An inclusive approach to advance women in the aviation workplace — how to best engage men in the conversation about women
This article originally appeared on ACI.aero on 28 May 2020.
Earlier this year I researched the state of gender balance in the aviation and aerospace industries (Is gender still holding women back in the aviation industry?), particularly at leadership level, and was curious to further explore the potential role of male allies — an angle that has not received enough spotlight in the conversation about gender equality, diversity and inclusion. To do this, I collaborated with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Asia Assistant Professor Kim Chua, who has insights on similar themes and brings a female perspective to this piece.
Inclusion strategies of corporates within the aviation industry tend to centre solely on women and other underrepresented groups. Framing diversity and inclusion (D&I) in such a narrow way, however, may lead to the exclusion of key stakeholders such as male employers, male team members and male leaders.
When it comes to change initiatives aimed at increasing gender parity, diversity officers often struggle to engage men, whom, especially within the aviation and aerospace sectors, hold positions of power and influence. Men frequently stay on the sidelines and avoid speaking up about programmes aimed at creating gender parity due to a variety of reasons including indifference, lack of knowledge and awareness. As a result, change initiatives sometimes become labelled as “women’s issues” within businesses and fail to resonate with internal stakeholders effectively.
To tackle this challenge, we first need to understand the concept of a “male ally” and break down some of the barriers that prevent men from getting involved with gender, diversity and inclusion efforts.
What is a male ally?
Many women’s networks and conferences in the industry often attempt to bring men into the conversation by awarding them titles such as “allies” and “champions”. David G. Smith, a professor of sociology at the United States Naval Academy describes male allies as “members of an advantaged group committed to building relationships with women, expressing as little sexism in their own behaviour as possible and demonstrating active efforts to address gender inequities at work and in society”.
Male allies come in many forms and it is perhaps best not to focus on what they are but instead on what they can do. According to Fairygodboss and Artemis’ “Men in the Workplace” (Fairygodboss and Artemis Connection. “Men in the Workplace: An in-depth exploration of what men think of gender diversity in the workplace”) survey, men who have been allies to advancing women’s inclusion at work have done so by privately and publicly advocating for equality, inclusion and diversity. These efforts include meeting women in their workplace to discuss equality, inclusion, identifying cases of inequality or lack of diversity and actively working to fix them.
Diversity expert and CEO of 20-first, a leading diversity and inclusion advisory firm, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox suggests that rather than making male support for gender balance the exception by using congratulatory titles such as “champions” and “allies”, the goal is to make it the norm. According to Wittenberg-Cox, the best way to mainstream the concept of gender balance is to use and leverage existing male-dominated hierarchies that are pegged against key performance indicators such as sales volume, market share, profitability, quality and performance. As such, the business case for gender balance should be articulated more urgently since it is clear that diverse teams deliver better performance and higher returns.
If leaders are accountable for shareholders and stakeholders, then gender balance should form part of their mandate. Hence, it is probably best to call them leaders.
Barriers to male engagement
To meaningfully engage males in the gender, diversity and inclusion effort, aviation organisations must firstly identify and understand the segments that constitute the male demographics before they mitigate the barriers that distance men from those initiatives.
Broadly speaking, there are three main groups within the male demographics including the resisters, neutrals and advocates. From personal experience, it could be observed that most males tend to fall into the “neutral/indifferent” category while a small minority tends to congregate at both ends of the spectrum.
The terms suggest and indicate their levels of interest and awareness of the prevailing gender issues at hand.
- Lack of knowledge — according to David G. Smith at the US Naval Academy, aside from the busyness of careers and life, the main factors limiting male support and engagement in diversity efforts include the lack of knowledge on how to engage with the issue, followed by lack of access to the right forums and inability or unwillingness to realise the benefits of engaging. Some men are simply not aware of gender inequality problems and initiatives at their workplace and others struggle to see how gender equality would affect their personal and professional lives.
- Lack of acceptance — male allies can also face scepticism from the women they try to ally with. As someone who writes and speaks about diversity and cross-gender mentorship, it could be observed that there was occasional backlash from women when men turned up at women’s events. Many women are initially sceptical about efforts to include men in women’s events and conferences. This is understandable as such gatherings have traditionally offered women a sense of community and a safe space for sharing experiences and exchange ideas to achieve equality in the workplace.
- Lack of focus — additionally, there is the risk of over-focusing on men at women’s events which may ironically reinforce the gender hierarchy status quo. Men’s lack of understanding of where they fit in the diversity equation, may result in them perceiving gender and D&I efforts as a “zero sum game” in which they stand to lose opportunities for progression to other members of the workforce.
Set against the wider context of societal and social progress, a failure to understand the importance and significance of partnership and collaboration with humility, may lead to the risk of male allies undermining women’s initiatives by attempting to dominate them.
As such, it is timely to discuss some effective ways that men can support women in their day to day professional lives in the workplace.
How males can support women as allies
There are many actions men can adopt to advocate gender equality in the workplace. After speaking with both male and female leaders to gauge what delivered positive change within their organisations, we narrowed them down to the following recommendations:
As a male employer
- Model the right behaviours — men should be mindful of the work environment they create and the message they send in modelling the right behaviours. Male employees should avoid making assumptions about female employees, including their needs, goals and ambition levels. For example, a male manager’s well-intentioned move to “help” a new mother by taking her out of an international job assignment may instead end up negatively affecting her career progression. Instead, the manager should check with the employee directly whether she wants to be considered for such a position – if the answer is positive, he should actively support her to make it work.
