The picture to the right seems relatively benign doesn’t it? But it has drawn a storm of outrage from women across the globe, being re-tweeted endlessly with angry captions such as: “A picture speaks a thousand words”, and “mansplaining”. To put it in context, as can be seen by the background posters, the photograph was taken at this year’s Global Summit of Women. Thus, the underlying sentiment is that men have no place in discussing women’s issues; that their mere presence elicits indignation. I couldn’t disagree more strongly, so let me explain why.
To start with, the horrified tweets brought to mind an analogy of my own distress some 20 years ago on a different but somehow related matter. My company was involved in conducting an in-depth strategic plan and, as one of the executives, my task was to do scenario planning of the political future of the country – to look at the best, worst and most likely case scenarios for the next 5 to 10 years. Now I am a South African, and this was during the late 80’s, so we were living through a fascinating time of dramatic possibilities, but also through a period of enormous uncertainty. Clarity for a 5 to 10 year period was something only to be dreamt of.
Nevertheless, I consulted the most prominent political expert I could find; someone who was as objective as he could be under the circumstances. There was only one certainty he could offer, and that was that change in the country would not come through the opposition party. His best-case scenario was that the then President would retire through ill health, that FW de Klerk would come to power and that he, along with the ruling Nationalist Party, would willingly hand over power to the majority of South Africans (as opposed to the white minority) led by Nelson Mandela. This was not what I wanted to hear. As a staunch opponent of apartheid and as a then political activist I wanted to hear only that the opposition party would somehow sweep into power (something they’d failed to do for 48 years) and would bring an end to a loathed system. I hated the thought that the ruling party might be given any credit for bringing about change. I was even prepared to accept the worst case scenario that the country would collapse into a civil war and that change would come about that way, rather than to accept that those in power should be allowed any part in effecting a transformation. Why should they be given any glory, I argued? – they were the ones who’d put the system in place and had derived the benefits.
As it happened, our country took the high road and the best case scenario came about. And it taught me an important lesson. While inside and outside influences play a vital role in creating the right conditions for change, having those in power agree to hand over the reigns and actively assist in a transfer of authority is of the greatest benefit. This principle holds equally true when it comes to the empowerment of women. We all know that the advancement of the female gender is an unstoppable train. Women around the world are now the majority of the educated talent, they are by far the most powerful consumers, and they have proved that their presence in senior management results in improved governance and profitability.
Nothing will stop the gradual improvement in the numbers of women who hold executive management, directorial and Chief Executive positions. The important word to take note of, though, is ‘gradual’. While men hold 95% of global CEO positions and 85% of director positions, the rate of change is directly related to the speed at which these men embrace and actively promote change in their companies. If it were just a matter of bringing in more women, we’d already be far further ahead than we already are – but it’s not. An effective and sustainable increase in the number of female executives involves a much more complicated process of changing the business culture from the existing alpha-male driven organisations to ones which are far more 21st century friendly – and which embrace the feminine qualities that are so badly needed in business and in the world at large.
Those men who ‘get it’ are going to play a vital role in transformation. Their voices and opinions are going to be heard much more readily by their male colleagues than by an army of women. Too frequently, the empowerment of women is seen as something that women need to do for themselves, and most companies would agree with this. Many appoint a senior woman to run the ‘diversity’ programme and men distance themselves from this process believing that it has little to do with them. They feel that women must work out what they need to do to succeed, come up with the solutions and then implement them (forming a women’s network along the way). Many men are genuinely prepared to welcome women into the C-suite just as soon as they get with the program, fix themselves and iron out the kinks as to why they’re not succeeding.
I don’t know what the panel of men at the Global Summit were discussing, but I’m betting it wasn’t because they hold the views expressed above that they were invited (and they were, of course, invited – based on the outcry by so many women, you would be forgiven for believing that these men had charged the stage and commandeered the microphones!). My guess is that they were just one panel amongst many all-female or mixed-gender panels, and that their contribution was because they really understand what needs to be done to advance the shifts in thinking and behaviours amongst both men and women to fast-track the process of gender balancing. I’m sure they have moved beyond the concept of believing that business should strive to treat men and women as equally as possible and, in that way, meritocracy will ensure that women will eventually be promoted in equal numbers to men. Instead, they doubtless have a firm grasp of the business case for gender balancing and are able not only to sell it but, more importantly, know how to role-model it. In short, they’re ready to lead the charge.
I can certainly understand how women are longing to change the world all by themselves, and I’m also sure that we can – if we can wait several more decades. I recently read that at the current rate of change amongst Fortune 500 companies, achieving gender equity at senior levels will take over a century. Changing the status quo is not easy and huge social change brings about a lot of fear. Having those in control act as champions of change is wonderful. We need allies in positions of power – men who truly understand the big picture, can see the benefits and who have the influence to get things done. Once I resented the fact that ‘the enemy’ would take credit for positive change, but now I see things very differently. Women and men have never been equal at any time in history, so we don’t really know how equality will look or exactly how it should be implemented. It’s an enormous social change and we’ll have to work it out together through consultation as we go along. We need to look for those men who can act as the ‘Nelson Mandela’s in the business world. Constant dialogue by people with open minds and flexibility to adapt as required will be the root of success. If those with power are on-board, the transition to true equality will be quicker, easier and more effective, and ultimately that is to the benefit of everyone.