What Do Men Really Think About Diversity in the Workplace?

Tina Amirtha meets Sandra Ondraschek-Norris, Director of Catalyst Europe, a non-profit aiming to improve opportunities for women in the workplace, whose MARC initiative encourages male employees to join the diversity and inclusion (D & I) debate.

“If you’re going to cook a rice cake, you have to apply heat from the top and the bottom,” says Sandra Ondraschek-Norris, Director of Catalyst Europe, the European branch of the non-profit organization that aims to improve opportunities for women in the workplace. 

The rice cake metaphor fits the goal of the MARC initiative, an online resource and blog that Catalyst created for member organizations to encourage its male employees to join the diversity and inclusion (D & I) debate in the workplace. Prompts on the MARC website encourage men to share their experiences of being a male professional through writing blog posts.

The issues can be anything from the struggle of being a working dad, to bullying, to the pressures of the expectation of being the breadwinner in the household.

The latest posts have titles like, “Lean In? Listen Up!” and “Fears of Equality”.

The underlying idea of MARC, which came out of Catalyst’s 2009 research on engaging men at its Center for Leadership Effectiveness, is that men need to be key players in the movement towards creating a more level playing field for both men and women in the workplace. Ondraschek-Norris elaborates, “Again, you have to have the heat from the top. I think what’s interesting about MARC is that it can also be heat from the bottom. Because the blogging, the social media, the apps, it can really provide a grassroots energy to engage people who wouldn’t engage, perhaps, in other forms of interaction.”

Twenty-five participants from global Catalyst member companies like Shell, Dow, and Johnson & Johnson came together at Akzo Nobel’s Amsterdam offices on May 28th to discuss how to better engage men in D & I efforts at their organizations through the MARC initiative. Amsterdam was the third session on a tour that will eventually continue to Madrid on June 18th. The round tables are essential for Catalyst to bring its research to organizations. 

Originally from Northern Ireland, where she had been deeply affected by social tensions there, Ondraschek-Norris has become an advocate for D & I with Catalyst. Before working with Catalyst, she worked as a professional psychologist, coach and teacher. Currently, she is a professional artist in Zurich, alongside her work at Catalyst. 

I caught up with her just after Amsterdam’s round table took place, where we talked blogging, leadership, and the failures of mentoring.

TNW: Taking on a cause for equality often stems from one’s experiences. What inspired you to take on Catalyst’s cause?

SO-N: Through my coaching working and my counseling work I was dealing with quite a few individuals who were coming to me, who were dealing with topics like burnout or various issues and teams and communications, and I could see that I could do good work with them on an individual level. But on some level there are systemic issues, there are issues that go beyond the individual. I became more and more interested in working with organizations to influence things from that side. 

I started hearing about this Catalyst research where women were being mentored to death, having all this coaching and mentoring, and they were still not getting the promotions. They are not getting the hot jobs. 

It’s often that the typical corporate work environment seems to be a hostile place or seems to be incompatible with being yourself, being a nonconformist, being different.

This came up in our conversations in Amsterdam, this idea of people being able to be more of themselves at work. I think it’s healthy to have a multi-dimensional approach to things. At Catalyst, we aim to co-create more inclusive workplaces, more diverse workplaces.

TNW: How did you bring Catalyst’s ideas to the round table?

SO-N: We had specifically requested that if female participants were coming, they had to bring a male colleague. We wanted to have a good gender split. They wanted to focus on the research, which was the Engaging Men initiative and the MARC initiative, which is relatively new. Then, we facilitated a discussion. It’s a very open discussion, where we really try to get to the nitty-gritty of what engaging men means and how they’re doing it in their organizations, or how they would like to do it. So it’s an opportunity for an organization for D & I professionals to share ideas, practices, and initiatives, and to hear what their competitors are doing as well. 

TNW: What were the specific D & I issues you spoke about?

SO-N: We have the new generation entering the workforce. What are we hearing from them? They’re tech savvy, they’re mobile, and they have expectations about meaning and fulfillment in the workplace. They expect flexible working. They are very different from 20, 50 years ago, from before Catalyst started. 

Then, we have the women in organizations. What are we hearing from the women? They’re not advancing as they would like, progress is slow. They’re frustrated and so on. 

What are we hearing from the organizations? They have all these initiatives, they have all these measures, but they’re not working, and they don’t know why. They are not meeting their targets, and so on. 

And then I asked, in the end, so what are we hearing from the men? And the first word that came up was, “A little bit threatened!” Threatened, bewildered, confused.

And this goes back into the fears that men have that if women gain they lose. Sometimes, they’re afraid of doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing. The bottom line is, the world is getting more and more complex, and more and more factors are coming into play. 

TNW: What is the idea behind MARC?

SO-N: The idea behind MARC is to provide a safe environment for men to get involved in advocating change because they don’t always feel comfortable doing that with female colleagues. MARC is just one way of doing it. We want more organizations to create MARC groups, to discuss within the organization. I’m confident that there will be a good uptake because it’s a very modern way of approaching these things. 

You know, people enjoy blogging. We’re providing the tools that come out of something like MARC are very popular. That’s the main reason why people join MARC. They want to make change, and they want to advocate change but they need input. But we do emphasize to companies that this is one way of doing it. We thinks it’s timely, we think that it’s fun, we think it’s hip, but you know, each organization needs to find its own way of dealing with these topics depending on where they are in the D & I journey. 

TNW: Is engaging men in the women-in-the-workplace debate new?

SO-N: It’s not new new, but the MARC initiative is obviously a new way of bringing it to people. I do think Catalyst is moving with the times and providing people with really useful guidance and inspiration. What we try to do is provide concrete ways of actions you can take to really get men on board.

It’s astonishing that a lot of people still see engaging men as something new but it’s actually crucial to work with the dominant group and to leverage men as stakeholders in the organizations.

I think this is where Catalyst is providing the thought leadership.

TNW: So are imposing female quotas not part of the discussion anymore? 

SO-N: Well quotas are a part of it for sure. The official catalyst perspective on quotas is that we may not like quotas but we like what they do. We think that quotas are one way of changing the reality if you like. It’s a means to an end. The business case remains important. 

TNW: What is the ideal situation for success? 


I was very surprised at the roundtable. One female leader said, “Success in this area for me would be not having to have this kind of event.” 

But in the end, what we’re looking at is leadership in the 21st century: inclusive leadership skills and the importance of being able to lead in a complex world. To have these key skills, like critical thinking about social groups, to have difficult conversations, emotionally charged conversations, and things like that. Often, this is what the conversation comes back to. It’s about inclusive leadership skills. 

TNW: What can organizations do now to ramp up their D & I efforts?

SO-N: There was very clear agreement in the group that D and I diversity and inclusion needs to be seen needs to be taken as seriously as other parts of the organization. One member said, “We have very clear targets in D & I and if we didn’t have those targets, it would be sending a message that it’s not important.” 

Organizations are going to need to be able to leverage the talent in this very complex world and many of them are realizing that in order to leverage that talent, whether its female talent or diverse populations, they need to do something that they haven’t been doing. In the gender gap space, that is about engaging men. 

Tina Amirtha spends part of her time developing software and the other part writing. Based in the Netherlands, she has covered female affirmative action efforts in Dutch higher education. As a female engineer, she is interested in how women can gain more visibility in male-dominated fields, like STEM. Follow her on Twitter @tinamirtha.

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