- Recruit inclusively — men should insist that hiring teams in the organisation consider a high percentage of resumes representing top female talent. Men should also practise empathy when hiring by putting themselves in the shoes of female candidates by understanding their experience and acknowledging their need to feel valued and respected.
As a male team member
- Listen more and talk less — talking to female colleagues with the intention to listen and understand the challenges they face and the support they need will inspire trust and respect. Creating awareness through sincere dialogue enables male allies to provide actionable support in the workplace.
- Call out inequality — males can support women who are being treated poorly or harassed in any way by speaking up and reporting negative events to HR. Men can also show support by sharing articles and videos that supports the gender equality theme on social media. Even such small acts can make a difference.
As a male leader
- Sponsor a high potential woman — males in senior positions can advocate for female employees by supporting their application for promotions and ensuring that they get the training and development support they need to move up the career ladder.
- Mentor /coach a high potential woman — males in senior positions can offer to mentor and/or coach a high potential female employee by recognising their strengths and identifying strategies to accelerate professional growth. Conversely, they can also offer to coach underperforming female colleagues and identify strategies to address their gap areas and keep them focused.
4 ways organisations can enable men’s engagement with D&I efforts
How can organisations drive active male advocacy in the advancement of women?
- Make it a business issue rather than a diversity or HR one — organisations who frame gender balance as a diversity or a women’s issue might be less successful in engaging men than those who frame it as a business challenge. According to Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, if organisations want to get a broad base of support for balance from men, the “business imperative” is a more effective frame. Avivah adds, “until leaders are convinced that gender balance is a strategic level for the business and become convincing to their teams why that is, balance remains a politically correct sideline”.
- Measure and celebrate progress — businesses should share data and research regarding D&I initiatives and impact to eliminate confusion about their value. By using quantifiable metrics to assess D&I success, organisations can reduce uncertainty regarding the initiative’s purpose. Also, with data, leaders are in a better position to take actions and advance progress.
- Make balance a measurable management skill — businesses should recognise and reward their managers according to their ability to build gender balanced teams. Wittenberg-Cox believes the best way to bring about this change in culture is to normalise gender balance as a management skill that needs building. Organisations should educate managers to become more gender aware and have them learn about gender difference so that they become adept at flexing their management styles to suit their target audience.
- Have the will to drive change — according to Jeffery Tobias Halter, President of YWomen, a consultancy focused on engaging men in women’s leadership advancement, organisations must openly and publicly commit to change. Businesses and their leaders should never be satisfied with the status quo but look at their numbers and take action. It could then be argued that changing the numbers often precedes any real change in behaviours, beliefs and cultures since there is strength in the collective voices of a critical mass.
4 ways women can engage with and support male allies
Interviews with female leaders revealed that women can play a significant role in bringing men into the conversation and support their efforts as male allies. This is how:
- Facilitate — inviting men to be part of the conversation about gender equality builds awareness, creates alliances and fosters a diverse perspective within the group. If men are free to attend events and have an active role in defining and rolling out inclusive programmes, they are more likely to engage in gender equality activities. Additionally, men are more likely to respond to personal appeals from colleagues, friends and family members as opposed to formal directives and/or mandated programmes.
- Initiate — sharing data and research that demonstrates how diversity improves productivity and financial return will help men get interested in actively getting involved with diversity efforts. Consequently, talking about the relevance of gender diversity as it applies to their own roles within the organisation might appeal to one’s sense of fairness and social responsibility.
- Recognise — affirming the impact and work of your allies and sharing success stories related to collaborative efforts will help engage more men within the business and drive lasting change. As a mentor to men, women can play an important role in helping men address their own biases and fears. Additionally, as a mentor to younger men, women can help prepare the pipeline of the next generation of male allies.
- Share — women sharing the challenges and obstacles they have faced in the workplace as well as their strengths, passions and career game plans with men could serve as a powerful tool in building understanding and increasing empathy in their male colleagues.
Avoiding gender silos
To achieve lasting change, D&I initiatives must be treated with the same attention and level of importance as any other business imperative. Leaders must be engaged and on board with D&I values and goals. In the case of aviation and aerospace businesses, this means engaging males, whom as organisational leaders are often the primary decision makers behind workforce planning and development. Thus, converting males from passive bystanders to diversity allies and champions of change is critical.
In conclusion, gender equality and diversity are important and relevant issues in aviation. This is not only because of the industry’s struggle to find the number of qualified personnel but also due to the importance of creativity in our industry’s overwhelming need and drive for innovation and problem-solving. This is even more pertinent in today’s COVID-19 pandemic context. Since effective problem-solving comes from having a variety of perspectives in the conversation, it is critical for aviation and aerospace companies to engage and enlist male allies in order to reap the rewards that come from open and authentic communications.
Arpad Szakal leads the Aviation & Aerospace practice at Cellence Plus, a London based boutique executive search & talent advisory firm. Arpad helps clients address their talent challenges, such as succession gaps, leadership calibre, diversity objectives across functions, levels and geographies. Arpad is an aviation lawyer by training and speaks and publishes widely on diversity & inclusion.
Ms Kim-Chua is Assistant Professor at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University – Asia Campus based in Singapore. In addition to her academic role, Kim is also Faculty Mentor for Women in Aviation Asia, a community-based initiative to promote female participation in General Aviation and Aerospace in Asia.