So what might men leaders do on, and after, International Women’s Day? by Tony Berendt

My BMJ Leader Editorial Board colleague Aoife Molloy has just posted a superb blog concluding with the simple challenge: “What are you going to do?” What are you going to do? by Aoife Molloy – The official blog of BMJ Leader. She poses the question on International Women’s Day, when – thank goodness – there are many events taking place to note, celebrate and reflect on the myriad achievements and contributions made by women – all women – in societies all around the world.

“What are you going to do?” – particularly today – is as important a question for men as for women, because there are choices for men in how to respond to International Women’s Day. Some may be inclined to ignore the day; others, feeling threatened or excluded, might respond with criticism or resentment; but for me the invitation is to embrace the day, and become an ally to women in their struggles for parity of esteem, opportunity, achievement, and reward (of all kinds, including pay). For an ally, International Women’s Day is a great day to support, raising our consciousness and our confidence in speaking up and out in support of women.

But there are traps to avoid if we do choose allyship, so best to be on the lookout for them. As an ally it’s not for me to take control and tell women how to define success in my male terms; it’s not for me to rescue women from their plight – because that casts them as victims in need of rescue rather than as people with agency of their own; and I must not seek to advance the cause of women so that they are more content in the roles that we men have chosen to let them have. Supporting someone’s freedom is supporting their right, and their right to be free.

Being an ally means recognising when to support and when to give way and indeed, when to get out of the way. It means realising that allyship is not just another way for men to keep control of the conversation. Power and advantage really does have to shift and balance out, but we will all be the better for that. Especially leaders, who so desperately need the talents and energies of all, irrespective of gender, race, religion or sexuality.

So what might men leaders do on, and after, International Women’s Day? Here are some possibilities:

  1. We can start by being kind and compassionate to ourselves, because that is the foundation of being kind and compassionate to women
  2. We can get into dialogue with women about what women want and how they would change the systems by which work (and leadership) are organised
  3. We can be alert to discrimination – overt, covert, and structural – and get skilled at challenging it, ideally in ways that open up conversation rather than closing it down. But we mustn’t be afraid to speak out clearly when things need to change; remember David Morrison’s maxim “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept” Australia’s Chief of Army Addresses Sexual Assault and Harassment in the Army (Downloadable) on Vimeo)
  4. We can look for opportunities to mentor, be mentored and be challenged by women
  5. We can keep at it and not give up, the way women have had to. They say the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, and the second-best time is now. It’s never too late to start your career as an ally.

Happy International Women’s Day, to all women and all men.

Dr Tony Berendt

Tony is an Associate Editor of BMJ Leader. Tony trained in Medicine in Cambridge and Oxford, qualified in 1983, and studied the pathogenesis of severe malaria as an MRC Training Fellow (1987-1990) and a Lister Institute Research Fellow (1990). Completing specialist training in Infectious Diseases and General Medicine (1995), he developed interests in staphylococcal pathogenesis and musculoskeletal infection. He was Consultant Physician-in-Charge at the Bone Infection Unit (1997-2005) and Medical Director (2004-2011), at the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre NHS Trust, then Deputy Medical Director (2011-2014) and Medical Director (2014-2018) of the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust. Since September 2018 he has worked as an organizational consultant and executive coach.

Declaration of Interest: Anthony Berendt is an Associate Editor of BMJ Leader, and a Director of Anthony Berendt Consulting, offering coaching and consultancy, including to health and care organisations.

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