(This article first appeared on Forbes.com)
Google lived up to its mission to make information “universally accessible” by releasing data last week that documents the gender (and other) diversity gaps in its workforce and leadership. Earlier this year, the company reached out to the technology community with a survey soliciting ideas for increasing women’s representation at conferences.
These promising efforts by a global powerhouse to redress imbalances in the tech sector connect to a critical issue for working women in every sector: visibility.
No one disputes that the more senior you get in any organization, the more your success depends on both what you know and who knows what you know. But for a complex set of reasons, women are less likely to be acknowledged as experts and given the stage – regardless of the quality of their work.
How can women become more visible? Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In tells women to raise their hands. But that’s only half of the solution. We believe systemic change will happen when men raise their hands as well – not for themselves, but rather to point out their talented women colleagues.
An early leader in recognizing the critical value of engaging male allies, Advancing Women Professional and the Jewish Community (AWP), launched the Men as Allies campaign eight years ago to promote gender equity in the Jewish nonprofit sector. AWP’s experience – its setbacks and successes – makes a strong case for positioning men as a key part of the solution.
The campaign’s “ask” was simple: take a pledge not to participate on all-male public panels, and not to organize conferences where only men are featured in major roles. Male allies were asked to respond to such invitations by persuading the organizers to also invite talented women who may be less visible, but who are equally qualified, to join the panel, conference or decision making body.
The pledge campaign had its challenges. Initially, male allies would ask AWP for “the list” of women they could pass on to event conveners. But a “binder full of women” wasn’t a solution because the problem wasn’t the missing list. The problem was that men needed to think in new ways about their women colleagues so that they could help conveners recognize and value their contribution. To catalyze this deeper, adaptive shift in thinking, AWP tasked male allies to be talent scouts on behalf of their female colleagues.
Resistance on the part of conference organizers and others was a common response. Organizers reacted as if a request for diversity was an attempt to “dumb down” the discourse by forcing them to choose a less qualified speaker or thinker. AWP’s male allies learned to hold steady in the face of negativity. Sometimes, this required them to relinquish their place to make room for a woman; at other times, both the man and the female colleague that he had recommended were invited to speak.
Over time, the men in the program became more comfortable and confident in their role – and more effective at their efforts. They began convincing conference organizers that going beyond the usual suspects enhances the dialogue, brings vitality to the public square, and yields new thinking on complex issues.
In turn, organizational conveners and decision makers in the Jewish community became more educated and began to pro-actively change the composition of their conferences. Today, women are increasingly seen in public venues as thought leaders, visionaries, and innovators.
AWP’s cadre of male allies, now 70 strong and growing, is helping to create a cultural shift in the Jewish nonprofit sector toward more accountability and gender inclusivity. It has shown that change can happen when men put real skin in the game.
The movement toward gender inclusivity is taking root – although more gradually than we would like. When The Atlantic published an article that invited readers to adopt AWP’s pledge to help phase out all-male panels at tech conferences, some respondents cried “tokenism” and “affirmative action.” Some reactions were so negative, vitriolic even, that the publisher had to take the list of signatories and comments down.
On the progress side of the ledger, in addition to Google’s initiative, SXSW, which now produces a full calendar of gatherings in music, film, interactive, education and more, now requires all panel organizers to include at least one woman in any session with three speakers or more.
As these kinds of efforts become the norm rather than the exception, men will discover the depth of expertise of their female colleagues, and women will step forward into the spotlight. Taking a public pledge not to appear on an all male panel, and taking action to promote accomplished women, is not just good for the women – it’s good for everyone who values excellence and equity. If you count yourself in this group, are you ready to take the pledge?
Shifra Bronznick is a senior fellow at NYU Wagner’s Research Center for Leadership in Action, president of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, and a co-author of Leveling the Playing Field. Anne Weisberg is a SVP at the Families and Work Institute and coauthor of Mass Career Customization: Aligning the Workplace with Today’s Nontraditional Workforce.