Laura Harrison is a senior leader in the fields of business transformation and HR. Her career has spanned consulting and corporate roles as well as working in the not-for-profit sector. Most recently she was Strategy and Transformation Director at CIPD. She has a son and a daughter aged 14 and 11 and is currently taking a career break, enjoying their company and being continually astonished by how much adolescents eat.
Madeleine Allbright is famously quoted as saying “There’s a place in Hell reserved for women who don’t support other women.” I suspect I’m not alone in being a little thrilled by this macabre (and possibly vengeful) idea.
Events that inspired #metoo, the counter-intuitive appointment of a man to lead England women’s football, recent antics of The President’s Club – to name a few – all make me wonder whether, at the other end of the universe – in glorious angel-spangled heaven – there’s an equally special place for a Few Good Men, those who are prepared to stand up to, and tackle, the structural issues around gender inequality in the workplace.
Because the thing is, we need these Few Good Men. We need them to share the overwhelming and increasingly frustrating burden of change that’s on our shoulders. We need them to free us from the women’s networks, diversity initiatives, inclusion programmes, self-help guides, coaching, therapy and chardonnay-fuelled nights out with friends – all of which seem to end up pointing us to the same conclusions: If we could just work a little harder (perhaps three times, not two times harder, than our male peers); if we could just learn to balance assertiveness (‘bossiness’ behind our backs of course) with nurturing (our genetic heritage after all ;-)); improve our childcare arrangements (through exploiting unpaid female labour – mums, sisters, friends); learn to ‘manage upwards, and sideways’ (stroke the egos of narcissistic bosses and peers); make the right ‘lifestyle choices’ (having a baby, after all, is a ‘lifestyle choice’ for women) then perhaps, just perhaps, we might be able to scrape our knuckles against the glass ceiling that’s been erected, always just out of reach, by the structures in which we live and work.
These Few Good Men would answer ‘something; money, relationships, ego?’ not ‘nothing’ to the question ‘what are you prepared to lose for others to gain?’ They would be prepared to support female colleagues at work in pushing for promotion, acceptance and their own terms, even when it looks like a zero-sum game, even if the only case is a moral or human one, with no immediate prospect of financial return. They’d do their level best to walk in women’s shoes (literally if that’s what it takes – after all – many of us do change our shoes when we get to work!), to empathise, understand and never judge the experiences of their female colleagues who – undoubtedly – will have had their MeToo and other equally dispiriting moments. More than anything else they – right now – would be reflecting on what’s happening in our society – understanding it’s not new – it’s just, only just – starting to come to the surface – and they’d be feeling a little uncomfortable. Uncomfortable in how they might have behaved in the past, uncomfortable that perhaps the rules are changing, uncomfortable that perhaps they’ll be under greater scrutiny in the future. And they’d understand that that discomfort; of unwritten rules, being subject to hyper-vigilance and not being sure how to behave, is something that many women experience every day of their lives at work – because they didn’t have a fair share in making the unwritten rules, they don’t really know what they are, and their behaviour and activity is monitored by those who did, and do. And these Few Good Men would embrace that discomfort and channel it to inspire deeper and more fervent support of female friends and colleagues.
By far the majority of women already support their fellow female colleagues, friends and relatives brilliantly. They reassure us it’s ok to be ambitious, and that it’s ok not to be. That we didn’t expel our brains and our dreams at the same time as a baby and a placenta. That we are fantastic mothers as well as friends and colleagues. So, let’s take the burden from ourselves – we don’t need to change (or not much!) – we don’t need to be more conscientious, cleverer, more diligent or trustworthy. Forget about the narcissists and the misogynists who give all men a bad name and stifle the attempts of better men to be better – there’s an even more special place in hell for them. Turn instead to one of the Few Good Men you know – ask him the questions above – and get him involved in LeadersPlus. Good luck!