Why Women’s Day is for men. No, really

14th August 2020

This column was written on National Women’s Day for men who are not sexist, because we still have so much to learn. I believe Women’s Day has a message for men who run businesses.

In a TED talk Susan Colantuono explains how well-meaning mentors can unwittingly help maintain the status quo. The mentors she spoke to emphasised personal and relational matters when mentoring women, like becoming more assertive and confident, developing a personal brand, working with other people and self-promotion. All good stuff. But when they mentored men, they talked about the importance of business, strategic and financial acumen. And that is what gets middle managers noticed for the C-suite. The other stuff is taken for granted. So unwittingly the mentors prepared women for middle management and men for the top. The best intentions can backfire when we treat people differently. How are you grooming people for promotion in your business?

It is understandable that many women dismiss the idea of a National Women’s Day as merely window dressing, when we all say the right things for a day and then continue as before. But I am grateful that we have this reminder of how scarily easy it is not to notice the extra barriers facing women in business, as elsewhere. So in that sense the day exists for men more than women.

Similarly the Black Lives Matter movement tells us that it is not enough to be colour-blind; the existing playing field is uneven in ways those of us who are not black just do not notice, because people like us built it and we are deeply familiar with its contours.

The field needs changing in ways others need to explain to us. So what can we do?

The first and biggest step is to listen. This means listening beneath the words and watching eye contact and body language to discover who is regarded as in the conversation and who is being subliminally excluded. And it means suspending our logical response until we have felt the passion. While we all have feelings of inadequacy, rage and impotence in the face of power we cannot control, I think it is almost an insult to say, “Yes, there are times when I feel like that too,” when as a man I hear a woman explaining her frustration. Those who grew up in the dominant worldview only partly understand until we really hear.

The second is to acknowledge that implicit bias is present in everyone. You can confirm this for yourself with the online Implicit Associations Test. We imbibe it from childhood and it infects how we perceive others and ourselves. We can’t be blamed for unconscious bias, but we can be blamed for ignoring it. Instead of denying it we need to limit its effects by creating policies, for example, that prevent unconscious bias in recruiting and developing staff.

Thirdly we can talk about our own biases. Men are not easily convinced of their bias when they are probably unaware of it. When we respond a little defensively to the current epidemic of gender-based violence with, “Not all men are violent! There are good men too (like me)”, we miss the opportunity to say that until we change the biased system in our heads, in our businesses and in society, women will continue to suffer violence, however virtuous we may be as individuals.

So the fourth action is to join others in taking prejudice seriously and changing the way society works. This is both the right thing to do ethically, and also economically sound both at the macro-level of society and the micro-level of our own companies. We need the talents, energy and leadership of 100% of our people to thrive.

Jonathan Cook is a psychologist and chairman and co-founder of the African Management Institute.

This article was originally published on BusinessLive on 10 August, 2020 and is republished with permission.

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