Wednesday 20 July 2016 7:15 pm

We need more masculists in the boardroom: Unconscious bias doesn’t just affect women

These are exciting times for gender equality in the UK. With the success of the 30% Club, the announcement of HM Treasury’s Women in Finance charter, and Theresa May’s recent appointment as Prime Minister, momentum appears to be building.

Even the term “feminist” has lost much of its stigma. The view that women are entitled to an equal seat at the table of power is increasingly considered obvious rather than extreme. Studies like McKinsey’s Women Matters have also helped, demonstrating the correlation between the presence of women in the boardroom and better financial performance.

Nonetheless, when it comes to associating women with power, our social conditioning runs deep. Although we may believe it is a good thing to have women in positions of power, we still struggle to accept those who exhibit traditionally masculine behaviours. If a woman raises her voice to be heard, we call her strident. If she references past successes to get a point across, we perceive her as arrogant. As a society, we expect women to be warm, modest, and receptive to the views of others. When they disappoint us, we instinctively do not like it and tend to judge them harshly.

Read more: Unconscious bias: What it is and why you should tackle it

We convey this feedback with signals – some subtle, some not so subtle. The result is that many women feel uncomfortable raising their voices, promoting themselves, and exerting their authority. As a leadership consultant and feminist, I often find myself in the position of showing senior women how to embrace their power more fully. Usually, the penny drops when they realise they can do this without compromising the feminine values they will inevitably be held accountable for.

Through working with senior men, however, I have come to appreciate that they face a similar challenge. We expect them to defend their opinions, declare their worth, and hold others accountable. This makes it easier for them to position themselves for power. The problem arises when they aspire to do more than this – and increasingly, many of them do. One of my most intimidating male clients once told me that he just wanted his colleagues to love him. Because he didn’t know how to express this, he reverted to his macho default, which often left his colleagues with the opposite impression. Other male clients have echoed this: they would like to lead with compassion and warmth, but fear being perceived as weak – by both men and women.

The implications for the boardroom are disconcerting. Without vulnerability and emotional authenticity, it is hard for a group of leaders to learn to trust each other. Thus, when challenges arise, it is tempting not to share them with colleagues until they have spiralled out of control. This triggers unhealthy cycles of suppression and antagonism. At their best, these cycles increase the effort required to make simple decisions; at their worst, they lead to corporate scandals.

Read more: Government backs new review pushing for more women on FTSE boards

For the aforementioned reasons, I have recently declared myself a masculist. In the same way that we must support women in reclaiming their power, we must support men in reclaiming their humanity. As with women, it is entirely possible for men to do this in a way that enhances rather than compromises their confidence. By shifting from an ego narrative of power to a purposeful one, men are able to inspire more genuine and empowered followership.

We need to start by having more masculists (both male and female) in the boardroom. Only then will we unleash the full potential of the men leading our businesses, and level the playing field for the growing number of women joining them.

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