In Search Of A Safe Port

What can Catalyst really teach men about gender?


A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit Catalyst in New York for the first time and when I left town, I was struck by a paradox: I don’t think men can explore and understand gender and inclusion as long as they are doing it with women.
The occasion for my visit was a great Men Advocating Real Change (MARC) Thought Leader “Meetup” with Mike, Jeanine, fellow blogger Lars Einar Engstrom, and several other MARC partners and diversity leaders. We had a great conversation, touching on many topics, but I left consumed by an unsettling feeling. As I sat there at Catalyst HQ, seeing the many talented people (mostly women) working on critically important issues concerning women and work, I thought to myself “this is not the right place for me.” It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with Catalyst. It’s a beautiful facility with a wonderful vibrancy and buzz about it. The people were terrific and I felt well-taken care of.
But it was not a men’s place. I felt most welcome, but I did not belong there. In retrospect, this was an important observation. I believe that the most critical work men must do in order further gender inclusion requires us to delve deeply into our experiences, attitudes, and behaviors as men. That kind of exploration requires a safe port and it is very difficult for women to provide that port when it comes to gender.
I attended the Work and Gender Conference held at Harvard later that week. It was a fantastic event; lots of smart, interesting people coming together to talk about changing for the better women’s experiences at work. But what was striking was that there were few men in attendance and there was no substantive conversation about men in the workplace.
I have to pause to be clear about something. I do not raise this point from the perspective I’ve seen some men do so. Some guys rail against woman-centered activities and organizations out of insecurity and threat. They feel uneasiness about how they as men are being affected by these women-focused activities.
My point is different. I was honored to be present at that conference and to be present at Catalyst. I fully and unequivocally support these organizations and events. They are the most important places a person can be if she or he wants to engage with women-focused gender work.
I am noting, simply, that these are not always the best venues to engage men-focused gender work. Although men can’t fully develop their skill in gender inclusivity without women, they are held back in their development by abdicating the responsibility to learn about gender to women. Men all too often wait for women to set the context and conversation for gender learning. That will never serve to empower men to fully join in co-creating organizations that truly value the gender identities and experiences of the people in them. If this is true, the obvious next questions are:
  1. Where can men do their gender-focused work?
  2. What, exactly, is men-focused gender work, as distinct from woman-centered gender work?
I have some thoughts to share in my next blog post, but what do you think?
Posted by Martin Davidson on Apr 2, 2013 11:00 AM America/New_York

Blog Post Comments

Log in to post a comment.

Martin - thank you for this honest and challenging post. I can certainly relate - I have held forums on the topic of diversity where men were clearly inhibited from speaking and sharing. I suspect that the presence of women in these events can create these inhibitions among men. Of course, no one wants to say something that 'sounds sexist' or can be deemed embarrassing! - so these fears are understandable. I think this dynamic plays out on virtual platforms as well, including MARC.
At the same time, I do feel that for traction to take place, there must be direct linkages between the ‘men’s work’ and the ‘women’s work.’ Perhaps MARC is one convergence point? - I'd like to hope this is the case. The trick is making men feel comfortable in this shared space.
  • Posted Tue 02 Apr 2013 03:07 PM EDT
Yes, thanks Martin for your candor. I completely agree with you that men need spaces/ opportunities to engage with each other and explore their own gendered experiences (indeed this is why Catalyst created MARC). However I also believe that men and women have to learn how to have dialogue about gender together as equal partners. If women are doing “women-focused” gender work and men are off doing “men-focused” gender work how does this all come together to effect change in the end? And can we really understand women’s experiences fully without also understanding men’s and vice versa? Don’t we both—men and women—have to get through our discomfort of doing our gender work in each other’s presence (it’s not comfortable for women either) if we’re going get to solutions? Rather than shy away when we feel discomfort isn't this an opportunity for our all of us to become better more inclusive leaders?
  • Posted Tue 02 Apr 2013 10:58 PM EDT
A very interesting blog post and I am intrigued to see where the continued discussion leads. Ultimately it is this "uncomfortableness" that will need to be addressed and overcome, to have any real traction and impact on the issue.

