A few weeks ago, I got into a discussion on Twitter about why more men did not attend gender-focused events. In the world we want to live in, men recognize that they benefit from privilege and actively address it. In the world we do live in, change has been slow and male involvement low, which leaves many women taking on the double burden of both sexism and the emotional labor of ending it.

One way to lessen that is to better understand why men become active feminists so that we can hasten the shifting of the work. But unfortunately, we don’t actually know that much about why men become active feminists. Studies have typically looked at fairly specific phenomena, like venture capitalists with daughters being having better performing funds, and even those are fairly rare on the ground.

So I decided put my money where my mouth was and fund a little research. Using Survata, I paid for two, 200 person surveys to be run. Both groups were all male, all in the United States, and all over age 18. One of the surveys was for men who said they had attended an event focused on gender (examples were “Celebration of Women in INDUSTRY” and “Gender Equity in INDUSTRY”), the other was for men who said they had not. Both groups were offered a variety of reasons for their attendance or non-attendance and were allowed to select as many as they wished and provide other factors, as well as filling out a variety of demographic questions.

I then called my friend and fellow Harlem dweller Rhapsodi Douglas, a consultant in Deloitte’s Diversity and Inclusion practice, and we got together to do some data analysis and talk through the findings. I’ll be switching to the plural now as she comes into the picture.

At the highest level, the most popular reason on both sides was simply about the importance of gender-focused events: 55% of non-attendees said they were not interested in gender-focused events, while 41% of attendees said that focusing on gender is important to supporting women. We should take that finding with a grain of salt, however, because of cognitive dissonance. Because our beliefs change to line up with our actions, non-attendees may simply say it isn’t important because they didn’t go (rather than not going because it isn’t important) and vice versa for attendees. So importance is…well, important! But it isn’t the end of the story.

Many of the other general findings are fairly obvious. Younger men are more likely to have attended a gender-focused event and more likely to acknowledge the existence of sexism. Having at least one daughter was associated both with acknowledgement of sexism and attendance, as was being employed.

But we can’t change age or employment or having daughters. So let’s look at the reasons for attendance or non-attendance that we do have more control over. And let’s start with some complexity. There was a significant difference in the number of reasons that attendees and non-attendees selected to explain their behavior: 40% of attendees selected more than one reason, while only 15% of non-attendees did.

Digging deeper, men who didn’t attend generally fell into one of two fairly distinct groups: those who would go in the right circumstances (36%) and those who wouldn’t (64%). Those are roughly equal to proportions found in Matt’s previous work on acknowledgement of sexism in the workplace: around 2 in 5 men acknowledged at least general sexism, while around 3 in 5 men denied it.

Men who did attend cited a much broader range of reasons, usually including either that they believed attending would personally benefit them or was important to supporting women (what Matt would call promoting pressures) plus at least one form of acknowledgement that men were welcomed (what Matt would call the removal of inhibiting pressure) like being specifically invited, having male speakers, or a session description that specifically mentioned men.

Given that 36% of non-attendees cited inhibiting, rather than promoting, pressures as the reason for not attending, one potential interpretation of these results is that we could substantially increase male attendance at gender-focused events by creating the right circumstances.

So how do we remove the inhibiting pressures? Well, there are two things that about 20% of attendees cited as being important: having at least one male speaker and having the session description mention being open to men. Interestingly, very few non-attendees cited the lack male speakers or direct fears like being disruptive to women or saying/doing the wrong thing. But some noted that it conflicted with other events they wanted to attend, so there is a third potential recommendation: make sure gender-focused events are uncontested on the main stage.

All of those interventions, however, are in the control of conference organizers. Fortunately, the most powerful intervention, cited by large number of both attendees and non-attendees, is something each and every one of us has the power to do. It costs nothing and means everything: the simple act of invitation.
40% of attendees cited an explicit invitation from a man or woman, while 16% of non-attendees specifically said they didn’t feel invited. In a survey of this nature, those are large numbers, especially for such a seemingly trivial intervention.

Maybe a tool is needed, a simple one page site like SalaryOrEquity.com that makes it easier to invite a man to a gender-focused event. Or perhaps an email template is enough. Maybe just this pure look at the data will do it. There is certainly more work to be done on what gets people to take that first step and start inviting.
What we do know is that helping men show up and be affected by the content of gender-focused events is critical to shifting the work of dismantling sexism to men. And that introductions are a powerful part of that. Matt would never have attended his first Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing if it weren’t for Betsy Aoki telling him he should go. Rhapsodi clearly felt the turning point with a man in her own life when she started involving him more in her feminism. Personal experience and the data seem to converge: now is the time for invitation.

Side Note: These are just surveys. What we really need are experiments. We need to send half of the men attending a conference a personal invitation to attend the gender-focused session and see if they are more likely to attend than the half that don’t get an invite. We need to know the male attendance of talks with and without a man on stage, with and without men in the session description. And that all starts with tracking the gender of attendees. Without those gender attendance numbers, we cannot know how well we are doing and how far we have left to go.