About Time: Men Speak Out for Workplace Equality

Catalyst, a research organization that has been around for more than 50 years and whose work focuses on “expanding opportunities for women and business”, has recently launched MARC, or Men Advocating Real Change - an online community encouraging men to support equality in the workplace. MARC has eight male bloggers, a discussion forum, and literature and resources for men “committed to making real change”.

It says something about how “workplace equality” gets interpreted that most media covering this initiative, as far as I can tell, did so in the context of women’s workplace issues. I only learned about MARC through a passing reference in the Globe and Mail’s “Women at Work” column. This column just started a few months ago, so apparently the Globe took until 2011 to notice that women and men get treated differently in workplaces. That’s a good indicator of why something like MARC needs to happen. But relegating mentions of MARC to something that only women are likely to read – which was how MARC was treated by other media as well – suggests that MARC is going to have some challenges reaching its intended audience, i.e. men.

Nevertheless, MARC is a great idea. It deserves a lot more attention in many more venues, for a couple of reasons.

I’ve taught a Gender and Diversity in Organizations class at universities since the early 1990s,  when courses on such topics were still called Women in Management. It’s been really fascinating to me to watch how the course and the students in it have evolved. When the course was called Women in Management, only women signed up for it. And even with the name change, and the expansion of the course content over time to include other diversities – e.g. ethnicity, age, dis/ability, sexual orientation – in addition to gender, it wasn’t until two years ago that for the first time I had a class with more men than women.

Some male students have told me that they were very nervous about signing up because they thought the course content would be “it’s all men’s fault”. And I think if you asked anyone else who teaches this kind of course, they would agree that sometimes it’s difficult to avoid that kind of attitude, either in the assigned writings or in discussion comments from other students. But  students really learn a lot from hearing men, especially white men, talk about their own issues around gender roles in the workplace. It’s a revelation for some students to hear that everything isn’t perfect and easy for men at work just because they’re part of a dominant group that’s identified as privileged.

Another man supporting workplace equality: US President Barack Obama. Here he is with Lilly Ledbetter, who sued her employer for paying her less than her male co-workers. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first piece of legislation that President Obama signed into law. (Credit: businessweek.com)

However, one thing that hasn’t changed a whole lot in my course since the early 1990s is that most of the students, male and female, start the course thinking that all the battles have been won, that everyone is equal, and that workplace diversity isn’t an issue any more. Sharing a few statistics, like the gender composition of most Canadian executive groups and boards of directors, and a few recent news stories, like this one, usually dispels those ideas pretty quickly. So a group of men discussing workplace equality will offer another way to illustrate that the battles aren’t over – and also to show that even some battles that were apparently resolved are  coming back again.

I’m also impressed that six of MARC’s eight bloggers are white men. Many organizations that designate a position as being responsible for diversity will fill that position with someone from an underrepresented demographic group. To some extent, this makes sense, because that person’s experiences will likely make them more sensitive to how diversity relates to the organization and its functions. But in my opinion, the larger problem with such staffing choices, even if the person is highly qualified, is that it implies that equality is only an issue for minorites, and is someone else’s problem. MARC showcases white men with executive-level experience saying that equality is important for everyone. That’s powerful in and of itself, but also powerful in emphasizing that workplace equality is everyone’s issue and everyone’s responsibility.

I do worry that MARC will be discounted because it’s sponsored by Catalyst.  I personally have a great deal of respect for Catalyst and the work it does, but judging by some of the comments on the Globe and Mail story that mentioned MARC, any person or organization criticizing workplace inequality is a loser trying to find excuses for their own failure, someone who doesn’t believe that hiring or promotions should be based on qualifications or merit, etc. etc. etc. I don’t doubt that a group of men criticizing workplace inequality is going to get the same ridiculous responses, especially if women are facilitating their work.

Nevertheless, MARC has a great deal of potential, and I encourage you to visit its website and follow its progress. There’s already some excellent discussion going on, and the bloggers are making very insightful posts. Who knows? This might be the small thing that makes really big things happen.

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