Soon after he started at Harvard Business School, Alex Tuininga signed a pledge. It calls for men to be part of the conversation around gender equality and “take meaningful action against gender bias, discrimination and violence against women.”
“These are issues that affect my personal life,” said Tuininga, who is 35 years old. “I’m the son of a single mother. These are conversations I’m having with my wife about how we should plan our careers and children.”
Tuininga got a red t-shirt and a title: manbassador.
“This isn’t about saying the right thing all the time,” said Tuininga. “This about being part of the conversation.”
It may sound like a sign of the times, but manbassadors came before the current Me Too movement. A couple of male students started the effort five years ago, when Harvard Business School faced its own gender reckoning. A 2013 New York Times article describes a campus where men dominate classroom discussions, openly rank women on appearance and end up with better grades.
“I think there was just a lot of general malaise and lack of understanding about how all those bad activities can drive frustration for women,” said Elissa Sangster of the Forte Foundation, which promotes gender equity on business school campuses.
“I think it was important for men to step forward and say, ‘Hey, we don’t think that women should have to defend themselves on this issue,’” said Sangster. “They just said, ‘I’ve seen this, I’ve witnessed this, and I’m going to do something about this.’”
With help from the Forte Foundation, the manbassador program spread. It’s now on 25 business school campuses. About half of Harvard’s incoming male MBA students took the manbassador pledge last fall. The school itself has also worked to improve gender dynamics, including boosting female enrollment to 42 percent.
Then came Me Too.
“I think the big question that was being asked on campus,” said first year MBA student Emily Heaton, “was how does this actually impact American businesses and corporations?”
She wanted to move the conversation beyond the headline grabbing behavior associated with Harvey Weinstein to the impact of more subtle workplace dynamics. In an article for the campus newspaper last fall, she polled nearly 300 female students about a wide range of possible interactions.
No question generated a unanimous response, but most women indicated they’d be uncomfortable if a boss asked them on a date, a male colleague apologized for swearing or used phrases common in some industries, such as ‘let’s not get too pregnant with an idea.’
“This has been a great conversation starter on campus, because this has gotten people talking about, ‘Wait, why is it that you feel offended?’” said Heaton.
Alex Tuininga points to another conversation starter: findings from a group of manbassadors who tracked the amount of time men and women spoke during class.
“[We] found that men on average were speaking 50 percent longer than their female counterparts,” said Tuininga, “and that men were twice as likely to be referenced in a follow-on comment than their female counterparts.”
Tuininga said it’s those kinds of subtleties that have made him, and he hopes his fellow classmates, more aware of how, for instance, having a deep voice might also give a person more authority.
“We are exposed to these ideas and having these conversations much more often than anybody was before us,” said Tuininga, “so I’m optimistic that we’re going to have an impact moving forward.”
It won’t be easy, said Colleen Ammerman of Harvard’s Gender Initiative. She points to years of data that show — even when they’re armed with a Harvard MBA — women still trail their male peers in achieving traditional career outcomes.
“It is important to recognize that change is not inevitable,” said Ammerman. “Change is difficult, and there are lot of things that mitigate against changing the power structure.”
She credits both manbassadors and the Me Too movement for shifting the burden of dealing with gender disparities away from women to the larger society.
“I like to say,” said Ammerman, “it’s not a women’s problem, but a leadership problem.”