Powerful Men and the Bystander Effect

by Coco Brown, Athena Alliance founder & CEO

Women across the country are proving to be strong, capable and willing to step up to the respective plate and make a difference. But we still need men to put us in the game.

I’ve touched on the importance of men in getting women to board seats before, in last year’s “Enough Talk! Men, You Can Make the Biggest Difference in Moving the Needle Faster Toward Diversity.” For the many male leaders I talk to who are excited to actively engage in our challenge, the tips I speak to in this article, and to them in person, have provided them with helpful and practical ways to help.

If you’re a man in power wondering why we’re calling out to you for help, my hope is that the research and guidance below will set the question aside and inspire you to work more closely by our side.

Gender parity is not a women’s issue. It is an economic issue.

Gender parity is not a women’s issue. It is an economic issue, to say the least, that touches each of us — men and women alike. Numerous studies, including those completed by Morgan Stanley and the Peterson Institute for International Economics, show that a greater balance in boardrooms and in C-suite levels contribute directly to increased returns in addition to more robust diversity across skill sets, thought processes and the like. Businesses literally profit from advancing women through the ranks.

While the majority of decision makers may understand that putting women in positions of power is beneficial, there is a significant disconnect when it comes to how to bring us to a state of parity. Men, this is where you come in.

In any arena, individuals in power have the most impact on who holds important positions. We see this in politics, education, majority-rules situations and even in modern companies. Now consider who these individuals are and you will find that, much more often than not, they are male, and very often, white. What this essentially means is that the power to change the balance of our boardroom diversity lies within the hands of white men. Women can, and should, continue to push for parity, but without the assistance of those who make decisions (men), we will continue to move the needle at minuscule increments; moving at a pace of 1% per year. At this rate, we’ll be lucky to reach a balanced boardroom breakdown in the next thirty years.

It has been said that job seekers are most likely to find success through constant networking, and there is good reason behind this. When the time comes to fill open positions, whether in family owned shops or on corporate boards, those in power look to who they know. Another truth? More often than not, these networks are composed of very similar individuals. Research shows men don’t recommend women to boards in part because they don’t know of qualified women. This is why some have the perception that we just aren’t out there.

The number of women on boards isn’t a pipeline problem, but a “who you know” problem.

At Athena Alliance, we know the number of women on boards isn’t a pipeline problem, but a “who you know” problem. Our primary goal faces this issue head on and puts boards in need in contact with women who can benefit them. But we can’t do all the work. Men on boards (and women, too), let us know when you have open seats!

The “who you know” challenge is compounded by the fact that many men do not grasp their roles in bringing our boards (and companies, in general) closer to gender parity. Not only is this easily understood, it’s to be expected. So often, without experiencing and being part of a struggle of your own accord, it is difficult to understand how it affects others and how to remedy the situation. And like the phenomenon of “bystander effect”, it is easy to convince ourselves that someone else will step up to do the work, and we need only help when asked. Consider this your invitation. If all men in power are sure that others will do the work to advance women to boards, 83% of board members will not act. We need you to be the bystander who starts the movement.

If all men in power are sure that others will do the work to advance women to boards, 83% of board members will not act. We need you to be the bystander who starts the movement.

Men are in a uniquely formidable role here, in that, as individuals of power, you can advocate for whomever you see fit without fear of your suggestion not being valid. Women and minority figures do not have this benefit, as Johnson and Hekman revealed in their Harvard Business Review article, which shows that women and people of color are often viewed in negative light when they advocate for other women and people of color. On the contrary, as trusted authorities in the business realm, white male leaders are free to recommend and sponsor anyone of any race or gender without repercussion. This is exactly why your participation in sponsoring and helping eligible women is imperative.

Finally, research shows that change within companies must be led by those at top levels, and ideally, these individuals should be personally invested in making a positive push toward equity in the boardroom. This is a simple concept to grasp. Leaders facilitate change in any situation, as they are the ones who hold the power to put new policies in place. Without action that sets an example from someone who has influence, it is difficult for others in a company to make a difference. Since the majority of those in power are still male, we cannot increase our rate towards parity without these CEOs and leaders taking responsibility to effect change, and if we don’t increase this rate, the daughters we are currently raising with high hopes will have minimal chances to find a place in the boardroom.

The question now is: are we comfortable with leaving a legacy of necessary work remaining to create the equal environment we have so passionately strived for? Men, are you confident that your daughters have the means to make an impact that, at the current pace, many of us will not achieve in our time?