Back in 2007, when Elizabeth Broderick first became Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, responsible for promoting gender equality throughout society, her initial focus was – unsurprisingly – on women.
“For the first couple of years, I thought what was going to transform Australian society was really engaging with my wide female network, and elevating women’s voices,” Broderick said. “Women’s collective action has got us the rights that we have today, and I always honour and acknowledge that.”
However, long before engaging men became as popular as it is today – from the UN’s He for She to International Gender Champions in Geneva – Broderick quickly came to believe that real systemic change could not be achieved through women’s efforts alone.
“I started to understand that if we wanted to shift power in the nation – which is what gender equality is partly about – we needed those who held power, and that was largely men.”
Following this realisation, Broderick decided to set up Male Champions of Change (MCC), an initiative that aims to engage the powerful, male leaders at the top of Australia’s iconic institutions in the fight for gender equality. Today, only 11 of Australia’s top 200 companies have female CEOs.
“The idea is not for men to speak for women, not to save women – we can save ourselves very well, thanks”
MCC asks these leaders to “step up” for gender equality, becoming champions both within society and their own companies. Participants must commit to enacting internal company reforms, and to making gender a business priority.
“Firstly, you have to make all your gender data transparent,” said Broderick, “so the number of women not just on your board, but at your senior executive level and four levels below. Every year you must stand behind your numbers and be held accountable for them.”
Male leaders taking part have to attend at least four meetings a year, with individuals held accountable by other participants for delivery on their commitments. They must publicly commit to the MCC principles, which include agreeing that gender equality is not about fixing women but transforming the system. “I call them feminist principles – you don’t have to call them that, but essentially you have to agree,” said Broderick.
The men also pledge to engage in public advocacy for gender equality, whether through writing thought leadership pieces in the national press, or through supporting policies. And they also have to sign “the panel pledge”, agreeing to only participate in conferences or panels with strong female representation.
Participants themselves pay to be a part of the scheme, and each year the application criteria for aspiring male participants become more stringent. The aim – and challenge – is to ensure that commitment is not just symbolic, nor a mere PR campaign for the already powerful.
“I call them feminist principles – you don’t have to call them that”
Initially, ensuring everyone fulfilled their part of the bargain and didn’t break their commitments was largely Broderick’s responsibility. As numbers have grown, however, the groups themselves have taken charge.
“Occasionally, we get someone who lets the team down, but now the groups are quite self-regulating – they will say: ‘Look mate, you’re really not with us here, are you prepared to step up or not?’ They are amongst peers, so they don’t want to let each other down – they’re quite competitive,” Broderick said.
As the commitments mount up, from money to transparency, the obvious question is how and why men are brought on board. At the beginning, Broderick’s personal status and power of persuasion were essential.
“When we first got it up and running, basically I just picked up the phone and rang the six most powerful men in the nation in our largest banks, telecommunications, airline, and retail conglomerates – men I thought other men would look up to. And I said: look, can I come and talk to you about some of the areas of inequality that still exist for women, because I want to see whether you’d be prepared to step up with other men to join together to create change.”
“For the first time, he felt in his heart that his daughter would never have the same opportunities as her twin brother”
“I still remember one of the first men I went to was the CEO of IBM in our region. He had twins – a boy and a girl – and I started to explain to him the areas of inequality. He had probably known in his head about the numbers, but I think for the first time he felt in his heart that his daughter would never have the same opportunities as her twin brother, and that was just an appalling concept for him, and he said: ‘Yeah, where do I sign up?'”
This first group of six created a small critical mass, which has now grown to 150 male CEOs, government, university and military leaders across Australia.
While the focus is on men, the idea has never been to supplant or compete with women’s collective action. “The idea is not for men to speak for women, not to save women – we can save ourselves very well, thanks – but to take the message of gender equality to other powerful men in an attempt to shift the system,” Broderick said.
Still, the strategy remains controversial. Some women see movements like this as encroaching on women’s space: men have been the centre of attention and the loudest voices for a very long time.
“There’s a small group of mainly older women who have been saying that men are moving into our space, they are trying to gallop paternalistically into women-only areas,” Broderick said. “My response is that this is a strategy about recognising where power sits, and working with those who have the power to create change.”
“There’s a small group of mainly older women who have been saying that men are moving into our space”
One challenge for the future is making sure that the strategy is sensitive to the different challenges faced by women of colour; few of the male champions so far are from diverse backgrounds.
“The groups have recognised that their advocacy and initiatives have often assumed that all women are a homogenous group, whereas we know women are as diverse as men and some more advantaged than others. The strategies that have been developed are important but they won’t preference all women equally,” said Broderick.
MCC groups are now building a number of culturally- and linguistically-diverse strategies, firstly disaggregating the data they report by minority group.
“I think what’s changed most is the discourse in the nation – that men are as likely to speak up on gender equality issues as women”
Last year, a five-year review indicated that for participating organisations, 75% of indicators for change had moved positively. Each group is evaluated yearly, and the reports are all available to the public.
However, for Broderick, the numbers are not what really tells this story best. “I think what’s changed most is the discourse in the nation – that men are as likely to speak up on gender equality issues as women. I see that as a real positive, despite some of that backlash about men stepping into our advocacy space.”
“It’s about men being held accountable for change equally with women and coming in to say we are just on a learning journey here, we honour the contribution of women, all our strategies have benefitted from the insights of women, but we too are going to step up in a really intentional way.”
Perhaps most notable of all, though, is the growing desire for male leaders to take part. “In the past, men would have asked ‘why do I want to become a Male Champion of Change?’ Now they’re asking ‘how can I become one?’”
(Picture credit: Flickr/TEDxMelbourne)