By Terry Howard
. Years ago I organized a “beer summit” with ten white guys after having a lunch with a senior vice president. They were all engineers or engineering managers. Although reluctant about the idea at first, the vice president liked the idea of creating a safe space for the men on his leadership team to open up about their true apprehensions about diversity, gender, race, etc. He agreed to send out the invitation, select the site, and pick up the tab.
Now although he could have picked a bookstore, a nearby Starbucks, or some other place where we could engage in deep dialogue about these issues, he instead picked a nearby bar and grill, a place where he and his leadership team normally meet, a place with pool tables, six television screens around the walls with a different football game on each, and stale cigarette smoke hanging heavy in the air.
Now, a funny thing happened. No, strike that, a couple
of funny things happened.
First, since the guys knew my job title, “Diversity Director,” but didn’t know me personally, one brave gentleman started out by asking what they’d done so wrong that the vice president saw fit for me to be present.
After the vice president’s assurance that nothing was wrong, I got things started by asking them to weigh in on this question to start the conversation: “What does it mean to be a man these days and what are some of the forces bumping up against that definition?” That opened the floodgates, and soon dovetailed into a discussion about fatherhood.
The guys slowly began to open up, but only after the vice president granted them permission to express their true feelings about matters of diversity, gender, or whatever was top-of-mind for them.
While all this was taking place, we were being served by female waitstaff probably half our age, all of them white, pretty, and scantily dressed. An hour or so into our time, I interrupted our dialogue and posed this question: “Guys, look at this place. The young women working here probably get ogled or pinched by drunken men all the time. How would you feel about your daughters getting treated like that?”
After some initial silence and defensive tap dancing—“Well, if that’s their choice,” “No way would I encourage that”—things got a bit heated. The guys glanced at their watches and suddenly remembered that they had other commitments that evening.
And that was that. Or so I thought.
A day later, I received an email from the vice president who’d gotten requests from the men to have a follow-up night out, but this time at a place where we could engage in some deep dialogue, not only about men and maleness, but also about some of the other questions I had posed.
Challenging Emotional and Situational Comfort Zones
Situations like the one above tend to be rife with groupthink, where participants often engage in behaviors they may privately be uncomfortable with just to fit in as “one of the boys” (or girls). So the opportunity for the diversity professional, and leaders in general, is to create and seize these teachable moments by asking thought-provoking questions that challenge emotional and situational comfort zones.
For men and male leaders, my advice is to remember that framing is important. Purposefully set up conversations and meetings like this one as business as usual, and not any form of intervention. To make the lessons personal and impactful, encourage men to keep a visual image of a near-and-dear woman—wife, daughter, mother, etc.—in mind when they find themselves in typical “man places,” and imagine any one of these women on the receiving end of the comments, looks, and other behaviors that sometimes occur in those places.
Ask yourself, “How you would feel and what would you do?”
Then pose that question to the other men present.
Terry Howard is a writer, story teller and trainer. He is currently a senior associate with Diversity Wealth, a member of the Cross Cultural Academy and a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, and the Atlanta Business Journal. His blog is mystoriesonlineblog.com
. He can be reached at 470 558 7310.