In the corporate gender war, it would seem the battle lines are drawn quite clearly between men and women. After all, women keep trying to break the glass ceiling while men are fighting to stay at the top, right? Maybe. But like all wars, it’s not quite that simple. Battle lines get blurred—and eventually, enemies become allies.
Whether you call it sponsorship, gender partnership, or gender allies, male and female leaders are increasingly aligning towards a common, not counterproductive goal of a gender-diverse leadership landscape. While women have been fighting the good fight like an army of business-suit-clad Rosie the Riveters, a great majority of men have, over time, come to not just accept, but understand and respect the value and strength of female leadership. Now, instead of standing in the way of progress or holding on to outdated boys’ club attitudes, new and enlightened generations of male leaders are extending their hands in partnership with their female allies. They’re not discouraging the growth of female leaders, they’re driving it.
Rayona Sharpnack, founder and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Leadership, wrote that “just as the business case for gender partnership is now widely accepted, so is the fact that male leaders are essential to driving the changes that will make happen. Twenty years from now, we will look back and see that while the first wave of gender equality was driven by women, the second was spearheaded by men.”
Sharpnack goes on to explain why. She says it’s “because men still have the most power in our culture, and that includes the power to change things. Men are also the best people to get other men to raise their consciousness, alter their behavior, and take the actions needed to ensure change takes effect.”
Of course, Sharpnack is quick to point out that “this doesn’t mean women can just work on their leadership skills and wait for men to open more doors to them.” She says that women must get over three significant obstacles—namely, that “We’re still mad at men for the way gender inequity has impacted our lives, we can be reluctant to help other women achieve success, (and) we want to prove that we don’t need men to be successful.” In other words, it’s not enough that men extend the olive branch; women must be open to accepting it.
What’s the advantage of being gender allies in the business world? Why should men and women work in unison to ensure a meaningful cease-fire in the leadership gender-equality war? Can’t we just all duke it out on our opposing teams and may the best man—or woman—win? Sure—but that’s the kind of narrow-mindedness that stalls progress. That kind of thinking is why men still hold the lions’ share of top-level leadership positions.
Becoming gender allies provides benefits on both sides. Women can certainly stand on their own two feet in the business world, but there are some things men can help them with. For example, the language of business was built by men for men. There is finesse to that language that can be taught and women can learn from. Besides that, men still hold the majority of the decision-making positions for upper-level senior jobs. A gender partnership can help women gain greater visibility and provide them with the opportunities needed for career advancement.
For the men’s part, what’s in it for them? Why does sponsorship make sense for those who seemingly have the built-in advantage already? As any WOW leader knows, there’s always room for growth. In fact, those who aren’t open-minded to change—particularly in the workplace—aren’t going to be WOWs for long.
But it’s more than just a “miss the boat” kind of thing. There are benefits to gender alliance that can’t be overlooked. Embracing a diverse workforce provides the team with a diversity of strengths and viewpoints that can only strengthen and improve it. As a leader, what could be better? Beyond that, men can learn a lot from the female perspective—things that can help them improve and enhance their own leadership abilities. And let’s not forget—the best leaders out there want to see forward progress. They want opportunities and future diversity for their daughters, their granddaughters, and for the next generation of female leaders, whoever they may be.
I always like to say, “Leaders are leaders.” It’s not whether you’re male or female; it’s about what you bring to the table and what you do. But if I’m truly the WOW I strive to be, I also must admit that there are lessons to be learned from the other side of the gender equation. Our differences and our diversities aren’t meant to be ignored, but shared. That’s the power of WOW leadership, and the strength of being gender allies.