplace

La Jollan Barbara Bry, a former San Diego City Council member, is an investor in early-stage technology companies.
(File)

“Men are the most underused weapon in the battle for gender equality.” — Colleen Ammerman, co-author of “Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work” and director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School, speaking during the June 23 Zoom program sponsored by the Workplace Equity & Civility Initiative

The outsize role that men can play was one of the key themes that emerged from that event, which brought together almost 200 San Diegans from diverse organizations. Women’s representation in leadership roles across sectors and industries has remained virtually unchanged since the 1990s, according to Ammerman. And it is still men who hold the majority of positions of power, so if we want change, women must figure out how to engage men and make them our allies.

“The research has shown that if men, regardless of their level in the hierarchy, are vocal and advocate for gender-inclusive policies and call out bias, it’s not perceived as self-interest, so there is extra credibility,” Ammerman said. “In addition, men also stand to gain from disrupting the status quo.”

She acknowledged that it’s best if a focus on equity starts at the top but noted that individuals at every level can make a difference.

Here are a few of her suggestions for management teams:

  • Offer opportunities equally. Don’t try to protect women. For example, a manager may not offer an overseas assignment to a woman who has children. Offer it and let the woman decide if she wants to accept the position.
  • Be vocal about gender bias and call it out.
  • Encourage paternity leave. And make the men take it. Good for the child, good for the marriage and good for the company.
  • Gender-neutral social activities. No upside to strip clubs.

I wondered what men thought about Ammerman’s presentation, so I spoke with a few who attended the event.

“I was struck by the truth that men can be hesitant to speak up in support of women at work. Even with the best intentions and environment, it can seem a delicate place to tread,” said Carl Liebold, a retired engineering product manager. “Historically, many men have been taught that they should be gender-blind at work, so it can be a hurdle to step beyond that to the idea that in many cases men need to advocate for women.”

It is important for men to understand vocabulary. Asking the “girls” to get coffee is not going to work. Men also are going to encounter transgender issues. Rather than saying nothing, learn what is appropriate. It may be uncomfortable at first, but it needs to be addressed. The organization needs to create a space so these conversations are less hazardous.

Steve Rivers, 31, a package engineer/project engineer for a company with several hundred employees at his site, said he learned that he could be proactive even though he’s not a supervisor. “I’m working with a woman colleague on a project. I was taking the lead and saying ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get everything squared away.’ Then I understood that was demeaning. In fact, she is perfectly capable. I reached out so we can work together. I needed to resist old patterns.”

Another perspective came from Stan Sewitch, formerly chief human-resources officer at WD-40 Co. “I disagree that men play an outsize role, although they play a role that can be catalytic in helping women succeed. A woman has the ability to achieve independently of male allies, although this does take courage.”

I agree that a woman can succeed even in a challenging environment, but why should she have to swim upstream constantly? She is not a salmon.

I’ve always believed that by supporting one another, we can achieve more. That’s why I started Athena San Diego and Run Women Run. I’m optimistic that San Diego organizations can lead the way in fostering gender equity in the workplace and that in the long run, this will be a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining the best talent.

Barbara Bry of La Jolla was the San Diego City Council member for District 1 from 2016 to 2020. She and her husband, Neil Senturia, are serial entrepreneurs who invest in early-stage technology companies. You can hear their weekly podcast on innovation and entrepreneurship at imthereforyoubaby.com. Email ideas to neil@blackbirdv.com.