The 19 Victorian Male Champions of Change (MCC) recently reported on the progress they are making towards gender-balanced organisations.

In their report, the leaders write:

‘Our best lesson over the last 12 months has been to experience what happens when men step up alongside women to advance gender equality, and the impact we can have when we do so. We have been commended and criticised.’

I find it easy to understand the commendation, but the criticism, less so. What is the ‘appropriate’ role for men to play to champion gender equality? The acid test: do male champions help to change attitudes and advance equality?

Why might men want to champion gender equality?

Last year Professor Isabel Metz interviewed over 40 members of various Australian MCC groups, identifying their motivations for participating. She categorized them into three groups:

  1. ‘Supporters’ joined for personal reasons such as existing positive attitudes,
  2. ‘Bystanders’ responded to external pressures from stakeholders,
  3. ‘Sceptical Bystanders/Resistors’ held ‘ulterior personal’ motives such as gaining status and visibility.

In her report, Metz found that many ‘Bystanders’ became more passionate about gender equity once they were members. She attributes this to their gaining a better understanding of the issues.

Male champions change attitudes

Male champions influence each other in powerful ways. ‘Supporters’ are effective at changing the attitudes of ‘Bystanders’. They prove their credibility and trustworthiness by clear and consistent messages that have personal congruence.

The existence of the MCC groups may be one of the strongest ways for male CEOs to influence their peers – those CEOs who don’t believe in equality or who think there is a lack of suitably qualified  women.

Metz didn’t identify any ‘Resistors’, although some members were initially ‘Sceptical’. She notes that ‘Resistors’ are unlikely to join such a group.

Persuasion is effective at changing explicitly held attitudes

It is well known that powerful influencers change our explicit attitudes.

Senior organisational leaders are powerful and credible. Their messages carry great weight. People see them as experts and place their trust in them. Who could be more persuasive about leadership than a CEO?

This applies when MCC members are ‘Supporters’ and ‘Bystanders’. Their high credibility, coupled with strong and well-articulated messages, is likely to change minds.

Yet, we should be cautious about the ‘Sceptics’ and ‘Resistors’, should there be any in the MCC groups. Attempts at persuasion backfire when the message is weak. Weak messages may create, or reinforce, attitudes that oppose equality.

Under the right conditions, persuasion seems to change implicit attitudes

Conscious attitudes adapt to a wide range of change techniques. Until recently, proven methods to change unconscious associations have been limited. There are two main methods; overtraining associations in their opposite direction or interrupting associations.

Our minds work on two tracks, one conscious/deliberate/explicit, and the other unconscious/fast/implicit. It would be particularly helpful to understand if persuasion affects our unconscious attitudes, since they are harder to identify, and change.

Researchers have recently turned their attention to this.

How does persuasion change implicit attitudes?

A direct appeal from a credible source to influence consciously known opinion works well. But implicit opinion is more complicated. Implicit evaluations only change when we have plenty of ‘cognitive bandwidth’ available. That is, when we are not overloaded and have the time to think deliberately.

This new research shows that credible sources can change our implicit attitudes, as long as they have our full attention.

No matter how persuasive the message, it takes a lot of thinking effort to override implicit attitudes.

Is it more effective for men to champion gender equality than women?

Female champions have led the way to gender-balanced leadership. But it isn’t an either/or question.

As Professor Metz says, ‘Male CEOs’ commitment … may be particularly effective in initiating and sustaining gender equity change, because of the perceived absence of self-interest and credibility in doing so.’

Female CEOs may be seen to advance their own interests when they pursue equality for women. Males are unlikely to be seen in the same way. There’s a popular argument that men ‘lose’ and women ‘gain’ when the gender balance of top roles changes. Therefore, men may be a more credible voice in favour of gender equality. In some contexts, they may increase momentum for change.

The verdict

Male CEO ‘Supporters’ change minds. And they may also change more intransigent implicit attitudes about women and senior leadership. Their credibility and power changes the minds of their ‘Sceptical’ peers. This is good news indeed.

It is not only male CEOs who have persuasive power. Men who want to be part of a more equal world should feel confident that they can contribute. They should add their voices, and use their persuasive powers to champion gender equality.

Gender-balanced persuasion, using the voices of both men and women, seems a particularly apt way to achieve gender-balanced leadership outcomes.

The best way for men to champion gender equality is:

  1. Be a credible, trustworthy supporter of gender-balanced leadership,
  2. Deliver well-articulated and congruent messages about gender balance and your commitment to it,
  3. Use your persuasive power to change the minds of your peers.

‘Our success as a society depends on all of us being able to reach our full potential – that’s what gender equality is all about. Diversity is also essential to the success of our business because diversity of thought, background and perspective lead to better ideas for our clients and a more inclusive workplace for our people.’ 

Luke Sayers, CEO PwC Australia


Photo credit: tec-estromberg ‘Group of happy business people clapping their hands’ Flickr CC

Share This