#ChoosetoChallenge this #IWD Kirstie Stott &Dr Matt Walsh (ILN)

We were talking the other day, about our experience working with and for the NHS; a combined experience of more than 50 years, and the changes and the level of progress we have seen over that time in diversity and equality. What became apparent from talking and sparked a rather interesting conversation was that one of the most established ways in which we respond to inequality, whether it is gender, race, sexuality, physical or psychological difference, is to ask those affected by the inequality to solve it for themselves, often with support from ‘allies’. We agree that there is a fundamental need for a safe space for minority groups to come together in a safe space, however what we often witness is a need to put in place a development programme or network/forum for these groups in isolation of anything else, expecting somehow that miraculously they will solve the ingrained inequalities they have faced for decades. Let’s take gender equality for example seen as it is International Women’s Day. We have seen an increase in women’s networks, women’s conferences, women’s development days and even women’s leadership programmes which generally either exclude men from attending or don’t make it clear enough that it isn’t just for women. Only the other day we were made aware of a new leadership programme for women, like its a completely different development need than the generic ‘leadership for all’ offer… That somehow by putting minority groups in a room and asking them to do more, which often replicates the status quo will solve the issues. Take the said leadership course, what’s different we asked… ‘It focuses more on building confidence, imposter syndrome, and things that get in the way of women reaching the top of the hierarchy’. Because we all know that men don’t have these issues? Why is it so easy for us to often put both blame and resolve onto women?

Don’t get us wrong, we think it is fundamentally important in terms of survival for groups to stick together, but just as international poverty will not be solved by the poorer countries acting by themselves, so the problem of gender inequality needs action by those who actually have the power now. The question we are asking on international womens day is ‘what is the response to this inequality from men who have power?’ Evidence shows that when men are deliberately engaged in gender inclusion programmes, 96% of organisations see progress compared to 30% who don’t (HBR 2018) When organisations focus their gender equality efforts and initiatives to increase representation solely on women their is a huge missed opportunity. And we know this isn’t just the case for gender…
Taking an approach that focuses just on women fails to address the real issues which are cultural and systemic, often homogenous ways of working and thinking. By asking women to ‘lean in more’, ‘be strong’ ‘sit at the table’ is replicating the leadership styles we have in place rather than embracing the difference that women offer.
We wonder if by focusing on having women’s ‘this and that’ we are reinforcing the narrative that these are women’s issues to solve and that’s its ok for men to sit back and simply be an ally. Controversially ally-ship is a a buzz word at present, we need more male allies, but what exactly do we mean by being an ally.
By its very definition an ally is someone who is on your side, supports and champions your case, but should we not be encouraging men to not only ally women, gender inequality, the removal of socialised norms but to lead this debate in the social and professional cracks and crevices which women are not in. What are the active steps that men in our profession are taking to do more than just support women’s initialtives. Whose standing up in these male dominated spaces we hate to imagine still exist and saying enough is enough. If men still dominate the senior echelons of healthcare then these are the people we need in the room and conversations, these are the the people who hold positions of power and can positively disrupt the status quo.

I’ve been in rooms, many times, with the great and good of the senior echelons of the NHS, and have found myself mainly in the company of men. Talk of football and concrete thinking, an absence of compassion and a sole focus upon personal reputation and survival. Not a hint of love; exclusive, cold, competitive…and a sense that other men, who might look at life differently, are unwelcome and perhaps a little strange. Performance as a demonstration of thrusting manhood…Performance management based upon humiliation and ridicule, and all of it an act…a sense that it has to be this way because it has always been this way.

Johnson and Smith (HBR Oct 18) argues that sexism is a system, and whilst its a system that privileges men, it also policies male behaviour, and understanding this is fundamental to changing the system.
Every system is perfectly designed to deliver the results that it gets.

Every system is simply a collection of people, relationships and behaviours, chosen, incentivised.

If we want to change the results, we need to change the system. If we want to change the system we need to change the behaviours and the people in the room.

We want to see the narrative of gender equality changed, disrupted patterns of blame and shift away from thinking that putting the challenge back to women to solve by changing who they are will somehow change systemic and cultural ingrained thinking and behaviours.

We challenge you to think smarter, to not allow yourself to go to the safe and repetitive initiatives we have been doing for a long time. We also encourage women to not only ask men to be your ally but to stand at the front and lead change. It’s International Women’s Day 2021 change the narrative and #ChoosetoChallenge