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Meet Three Men Working For Gender Equality At Their Companies

A more equal, welcoming corporate world is beneficial for everyone, and these men are working to make it happen.

Meet Three Men Working For Gender Equality At Their Companies
[Photo: djem via Shutterstock]

For some men, gender equality at work may seem like an issue that has little to do with them.

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But there is a growing number of men who get that a gender-equal office environment means better companies, better industries, better economies. In fact, research from McKinsey & Company found that without women entering the workforce the way we have since the 1970s, our economy would be 25% smaller than the current GDP.

The men fighting for gender equality are vocal about their belief in changing the system. They stand up for gender equality because they believe other men need to see them pushing for change. If women made gender equality visible, men need to convince the skeptics that everyone can have it all as long as we all share the grunt work. We talked to three men about their experiences and struggles fighting for gender equality in the business, tech, and advertising sectors.

The Man “Leaning On” Investors

It was 20 years ago that Joe Keefe, while reading David Landis’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, stumbled upon a quote that revealed just how much gender inquality contributes to poverty: “The best clue to a nation’s growth and development potential is the status and role of women,” wrote Landis.

When Keefe became CEO of Pax World Management LLC, one of his first missions was to buy a small fund in California called the Women’s Equity Fund, which invested in companies that made efforts to advance gender diversity.

Keefe then partnered with Sallie Krawcheck’s Ellevate Asset Management to launch The Pax Ellevate Global Women’s Index Fund last June, which became the first global index fund that focuses on investing in the highest-rated companies aimed at advancing women’s leadership.

Keefe, who calls gender inequality the “great economic issue of our time,” believes that by eliminating discrimination, we’ll be able to experience growth like we’ve never seen before.

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But for that to happen, the men on top need to put pressure on the other men on top.

“More investors need to pay attention to issues like that,” says Keefe, who was honored with the U.N.’s Women’s Empowerment Principles Leadership Award last year. “If investors put the pressure on, companies would change.”

“Usually [these CEOs] are not ill-intentioned. They’re not against advancing women. They just haven’t prioritized it. I’m a CEO and I have 20 things to do every day and I only have time to do three of them. I have to prioritize,” he continues. “The research is pretty overwhelming now, and businesses who might have thought about advancing women 10 years ago because it was the right thing to do, now can advance women because it is the smart thing to do.”

A policy that Keefe suggests other companies adopt is making sure women are always included in the finalist pool when hiring.

“If you go do a search for a vice president of marketing or vice president of operations and you have a search firm working with you and you’re looking at all these candidates, we have a policy where we insist that the search firm include in the finalist pool women candidates,” he explains. “Then we just hire the best person. We don’t have quotas or anything like that, but if you have women in the finalist pool, then, lo and behold, guess what? Five out of the nine senior managers who run the divisions in this company who report directly to me are women. And the reason it’s five out of nine is because with every hire we’ve made, we insisted women be in the finalist pool.”

Attracting women is one thing; retaining them is another. There are a lot of policies to take into account when creating an inviting workplace for both genders, but Keefe says one thing is certain: Women should not be penalized for being parents and people should not be punished for taking parental leave.

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The Tech Entrepreneur Who Stands Up For Women Because “It’s Basic Human Decency”

When former high-profiled partner of Microsoft Ventures Rahul Sood tweeted that “having a startup weekend just for women is kinda pointless” last year, Dan Shapiro quickly retaliated with a blog post defending Startup Weekend Women. Shapiro, cofounder and CEO of Glowforge, writes:

“There are many spectacular entrepreneurs, men and women alike, who give generously of their time to make entrepreneurship more accessible to everyone. Rahul’s comments on behalf of Microsoft Ventures dishonor them all. As someone who worked at Microsoft for years, has many friends there, and still carry a lot of affection for the place, I’m deeply disappointed.”

Sood later apologized for his insensitive tweet, commenting on Shapiro’s post: “It is in no way a reflection of who I am or my belief system. I’m not even going to try to explain myself, I made a terrible mistake.”

When asked why he wrote the post, Shapiro says, “if I can’t speak up for people who are working themselves silly to provide a great experience to spread entrepreneurship … if I’m not willing to say something, then it’s pretty sad and pathetic given the position and privilege I have to be able to speak up without literally being afraid for my life let alone being shouted down, insulted, corrected, sneered out … the nonsense that the people who actually did the hard work of creating that event had to endure. I did nothing but sit down and write a blog post.”

