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3 Ways to Address the Male Power Dynamic

When the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements took root last year, they were a reaction to sexual transgressions in the film industry. They also shined a light on the unequal treatment women face across many work environments. During Forté’s 2018 MBA Women’s Leadership Conference in Atlanta, leading gender scholars dissected issues and solutions to address gender inequality in academia and the workplace.

Maryam Alazi, Dean and Professor at Scheller College of Business at Georgia Institute of Technology, moderated a panel, which included:

  • Colleen Ammerman, Director of Gender Initiatives at Harvard Business School
  • Rosalind Chow, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business
  • Clarissa Courtland, Post-doctoral fellow at INSEAD
  • Melissa Thomas-Hunt, Vice provost for Inclusive Excellence at Vanderbilt University
Challenges: What research reveals about gender inequality

Each panelist had a different academic focus, but all are pursuing a more balanced world where women can thrive. Clarissa studies the lasting impact of negative stereotypes, and she said work “cultures which perpetuate negative stereotypes about women …can sometimes push women from those fields.” Melissa’s research on stereotyping reveals that “everyone has a ‘descriptive norm’ where we are all biased,” she said.

Teaching ethics and leadership to MBA students, Rosalind said she “was struck by how uncomfortable [the conversation about gender equality] made the white men in the room. I would often have one or two men come up to me and ask what they should be doing to help their female classmates, and I didn’t have an answer for them.”

Another challenge, Colleen said, is the “durability” of gender inequality. Because gender inequality has been borne across centuries in every culture, “it’s not something that can be solved in a quarter or a year,” she explained.

Many women are familiar with challenges like these, but what are the solutions?

Create access to people in power – especially men

Rosalind has found that most people network with people of the same gender, and opportunities for advancement often come from close relationships. Because female sponsorship is “often less helpful than sponsorship from a male colleague,” she says, women who are primarily connected to women do not have access to the men in power who make decisions about advancement.

She suggests that leaders of organizations who are trying to create more diversity consider carefully the structure of their internal networks so that colleagues of various career levels and genders have equal opportunities to connect with people in positions of power.

Encourage self-reflection

Melissa suggested teaching specific skills to leaders – such as managing a conversation and amplifying the voices of less vocal people who have something valuable to offer an organization. Leaders also need to be more aware. For example, women sometimes step into administrative roles, not because they are inherently better at those tasks, but “because they want to be seen as team players,” Melissa said.

Male leaders may assume that women are simply better than men at administrative tasks so their task is “to be more reflective…and open to the possibility that their own biases are coloring their perception of their strengths or their challenge areas,” she said. 

Use gender-neutral language

Clarissa’s advice to organizations wanting to create more diversity is to consider gender language they use in their marketing and recruiting functions. She encourages them to examine if they “are using more masculine words, and how to create language which is more gender balanced.”

She said that using gender-neutral language – especially when describing success – “can really shift the culture and the way your organization is signaling out to others and individual applicants.” 

The value of #MeToo and #TimesUp movements

When asked if the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are helping to advance gender equality in the workplace, the panelists largely agreed that they were useful, but they also encouraged caution.

Rosalind and Colleen believe that these movements have made some men more tentative about building relationships with women, “out of fear that they might be accused of engaging in inappropriate behavior,” Rosalind explained. Clarissa acknowledged the challenges of effecting real change. “When you ask someone to change behaviors…and do things differently in a world…where everyone is overloaded, individuals feel that they don’t have the capacity,” she explained.

Maryam offered that it is not enough to tell people they must change. “Habits are very powerful  things. One way to change behaviour is to create structures….and nudge people into the direction you want them to go,” she said. Panelists concurred, offering suggestions such as explicitly requesting to interview minority candidates in recruiting situations; only conducting structured interviews; and making diversity championing part of annual performance reviews.

Regardless of why inequality exists, how it manifests in organizations, or how to change behaviors, Colleen’s statement about the value and need for panel sessions like this is something everyone can agree on.

Gender inequality in institutions, she said, “is bad for everyone…for men and women…on all kinds of outcome measures. It’s not good for the organization, and it leads to lower employee engagement, less trust in leadership.”