Getting to 50/50: What’s in It for Men?

Lean In contributors Mana Nakagawa and Kunal Modi explore how men are getting involved in women's organizations at top universites

One critical thread in the conversation around women's leadership? The effort to engage men. How can we—men and women—educate ourselves on the value of diversity to create more inclusive workplaces? How can we redesign work, so that working families are more supported? And how do we work together so that all of us can have equal opportunities to advance into leadership roles? In the last few years, members of the Stanford University community have sought out answers to these questions and what’s needed to jump-start progress. Now more then ever, engaging men is key to creating sustainable change. This is the story of how a group of students at Stanford is doing its part to #LeanInTogether.

In the fall of 2013, Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) students participated in their annual, all-day training session on “Leading in Diverse Environments.” During the trainings, a male GSB alum recalled that back in his day, he would frequently attend Women in Management (WIM) events. The whole room erupted into laughter. The joke, of course, was that he was only there to pick up women. During the Q&A, Jeff Barnes, MBA 2015, decided he had to speak up about the joke. “It struck me how everyone laughed about a man going to WIM events. I’ve actually approached WIM about getting involved in their organization. These issues affect both men and women, and men are often the ones in leadership positions who can catalyze change. We would all be better off if more men engaged in the conversation.” Thunderous applause filled the room. Across campus, Barnes’s classmates — both women and men — continued to cheer his efforts. “There was huge interest in the topic and a lot of uncertainty around how to handle the interest,” he recalls. Despite the uncertainty, or perhaps because of it, the male engagement movement at Stanford GSB had officially begun.

A story of getting to 50/50: Women in Management (WIM) & Women in Management Men (WIMmen)

The Women in Management group was originally created to spearhead initiatives specifically dedicated to the empowerment of GSB women. However, Jenn Wilcox Thomas and Wendy Wen, current co-presidents of WIM, believed the organization was missing a critical voice in its membership. Where were the men in their conversations? The two women shared a core philosophical belief that WIM needed to tap men as partners in advancing gender equity. Barnes too, shared this vision. As a son of two high-powered corporate executives (his mother is Brenda Barnes, former President and CEO of Pepsi-Cola North America), it was perfectly natural to him that women would be in positions of top leadership and that men would be their equal partners at home and in the workplace. For Barnes to collaborate with the WIM co-presidents seemed inevitable.

However, forming the partnership had its own challenges. Even after Barnes began paying membership dues to WIM, he felt like a “due-paying, non-member.” “They weren’t really sure what to do with me,” he recalls. Barnes remained undeterred. Eventually, someone handed him the WIM leadership application, so he applied to be on their board. Wen and Wilcox Thomas jumped on the opportunity to engage men in their initiatives. And with that, WIMmen was founded.

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Why should men care about 50/50?

This remains the pressing question for many pursuing male engagement efforts. According to the members of WIMmen, there is a strong consensus on the benefits of equality at work and at home:

  1. I want to be better at my job.
  2. I want to be a better husband/partner.
  3. It’s the right thing to do.
“We really underestimated the simple selling points,” says Wilcox Thomas. According to WIMmen, it’s actually more common that men have many reasons to care about these issues, from managing work/life balance, to improving team dynamics and employee satisfaction. Even companies such as Facebook, Google, and Intel have announced that greater diversity can increase product innovation when workforces can understand and design for their diverse customers. The leadership of WIM and WIMmen provide sound advice: Assume there is good intent, until proven otherwise.

Currently, WIMmen and WIM are experimenting with new programs related to engaging men in gender diversity initiatives. Previously, there has been no platform for men to engage on this topic, which many men still find difficult to discuss. Education, awareness, and creating safe spaces to open up the dialogue are their first priorities.

WIMmen partnered with Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research to access more educational content for men, and to learn how Clayman’s Corporate Partners are supporting women’s leadership and diversity initiatives. They’ve also launched a series of “small group dinners” on gender topics. GSB students can sign up to host or join group discussions at students’ homes to have dinner and talk about issues around gender diversity. These dinners are already oversubscribed due to popular interest. Additional events are already in the works, including a “power couple panel” to help students understand how to successfully navigate relationships among two dedicated professionals. Through their partnership, both WIM and WIMmen members hope that these programs will help them carry their confidence and curiosity into their future companies, and enable them to better lead in diverse corporate environments with the tools and insights they’ve gained.

