It was a few weeks before Christmas and the office was starting to look like an old western town with tumbleweeds moving through. As everything slowed down for the holidays, I had just filled an opening on my team with a young woman, Jenny. Jenny had just finished her graduate degree and was working her first job. Before leaving for my own vacation, we briefly talked and I left her a stack of papers and templates to familiarize herself with the work. I didn’t know it then, but that conversation in an empty building would lead to a transformative place in both of our lives.
English wasn’t Jenny’s first language which caused her to be reserved. She interacted with the team, but it was always about the work at hand. Jenny and I worked together to figure out what we could do to make her more comfortable with the team and business partners. Through many discussions, I learned that Jenny was looking for a way to improve her English and meet other women. Around that time, the company’s Women’s Team Member Network (WTMN) was hosting an event for new member orientation. Feeling a little shy to meet forty to fifty strangers, Jenny asked me if would go with her to the meeting. I had “joined” the network a few months earlier by clicking a button and hadn’t thought much more about it. Here was a chance to support Jenny and really see what it is like to be a man in a women’s network.
At the beginning of the orientation, the co-lead was excited to have two men joining the network and specifically called us out for being there. I hadn’t felt like I had done anything special by showing up.
A few weeks later, Jenny and I entered a large meeting room with 8 large circular tables and a row of chairs near the front. Standing by the chairs was one of the WTMN chapter co-leads along with representation from the 6 different committees. I looked around the room and noticed that there was one other man in the room with me and 50 women. At the beginning of the orientation, the co-lead was excited to have two men joining the network and specifically called us out for being there. I hadn’t felt like I had done anything special by showing up. My first reaction to the co-leads comment was about Jenny and why it wasn’t special that she or any other women were there. That spotlight for just showing up planted a question in my mind—“What does the women’s team member network really want from men? Is the bar only set at showing up to something to be successful?” As the meeting was wrapping up, they had a Q&A session and I asked them those questions. The answer was that they weren’t really sure, but they would love to explore that idea more.
Later that day, I received a 30 minute coffee invite to talk to both co-leads with the title "Catch Up". Without realizing the way that this catch up and other conversations would change my life, I clicked accept. The network had been thinking about the questions that I had asked and many more. Traditionally, they were a place for women to get away from the gender issues they faced at work. It was a safe space for them to voice ideas, hear from others’ experience in the company, and develop professional skills. Those things were needed, but it was becoming clear to them that future progression needed to include men as allies or sponsors. Our 30 minute coffee meeting turned into an hour. They asked me to help explore the idea of engaging men in the network.
Through a lot of discussions and listening to women’s experiences, there were some key things that we thought were important about engaging men.
Men could not be the fixers: The role for men was not to come in and explain or tell women how to fix their problems. It was vital for a man to come in and listen and work with the women to address issues that he might not even be aware of.
Men were allies when a woman said so: Male engagement is not a self-selecting process. Engaging with women effectively is a continual process of deepening your own point of view of what it means to be a man and an exploration of your own experience.
Men’s progression is vital: As supporters, allies and mentors, there is a wide spectrum of engagement. Some men may be less engaged while others may have spent time practicing inclusive behaviors. Wherever you currently find yourself on that spectrum, continued practice and involvement is key.
A few years later, a peer of mine reached out with me to get a coffee with him to discuss life after I left my role. While we were talking, it came up that Jenny was working for him. He expressed that she was receiving top ratings and was seen by the business as an integral partner to the work they did. It felt great to hear about her growth and stepping into her potential. I know that a lot more went into her reaching that point than me spending time with her at the start of her career. Still, my hope is that my own growth and presence helped her along the way. By mentoring Jenny, she helped connect me to the Women’s Team Member Network and my awareness around male advocacy. That passion for gender inclusion and leadership development has brought me to Greatheart Consulting. Thank you Jenny for sharing part of your journey with me.