In his own company, Shapiro says he works really hard to find team members from diverse backgrounds, because he can’t stand the fact that we live in a “ridiculous world” where “half of the potentials are systematically undervalued and challenged.”

“One thing I’ve noticed that I don’t think is a coincidence is I’ve talked to a fair number of women who’ve said, ‘Actually yeah, I have a background in technology but I moved out of that. I’m now in some other role because it just wasn’t worth the pain that people put me through to do that thing that I loved.’ That’s heartbreaking,” says Shapiro.

“Nobody ever said, ‘Dan you can’t go do a startup because you’re a white dude.’ But people have said exactly that, but substitute ‘women’ for white dude.”

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The Ad Man Who Spoke Up And Got A Lot Of Backlash For It

Last year, Nils Leonard, chief creative officer of advertising agency Grey London, wrote a piece in AdWeek sharing his frustrations about the industry’s lack of gender diversity. The piece brought him a lot of criticism. Some people called it patronizing. Others were simply offended. But Leonard continued thinking and speaking openly about gender.

Whatever you thought about Leonard’s vision of the “perfect creative,” you can’t bash his intent to question gender inequality. Before Leonard was a creative director, he was a designer running a music and fashion consultancy on the side. It was then that he became aware that advertising greatly lacked diversity, especially when compared to the music and fashion industries.

“And I thought to myself, ‘This is kind of screwed,’ so the moment I got the [executive creative director] gig at Grey, I made it my mission to not just make gender an issue, but to make the makeup of a department an issue,” he says. “I started with the fact that all of the people tend to come from the same place. All of our suits tend to come from the same colleges. All of the creatives tend to come from the same machine. All of that pisses me off. I think it limits us. I think it makes us just repeat the same stuff year after year. I am worried that our industry, the creative industry, is failing because our lineup is so typical.”

Given that’s how he felt, when Leonard was asked to write a piece for Adweek, he decided he was going to do exactly the opposite of what the industry, or as he puts it, “mainly fat white guys who sat on the top floor of a building” had told him to do for years: stay in his box. So, he wrote about the perfect woman creative and referenced her in the future form because he wanted to get the point across that she doesn’t yet exist in his world. Women in his industry are rare, and that’s what he was trying to say without actually saying it outright. In the end, Leonard’s piece didn’t come across the way he intended, and from that, he says he’s learned a lot.

But it came from a place that questioned the status quo, and Leonard hasn’t veered from that place. He still thinks men should talk about gender. Despite the backlash, Leonard still believes that men need to “make more mistakes around” gender because “it’s not an easy thing to get right.” But talking about it–even if you get it wrong–is the only way you get the conversation ball rolling.

“The reason men have to talk about it and be made to talk about it is because men are running the industry, and they need to have a point of view on why it looks like it looks,” he says. “Why is it shaped like it’s shaped, and why are most startups, you see three white guys in the way that they are, from the colleges they’re from, the backgrounds they have, it’s the same fucking guys.”

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“I think that most guys are terrified of fucking it up or getting it wrong, saying the wrong thing. They think, ‘I’ve worked my way up for years and now I’m at the top and I’m not going to change anything.’ I think that there’s a belief that that’s the game, and if you know how to play the game, you’ll get rewarded and they’re scared to mess with that. Creatives are vulnerable people.”

Leonard says he doesn’t wake up every morning and think, “Christ, I need to hire a woman,” but he does scan the room when he’s a meeting and ask himself whether the right people are in the room.

“I look around and I look at that meeting and I say to myself, is this the right makeup of people? Does this have enough variety and richness of character and difference of thought in it?” he says. “I’m really optimistic. I know that the ones who most want change and who are most frustrated are the ones who are going to push things forward.”

The men speaking up for gender equality–just like the women who do–aren’t perfect. Some of them have been fighting their entire professional lives for a gender-equal workplace. Some of them just happened to stumble upon it. Some of them don’t always get it right.

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But what they do have in common is that they all question inequality, and they set out to do something about it in their own ways, in their own industries. That’s how conversations happen and change occurs. These guys don’t think the rise of women means the demise of men. They don’t think that only one group can benefit. They see long-term benefits and results. They’re the men working for gender equality, and we need more like them.

About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.

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