Women’s Conference? Bring a Buddy

November 20, 2018On Election Day, I spoke on a panel at the 2018 National Diversity Women’s Business Leadership Conference about salary negotiation. One of my co-panelists shared an exchange she previously had with a male colleague on the subject of the gender pay gap. According to her, when the overall gap of $0.30 per dollar was explained to him, her colleague scoffed, saying if he found out he was being paid that much less than his peers, that discrepancy wouldn’t last another day. He’d be on the phone with HR, his manager, and anyone else it took to get that problem solved.

I could practically see the synapses firing in the minds of the women in the room. Taking a page out of a man’s book can provide mixed results at best, as they are judged by a different set of standards than women are. But in the case of the gender pay gap, that man’s reaction makes perfect sense, and I think women are justified in reacting the same way. The cost of not insisting on equal pay for equal work can compound over the course of a woman’s career, causing the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars over her lifetime. Of all the battles, in my opinion, salary is the one women should choose every time.

Like Catalyst, the organizers of the 2018 National Diversity Women’s Business Leadership Conference recognize that men are an important part of the fight to end inequality at work. The closing panel of the day was called “Men @ Work,” and featured Carlos Cubia, Global VP & Chief Diversity Officer of Walgreens Boots Alliance; Howard Ross, Chief Learning Officer of Cook Ross; and the unforgettable Tyronne Stoudemire, Global VP of Diversity and Inclusion at Hyatt. They had a lively discussion, and it felt quite gratifying to me to hear from what often seems to be a precious few men attuned to women and the challenges we face. It was comforting, reassuring, and left us all smiling as we headed out to mingle over cocktails and snacks.

But my co-panelist’s story, juxtaposed with the attitudes of the men in the closing panel, got me thinking: what could the rest of the men we work with be learning at this conference? There were men in that room, but it seemed as though they were either part of that panel or just working at the event. It’s safe to assume that those few men in attendance, and certainly the men on the closing panel of that day, were already “the converted.” What about the rest of them?

Author and journalist Joanne Lipman has said that women talking to other women is only half the conversation, and we need men as allies if we want to make sustainable progress toward workplace equality. So how do women even begin, and what do we say to the men who don’t “get it” yet?

In my view, the most effective way is not to try to engage them in a conversation if they haven’t signaled they are ready for it. Instead, bring these issues to their attention indirectly or without expecting their immediate participation. Talk about the guy who assumed he knew more about your area of expertise than you do while you chat in a group in the break room. Mention the pay gap if it’s relevant to a conversation about benefits and salary. Expose them to the issues without confronting them directly. And certainly, don’t make it seem like it’s the fault of any one man as an individual.

Men who aren’t asking about these issues aren’t doing so because they’re hopeless—most of them probably just aren’t aware of the issues to begin with. So we can start building their awareness by having the conversation we’re having in front of them so they can listen to and absorb it. This isn’t meant to normalize the issues; they’re already normalized. And they won’t become history by only preaching to the converted.

Put a man in a room full of women talking about the death-by-a-thousand-cuts their careers can be subjected to by individual, organizational, and cultural biases, and watch his synapses start to fire, too. Bring him to a “women’s” conference. Let him observe the very real issues his women colleagues struggle with silently each working day along with other women in a space meant for sharing. The stakes are lower, and his participation can be as passive as being in the room. Even if he feels out of place at first, maybe he’ll soon realize that many women feel this way all the time, especially in male-dominated workplaces. Caring about the concerns of people who aren’t like you is a lot easier when you find yourself among them.

What men don’t know, they can’t be expected to figure out on their own. But if they are exposed to women’s collective strides toward equality, not obliged to engage or to put themselves on the spot, the chances are greater they’ll be more open to learning. If they are brought to the edge of the pool and can ease themselves in, they’ll be more likely to stay than if tossed right into the deep end. And hopefully, it won’t be long until they are listening intently, and eventually asking questions. And someday, sooner rather than later, they might become advocates for more gender partnership at their organizations.

So HR departments, senior leaders, managers, and experts of diversity and inclusion: send more men, not just male allies, to women’s conferences. Send leaders who are not already champions of gender equality. Send one man for every woman if you can. Let the women you send act as buddies to the men. The change in dynamics between them can allow for comradery and empathy to blossom. It won’t change your organization overnight, but it’s a great step to take. Create opportunities to include in the conversation the people who need to hear it the most. And report back their findings to the rest of us! Let’s make every place a great place to work for everyone.


The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.