What’s a good guy (or company) to do?

Guest Column by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox 

The violent unfurling of the dark underbelly of toxic masculinity polluting many companies and countries is a sign of women’s increasing power — and willingness to wield it. Yet it comes at a time when the leaders of too many countries — from Putin to Erdogan and Dutertre — aunt masculinity’s dark side as a clarion call to rally their “base”: men (and some women) who find solace with authority figures in turbulent times. In the ensuing battleground, women may be winning a battle while the bullies are winning the war. Every step back from modernity and democracy and toward populism and macho dominance is bad news — not just for women (for whom it spells disaster), but for all of us. Gender balance is good for countries, companies and couples. We surrender its nascent benefits at our collective peril.

How can good men and companies respond? How can we avoid a witch hunt? How can we not make this a chasm between the sexes? By acknowledging the bigger forces afoot and proactively addressing them. This is not, and never was,a struggle between men and women. The lines being drawn are between an emerging, tolerant humanism (homo universalis) and an old-style game of dominance. We are all, by our words and actions — or lack of them — choosing sides. The abuse of power tales in the unfolding post-Weinstein era offer a teachable moment. While the furor is starting in government and the entertainment and media sectors, companies across the board are managing the fallout. Every company with big power and pay imbalances between genders risks getting caught in the cross-hairs of a newly mobilized female workforce — and that’s most of them.

The first reaction seems to be increased investment in insurance coverage for harassment cases. Instead, a more constructive reaction could frame this as a precious opportunity to differentiate from the bad boy cultures on display. Every company working to create collaborative, productive and transparent company cultures should seize this moment. A healthy dialogue on gender issues is still rarely on the agenda of  leadership teams — or business conferences. Too many people assume men aren’t interested — if not frankly resistant. Stephen Marche, the author of a book on men and women in the 21st century, claims the recent scandals “have forced men to confront what they hate to think about most: the nature of men in general.” This year’s Davos eliminated men from the front lines entirely, by having seven women co-chair the event. They could instead have showcased men taking on one of the central challenges of our time: redefining masculinity for a new century — not disappearing from the stage.

After more than a decade facilitating debates around gender issues with hundreds of leadership teams of large multinationals around the globe, I have not found men at all reticent about engaging with these issues, and their own accountability for it. On the contrary, in the right context, with the right leadership, the words pour out. The most common feedback is gratitude, not grouchiness. The reality is that most executives have never had the time or the space to have a substantive dialogue with their peers about gender issues.

The topic has been relegated to others, to HR or the National Diversity Council. Women are often too ready to claim the issue as their own. Leaders have a shaky grasp of the data in their own companies and countries, and whether gender gaps exist in terms of perception, expectations or performance. They are sometimes uncomfortable about their ignorance, and increasingly fearful that incompetence may morph into another front-page story. Fear is not conducive to good gender management. Often, the only education they have ever encountered about gender issues comes from their personal lives — and then only if they have working partners or daughters. Otherwise many men work their entire careers thinking that being “gender blind” is a progressive position.

The best defense against the tail of this storm biting your business is not to hide behind your “code of conduct,” your legal team, or a doubling of your insurance and crisis management budgets. Nor is it to ask men to hide their heads in collective shame by throwing harassment training at them. Much easier — and cheaper — to equip leaders and managers with the skills to understand and manage the issues and the opportunities that arise as women become a larger share of companies’ talent and customer bases, and men react to that rise.

So don’t be ashamed, be proactive:

1. Build awareness: Understand that while most women have been thinking about gender issues for most of their careers, most men have not. Because the topic has often been framed as a “women’s issue,” they didn’t think they had to. It is time to invest in a bit of time to grapple with a complex, global shift.

2. Get leaders to lead: Make it clear that managers are accountable for creating cultures that build balance. This requires clear, transparent tracking of gender data (too rare in our experience), and rewarding managers with balanced teams.

3. Manage the backlash: Given the political context and high level of emotion around these issues, you should expect some degree of sensitivity from both men and women. It is essential that leaders role model a calm ability to address questions, objections and vocabulary. They need to be well prepared and media trained.

4. Get men to teach men: There are still too few places where men learn about gender issues at all, let alone from other men. While I (a woman) facilitate debates, the real learning comes from men hearing other men share their opinions on gender issues — and especially hearing their bosses say it is important to their business. Male-dominated teams, conferences and business schools need to put gender and masculinity on their agendas.

It is remarkable that we assumed that the millennia-shifting balancing of economic and social power between the genders would have required so little attention. That it could just slip in between the lines “naturally.” This was never true. In every couple, in every company and in every country, gender balance only happens by design. It takes will and skill. Are you ready?

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is chief executive officer of 20-first, where she works with the CEOs, executive committees and top management teams of some of the world’s best known companies to identify the business opportunities of gender balance and how best to achieve it. She speaks on leadership, “gender bilingual” marketing and talent management across the globe and lectures at business schools, including INSEAD and HEC Paris.She also serves as an executive coach for CEOs and senior executives.

Editor’s note: Due to a clerical error, this column did not run the morning of Wittenberg-Cox’s morning lecture. The Daily apologizes for this error, and is happy to now run Wittenberg-Cox’s column in full.

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