What Happens When Men Join ERGs That Aren’t “for Them”April 18, 2018
I’m a bald man. If I started a bald men’s club and someone with a Flock of Seagulls haircut showed up, we’d notice. I’m sure they’d pick up on the difference, too.
Being the only one, or one of a few, in a group where everyone else shares a common trait makes us stop and think. It can be weird, confusing, or exciting. But it can also help us to learn about those who are different from us.
This is the experience of men who have joined Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that aren’t “for them”—whether that’s ERGs for women, LGBT, or a particular race or ethnicity.
Taking That First Step
“There were a lot of internal conversations,” says Ray Green, a straight man, of his decision to get involved in the LGBT group at his work. “I’m not a readily identifiable member of that affinity group. There’s some self-talk to get over that barrier.”
The reason that he joined the group at work was because he and his wife had recently gotten involved in their local LGBT center, where they had become “baby advocates” for the community.
Russell Luzetski, a straight man who has been involved in LGBT groups at various organizations, says his interest stemmed from intensive, company-sponsored inclusion training that opened his eyes to the challenges others face in environments where he is part of the majority.
Joe Puchala has his wife to thank for his initial interest in ERGs. When he was applying for jobs, his wife told him to ask about them. He got the job and signed up for one of the most active ERGs at his company, a women’s group.
What Are You Doing Here?
If you’re a man who is thinking about attending an ERG that’s not “for you,” you might be dreading this question. No one is going to grill you, but it’s actually worth considering.
That’s what Joe experienced when he joined the women’s group at his organization. “Everyone was really welcoming,” says Joe. “But I struggled to find my place for a while.”
That changed when Joe got a new manager, a man who was on the women of color sub-committee within the women’s group. “If you’re having trouble,” his manager told him, “go to this meeting with me.”
Russell says that he’s had to deal with assumptions about his sexuality as a result of his work with the LGBT group, but he doesn’t mind. “Some people get upset [when they are presumed to be gay]. I actually had someone ask me, ‘Doesn’t that bug you?’”
These moments of confusion can actually spark a conversation and lead to real personal change.
“There was a straight guy who kept apologizing for the fact that he thought I was gay. I told him, ‘It sounds like you’ve got a problem.’ That was the moment he realized he was homophobic and it floored him. We’ve got to process this stuff sometimes.”
How Allies Can Help
Getting over those barriers to participation is worth it. When allies bring their perspective to the group, the ERG, the individual, and the organization can all benefit.
Basel Jarrad, who has been involved in a women’s group at his company, says that his perspective helps to increase the group’s impact. “I’m able to say, ‘This is going to be the reaction from guys in the field.’ We can then change the way we tackle something and get men involved.’”
Allies can also talk to other men about issues that surface during ERG meetings—and get heard.
“We’ve had contentious moments with the broader corporate community where we felt like we weren’t being heard,” says Ray about his LGBT group. “That was when I really came to this aha moment about being an ally. I had folks that would listen to me because I was a straight white guy. I had a broader voice to advocate for people that they might not listen to.”
Ray says that his work with the LGBT group has given him practice at perspective-taking, listening to understand, and having dialogues across difference, skills that he considers “my personal strengths as an employee and leader.”
The experience was also eye-opening for Basel, who says that his participation in the women’s group revealed workplace barriers based on gender. Being a minority in a group was new for Joe, who says that he now “thinks about how someone else might feel in meetings.”
This kind of perspective has been shown to increase employee retention and innovation, as well as the ability to collaborate as part of a team, which can help companies achieve business success.
Ray says that a culture of inclusion, which ERGs help to build, should be a prerogative for companies that are competing for top talent and seeking to fulfill their corporate social responsibility goals. “Organizations are leading the way on this. The government swings here and there, but corporations have consistently been stepping up to their diversity and inclusion mandates.”
How to Get More Men Involved
“People normally don’t say ‘No,’” says Joe of his conversations with other men about ERGs. “They say, ‘It’s a women’s thing’ or ‘I don’t know if it’s for me.’”
Even if you do get a yes, your recruit might not show, says Russell.
One way to get men more engaged is to make a personal connection, says Basel. “Men are interested because they have mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, colleagues. Making that personal connection will make it easier for them to go and participate.”
Part of the issue is messaging, agreed all the men we interviewed. ERGs celebrate sameness and difference, and many men have a hard time getting past the difference piece.
In reality, an ERG’s goals are not tied solely to advancing its members. These groups are also about fostering a culture of inclusion across the organization, which affects everyone. Helping men to see this bigger picture—and their place in it—can increase buy-in and support.
When everyone’s intentions are clear, that’s when real progress gets made, Basel says. “The moment you feel that your perspective, support, and feedback are wanted, you’ll be comfortable stepping up and adding to this conversation.”
Prior to joining MARC, Jared worked for Time Out Beijing magazine. He graduated from Truman State University and currently resides in New York City.