Male Champions – that’s what we need

Published: 10/02/2015

Collaboration and working in partnership brings great result as demonstrated again here

Championing gender equality in Australia

A group of business leaders is redefining the role of men in the promotion of gender equality—and improving the environment for women leaders in their own organizations.

February 2015 | by Elizabeth Broderick, Elmer Funke Küpper, Ian Narev, and David Thodey


Elizabeth Broderick, sex discrimination commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission

For a long time I was firmly of the view that increasing the number of women leaders was a matter of women’s activism, and women working together. Yet while women’s activism remains critical to making progress, if you look at the levers of power in nations and in organizations, they rest in the hands of men. And to continue to rely on women alone to disrupt the status quo is really an illogical approach. I realized that unless we worked with the men in power—and helped them move from being merely interested in this subject to taking action—we wouldn’t see the transformative change we need.

This is not about men speaking for women or “saving” them. This is about men standing up beside women and saying, “The promotion of gender equality in Australia, and the world, is everyone’s business.” It should not sit on the shoulders of women alone. It’s about men accepting responsibility to create change.

So we started the group, the Male Champions of Change, by identifying a dozen powerful men in some of Australia’s most prominent organizations. I picked up the phone and rang them. The group formed from there, ultimately reaching 25, its current size.1 From the beginning, we were quite strict about participation in meetings and told the men they couldn’t send delegates. My rule was: “This is you I’m inviting, not your organization.”

The first couple of meetings were a bit awkward, as the tendency—human nature, really—was for people to talk about all the good things they were doing. Relatively quickly, though, the tone of the discussion became much more authentic and honest. “This is hard,” several admitted. “In fact, it’s the hardest thing I do as a CEO. I don’t know what the answers are; I’m trying everything but nothing seems to be working.” They all recognized that no one had the answers, but at the same time everyone agreed these were leadership issues that started with them, and that collectively, we could change things.

Actions, not talk

The group meets in person once a quarter (more often in smaller, topic-focused, “action groups”), and is a source of rich discussion, particularly at the intersection of disciplines or sectors. Putting the Chief of Army beside the head of a bank, for example, results in thought-provoking conversations about job flexibility and leadership. The fact that these men would not ordinarily come together is part of the group’s appeal, and I’ve seen a great openness to learning and curiosity there.

Besides allowing for the sharing of stories, the face-to-face meetings are critical, I think, in empowering the Male Champions to be bolder.2 Disrupting the status quo requires courageous leadership. For example, David Thodey’s initiative to make all roles flexible at Telstra is very bold. By treating flexibility as the starting point, and not the exception, he’s changing the whole nature of the conversation at his company and others. Similarly, the group took the lead on gender reporting, and because of the efforts of Elmer Funke Küpper, head of the Australian Securities Exchange and one of our Male Champions, a new reporting regime was adopted for publicly listed companies in Australia.

Recently, we’ve started looking further down the supply chain—at the idea that the group could ensure that its supply chain partners also care about gender equality. This effort has huge potential because of the massive collective buying power of the group.

The Male Champions also demonstrate strong and visible leadership outside their organizations. They speak at more than 1,000 events a year, and they recognize that women’s voices are often poorly represented. The practical action they have all taken is a “panel pledge” to ask a simple question of conference organizers: “What are you doing to ensure gender balance at your event?” Some have declined events if women speakers aren’t well represented. Sometimes, they can make a lesson of it. For example, one of our members, Martin Parkinson, former secretary to the Treasury, was listed as a speaker at a large conference on global growth opportunities. He realized beforehand that there were very few women speakers on the agenda, and prompted the organizers to do something about it. When little was done, he opened his talk that day by identifying himself as a Male Champion of Change, highlighting his disappointment at the lack of gender balance, and spoke to the importance of the visibility of women in important national discussions.Then he delivered his speech. He received huge applause.

An arrow in the quiver

As part of my role, I have the opportunity to speak to many people about gender equality, and I’ve learned there are a lot of well-intentioned men out there who just don’t know what to do. Not only that, many are scared that if they stand up and speak out on these issues they’ll be seen as part of the problem rather than the solution.

Initially, some were. I remember the first conference I went to with one of the Male Champions—a panel discussion—where a woman got up at the end and said, “Look, it’s all very well for you to say that, but the fact is you’ve got a full-time wife at home. You can gallivant around the world and you know that everything’s OK at home. So don’t try to talk to me about gender equality.”

He was deeply hurt, as you’d expect—she knew nothing about his life—and I asked if I could speak first. He agreed, and I said: “I know where you’re at. I’ve been where you’re at—deeply angry about where we are and the lack of progress, and knowing that men are part of the problem. But can I say to you, don’t dump on the good men who are prepared to stand up and take action, because there’s another 10 million doing very little.”

We hear much less of that now. Today, if anything, there’s a tendency to expect the Male Champions of Change to do too much—I think it’s a sign that we have changed the nature of the conversation around how to progress gender equality in Australia.

Another way I know we’re making progress is that the model is spreading. We’re seeing similar groups in most Australian states and territories, and even at the sector level in some cases. Shinzō Abe, prime minister of Japan, has started a group that we’re in contact with. We applaud these efforts, and we are also creating a guide and other support materials to share what we’ve learned and help other groups get started. In this way, I see the Male Champions as an open-source model and one that has real potential to form a global coalition, a social movement for men actively promoting change on gender equality within their spheres of influence.

With that said, we certainly don’t view ourselves as the solution—just an arrow in the quiver. It’s not about the Male Champions doing everything. It’s about them leading by example, and it’s about every one of us reaching out to the men in our lives, helping them understand where the areas of inequality continue to exist, and giving them some practical examples about what they can do to move this agenda forward.

Read it online

The Male Champions of Change have partnered with Chief Executive Women to launch a free and simple management model, called ‘The Leadership Shadow’, which will help leaders everywhere to listen, learn and lead by understanding the impact of their personal actions. March 2014

The Leadership Shadow model will guide leaders who want their every action – their Leadership Shadow – to send the right signal around gender diversity.

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