Firstly, let me state that my friend gets it. Great female role models in his life, many years studying, living and working in Norway and leads his business and community from a very consensus-driven, collective approach. So the conversation moves well past many you have on the topic of gender bias and the need for greater balance in decision making across our communities and workplaces.
Today over Friday coffee he made the point that the conversations he and I have, where we challenge each others philosophy and views around the politics of the gender debate, are not held on the public stage. Nor could the topics easily be raised by the men who regularly sit on the many panels discussing gender-related topics. Imagine if the CEO of a big four bank said he felt that the white over-50 men in the organisation were having a hard time and needed a male-only development activity?
My friends point is that the public conversation in Australia is very much framed around the rhetoric that women are under-represented in business, politics and leadership in general, this needs to change and men need to get with the program. Full-stop, period. Little opportunity for nuance, softer edges or thoughtful and engaged discussion around what this looks like and how it can be successfully managed to ensure long-term sustained change and better outcomes for all.
While we do see reports, research and occasional stories and opinions in the media talking about the threats (as opposed to the opportunities) that the rise of the feminine poses to some groups, his assertion is reasonably on the money. Whereas the internal dialogue in organisations - in particular between those who are part of the recruitment, retention and development of people - is more than likely to bring up issues around disenfranchised white males, the public conversation remains largely static and focussed on women.
To a great extent the focus on women has been necessary to achieve some measure of parity and equity within our workplaces and communities. Particularly in the feminist movements of the 20th Century and the fight for social, political, and economic equality for women. However, in the diverse, digital and dichotomous world of 2016 is it time to take stock and consider the following:
- Statisically, most of the easy wins on gender have largely been achieved and we have reached something of a stalemate in terms of women's advancement onto boards and into leadership roles. It gets harder from here.
- Millenials (those born between 1980 and 1996) don't accept "that's the way it has always been done" as a viable answer. They demand a different customer experience to meet their needs and want workplaces free of old policies and performance management standards. Importantly they expect leaders and managers to adapt accordingly and will change jobs if organisational values do not stack up.
- We are in a period of unprecendented transition of wealth and power in Australia where sharper divides will exist between the haves, the might haves and the have nots.
These, and the many other trends social demographers track, tell me that in the western world it is the 'rise of the feminine style' rather than the rise of women per se that is replacing the harder-edged masculine norm which has so dominated our cultures. The important point is that while this in no way excludes men, it can appear to exclude white previously entitled men and women who subscribe to this norm. Perhaps this is one reason we have a sexist, racist, bigot as president-elect of the US following the most polarising and election in that countries' history?
My point is that unless we are careful the discussions on gender will fracture and divide on hard lines. We should remember that gender equity is not about women replacing men in the clubs of power. It's not about creating in-groups and out-groups and recreating the winner-takes-all approach of the past. It's about changing structures, adapting our attitudes and finding a new way forward.
So my friend and I will continue to have our coffees and talk about how we might do this - both in small ways and in other ways that have a greater impact. It would be great to know many similar conversations were being held in coffee shops, workplaces, schools, universities, community halls, councils, Parliaments and homes across Australia.
Maybe it's up to you to start them?