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HeForShe – what women want, and what men can do

By stuart murphy, PA government and public sector expert

According to a World Economic Forum report, just 20% of the global workforce delivering professional services to government is female. And the brilliant HeForShe Whitehall event we recently co-hosted, has made me think properly about what my role is in changing (and not perpetuating) that.

The event drew in a crowd of over 300 civil servants and the panel featured people from the very top of the civil service, UN Women and the diplomatic world. Topics they covered included understanding the role of privilege in gender inequality, some practical steps organisations can take to tackle it in their workplace, and the action individuals can take.

HeForShe is a UN Women initiative that campaigns for gender equality as a human rights issue – not just a women's issue. One of my favourite moments from the event was Laura Haynes, Chair of the UK National Committee at UN Women, responding to why equality is taking too long to achieve: “Well, we've been spending a lot of time trying to fix women…”

HeForShe is not about whose fault it is – it's about challenging people to move beyond awareness, to get to grips with their own roles in the issue and the impact they have, and recognising more subtle barriers to equality like unconscious bias. And more importantly, to do something to challenge it – that's where I find myself now.

Here are some of the things that resonated with me:

- It's better to have a conversation about gender inequality and use the wrong words than to not to have it all. We were told that benign intent would be assumed. The point being that many people, men in particular, fear talking about the issue in case they say something that’s misconstrued. We need open dialogue, especially in the workplace, so asserting the understanding of 'benign intent' is really important.

- Although change has to happen everywhere, the event was focused on change within organisations – in this case, the civil service. Achieving gender equality won’t be an organic process – it would've happened already if it was. While organisations are only one arena, within them is a significantly greater control of the environment to effect change. Basically, if we can't achieve gender equality in organisations, then it looks pretty bleak for change everywhere. Having the chief executive of the civil service on the panel was a powerful statement of their commitment to ongoing change.

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So back to the World Economic Forum report. What are my immediate commitments as a white, middle-class male in what appears to be a white, middle-class, male-dominated industry? And how do I avoid being a lip-service feminist? 

I figure nobody needs me to speak on their behalf, but sometimes it helps to have a little space to speak. Practically, that means me being aware of who's in a room, who's talking and who's really being heard – and making sure the floor is shared. Somewhere on my LinkedIn profile I boast of my facilitation prowess, so I should be able to manage that.

My second commitment is a bit trickier. There's plenty of evidence now that diverse teams deliver better results. If I care about doing great work (I do), that has massive impact (I do), that makes public services better (I really, really do), then I need to be in a team that gives me the best shot at it. And the studies suggest the team needs to be a diverse one – and that’s not limited to gender diversity. At the moment, I don't pick the team. But I have a voice to point out when the team I'm in isn't diverse enough to deliver the best possible results.

These are tiny steps, but another thing I picked up from Laura Haynes is that change happens quietly… at first. My challenge to colleagues who've read this is to join me in collective, larger and noisier action.

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