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Engaging Men - From Nangarhar to Hollywood

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This blog was co-authored by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-first and Brita Fernandez Schmidt, Executive Director of Women for Women International – UK and was originally posted on Huffington Post on 18th October 2017.

If we can change the hearts and actions of men in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, surely it's time for discriminatory and predatory norms in boardrooms and homes across the West to change as well.

"All decisions should be made by men and women together," says Pole, a graduate of Women for Women International's Men's Engagement Programme in Afghanistan. "Gender balance would significantly improve our decision-making," said the US operations head of an engineering multinational after a Strategic Debate led by 20-first, recently in New York. Who would have guessed that two programmes, run on opposite sides of the planet, in dramatically different cultural contexts, would share a basic approach and philosophy.

Women for Women International is an organisation aimed at supporting the empowerment of women survivors of war. 20-first is a consulting firm helping large, global companies gender balance. As the heads of these organisations, the more we learned about each other's work, the more we were struck by the multiplying parallels between our work. Never more so than this last week with the allegations of sexual violence in Hollywood, which follow other recent high-profile cases of sexual harassment at big entertainment, fashion and tech companies.

Engaging men as allies for gender equality
Photo: Monilekan

Women for Women International has trained almost 21,000 men across seven countries in gender issues. 20-first has facilitated debates around gender issues with thousands of male managers across dozens of countries. While Women for Women International is active in countries affected by conflict like Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Nigeria, 20-first focuses on large multinationals in global capitals - from Beijing to Boston. Yet while the men we are engaging with are at dramatically different stages of awareness and respect for the other gender, the approach we have adopted to engage with them is strikingly similar.

Our shared learning? Engaging male leadership is essential to any efforts towards sustainably empowering women. Otherwise, all you get is a backlash. Below, we will summarise the lessons we have learned from 15 years of work engaging men...

1. Start with leaders

Both organisations recognise that women cannot change the systems in which they work and live on their own. Because, for the most part, they don't run them. An essential part of changing any system is to get all sides involved in the conversation. Especially those who control it. As one of 20-first's clients said: "Women may hold the keys to gender balance, but men still control the locks."

In order to ensure Women for Women International can even get into a community and reach its women, it begins with talking to the male religious and community leaders. We have three goals for these sessions:

  • Increase men's knowledge of women's rights
  • Change men's attitudes
  • Enable men to take action

At 20-first, we begin by exploring the benefits of gender balance for the organisation with global executive teams. Leadership teams are not always aligned on the business relevance of the issue, and have varying degrees of commitment and understanding of the topic, underlying issues, and how to fix it. Our objectives for what we call "strategic debates" is to:

  • Align leaders on the benefits of balance for their business
  • Change the issue from a problem to an opportunity
  • Enable leaders to take action

2. Build skills through their value set

In Afghanistan, Women for Women International opens with discussion of the Qur'an with male religious leaders. We explore how religious texts outline women's rights, and deplore violence against women. We reach leaders through the prism of their values, vocabulary and traditions. We don't introduce it as a revolution, but as an upholding of our audience's existing commitments - to Allah.

20-first does something remarkably similar. We open with an exploration of the 'business case.' Why it makes good business sense for companies to start adapting to the reality that women are now 60% of the world's graduating university students, and make or influence 80% of consumer purchasing decisions. We don't introduce this as a disruption, but as an evolution of talent pools and customer demographics. We also allow them to explore, often for the first time, how their systems and cultures may not be quite as meritocratic as they think.

3. Cascade with men coaching men

Women for Women International scales its interventions by training trainers. From each session, we carefully select men who would be both committed and credible at rolling out similar sessions within their own communities. In this way, we have trained almost 21,000 men in rural communities across Afghanistan, the DRC, Nigeria, South Sudan, Rwanda and Kosovo.

20-first's business model relies on cascading Strategic Debates throughout organisations via trained trainers. The strategic debate builds awareness, skills and outlines a business plan to address gender opportunities in their business. Once the leaders have understood their own role in executing the plan, they cascade similar sessions.

The future

We have been doing this work for a long time, and have proven its impact. Our vision for a future where individuals are unconstrained by their gender and related stereotypes remain both challenging to some and aspirational to many. But it delivers. Peace, competitiveness and equality. For our countries, our companies and our couples. Gender equality is everyone's business - because it benefits us all.

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