Can we afford to wait 100 years before women achieve equality in New Zealand? Not many women can. But to get there faster, we need men to be part of our gender equality solutions. An article written by Kerri Du Pont from the Government Women's Network.
After amendments last year to the Public Service Act, promoting diversity and inclusion is embedded in the principles and practices of our Public Service. This is a welcome step forward to many of the diverse communities that exist in, and are served by, the work we do.
Even so, we have many decades ahead of us before women in Aotearoa New Zealand enjoy the benefits of a 0% gender pay gap, full pay equity and equal standing in every role and agency where we choose to work. For women, and especially women with co-factors which are further limiting their progress (age, ethnicity, disability, gender diversity, the list goes on…), that’s a hard pill to swallow.
At the core of the problem is pace of change. If public servants are ever going to make good on the promise that women in Public Service will stand shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts, we must make faster headway.
To compound the problem, when progress lags, stumbles, or gets mired in policy analysis, or when there are urgent crises that interrupt our momentum (Covid-19, the housing crisis, climate change), we risk losing recent gains and backsliding to old ways.
So, in the spirit of this year’s International Women’s Day theme, ‘Choose to Challenge’, we need to enlist another batch of fighters in this battle.
Men, we need you
Nō reira… men of the Public Service, consider yourselves drafted. Instead of just quietly agreeing with the need for equality and getting out of the way, there’s an opportunity here for you to actually get stuck in and make a difference. As partners and fellow fighters, we welcome – and actually need – your contributions. There’s solid evidence showing that your participation will have more impact on changing behaviour than women and data can have alone. So, if we’re to close those gaps and balance the scales faster, we need your help.
You may have heard the term ‘men as allies’ before. The idea that men can stand for gender equality goes back through history in various forms. In New Zealand, the best example actually comes from government: women’s suffrage was ultimately achieved because enough parliamentarians (all men) supported the hard-fought campaign to grant women the vote.
More recently, the concept of ‘allies’ or diversity champions has become a popular concept for helping people understand how they can actively support change even if they aren’t adversely affected by bias. A common definition for a male ally is someone who “will advocate for women whether they are in the room or not.” It seems like a small request, but it does require actual behaviour changes and interventions, not just self-awareness. In some agencies in public sector – especially those where men dominate in numbers and hierarchy – standing up for gender equality and calling out bad behaviour can be more challenging than others.
What’s in it for you
As allies, men really do get something in return, and it’s not just feeling good about yourselves. There’s plenty of research backing up a wider business case for gender equality (spoiler alert: if women participated equally in society GDP could increase by 26%). In your own agency, you also get flow-on effects including better collegial relationships and potentially career-advancing respect from peers and senior leaders. And with the prioritisation of parental leave and flexible work – benefits which may have been initially designed for gender balance but which are now available to you, too – you have more options to participate in family life. In a broader well-being and mental health sense, everyone benefits.
Importantly, you don’t have to be leading the agency to make a difference as a male ally. You don’t even have to be a manager. You can start from your first day on the job. Here are a few top tips for using your influence and social capital to make a difference.
Speaking out is a common way to help influence others on something you feel passionate about. But when power imbalance is in play, your voice may need to take a back seat to your ears. The simple act of listening is a significant tool. Listening is the foundation of trust and respect. It requires focus, sincerity, and empathy. It acknowledges the value of someone’s experience and their generosity and courage in sharing it. Interrupting is not listening.
Set your ego aside and get comfortable with uncertainty. Humility and open-mindedness are crucial for making progress and being part of the solution. Avoid seeking centre stage or rushing to action-focussed solutions. Look for ways you can amplify (not replace or reword) the positive voices in the room. Give credit where it’s due and recognise that a successful outcome is shared by all.
Be visible and vocal
Once you’ve mastered the listening, use your voice to acknowledge and actively promote accomplishments and successes at every level (organisational initiatives, team meetings, group chats). Look around at tasks often tacitly left to women (taking meeting notes, setting up morning teas, clearing the kitchen) and put your hand up for them. When you see inequalities, speak out. Even small interventions have big impacts.
If you’ve been invited to engage in conversations of diversity and inclusion, recognise that this dialogue can include experiences of exclusion, marginalisation, discrimination and active aggression. Before jumping in to speak or act, take these possibilities into respectful consideration and give thought to how you can contribute constructively.
Do the easy stuff and the hard stuff
Eliminating any sexist behaviours and speech you may have can be the easy part. The hard things may be uncomfortable or expose emotional responses like guilt or anxiety for yourself or others, but the best way to address this is with more honest interaction, conversation and learning, not less. As you expand your understanding and experience, take a bold step to be a champion for gender justice, even if it upsets the status quo.
Develop and promote supportive partnerships
Successful allies find their experiences are mutually beneficial. Offer your 'social capital' – influence, information, connections, resources – to women and women’s groups. Don’t make assumptions. Instead, ask questions and learn how you can best support their objectives. If you’ve got a handle on the issues women face in your agency, volunteer to be a mentor or coach for them. You may even find that the benefits are reciprocal.
Agencies as allies
Of course, individuals can only do so much to make significant in-roads and faster progress for women. And while agencies are beginning to prioritise diversity and inclusion in their workplaces, and the Gender Pay Taskforce and Ministry for Women have done hard mahi on equal pay across the system, it doesn’t hurt to consider other opportunities.
Supporting employee-led initiatives like women’s networks within agencies has the potential to create strong groundswell support for allyship in every tier of the workforce. Women’s networks that encourage participation from their male colleagues often find a valuable untapped resource to increase their reach and vision.
Likewise, when supported by managers and promoted by HR practitioners, the networks’ visibility and influence can do much of the heavy lifting. These networks – many of which have top-tier sponsors – are uniquely positioned to pass along crucial information in both directions. Agencies that want to better understand women in their workforce and the allies who champion them will benefit from keeping the lines of support and communication open.
Another way agencies can act as allies is by giving support to mentoring or coaching initiatives to boost women’s career progression and leadership opportunities. Encouraging participation by men as well as reverse mentoring schemes that provide insights to top-tier senior leaders can offer lasting impact for both parties in making progress on equality.
Get informed, get started
There’s a wealth of research, information, and practical advice available online to encourage men in their quest to be allies. Resources are available from Government Women’s Network to share with colleagues in the form of webpages, videos, posters, research and podcasts. The first step is awareness and a willingness to act. Every step after that brings us closer – and a little faster – to equality.