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What is a feminist man and why we need them ?

I recently congratulated one of my customers for being such a great feminist. He looked at me wondering if I was making a bad joke bordering an insult or a real compliment. Nowadays thanks to flag carriers like Justin Trudeau, more and more men brag to be feminists. Fortunately the list expands by the day. Yet, based on my daily experience of mentoring women CEOs, I am convinced we need more feminist men.

In my corporate career, I have sponsored international gender diversity initiatives, hired women in management, technical services. I have supported women networking. At one point I had the feeling I had exhausted all options. Now as a Business Angel I choose to invest some of my own capital in promising enterprises led by women. I still come to the conclusion that we need inspiring feminist men as much as we need female role models.

What is a feminist man ?

When my client answered back to me “Why am I a feminist ? I just think it is bad business to ignore half of our market and under value female talents in my company”. I smiled and insisted “yes, you are definitely a great feminist”. Actions have to match the pitch. I have encountered many executives publicly promoting gender equality and perfectly at ease with gender bias and discrimination in their own organization, A feminist leader walks the talk and more importantly recognises that our behaviours can be driven by unconscious bias. He encourages his employees to call them out. Preparing a customer meeting with his new team my client was reviewing everybody’s role in the engagement. Typically for a software company there was one woman in a group of 6 men, in charge of operational marketing. The customers were also all men. The importance of everybody’s role was highlighted including the only female one which did not attract the same attention and weight. While reinforcing her contribution in the coming meeting, my customer pointed out that the only woman was not expected to make coffee. Whoever was next to the espresso machine had to perform the task “graciously”. You may think that this coffee anecdote is very passe and not very relevant. If you take the time to observe, you will spot many similar bias or micro-inequities. In isolation they may seem unimportant but their accumulation creates a non diverse culture which undermines the value of the female workforce. I personally believe that the combination of big policies and the multitude of small behaviours drive change.

A feminist man thinks that building a gender diverse culture makes both business and ethical sense. His words and actions demonstrate his belief.

Why do we need more feminists men across enterprises start-ups and mature enterprises ?

Statistics drive the logic. Women are greatly outnumbered in positions of power, therefore for pure change efficiency men have to be actively engaged and convinced. I have also observed that when a man defends gender diversity with programatic action he is less likely to receive the derogatory comments made to women, promptly described with the b…… word.

I have the privilege to work with young exec teams of start-ups. This generation of young men adheres to gender equality. They also agree that the start-up environment dominated by a large number of geeks, playing video for fun and entertaining drinking parties after a long day of work may not generate the most gender balanced culture. I don’t want to depict a caricature either. I have seen in many European countries incubators and accelerators determined to drive diversity across the board.

How do we engage feminist men ?

First it requires some courage. Many women hesitate to point out discrimination, opt to blend in the prevailing culture. You require allies to be courageous. Certainly having a male mentor will help you. A good mentor is always instrumental in career management. Once a one to one trust relationship is established, it becomes easier to bring up facts and experiences on gender issues. Asking advice such as “what would you do in my shoes” will not only give you a good perspective but is also likely to trigger awareness and commitment with your mentor. A man/woman mentorship is a win/win for both and gender diversity at large.

Ask for active male participation in diversity program. Avoid the male execs who are readily willing to speak on stage and disappear after the show. Engage your male colleagues in the design of the program. My troubleshooting background has taught me that a problem clearly defined is a problem half solved. Involving men in objective definition of a gender balance problem will in itself be a great win.

The start-ups ecosystem requires even more focus and energy. This is an opportunity to shape the world of tomorrow. Based on the recent turmoil in the Silicon Valley and the poor number of women CEOs of startups the gender balance will not be met spontaneously. The majority of founders are engineers who have studied in a male environment but  often educated with gender diversity values. They want to spread a diverse culture in the professional and private life. Under the operational pressure of releasing a product, finding investment with VCs motivated by high growth first, gender diversity often drops off the radar screen. If you know of any scientific research on younger generations of leaders focusing on gender diversity in start-ups please leave the references in the comment field.

Go, engage your male colleagues : gender diversity is everybody’s responsibility.