Heading into 2021, one of the things I’m most excited about is the elevation of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging as key priorities in the business world. As we reenter our workplaces, we can rethink the way we’ve gone to work – and create a new picture on a blank canvas. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to reimagine how unique and distinct individuals will come together and work as a team to achieve common goals.
Championing women is pivotal to create that ideal future – and I firmly believe that advocating for the empowerment of women is not women’s responsibility alone. Diversity and inclusivity are keys to driving our industry forward. Men must take actionable steps to be allies of women in our workplace. It’s a fact that women are outnumbered in corporate America, from entry-level roles to the executive suite. According to the 2020 Women in the Workplace study from Lean In and McKinsey, for every 100 men promoted or hired into their first management position, only 82 women are given the opportunity to take the same step. The gap is even larger for women of color: only 58 blacks and 71 Latinas were promoted.
Today’s COVID-19 crisis deepens the importance of male allies. Without intervention, some studies suggest the pandemic could set women back in the workplace another half a decade. Today, one in four women are considering leaving the workforce. Significantly affected are mothers, with one in three considering either leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers. The majority cite childcare responsibilities as the primary reason. Mothers are more than three times as likely to perform household labour, childcare and homeschooling compared to their co-working fathers. These important tasks are equivalent to 20 hours a week.
As business leaders, we should recognise that success hinges on bringing out the best in our people. Doing this will require a culture of inclusion and respect. When we celebrate everyone’s ideas, identities and experiences, we will better serve an increasingly connected and diverse world of consumers.
Where to start
Now, I understand that correcting a societal divide as vast as gender inequity in the workplace can feel like an impossible challenge. Like any other long journey, it’s wise to prepare before we begin and take things one step at a time. Preparation, in this case, begins with listening, understanding and analysis. Reflect on what was tried in the past that did not work. Don’t allow past mistakes to slow you down. Learn from them and move forward.
Women don’t need you to be their hero; they need you to stand beside them and elevate them as their co-equal ally.
I believe one of the most common missteps that well-intentioned male allies sometimes make, myself included, is a belief that on day one we can instantly bulldoze every obstacle that women face. My advice: resist riding in on that white horse to save the day. Women don’t need you to be their hero; they need you to stand beside them and elevate them as their co-equal ally.
In my view, the best way to get started is to immerse yourself in the subject matter. Prioritise and put in the work. Perhaps it’s watching documentaries, listening to podcasts, reading articles and books, participating in employee resource group events, or plugging into community conversations outside of the office about women’s experiences in the workplace.
Personally, I have made a point of trying to stay in touch in a few different ways. Internally, I meet with Northwestern Mutual’s Women’s Employee Resource Group so I can hear their priorities and try to understand any challenges that they may be facing. I’ve also made it a point to mentor and sponsor women within, and outside, of our company. Externally, I have been reaching out to venture capital firms that have made investing in women’s initiatives a priority, giving me an outside perspective on what’s happening in the industry.
When your eyes and mind are open, the next best step is to engage in self-reflection and focus on your own development. What biases do you bring to the workplace? How do they show up? Who are you mentoring today? How often are you proactively elevating women’s voices, and inhibiting others from speaking over them? Who do you turn to with an opportunity for advancement – and why? Like any other business project, an important early strategy is to thoroughly audit. Assess yourself and set benchmarks for improvement.
When you’ve completed these steps, then it’s time to be bold and act. Too often, many of us wait for a company training or a corporate initiative to improve ourselves. But many companies don’t have a formal effort related to 'becoming an ally', and those that do probably didn’t have such efforts just a few years ago. But you can’t wait; you have to blaze that trail. Start formal and informal discussions, especially with other men.
That’s what four of my Northwestern Mutual colleagues did. Months ago, our Vice President of Distribution Performance Art Mees proactively organised a group of male executives including Chief Investment Strategist Brent Schutte, Vice President and Controller Todd Jones and Vice President Enterprise Portfolio Management Ross Hamilton to explore this topic and improve themselves. Later this week, they will take part in a panel discussion hosted by our company’s Women’s Employee Resource Group on male allyship. I’m excited to hear their personal stories and the actionable ideas they have for others to move their allyship journey forward.
After building support and capacity, it’s time to take your advocacy to the next level – and be a champion for company-wide change. That’s what our executive team did.
My final piece of advice for every male ally is simple: stay humble. On this journey, you will stumble and make mistakes.
We challenged all of our financial advisors and representatives, staff and employees to make a Choice to Champion women at our organisation. More than 3,300+ individuals made commitments, and their actions – as mentors, sponsors, joint work partners and recruiters – will result in better experiences for more than 5,200 women at our organisation. This challenge was about more than what men could do for our company, but what every ally can do to build a more inclusive community. We have a variety of women at all levels of the organisation who are in a unique place – to influence and support the next generation of women and allies in our workforce.
I am so proud to see the power of allyship in our organisation extend across the country. Male allies played a key role in accelerating the launch of Northwestern Mutual’s Women’s Field Association – a first-of-its-kind community designed and built by women advisors for women advisors, that aims to attract and develop the next generation of women talent in financial services.
My final piece of advice for every male ally is simple: stay humble. On this journey, you will stumble and make mistakes. At some point, you may get feedback from a woman colleague that surprises and challenges you. In that moment, please, don’t walk away from the interaction – run toward it. Wear that conversation like a badge of honor, because someone felt comfortable enough to be vulnerable with you and share what they’re really feeling. That authentic and inclusive workplace is the environment we all deserve.
Reposted with permission on Leaderonomics.com.
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