Most Powerful Women

Opinion: Why we need a few good men

August 16, 2013: 5:10 PM ET

It is great that more women are talking about their careers. Now men need to join the conversation

By Sanyin Siang,  Executive Director of the Coach K Leadership & Ethics Center.

When we started up the Women's Leadership Initiative at The Coach K leadership & Ethics Center (COLE) a few years ago, people would often ask: What's the connection between women's advancement and a brand that is so often associated with men's sports? (Coach K  is Mike Krzyzewski, head men's basketball coach at Duke University, where COLE is based.)

At COLE, our mission revolves around talent and knowledge development. But we know that unless organizations call something out as a priority or mandate—whether its installing a new software system or nurturing a certain kind of talent—the project gets short shrift. We created our women's initiative to help provide women leaders with pathways to power.

So of course I'm energized and excited by the deeper and growing number of conversations on the issue of women's advancement, fostered in part by books like Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In.

But where are the men in the discussions? And why should their voices matter?

MORE: 2103 Executive Fantasy League: The starting lineup

As we engage leaders across private, public, and social sectors at the Coach K Center, what we hear is this: For our society to reach a point where gender doesn't factor into the promotion of talent, the dialogue needs to include men.

As I look around, gatherings on this issue can easily draw a host of women.  But, the conversations are usually framed in a way that don't actively engage men and marginalizes them.   And when referenced, men are usually extolled as heroes or demonized as chauvinists.   Where is the perspective that they can be partners in this effort?

Often, men are still the key decision makers when it comes to hires or promotions.   As noted by leading search executive Joe Bailey, managing director at RSR Partners, we need to understand the mindset of the decision makers.  They are critical stakeholders in fostering the attitudes and culture of our organizations, be it in business, government, the social sector or academia.

The major obstacles in promotion of women have been two fold.  One is unconscious bias –our natural tendency to give more credibility and weight to those who look most like ourselves.  The second is a limited imagination in unearthing talent.  We tend to rely on conventional thinking which can overlook the potential value that a person has.

So, how can the dialogue be more inclusive and more engaging of men as partners in women's advancement?

I offer these three ideas:

  •  By framing the issue less as a social agenda and more as a business case.  The social and personal aspects are compelling for both men and women, but can be divisive. However, those with a focus on the driving forces in business have a shared language and similar calculus based on things such as the hiring of talented people and connecting with consumers. Organizations and society in general can do better by engaging more women in its senior ranks in an era when women are key consumers and decision makers, as shown by Warren Buffet's recent thoughtful essay in Fortune.

 Diving into the male-dominated media industry, here are two examples where strategic placement of women have led to business success.

Don Browne, retired President of NBC Universal's Telemundo, (CMCSA) used an understanding of shifts in the demographic landscape to gain a competitive edge for his organizations.  He identified and fostered key talent in women anchors, giving Katie Couric, Deborah Roberts, Elizabeth Vargas, and Ann Curry their first break on screen when it was rare to see a female or minority anchor.  He made the hires based on the business case - the shift in demographics of the viewership in broadcast journalism, and set a trend for the media industry.

Jo Ann Ross, the first female to lead sales at a major network, points to Leslie Moonves, CEO of CBS (CBS) as another innovator.  In an unconventional move, Moonves had recruited Nancy Tellem as head of his entertainment division and Ross as the head of sales.  Both of them were the first females to lead those divisions in a major network.  Based on Nielsen ratings, CBS has led the pack for the biggest prime-time audience for 10 out of the last 11 seasons.

Many assume that those who have paved the way for women do so primarily because it's personal.  The men must have daughters and hence be driven by emotion-laden considerations. Two examples dispel this notion - Rick Wagoner, Retired CEO, GM (GM) and Liam McGee, Chairman and CEO, Hartford Financial Services Group (HIG), both fathers only to sons. Their work on this issue has been recognized by Catalyst with an appointment to its board.

MORE Toeing the work-parenting line

I've also seen women executives being knocked by other women for not hiring enough women in their leadership ranks.

I recognize the compelling aspects of the socially-based argument.  But, to solely confine the issue to the social and personal scope handicaps the mission in the long run. One of the worst case scenarios will be placement of a female into a position primarily because of her gender and without the requisite skills nor underlying support for her development.   That would be nothing more than a setup for failure.

The business case is necessary in order for the advancement to be sustainable and for the engagement of men in the issue.

  •   By encouraging women to cultivate male as well as female mentors and advocates.   The inherent bias that has been a bubble in breaking the glass ceiling is the same one that also prevents women from seeking out men as mentors.   A frustration is seeing women only search for mentors who are women because they think that's where they can learn the most.  Or to see women hesitate to join a conversation when the conversants are predominantly men.  This only exacerbates the issue.

The most successful women executives are able to go beyond this gender bias to seek out advice from both men as well as women.

MORE: How to be an irresistible leader

In our conversations, Janet Hill, a director on boards of the Carlyle Group, Sprint Nextel, Wendy's and Dean's Foods, shares how much she had learned from both male and female mentors.  She constantly advises our students to seek out others beyond those who look like them.   Elizabeth Lindsey, President of Global Consulting for Wasserman Media Group, cites mentors and champions from both genders as key for her advancement in a highly male dominated industry.  Mellody Hobson, President of Ariel Investments specifically points to former Senator Bill Bradley and founder and Chairman of Ariel, John Rogers, as key mentors.  Deb Henretta, President of P&G (PG) Global Beauty Care has credited A.G. Lafley's mentorship and advocacy for her career advancement. And on a personal note, I have come to learn as much from Mike Krzyzewski on leading, building teams, and bridging across divides to drive collaboration and innovation, as I have from any of my female mentors.

  • By surfacing, spotlighting, and outlining the good practices of male leaders who have made it an even playing field for valuable talent regardless of gender.  

In today's post-chilvary world, it is as confusing for men as it is for women to navigate the gender issue in the workplace. We all desire role models to pave the way and show by example, how they've made things better.  In today's politically charged environment, men are as much in search of positive male examples to advance women as women are.   There are several who come to mind:

How did J. Michael Cooke rethink Deloitte so that it is now a gold standard when it comes to diversity in professional service firms?   What inspired David Stern and Adam Silver, current and future commissioners of the NBA to become the industry leader in diversity hiring practices in professional men's leagues (41% of employees in the league office are women)? How did Jeff Weiner enable LinkedIn (LNKD)  to secure the one of the highest percentages of women executives in Silicon Valley?  How did Muhtar Kent make the connection among women, stronger communities, and Coca Cola's (KO) global brand?

How do the male executives mentioned in this piece and other innovators cultivate the mindset to do things differently than their peers?  How did they connect the dots between the marketplace need and the placement result?  What questions, tools, and guiding principles did they use to keep unconscious bias at bay for themselves and for others?

To truly shift the trajectory of women leaders in the workplace, it is important to understand perspectives and ideas from male leaders who continue to change the landscape for women.  We need to engage and include the voices of a few good men.

Sanyin Siang is the Executive Director of the Coach K Leadership & Ethics Center (COLE) at Duke University.   She is also the founder of the Global Game Changers Network for sports and an executive leadership coach.

Join the Conversation
About This Author
Stephanie Mehta
Stephanie Mehta
Deputy Managing Editor , Fortune

Stephanie N. Mehta is the deputy managing editor at Fortune, overseeing technology coverage for Fortune. She also is a co-chair of the annual Brainstorm Tech conference, an annual gathering of tech and media thinkers. Previously, Mehta spent seven years as a tech writer at Fortune covering the telecom and media industries. She also has worked for the Wall Street Journal and the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va.

Email Stephanie
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.