Why it’s important for more men to join the fight for gender parity

The struggle for gender parity in the workplace has been touted as a women’s issue for decades now – and of course it is. But it isn’t their struggle alone – men have a vital role to play.

There is overwhelming evidence that we have not yet achieved gender equality. Only 37 of the Fortune 500 companies have women as CEOs – that’s 7.4%. In South Africa, PwC research from 2019 showed that only 3.1% of JSE-listed companies are run by women CEOs.

Recent female resignations include that of Woolworths South Africa where the role is not being replaced, and African Bank where the position was replaced by a man.

But it’s not just the upper echelons that are the problem – gender discrimination is still expressed and infused in far too many companies’ processes, policies, rules, practices, culture, organisational and individual behaviour. It manifests in the gender pay gap, in career progression, in recruitment, in leave policies, in personal development, in sexual harassment, and in gender-based violence. It’s systemic, and we need to address it throughout the entire system.

The King IV Report on corporate governance released in 2016 recommended that companies should set board gender diversity targets and report annually on their progress. As a result, new JSE listing requirements were put in place for listed companies to adopt their gender policies. This means that individuals from different backgrounds, ages, experience levels, genders and races should be included on boards so that companies can benefit from the diversity of their skills and insights.

But board diversity is just the beginning. These changes need to filter down through the organisation until they truly permeate the culture. And to do that, we need men to not only take up arms alongside women, but also to educate themselves and reflect on their own biases.

Gender bias in the workplace is a matter of ethics. When women are denied truly equal opportunities – for recruitment, for advancement, for leadership – your organisation is guilty of discrimination. Rooting out this discrimination is a matter of organisational ethics, social responsibility and going beyond compliance with EE and BEE to addressing social injustice. You cannot create a truly diverse and inclusive organisation through a box-ticking, points scoring approach.

So how, then, should we proceed? We have to begin by addressing the principles and mechanisms of gender discrimination in the workplace, understand how they work, and then work to root them out. This will take a conscious effort to move beyond the box-ticking, and make every effort to learn both from our mistakes, and from those women who have succeeded.

Despite the acknowledged disparity, inequality, and crippling bias towards women, a handful of outliers do make it through to sit on the boards of both listed and unlisted companies. These women have to be grounded, determined, resilient, and brave – and have the social and relational capital to make it through.

That last point is vital. Because not only is the organisation’s culture important, but women also need sponsors, mentors and a network – and this is where men can make a real difference.

This will require men who aren’t threatened by women with leadership potential, but it also demands men who can recognise the benefits not just of women leaders, but feminine leadership – and the benefits it holds for their organisation, and even for themselves as they learn from inspirational women leaders around them.

The more relevant question is what masculine and feminine elements and archetypes are in play in our culture, and how do they serve or hinder us? We cannot achieve our goals for diversity and equality if women become hypermasculine at work. We cannot attract talented women to high-level business leadership roles if the cost for them is to not be their authentic selves. We will not benefit from adding more of the same; we need diversity precisely because it brings something new to the table.

Organisations, therefore, need to create diverse, inclusive, human-centric cultures that truly give an equal voice to every person in the system, regardless of their gender or other demographic markers. Our organisations need to be places where employees feel seen, heard, and free to be exactly who they are.

When gender-based violence spiralled to even greater levels during our more restrictive lockdowns, we saw a critical mass of men willing to use their power and authority to make decisions that would not only promote gender equality, but increase safety for the women in their organisations. We need more men like that, men willing to do everything they can to bring about change.

Those are the men we need to join hands with us to collaborate with women to co-create better companies, a better country, and a better life for all.