International Men's Day: The role of men as agents of change

19 November 2018 -

International Men's DayThe male business leader who refused to sit on male-only panels signalled an important trend

Kate Bassett

“The gender divide really hit home when I became a father,” says Sean Tompkins, chief executive of RICS (the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors), the world’s largest professional body covering land, property, construction and infrastructure. “While my friends’ sons were boasting about getting the best grades and joining the next NASA mission, my daughters were much more circumspect and reserved about what they could achieve. The differences were startling.”

Tompkins started to notice the same reticence in women at work. “I was a director for Prudential at the time – a FTSE 100 firm with very few women in the upper echelons. Then I joined RICS, where just ten per cent of qualified professionals were female.” When he took over at the helm of RICS in 2010, the first thing he did was ask why. “I wanted to understand what was holding women back and what would help them progress, and to create a culture where it was okay to question ‘business as usual’,” he says.

The first steps to equality

He started by restructuring at the top; 50 per cent of his executive team is now female. He rewrote all internal job descriptions, introduced unconscious-bias training and reverse mentoring, and developed an ‘Inclusive Employer Quality Mark’ to help Chartered Surveyors and their businesses develop a more diverse and inclusive workforce. He also led an internal culture change, #daretoshare, openly encouraging the whole organisation to talk about difference (gender, mental health, sexual orientation, religion and so on) to improve inclusiveness and help with learning, and made a public pledge – broadcast on YouTube – not to sit on any all-male panels at industry events.

To unearth more visible female role models in the profession – critical to inspiring the next generation – Tompkins sponsored a new real estate, infrastructure and construction category at the Women of the Future Awards in 2014. That same year, Louise Brooke-Smith took office as the first female president in RICS’ 146-year history.

“Anyone in a seat of power needs to challenge the status quo. We are in a war for talent and should not be limiting our horizons,” he says. “I thank my daughters for helping me see through a new lens.”

Multiplying ‘manbassadors’

Tompkins is part of a growing cohort of mainly white, middle-aged, male leaders who are “agents of change” in the battle for greater gender equality and diversity in British business. As CMI’s Blueprint for Balance report puts it: “Working with men as change agents is a key plank of CMI Women’s strategy. After all, given the gender imbalance in senior roles, the leaders with the power to accelerate progress are predominantly men.”

When Dame Helena Morrissey set up the 30% Club in 2010 to get more women on boards, the response from FTSE chairmen was “overtly hostile”. The big breakthrough only happened when she gathered the support of really powerful ‘manbassadors’. “I formed an advisory council and Sir Roger Carr, then of Centrica, and Sir Win Bischoff, then of Lloyds Bank, immediately joined it. They acted as a high-octane recruitment company for other chairmen,” she says. “Having those traditional captains of industry on board changed the conversation from a women’s issue to a business issue.”

Why men must champion women at work

“No minority group in history has made real cultural change without the support of the majority group,” comments Daniele Fiandaca, who was named an “Agent of Change” by Management Today and the Women’s Business Council earlier this year. As a self-proclaimed “proud feminist” and co-founder of not-for-profit organisation Token Man, he has made it his mission to educate men on the challenges women face every day in the workplace and to inspire behaviour change. “We shouldn’t be trying to train women to thrive in a man’s culture. We should be training men to change the culture,” he says.

Women’s Business Council chairwoman Dame Cilla Snowball has thrown down the gauntlet to all of the country’s top CEOs, asking them to take personal responsibility for ensuring that 33 per cent of executive-level business leaders are women by 2020; to sponsor one to three women within their organisation who have the potential to secure an executive role within three years; and to be an active and visible change agent.

“Women are still under-represented in senior positions of decision-making within UK business, accounting for just over a quarter of board-level positions within the FTSE 350. At the current rate of progress it will take until 2043 to achieve gender balance in leadership,” says Dame Cilla, who also runs advertising giant AMV BBDO. “True change will only occur when women are supported within the system – and men help to change the system.”

Read CMI’s Blueprint for Balance: Time to Fix the Broken Windows report

Image: Shutterstock

Powered by Professional Manager