Gender Diversity in the Boardroom: How Do Men Play a Crucial Role?

March 27, 2017 / By Romain Isaac

Major progress has been made over the last century in terms of gender parity, but even here in 2017, we are still far from achieving this goal. The “glass ceiling” that women must break in their professional careers has raised questions over the last few years as to the role of men in this parity struggle. Increasingly, men are being asked to take part in the fight for gender parity by defending it and being agents of change. So why is it crucial that men be the first ones to tackle the issue of male-female parity?

Change within the company has to come from the top-down

The first reason that men should participate in this battle is undoubtedly an ethical one. Today, we shouldn’t be weighing the pros and cons of gender parity, we should be finding long-term solutions for women being on boards and occupying top-level positions.

And therein lies the rub… where are the concrete actions?

We know that only 4% of organizations across the globe are led by women, less than 20% of women held a seat in the boardrooms of listed companies in North America, and women are underrepresented in politics, so it seems quite clear that men hold all the power.

Male leaders on boards of directors have to take action. They have the decision-making power to do so.

“Men are 85% of the problem, but they are also 85% of the solution. You can’t drive change without men.” Jeffery Tobias Halter

In 2016, the McKinsey study on Women in the Workplace showed that 75% of CEOs in the United-States listed gender parity in their top 10 priorities. As Jeffery Tobias Halter, business strategist consultant and YWomen president explains, CEOs only care about the first three priorities, the rest are not urgent. The interest in instituting change does not result in concrete action. Without an action plan, nothing will be implemented within the organization. CEOs must consider gender diversity in the boardroom a top priority.

A necessary cultural shift

Change needs to come from the top levels of the organization and from human resources. But even daring to raise the issue of gender diversity among board members at a board meeting is a real challenge because of the culture that is already in place. “Men don’t want to get into this conversation, they’re so afraid they’ll say or do the wrong thing,” explains Halter. And women don’t necessarily want to be the spokespeople for the gender parity cause either. It demands courageous leaders to put the issue at the top level of board of directors’ priorities.

Halter also highlights the issue of the male mentality summed up with “if you win, I lose”. We have to address the mistaken idea that by supporting gender parity in the boardroom, men will be penalized. Organizations’ leaders and board members, especially those from the baby-boomers and Y gens have an important cultural change to make. The idea that female=weak has to change if corporate culture is to move toward gender diversity.

Men who believe that gender diversity in the boardroom is a necessity have a role to play to embrace that cultural change.

During the 2017 World Economic Forum, Umran Beba, Senior Vice-President of PepsiCo, emphasized the fact that a cultural shift is imperative if we are to achieve gender parity:

“[…] Cultural change is critical to achieving gender equality – at the family, company and country levels. Of course, we can tell young women to be confident, to show courage, to take risks and make hard choices in their careers. And they should absolutely do all those things. But without deeper cultural shifts, progress towards equality will stall. How do we start bringing about some of these cultural changes? […] I’m a strong believer in understanding others’ needs. […]
We need more women in business today to represent our consumers, to bring a different point of view and to contribute with a different leadership style, but unless companies and countries make cultural shifts to adapt to this new reality, how can we expect to make progress?”

Men play an essential role in tackling gender diversity in boardrooms. We must raise awareness among so-called “masculine men” who still believe in stereotypes and the culture of the old boys’ club. We need more women in politics and in top-levels positions, not only for the sake of the organization’s performance, but because the top level of the organization needs to lead by example. Urging women to develop their leadership skills, proving that they are capable and prompting change in a corporate culture has to come from CEOs. This is a joint, male-female effort that stems across entire organizations and one that could incite real change and shatter that “glass ceiling”. So gentlemen,  now’s the time for you to step-up.

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