How exactly can men be more engaged?

Most men will tell you, gender just isn’t easy for them to talk about. Men are afraid of “saying the wrong thing,” begin socially ostracized for “trying to be honest,” or, being ridiculed by other men for “being a wuss.” How do we create honest dialogues while ensuring asylum from public humiliation? While situations vary across contexts, we’ve gathered some tried and tested strategies from a range of peers and mentors:

1. Listen. Learn the facts, but also learn individuals’ stories. If you are surrounded by high-achieving women, you might think there isn’t a problem. Acknowledge this reality of inequality by learning real facts and listening to stories of those close to you. Accepting that there is inequality is the first step towards change.

2. Recognize unconscious bias and resist the urge to “call people out.” Research shows us that all individuals—both women and men – are prone to unconscious bias. But simply calling people out doesn’t eliminate bias. Acknowledge your own biases and learn techniques to reduce them. Engage others in a conversation for collaborative remediation and turn them into allies.

3. Expect that you will sometimes “say the wrong thing.” This is frequent advice that female WIM members give to their WIMmen peers. Don’t be afraid to engage in genuine conversation. How do we do this without conversations ending in anger and resentment? It takes practice.

  1. If conversations get tricky, use language of engagement. Meet people where they are. Shelley Correll, Professor of Sociology at Stanford University, advises that if you meet people where they are, you will have a better chance of finding common ground for a productive conversation. Meeting people where they are is critical to having an effective, difficult conversation. Some strategies to do this successfully:
  • Have a strategic question to help frame the conversation. When conversations go awry, according to Gina Bianchini, a founder and advisor to Lean, framing questions can help move the conversation to being useful and productive. For example ask, “Aren’t we discussing strategies to broaden the population of leadership?” Always keep a strategic question in your back pocket to navigate difficult situations.
  • Do not share advice, share a story. Lori Mackenzie at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research makes it a point to share a story that shows you also have a similar experience; after all, we all have biases. Your own story can give you a foundation to share solutions you have found to be effective. Sometimes your stories can open people’s eyes to dynamics or experiences they did not see, so they can now take action or be supportive in new ways.
5. Create small groups in safe spaces and practice talking about these issues. Talking intelligently and constructively about these issues is not always easy. No one wants to be the “gender police.” But worse is when we let things go and stop speaking up about inequities we see in our daily lives. With enough practice in small groups and with individuals we trust, we can serve as each other’s sounding boards and develop better tools to engage in more effective communication. Start your own WIM+WIMmen organizations. Lean In Circles are the perfect place to start.

6. Ask male mentors and superiors. “One of the most heartwarming things we see is when our male classmates ask male leaders about managing their careers and family, in order to have it all,” share Wen and Wilcox Thomas. Similarly, Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober, co-authors of Getting to 50/50, recommend that young professionals interview their favorite power couple and learn their strategies for creating equal partnerships to better navigate work and family dynamics.

7. Build an “on-call support network”. Establish a small trusted, group of people on an email thread or group text that you can quickly ask for advice or reflect on situations.

8. Talk across generations. Leaders at the Stanford GSB share that their biggest challenge will be to bring these skills and experiences into the companies they enter after business school. “It may be hard to speak up about these things as a junior in the company.” By engaging in multi-generational conversations and across hierarchies, companies can create safer spaces for younger leaders to speak up and push companies to think outside the status quo.

9. Commit to one action. Even if it’s a small act, one simple idea can lead to change.

Our generation of women and men, together hold the great promise of reaching 50/50—in the home and in the workplace. We have witnessed a rapid growth of male engagement initiatives around the country, including those by other business school male organizations such as the Manbassasors groups at Harvard Business School, Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. We’ve also seen university fraternities engaging in feminist studies, a rise in stay-at-home dads, and male alliances across industries. These stories remind us that “Getting to 50/50” is a mindset, rather than a numerical metric we use in a zero-sum game. Both men and women have a stake in creating a more equal world where everyone can thrive. When we jointly commit to a 50/50 mindset, we can individually bring 100% of ourselves to the table.

For more useful tips on how men can do their part, check out Lean In's tips: