A Challenge To Men In Business

7 Reasons men should get involved in gender inequity

This week, the severity of the crisis of gender inequity became impossible for the business world to ignore. All around the world yesterday, workers walked out of Google offices in protest against the systematic sexism in the corporate culture of the digital titan.

The immediate provocation of the protest was the revelation that top Google executives who had been found to have credible accusations of sexual harassment against them were not only protected by the corporation, with their actions concealed from their co-workers and the larger world, but were even rewarded for their sexually predatory behavior, receiving huge payoffs of up to tens of millions of dollars each.

Amy Nelson, CEO of The Riveter, represents widespread frustration with the muted response of men in business during the first year of the #MeToo movement, asking, “why aren’t men fighting sexual harassment?” It’s a fair question. Not all men in business are sexual harassers, of course, but among those who aren’t there seems to be the general attitude that simply not sexually harassing anyone is enough, perhaps with a bland statement or two in support of women in business sprinkled on top.

With this attitude of inaction, these passive “good guys” in business are settling into a rather unflattering masculine stereotype: The clueless middle-aged dad. Picture Mike’s dad in the Netflix series Stranger Things, and you’ll get the idea.

7 Reasons Men Should Be Eager To Challenge Conventional Gender Roles In Business

Author Aditi Khorana, in the podcast This Human Business, suggests that men have no reason to be motivated to challenge traditional gender inequity in business. She says, “men don’t really have a lot of incentive to kind of change what is already essentially working for them on a lot of levels. To be honest, I don’t think corporate America is really working for anybody, but it’s working better for men than it is for women. Women actually have an incentive to sort of actively participate and create change.”

I understand where Aditi is coming from when she says this. Clearly, the men who have been controlling business culture haven’t felt motivated to work to challenge traditional male domination.

Still, I disagree with her conclusion. There’s something important in her recognition that, in many ways, corporate America isn’t working for many people, men included. I believe that, though they don’t typically think about it in this way, there actually are strong incentives for men to challenge the gender status quo in business.

To explain what I mean, I offer the following list of 7 reasons men should be eager to get involved in cleaning up the mess caused by conventional gender roles in business.

1: Gender isn’t just a women’s issue

Everybody has a gender, not just women. That means that everybody is affected by gender inequity. Yes, even men. A business that unfairly, and irrationally, discriminates its employees is a bad place to work for almost everybody. Most men would have a more enjoyable professional life in a world where businesses didn’t put women in second class.

Besides, gender is about more than just men and women. Transgender, non-binary, and fluid identities are growing in significance in business, as in society in general.

There’s also a need to recognize diversity within the genders. Women don’t speak with one voice, and men don’t either.

Masculinity covers a rich diversity of perspectives. It isn’t just one thing. Nonetheless, one conventional form of masculinity has dominated business culture, with its adherents insisting that they offer the only acceptable code for being a “real man”. Increasing numbers of men are looking for alternatives, and they need a business culture that doesn’t insist on stuffing back into the same old grey flannel suit.

2: Gender inequity is undercutting the credibility of business

Both specific businesses and business in general are struggling under the tarnished reputation caused by gender-based discrimination and abuse in the workplace and marketplace. Gender inequity in business is a symptom of a culture that doesn’t care about people, doesn’t listen, and takes advantage whenever it can. Business brags about itself far too often. When we see businesses engaged in gender discrimination, it all sounds like hot air.

3: Individuality suffers when gender diversity is disrespected

Businesses that disrespect gender diversity also disrespect diversity in other forms. Google, for example, doesn’t just have a sexist workplace culture. Google’s corporate culture also has problems with racism, excluding people of non-European ancestry from representative numbers in its offices.

The thing about discrimination is that it’s a pervasive attitude. Controlling attitudes about gender identity bleed over into controlling attitudes about all kinds of behavior. Conformist corporate culture is a buzzkill to innovation. It’s stagnant, valuing adherence to company orthodoxy over effective ideas and performance.

4: Gender norms in business make corporate leaders out of touch

A business that can’t grasp the importance of gender diversity within its own corporation won’t be able to grasp the diversity and ambiguity of its customers.

Large corporations have become dependent upon simplistic data models that center around simplistic division of customers into superficially-defined types that don’t match the lived experiences of their customers.

5: We can’t reform business culture without reforming masculinity

Conventional business culture is masculine in character.

Designer Gunter Wehmeyer observes that men in business are trapped in an outdated identity script that isn’t really working well for them. “Men are still working with an ancient script where they are supposed to be in charge, and to where they need to be self-sufficient and if you think about leadership, that masculinity has become synonymous with traits like leadership and strength, while femininity is connected with passivity and gentleness. So, I think men are still working with an ancient script which they haven’t overcome yet,” he writes.

Yes, the “conventional” label applies to digital companies too. The corporate culture of Silicon Valley isn’t really as innovative as it pretends to be. Racist and sexist organizational practices with pool tables in the office aren’t much of an improvement over racist and sexist practices without pool tables.

6: Men made the mess

Allowing women to step in to take leadership over gender reform initiatives can be empowering, but it can also seem like slinking away after Thanksgiving Dinner to watch football in the den while other people wash all the dishes.

Men have dominated business culture for quite some time. We made the mess of gender inequity, and it’s our responsibility to clean it up. At the same time, men in business need to be careful not to use their involvement in work on gender issues as a tool to exclude women from leadership positions. We need to learn to take on the dirty work that falls in our lap while honoring space for others to do their work, too.

7: Working on gender issues gives men in business an opportunity to grow

Gender identities offer shortcuts that become ruts. Confronting outdated gender norms is a great way to break out of tired old frames that restrict our imaginations about how business can work. We don’t need to restrict ourselves to merely adopting a perspective from “the other half”, either. What if there were alternatives to both masculine and feminine frames? Prepare for your mind to be blown.

Take the First Step

I’m co-hosting, along with Chloe Stückelschweiger and Christine Locher, a session at the House of Beautiful Business about gender and identity in business. I hereby challenge every man who is attending this event to come to, and participate meaningfully in, this session.

If you’re not going to the House, reach out anyway. I’ll be spending the coming weeks establishing the framework for a new network of professionals who are seeking to organize larger efforts to challenge abusive gender norms and practices in business. A subgroup within this organization will be dedicated to men in business who want to get involved.

If you’re interested, get in touch, and let’s talk.

Using thick consultation & qualitative research to pursue a human vision of commerce, emotional motivation, symbolic analysis & ritual design