This opinion piece was written by Jason Ghaboos, deputy director at the UK Home Office and Bye-Fellow at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge. He has been nominated for the 2018 UK Civil Service Diversity & Inclusion Awards.
As I prepare to stand up in front of a room of men to talk to them about the ways they may be unconsciously inhibiting the careers of women in their organisation, I shake my head. While my professional life has long been informed by a passion for diversity and inclusion, even I can’t quite believe the latest twist that my career as a civil servant has taken.
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Almost two years ago, I was approached by my then manager to join a workshop about some new research that was being conducted by Murray Edwards College (New Hall), a College for women at the University of Cambridge. Dr Jill Armstrong, the lead researcher, had identified a gap in gender equality research — that while men and masculinity are often blamed for women being held back in the workplace, solutions rarely take the views of men into account.
“Solutions rarely take the views of men into account”
This raised an important issue: how can we really make workplaces more gender inclusive when we are being gender exclusive in defining solutions? Jill, and Murray Edwards College, wanted to change this, and so Collaborating with Men was born.
The starting point was to invite 40 men (including myself) to take part in a workshop to see what action would be inspired by involving men in a conversation about the workplace culture issues that women report hold them back in their careers. This workshop showed that many men are personally motivated to drive change when they are made aware of the different workplace experiences of their female counterparts, and so the next step was to hold a conference with both men and women to co-create possible solutions.
“Simple interventions can make a big difference”
Many of the solutions that came out of this conference inspired me, but the one that struck me as most relevant for my civil service role as Operations Deputy Director at the UK Home Office was the CONVENE model — a list of techniques for chairing meetings inclusively. Simple interventions — such as ensuring that ideas are correctly attributed, not allowing women to be talked over, inviting a woman to speak first — can make a big difference.
When I saw these things happen in my organisation, I felt empowered to speak up — and I quickly realised that one person taking a stand is all it takes to inspire others. I started to share the CONVENE model with other departments, emphasising the difference it was making to the happiness and productivity of my team.
“One person taking a stand is all it takes to inspire others”
In the meantime, Collaborating with Men continued to go from strength to strength, evolving from research to practice to a workplace change program. And as the program has grown, so too has my involvement — most recently, I was proud to take up a 12-month secondment to Murray Edwards College as a Bye-Fellow focusing on gender inclusivity and workplace culture.
I now work to inspire organisations — from large professional services organisations to academic departments — to better understand and transform their workplace culture. We do this by conducting a survey among an organisation’s workforce to uncover specific culture issues and the perception gap between men and women regarding these issues, and from there we are able to work with these organisations to develop possible solutions.
“Being a man advocating for gender equality does not come without its difficulties”
So, what have I learned and what advice would I give to others? Quite simply, that workplace culture is not a gender binary issue. Men are part of the problem, and so men also need to be part of the solution. The role of men partnering for change is important, but it is unhelpful for men to be characterised either as the hero, swooping in to “save the day”, or as the villain, responsible for all issues.
However, being a man advocating for gender equality does not come without its difficulties and it is important to acknowledge these. I both doubt myself and am doubted by others. I sometimes wonder whether it’s my place to give a voice to these issues, and I’ve definitely had both men and women question my motive for being involved in gender issues. It needs to become more normal for men and women to talk about these issues.
At the end of the day, a prohibitive workplace culture will affect us all. By promoting awareness across all career levels, and holding productive conversations about how to tackle their key issues, organisations will not only be better equipped to deliver meaningful and sustainable change but they will also be more competitive — attracting and retaining the best talent.
And as I prepare to stand up in front of the room, my hope for the future is that I won’t need to do this — because it will become a natural way of operating to have a workplace culture that is genuinely inclusive for all. — Jason Ghaboos
(Picture credit: Tarik Ahmet: Photography by Tarik)