How we get there continues to be the million dollar question.
  • Posted Wed 03 Apr 2013 12:26 PM EDT
Martin, Jeanine and Mike, what an important conversation you are having. Some of the most impactful, meaningful and life changing personal insights I have experienced have been with the White Men as Full Diversity Partners learning labs. The White Men's eliminate racism, sexism and homophobia in the workplace, is an example of what I perceive Martin is asking about. I found this particular session (facilitated with only white men) my opportunity to express and ask questions I was afraid to ask before, for fear of outing myself...that I was absolutely clueless about so many aspects of diversity that others assumed I already knew about. Due to all of my personal forms of privilege I never had a need to previously explore "differences." As a result, I was unknowingly creating resentment and frustration with women and people of color that I deeply cared for and individuals with whom I worked and LIVED with. This lab along with the White Men and Allies Learning Lab (meaning women and people of color) put me on a path of life-long personal learning and evolution. These two labs helped me to develop practical ways to interrupt not only my personal privilege but also organizational /systemic advantage. Most importantly, I developed competencies to be a much more effective partner with women, people of color, and other white men in order to build trust, leadership, and organizational performance. As full disclosure, I have attended a White Men's Caucus since my retirement...the personal learning and discovery is that important to me. I hope these insights and experiences reenforce many of the key points brought out in Martin's blog..
  • Posted Wed 03 Apr 2013 08:05 PM EDT
Men can spread the word about gender bias in the workplace; they can call other men out when they demean women in any venue; they can make sure they have at least 50% women on their "go to" lists of service and product providers; they can donate to women's social justice organizations; they can share half of what my step-son calls the home's "emotional chores" - social networks, family support - near (children) and far (parents and other family members in need); they can tell their friends to go to Harvard's Project Implicit to measure their own implicit gender bias and promise to work against it in all their affairs; they can dare to step beyond their own gender boundaries everywhere by offering to bring clients coffee; to offering their services as the scivener at a meeting; by building on others' offerings by praising them and then building upon them rather than ignoring or interrupting others to push through their own agenda; they can cry when saddened; they can apologize for bullying; they can ask themselves to look beyond a woman's appearance or her age to ascertain and praise her value; they can begin to discard benevolent stereotypes about women that assume women cannot be powerful actors in business, politics, academics, religious institutions; they can support women's reproductive freedoms with their voices and their contributions; they can ask for flex-time at work for themselves; they can refuse to join or patronize "all male" establishments like country clubs and golf courses; they can vote for men and women who support wage parity, put an end to rape culture and sexual trafficking; they can withdraw from the sex market themselves, including the market for child pornography by refusing to view it; they can listen to men AND women more than they lecture, pontificate or bully; they can read women's history; they can ask themselves how their own horizons have been limited by their gender and work to liberate themselves first from outworn gender roles and go on to help raise the consciousness of their fellows; they can more freely express the full range of their emotionality and support other men who do so as well; they can vote for and serve on organizations dedicated to public education and health services for the nation's children; they can seek out win-win solutions to business and political problems rather than defaulting to win-lose, adversarial postures . . . the list is likely infinite but these are off the top of my head.
  • Posted Mon 08 Apr 2013 01:06 PM EDT
In 1989, I was on an initial task force to make our company more 'family friendly'. [In less than a decade, this led to a cultural transformation that put us on Fortune's 100 Best for 9 consecutive years, but more about that later.] I remember the year exactly and even the context of the meeting in the CEO/Chairman's conference room. After making the statement that I thought we would achieve real equality when men had the same choices as women, the CEO laughed, called it a silly comment, and told me my situation was unusual (I was pregnant at the time and we had already decided that my husband would stay home for awhile) and that we were there to figure out how to support women. Times have thankfully certainly changed.

I tell this story because I believe too many women think we already know how men think, what they know, and what their hidden motives are. My career experiences and the non-profit work I'm currently doing with the 17 member organizations of ION [] has made me more and more convinced that there are very, very few real 'neanderthals' or misogynists left. Which brings us to this discussion. We as women need to listen more carefully, not stereotype, and also be willing to be uncomfortable in a situation. One more the new first female regional bank president in a small town in East Tennessee, not quite 40 and looking quite a bit younger (too bad that hasn't exactly lasted!), I immediately stereotyped one of the town leaders, the CEO of a manufacturing company, who had a cowboy name, wore the hat and boots to match, and was big and burly thinking he'd never give me the time of day, much less respect me as a bank and community leader. Much to my chagrin and delight, he became one of my biggest supporters and advocates. Lesson learned.

