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Is gender equality in the workplace a woman's issue?

It seems so, considering that most discussions on the topic take place between women. But ongoing dialogues of like-minded minds produce limited returns. Preaching to the choir may be a feel-good way to reinforce your own beliefs but new voices are needed to actually influence change. By new voices, I mean we need a few good men to talk to other men about gender issues in the workplace.

These issues can range from pay equity and promoting increased diversity in management to dealing with flex time and overt or subtle sexual discrimination.

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A survey released last week by the Simmons School of Management in Boston illustrated that many women find women's networking groups inside their organization to be less than beneficial. The middle- to senior-level businesswomen surveyed said their network would be more effective with involvement by senior management – including men.

Happily, there does appear to be an appetite among some men to enter the conversation on their own terms.

American sociologist Michael Kimmel, a leading expert on men and masculinity and co-author of The Guy's Guide to Feminism, believes men are eager to discuss such issues but are unsure how to take part in the dialogue.

"The standard line is that men don't want to talk about it, and that hasn't been my experience at all," said Dr. Kimmel, a professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook.

"What I hear most often from men is, 'What we want from women is guidance … because the rules have really changed for us,'" he said. "Men don't want to be seen as jerks, they don't want to be seen as clueless. They want to be good guys."

In addition to his writing and research work, Dr. Kimmel runs workshops and lectures about integrating men into the conversation on diversity and gender equality in the business world. He said that when he leads company workshops, most men come to the table thinking that the issue pertains to someone else. "Gender equality week can be interpreted as 'Be nice to the ladies week,'" he noted.

What men really want to know, he said, are the new rules of engagement in the workplace. They don't want to offend women, perhaps with unconscious sexism, but they need direction on how to avoid doing so.

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Aside from company-run workshops or seminars, it can be difficult for men to find organizations, or online venues, to help them tackle gender issues in the business world with other men. In 2009, an initiative dubbed the Good Men Project was launched in Boston, but it covers a gamut of issues relating to masculinity in the 21st century, and doesn't focus on the business world.

Catalyst, a New York-based, not-for-profit organization promoting women in business, last week launched an online project called Men Advocating Real Change (MARC) to involve men in this conversation. It includes a community of male bloggers from around the world, although it doesn't have a Canadian contributor yet. A few noteworthy executives have joined, including Michael Dell, founder and chief executive of Dell Inc.

"It's a safe space for guys to ask questions without fears of embarrassment or looking like a sexist," said MARC's community manager Mike Otterman, who helped conceive of the project with Jeanine Prime, vice-president of research at Catalyst.

One reason men may be reluctant to take part in the discourse may be that it challenges traditional perceptions of masculinity. Dr. Prime, who has a doctorate in social psychology, suggests that the best way to frame the dialogue is to suggest that men who support gender equality are, by definition, strong men.

"By creating a community of men who care about equality, we demonstrate explicitly that gender equality is an issue that real men think and care about," she said.

Ronald Burke, professor emeritus of organization studies at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto, agrees that masculinity plays a role in keeping men from actively entering the discussion of gender issues at work. And a challenging economy, where some men may suffer bouts of insecurity if unable to fill the traditional role of provider, can exacerbate this issue.

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To some degree, Prof. Burke blames business education. "At MBA programs, we spend so much time on the bread-and-butter stuff like accounting, finance and marketing that when it comes to these issues of organizational effectiveness, we give it short shrift at best," he said.

Prof. Burke said he has found that men with daughters seem to understand the difficulties women face in the workplace more often than men who do not have daughters. But the issue, he said, has not "affected the hearts and minds of the men who are in upper management jobs in Canada yet."

Leah Eichler is co-founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women. E-mail: leah.eichler@rogers.com

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