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Unlocking gender equity: male advocacy

Women in Engineering By Kieran Thompson, Head of Talent, Diversity and Inclusion – 13 October 2020

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Kieran Thompson

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Where engineering and construction are concerned, discussions around inequality have long been synonymous with gender, rather than ethnicity, disability, LGBT or any other kind of inequality.

Gender inequality is the well-trodden path. The comfortable norm. We have all heard about gender pay gaps, a lack of women in leadership, workplace sexism and misogyny, etc. Despite so much attention and energy given to gender inequality, little progress has been made in recent years (cue knee-jerk defence “well in my day….”).

By treating gender inequality as a “women’s issue” the section of the workforce that can facilitate the progress of gender equality is excluded. Until men see gender equality as a priority for them personally, and not just a priority for women – we cannot make lasting change.

If we are to achieve systemic and lasting gender equality, men must be trained and supported to go beyond passive compliance, or non-sexist behaviours. Change cannot be brought about by simply believing in equality. To make lasting change, men must be first encouraged to understand the benefits for themselves of improving outcomes for women, and other minority groups.

By remaining on the outside of discussions around gender equality, men are more likely to conclude that meaningful methods of achieving equality are unfair. For example, promotion strategies that encourage an equal number of men and women progress – or even that more women than men progress – are dismissed because they will mean fewer men are promoted than is customary. The same happens with inclusive recruitment strategies, such as targeted recruitment. “We just need the best man for the job!” Our industry turns a blind eye to nepotism, and we recruit “in kind” rather than seeking out people with identities and backgrounds that compliment (rather than mirror) our own. We know what “fits”. We play it safe.

Such resistance to progressive methods exists despite what we know about how traditional promotion and recruitment processes disadvantage women and minority groups.

As a result, despite being “on board” with equality, lack of active engagement and advocacy among men (particularly those in positions of power) remains a major barrier to progress. Again, it is not enough to simply believe in equality, or to be NOT sexist. Nor is it enough for us to “get it” or sympathise because we have a daughter/sister/mother. Those of us who do not identify as part of a minority group, may find it much more difficult to engage in conversations about inequality and injustice at work, but this should act as a reason to engage rather than to retreat.

As we take action to correct inequality and injustices within our own business, impacts of a personal and sensitive nature are necessary and inevitable. Strong feelings exist about how we have always done things, and they will be positive and negative depending on your own identity and experience. We need to face up to these feelings, and deal with them in a way that encourages participation from men.

Research from not-for-profit organisation Catalyst shows that men were often not engaging in diversity initiatives, highlighting three main barriers:

  1. Apathy (‘what has this got to do with me?’)
  2. Lack of awareness and ignorance of gender issues.
  3. Fear of doing or saying the wrong thing

Men need to take responsibility for understanding gender issues. It is not up to women to educate men on gender equality. Men need to learn, reflect and observe how their privilege plays out. This can be a painful process but, but the first step is to recognise that we (men) contribute to gender inequality until and unless we take action to play an active role in equality.

Cundall is facilitating the creation of new staff-led affinity networks that will influence how we do things. Women will lead our gender equality network, but we need men around the practice to be active allies.