ION is dedicated to 'moving the needle' on gender diversity by having productive wide-ranging conversations to help open up more opportunities to diversify boards and executive suites--the diverse candidates are ready, willing, and able. I can't speak for all women by any means, but we all own this diversity issue and until we explore and then drop our preconceived notions about the motives of others based on OUR expectations, we won't see any meaningful change.
  • Posted Mon 08 Apr 2013 05:55 PM EDT
Martin's question about a safe port for men to do gender work made me think about the film project I am working on (
As a female I observed and filmed a men's group wanting to understand why men have the need for such a group and why it needs to be men only. What I ultimately learned is that some men feel more comfortable to speak honest about personal experiences in a men's only forum than they would in a mixed forum. The men's beliefs were that they would not feel as safe and comfortable if women were present.
However from my observations of the men's personal expressions about life, I do not think the expressions in a woman's group would be that different. Having not observed a women's group it is hard for me to compare, but it seems to me that the way we approach each other as human beings is difficult to escape our preconceptions of gender and that gender matters.
Female to female as well as male to male it seems there is a more effective connection happening because we assume that our experiences are similar if we are the same gender. For instance when a woman tells me about her experience of dating, I immediately relate it to my personal dating experience, whereas if a man tells me about his dating experience, I process his story more abstract, because my preconceived notion is that men's experiences are different from women's experiences. My point is that if we attempt to approach people in a more gender neutral way, we are able to relate a human beings experience to our experience indifferently from their gender.
When I was in the "men-only" room of nine men expressing their personal emotions and beliefs about human connections I connected to all of them (even though I was only a passive observer and didn't engage in the conversations). Most importantly the men quickly noticed that my presence and my gender had no influence on their openness. This made them further realize that their future goal is to include women or be part of a mixed group as well as the men's group.
I respect men-only forums, since I think they function as an important first step for gender equality. The thought of the other sex can seem overwhelming to many men who have lived with the belief that men and women are essentially different. If the consequence is that men don't engage with personal development if men-only forums were banned, I think we should keep them. They can help men prepare and get comfortable expressing their concerns before doing it in the open.
I realize there is a difference between corporate inclusion policy and personal men's group development. When it comes to organizations and businesses I think it is decisive that men and women can be engaged in the inclusion discussion in the same room.
  • Posted Fri 19 Apr 2013 12:15 PM EDT
The cherry-picking on equality continues. Please give me some data on the claim that women do not get paid the same for doing the _same_ work as men. I have asked several women, and I have _never_ seen _any_ study confirming that claim. Convenient that women posters somehow forget the areas where men are discriminated -against, like family court. How about the fact that women are getting most of the college degrees; does that inequality bother you? Male teens drop out of highschool at a much higher rate than women. Does that inequality bother you? The family court is heavily-biased towards women. Does that inequality bother you? Spare me the condescension and the cherry-picking of evidence. By 'inequality' you mean only women getting a raw deal. You ignore the many areas wheren men get a raw deal.
  • Posted Fri 17 May 2013 07:05 PM EDT
Maybe you should try to address any reason other than discrimination to explain why boards are male-dominated, instead of automatically assume that gender discrimination is the main explanation for the different. For one thing, for the most part, a man is much more likely than a woman to devote most of his life to work, while women are more likely to seek a balanced life, i.e., one not exclusively based on work, which provides for, arguably, a better quality of life. Many boards are aware of this fact, and , therefore, prefer to appoint men before appointing women There is data to support this; let me know and I will provide it for you. It is dissapointing to see here both an implicit assumption that any inequality (affecting women, of course, that is the only one that matters in this forum) is due to gender discrimination, and to see the cherry-picking of inequality, where the areas where women get a better deal than men l are ignored.
  • Posted Fri 17 May 2013 07:23 PM EDT
I feel these issues deeply as I work on fatherhood in Africa. We need to engage with mothers and women in general about progressive, gender sensitive and non-violent parenting but we must share the leadership on fatherhood work and not abdicate our responsibilities to the women's or the child protection/rights movements. Surely fatherhood is an area in which we men nee to 'own' and agenda for ourselves. I think this is one reason there are 'backlash' fatherhood and men's groups whose stance that the women's rights agenda has gone to far is patently ridiculous but who do identify real problems for fathers in custody, maintenance battles through adversarial legal frameworks. I find great interest from the men's movement in fatherhood issues - perhaps because we are coming from a deficit perspective - absent fathers etc. There is almost no interest from the 'gender' i.e. women's movement in parenting issues and they often view the parenting agenda as an effort to conflate women's issues with children's issues and the infantisation of women's issues as a consequence. Well, they have their own analysis on that, I disagree. We need to strengthen women's spaces, funding for gender equity etc. but we also need to reclaim gender as a joint concern, maybe there should be a clear understanding that we as men support more funding for women's efforts and spaces, we support more adult men with power taking their issues seriously but we also need men's spaces and then gendered spaces where we come together?
  • Posted Fri 24 May 2013 03:51 AM EDT


What gender equality topic do you most want to learn more about in 2019? Anything we left out? Let us know.

Business case
Mentoring and sponsorship
Paternity leave and fatherhood
Masculinity and gender
Actions to take