Engaging men in the gender diversity conversation

A question was asked recently at the launch of the IFC/World Bank Publication, "Trailblazers: Portraits of Female Leadership in Emerging and Frontier Markets" in Accra, Ghana: -How can we engage men in the gender diversity conversation so that it is seen as a win-win proposition and help accelerate the rate of change?

From where I stand, Men are not the enemy. They are partners in this journey and have a very significant role to play. Men are fathers, husbands, uncles and brothers who want the best for the girls and women in their lives. The real enemy is the unconscious biases that we all need to overcome. Unconscious biases, though invisible and subtle, powerfully influence our decision making – BUT we can lessen its impact when we confront and understand our biases. Let me try to simplify how I see it as best as I can, by sharing a short experience I had a few months ago.

Lusaka, Zambia, 2019:

Recently, I was in Zambia and -as is my usual habit- I engaged my taxi driver in conversation with questions about the goings on in Lusaka. In the course of our conversation, the taxi driver asked me an interesting question. “How does your husband allow you to travel and be away from home so much?

The phraseology of that question is unique (or should I say outdated), but that is a discussion for another day! The question was the beginning of a great conversation. He proceeded to give me his story. He has a daughter in the Police Force who happens to be married to a fellow policeman. About a year ago, the husband was sent on a 3-month tour of duty to a country nearby. This is usually a very good opportunity because of the remuneration implications and it normally opens opportunities for accelerated career progression. A few months later, a similar opportunity came up for his daughter, to go for a 1-month tour of duty outside the country. Her husband refused. Yes, the same policeman, who had himself taken the same opportunity to advance his career, refused his wife, the taxi man's daughter to take on a similar opportunity. The taxi driver found this attitude incredulous and very selfish and he was outraged.

“I worked so hard to educate my daughter, ensured she finished college and by God's grace got a job in the Police Force and this man thinks he can deny her the opportunity to build a great career?” “Does he not realize that, if she does well, they all will do well as a family?” As he told me, he called his son-in-law and a few relatives for a meeting. Basically, he explained that he will not stand and watch as his daughter is denied a chance at furthering her career in this way. He came short of saying he is ready to return whatever dowry was paid if he had to! The story ends well. The son-in-law came to his senses. He “allowed" his wife to go on the assignment.

Both the people engaging in this debate are men. One fighting for his daughter to seize an opportunity, the other wanting to stop her for his own selfish reasons. One wanting to enable his daughter to achieve her childhood dreams, the other trapped by an unconscious bias that he needed to be talked out of. Two men but antithetical posturing to the same situation! It goes to show how powerfully our unconscious biases influence our decision making. You see, sometimes we just need to point out the absurdity of people’s thinking and actions, to bring reason and understanding.

Unconscious biases will not go away if we continue to raise our children the way the past generations were raised. In order to secure a future that ensures a balanced destiny where no one is marginalised because of their gender, we must come together, men and women, and raise our children differently. Of course, there are certain physical aspects that are clearly masculine and/or feminine. However, the capacity to engage in cognitive thinking, problem solving, idea generation, intellectual abilities and creativity have been given by the Creator to all genders in equal measure.

Author: Wambui Mbesa