Trying To Place Ourselves In Women's Shoes Is Worth The Effort
Updated: Oct 13, 2019
This week I accepted a rather daunting invitation to participate in a dialogue on the gender distribution of wealth and power at the inaugural W-Suite Summit, a platform that seeks to elevate the conversation about breaking barriers in the world of business for women to thrive. Me and my big mouth convinced its founder, Katie Mohamed, that she should include a panel discussion with men on it to explore the role of men in the quest to empower more women, especially in the workplace. That earned me; Greg Maloka, MD of Kaya FM; Dave Tiltmann, CEO of African Media Entertainment; and the seasoned radio broadcaster and founder of Champion South Africa, Ashraf Garda, an invite to a panel led by Iman Rappetti in a roomful of very, and I mean very, powerful businesswomen and executives.
It was the general consensus among all the guys that this was by far one of the most difficult speaking engagements we had taken on. I think that for the first time ever I got a taste of what it must feel like for white people to opine on their role in the empowerment of black people. There you are, happy to share your thoughts, but you are so unqualified to do so. And, to make it worse, you are speaking to women a thousand times more qualified than you. So I thought I should share some of the lessons I learnt in the pressure cooker, and perhaps my fellow brothers could learn a thing or two.
We all have biases. Most are unconscious but, as Dr Mashadi Motlana says: "It's important for us to point out bias and put systems in place that ensure this bias doesn't keep us from having women at the table."
Another thing is that we men don't listen enough. I mean really listen. Author Mike Robbins says listening is a key to communication and fundamental to connection.
"Now, more than ever, it's important for us men to really listen to women, hear their stories, and try to understand their experience at a deeper level. When we open our minds and our hearts to the experiences of others with curiosity and compassion, not only do we learn, but we make it safer for them to speak up and more likely we find common ground," says Robbins.
One definition of empathy is "the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another's position". So we must first develop the capacity to understand the experience of women in the workplace "from their frame of reference" — not our often-convenient one.
Then there was the issue of advocacy. To what extent can men use their "male privilege" to drive the agenda of more meaningful economic participation by women?
"Research shows that when women advocate for others in business it's seen as a positive quality, but when they advocate for themselves it's seen as a negative one," says Robbins. "However, when men advocate for themselves, it's seen much more positively. We all need advocates if we're going to succeed and move forward in our careers. Given many of the gender-based double standards that still exist, male advocacy for female leadership is essential and valuable."
This was a controversial topic. But the reality is that men are overwhelmingly dominating the business and executive circles. Therefore, they have a critical role to play in kicking down the doors and insisting on empowering more women. Equally, women can use this willing cohort of conscious men to help push their agenda. We are a lot more effective together than apart.
I am happy to report that Dave, Greg, Ashraf and I survived W-Suite Summit and we learnt a lot from the audience. I hope next year there are more men in the room. The empowerment of women leaders is not only an issue for women.
This article first appeared in the Business Times section of The Sunday Times on 11 August 2019.