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Strong Female Lead

Yes, Gender Equality Is A Men's Issue

Emma Watson's HeForShe campaign calls on men to become allies for gender equality. Here's why it's important and what men can do.

[Photo: Flickr user Marco Bond]

One thing is for sure, if Emma Watson's speech on gender equality delivered at the United Nations last week was given by a man, the headlines we'd be reading would have nothing to do with the threat of leaking the speaker's nude photos.

While the threat of leaking Watson's nude photos was a hoax, it brings to light a very clear double standard, the same double standards in fact that Watson was highlighting in her speech: Gender inequality is alive and well.

In her speech, she urged the need for men to get involved in the fight for gender equality and announced the HeForShe campaign, which asks men to commit to speaking out against violence and discrimination faced by women and girls around the world.

Lost in the noise of nude photo threat/hoax, of course, is a discussion of the issues that Watson attempted to bring to light—issues like the fact that more than 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs are men; that while 40% of the agriculture labor force around the world is made up of women, less than 20% of women in those areas own land; that violence against women—at home, on campuses, and in the workplace—persists and is routinely ignored.

What's often overlooked in the discussion is precisely why the need for men to speak out on such gender equality issues is so critical, and moreover, how men can get involved.

Gender Equality Affects Men Too

Fighting for women’s rights has become "synonymous with man-hating," as Watson put it in her speech. But gender equality benefits men as well.

With a growing number of men taking on the responsibility of caring for children as their parters work, breaking down traditional gender stereotypes is increasingly important. Research has also shown societal pressures to be aggressive and not reveal vulnerabilities can have negative affects on men. According to statics by the Center for Disease Control, suicide is four times higher among men than it is women. "Suicide needs to be addressed as a health and gender inequality—an avoidable difference in health and length of life that … affects men more because of the way society expects them to behave," according to a report by Samaritans, a U.K.-based suicide-prevention organization.

Bringing men into the conversation on gender equality takes a step toward breaking down those expectations of both genders. As Watson said in her speech, "It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, not as two opposing sets of ideals."

How to do that? "We need to get men in the room now," says Claudia Chan, founder of the annual S.H.E. Summit. "Men need to get integrated into the movement."

Sponsor More Women To Build The Pipeline Of Women Leaders

Having a senior leader who takes an active role in helping you move up in your company and career—also known as sponsorship—is a key way to fast-track your success. People with sponsors are 23%more likely to move up in their career than those without sponsors, according to research out of the Center for Talent Innovation.

Yet women are far less likely to have sponsors than men, which puts them at a clear disadvantage. "Sponsorship tends to power-replicate itself," says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation. The reason for that? Trust is a big part of the equation in sponsorship relationships, says Hewlett. "Trust does not often cross gender and race because it's easier to trust a mini-me," she says. But awareness is the first step in making a change. Recognizing those patterns, men in leadership positions can take a more active role in sponsoring women.

Acknowledge There's More Progress To Be Made

This lack of advocacy from men is one key reason women hold only 3% of Fortune 500 CEO positions, according to a report by Hewlett, in which she calls the lack of such sponsorship "the last glass ceiling."

Consider the data. More women than men enter the white-collar workforce (53 women for every 47 males), yet as they move up, men are promoted to leadership roles at a far greater rate, with men in top executive roles outnumbering women four to one. The problem isn't just the disparity, it's also those male leaders' perception of the issue. "Male CEOs simply don’t see the lack of women around them, conditioned as they are by decades of initiatives dedicated to correcting gender inequities," Hewlett wrote. "While 49% of women think gender bias is alive and well today, only 28% of men agree."

But diversity in leadership benefits men just as much as it does women. According to the Global Leadership Forecast, which surveyed 13,124 leaders from around the world, those companies that were performing in the top 20% financially had nearly twice the amount of women in leadership roles compared to those in the bottom 20%.

"Encouraging gender diversity in your leadership pool means greater diversity of thought, which, in turn, leads to improved problem solving and greater business benefits," according to the report.

Keep An Open Mind To Women's Issues

Simply showing a willingness to acknowledge and understand the gender inequalities facing women is a huge step in getting the ball rolling. It's an unwillingness to engage in conversation over the issues that only perpetuates the problem.

In August, when Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti tweeted a question asking if anyone knew of specific countries where tampons are free or subsidized, she was met with a torrent of abusive tweets. Valenti had posed the question as part of her research for a column on the cost and availability of feminine hygiene products around the world—a problem particularly in developing countries. What she found, of course, wasn't just that access to such necessary health products is significantly lacking, but that speaking out on the issue made her an instant target for hate.

It's not uncommon for women speaking out on women's issues to be met with such criticism. Bringing men into the conversation in a productive and open-minded way is a crucial step to actually making progress on issues of gender inequality. Before significant progress can be made, there needs to be a willingness to simply show up at the table and listen.

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