We need to talk about men… and leaning in

token man event

Token Man & HeANDShe hosted a ‘Fathers in the Workplace’ conference last Tuesday.

Cynics might ask if we really need a conference about dads. Aren’t there more important areas of equality and diversity to discuss? Is this discussion breaking some unspoken ‘man’s code’ to keep shtum on inequalities and keep living the good life? And with everything going on in Hollywood and in parliament (and who knows, maybe advertising is next?), perhaps it’s safer for men to lie low and stay quiet on equality issues.

Or actually, is it the perfect time for men to be talking?

Gender equality debates and discussions are now pretty advanced within our industry. Most of the issues we face are out in the open – the percentage of women in managerial positions, the gender pay gap, women in tech roles, creating working environments of inclusivity. But the ways in which we’ve tackled these problems, which have predominantly, and understandably, focused on women, is not enough.

There is a more inclusive approach. An approach that doesn’t just focus on women, and appreciates that doing so is actually the antithesis of inclusivity, and may ultimately not have the impact that’s desired. Men have to be part of the conversation.

This is what Token Man is all about. Its aim is to tackle gender equality issues in the workplace, by giving men a better understanding of the issues that women face. Ultimately, it seeks to get men involved in the debate, and create genuine behavioural change. Token Man’s conference on fatherhood was rooted in this cause. It brought together forward-thinking parents to discuss what it means to be a dad in this day and age, how outdated stereotypes affect fathers, and how this ultimately impacts both women and men in the workplace.

The stereotypical view of the ‘working super-mum’ who kicks arse in the boardroom, then heads home to cook dinner, do bath and bedtime, then hit the household admin surely isn’t realistic. As Anna Hickey of Maxus eloquently stated, true progress in society can’t be a 21st Century workplace, with a 1950’s home life.

The double barrelled ‘yin and yang’ of gender inequity and stereotypes affect both women and men. Encouraging women to lean in at work should be matched by encouraging men to lean in at home. And for this second element, the role and mind set of fatherhood in our society is surely the key area to focus on.

Since I involved myself in the gender equality debate a few years ago, and more recently became part of Token Man, I’ve realised that there are many men willing to step forward and speak out about gender diversity and inequalities. Given the issues we still face as an industry, and as a wider society, this male enthusiasm and awareness must be harnessed and utlised, in combination with the traditional, women focused, feminist movement.

But, it’s not just women who would ultimately benefit from the future level playing field that we strive for. If work and home life can become more equal, dads have it all to gain too.

A heartfelt story from Hamish Nicklin of the Guardian, a keynote speaker at the conference, described the differing paternal relationships between himself and his first and second kids. He wasn’t around much in the early years of his first ­– he naturally became the provider dad, working all hours. But for his second, a handy spell of gardening leave meant he suddenly became the front-line parent whilst his wife went back to work. Five years later, whilst his first child always seeks mum in times of pain or trauma, his second has no preference at all – mum or dad are treated the same. Simple, but powerful.

As a wider industry, we also have much to gain from creating true equality in the workplace. The commercial benefits of diversity are well documented, but we must also appreciate that the best talent, both at entry and senior levels, have expectations for equal and inclusive workplaces. As agencies and marketing departments, we are competing with the new wave of tech and digital companies who tend to perform well in this area. Being fit for the future as a business has never been more important, and a commitment to equality and diversity is a key element of this future fitness.

As a society, if we have any equality aspirations to catch up with countries like Sweden (who have a 36 year head start on UK in terms of ‘shared parental leave’, and actually have a far more workable system than UK’s so far unsuccessful ‘transferrable maternity’ leave model), it’s time to properly involve both women and men in the debate and push for this equality.

So despite the cynicism, now is absolutely the time to be talking about men, and leaning in.

Jamie Williams is a partner at isobel and supporter of Token Man

Token Man and HeANDShe, supported by Coca Cola European Partners and Havas, hosted the ‘Fathers in the Workplace’ conference last week.

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