Manbassadors’ Bold Idea: Create a B-school Movement

Patrick Ford & Mike Matheson, both MBA 17, have created a suite of programming for male MBA students on gender equity.

With the nation’s ultimate leadership glass ceiling still unbroken and women still the minority at top MBA programs, gender equity is top-of-mind for many aspiring female executives. But a group of men at Berkeley-Haas is working to ensure that it’s also high on the consciousness of male leaders.

The Haas “manbassadors,” led by two 2nd-year students through the Women in Leadership Club (WIL), have involved about a third of full-time MBA men in programming that not only encourages men to engage in club events but creates opportunities for self-education and personal growth around gender equity at Haas and beyond.

Their work has been so successful that a faculty member is using their materials in her corporate consulting work; the WIL is framing this year’s conference on the theme of dialogue between men and women; and the manbassador leaders are reaching out to ally groups at other b-schools to find ways to collaborate.

“This has really become a conversation throughout our campus, and hopefully this will become a movement at business schools across the country,” said Mike Matheson, MBA 17 (above left), who co-leads the manbassador program with Patrick Ford, also MBA 17 (above right).

Their argument is simple: “For real change, men need to be at least 50 percent of the conversation on gender equity,” says Patrick Ford, MBA 17, VP of manbassadors for WIL. “Business school is a time for self-reflection and developing our leadership skills, so this is the perfect time for this work.”

The program—which first started about three years ago—has two main goals, Ford says: “Getting individual men to educate themselves to become more aware of the reality of unconscious gender discrimination and of their own behavior, and bringing that awareness into the workplace to create a level playing field.”

Reclaiming a much-maligned word: Haas men have been buying t-shirts declaring “This is what a feminist looks like,” spearheaded by Women in Leadership Club VP of Membership Irene Kang (not pictured).

One of the reasons the effort has caught on is that Ford and Matheson built it on personal relationships and voluntary participation, and developed programming and materials to support it. A natural connector who also serves as VP of communications for the Haas MBA Association, Ford began last spring by asking individual male students to sign up for a “weekly 5 sentences” email he developed.

The email includes a vocabulary word related to gender dynamics—terms that have moved into common parlance such as “mansplaining” and “implicit bias,” and less-well known concepts such as “office housework,” defined as administrative tasks that help but don’t pay off professionally (and which are disproportionately taken on by women), such as taking notes, cleaning up after meetings, or planning social events. It includes an example of someone’s experience at Haas or at work; a fact; and a way to take action.

“I think everyone I asked said yes, they’d sign up for it,” Ford said. “Probably a lot of it at first was because they knew me.”

Ford and Matheson also started asking men if they’d like to sign up to become manbassadors, by filling out survey that allows them to choose from a range of voluntary commitments. They run the gamut from simply “listening to women actively and with an open mind” or “observing in-class behavior as it relates to gender,” to attending a gender-related event, sharing something they’ve learned with other men, or taking a leadership role. So far, more than 90 men out of about 300 in the full-time program have signed up.

Ford also wrote guide called “Tips for Men at Haas From Other Men at Haas,” which points out “common situations we see around Haas and the unintentional behavior patterns that we believe most men share. Even men who have been working on this for years still don’t do things perfectly. We’re not singling anyone out—we think almost every man (and almost every woman too) could benefit from thinking about this stuff, the authors of this guide included.”

One popular activity that Ford and Matheson created is a regular event called “Guy Talk,” based off a McKinsey model and billed as a “nonjudgmental space for men to learn, share ideas, and ask questions.”

Irene Kang, MBA 17, said she recently attended a Guy Talk session that included four women and four men. Following a “fishbowl” format, the women sat in the middle of a circle and had an informal discussion about personal safety and sexual harassment while the men listened and then asked questions. All the women had experienced sexual harassment in some form in their work or personal lives.

“They were speechless. They had thought of sexual harassment as something that only happened on occasion,” Kang said. “One guy said, ‘these are things that I never think about.’ I wish everyone could have these kinds of conversations.”

Erin Robinson, MBA 17 and co-president of WIL (along with Farah Dilber, MBA 17), said that while it’s important for women to have a forum to talk with other women about personal and professional challenges, “Women in Leadership discussions with only women can become an echo chamber.”

“For women to be empowered, men have to understand and empathize with women’s everyday life, and adjust their behavior or address their implicit biases,” she said. Robinson also noted that gender is increasingly discussed on a spectrum, and “we hope to involve transgender men and women more in the conversation.”

Matheson with WIL Conference Co-chairs Chiaki Nakajima (left) and Shipra Agarwal

To further break down barriers, WIL Conference Co-Chairs Chiaki Nakajima and Shipra Agarwal, both MBA 17, chose “The Power of Us” as this year’s conference theme—with “us” referring to everyone. “We felt strongly that the it’s time to involve both men and women in the conversation about women in leadership.” Nakajima said. The group plans to launch a manbassador program for alumni at the conference, and also “support sponsor companies to work toward gender equity by sharing Haas’s materials, research, and approach,” she said.

Assoc. Adj. Prof. Kellie McElhaney has already done so with her corporate consulting clients.

“It’s brilliant, what they’ve created,” said McElhaney, who teaches The Business Case for Investing in Women and has worked closely with students on gender equity efforts at Haas. “It’s comprehensive, it’s accessible. I’ve put the manbassador materials into a package that I use in my corporate work.”

The manbassadors are also using the program to support the Haas Gender Equity Initiative—a student-driven, research-and-action based effort to improve the program climate and increase the proportion of women in the program (which now stands at 40 percent). First-year student Khalid Alali recalled his surprise at hearing a man stand up at a Days at Haas admissions event last year and declare he was a feminist.

“I was shocked to hear a man confidently make this declaration in front of a room full of over 100 prospective students,” wrote Khalid, a native of Saudi Arabia, in a recent blog post. “His declaration showed me that Haas is an environment where men feel confident in supporting feminism.”

Now, Alali wrote, he counts himself among the manbassadors, and proudly calls himself a feminist too.