What’s a manbassador? Graduating MBA student shows the way

Patrick Ford, who graduates from UC Berkeley today with an MBA, is a standout at the Haas School of Business. So are the Haas Manbassadors — about 100 male MBA students dedicated to fighting gender inequity as students and future workforce leaders. At the ceremony, Ford will receive a “Question the Status Quo” award from Dean Richard Lyons for the work he did co-leading the group, part of the school’s Women in Leadership Club, from 2015-17.

Berkeley News recently talked with Ford about the origin of his mission, “Guy Talk” and other manbassador activities at Berkeley-Haas and his post-graduation plans.

Patrick Ford has played a key leadership role in the Haas Manbassadors since 2015. He graduates today with an MBA. (Photo by Jim Block)

What is a manbassador, and where did the name and idea come from?

Manbassador is a more memorable name for the universal term “male ally.” A male ally is a man who works to end gender discrimination by supporting and being an advocate for women.

I started noticing and caring about gender equity as an undergrad. Some female colleagues pointed out that I tended to dominate conversations and speak over them. I felt pretty defensive at first: Why do I have to change? Why can’t they just be more like me? But I came to realize that my unconscious bias and actions can unintentionally disempower people, and that making space for other voices beyond my own results in better ideas and happier colleagues.

When starting at the MBA program at Haas in fall 2015, I knew I wanted to work on gender issues. Women are still underrepresented at top MBA programs and make up about 40 percent of the full-time program at Haas. I reached out to the Haas MBA Women in Leadership Club. The current co-presidents wanted to build an active male ally program, and together we created the initiative. My classmate Mike Matheson was also instrumental in all of this.

What does a manbassador do?

Ford chats with classmate Irene Ibidapo after a presentation last spring by the Race Inclusion Initiative, a student-led effort to understand and improve the MBA program for underrepresented minority students. Both were involved in the work. (Photo by Jim Block)

We built the program based on personal connections — basically, we asked people if they’d like to join. We asked male classmates to fill out our manbassador commitment pledge and check boxes for each commitment they’re willing to make. Some manbassadors commit to tallying up in one or two classes the number of men and the number of women who speak in classroom or group setting, and others share with one or two other men each month something they’re learning about gender issues. Manbassadors get regular email reminders about their commitments and complete self-evaluation forms on how they’re doing. The most committed members plan events, write short educational emails and evaluate and improve the program as a whole.

One manbassador committed to “consciously check my thoughts and actions as I work with and lead gender-diverse teams.” He told me that after he accepted a job offer and participated in a “Welcome to the Firm” weekend, he noticed that only one woman was joining his eight-person start class. He actively raised this point with his peers and the human resources recruiting leader who organized the event.

This semester, another manbassador asked a guest lecturer, who was a venture capital partner, how he intends to recruit for diversity if he says he’s using his “gut instinct” to choose his staff and startups — given that people are naturally biased toward others who look and act like them.

Manbassadors have also had private conversations with male professors when women in class have concerns about potentially sexist materials but don’t want to face a really awkward situation with someone they may later need for one-on-one tutoring sessions.

How do you account for the popularity of the group, with a third of the male MBA students signing on?

Ford and Mike Matheson met as MBA students and partnered on gender equity issues at Berkeley-Haas. (Photo by Jim Block)

I don’t think any men getting their MBAs at Berkeley-Haas believe sexism is acceptable. The learning edge for me and my fellow male classmates has to do with better understanding our own unconscious biases, and how those play out in personal and professional settings.

There’s a growing awareness of how significantly unconscious bias affects our behavior  — even men with good intentions can have a negative impact. Many men are drawn toward wanting to better support their female friends, girlfriends, wives and daughters when they’re no longer blind to how women often have to deal with unfair situations. They are looking for tools, and the aim of the manbassador program is to provide them.

You’ve come up with a weekly “five sentences” email on gender equity. What was behind that idea, where does the content come from?

Few people have time to read a long newsletter, blog post or article — but they will read a 30-second email. The idea is to provide digestible information about gender equity — weekly nudges that help readers understand it better. The email includes a vocabulary term to ponder, an anecdote from a current female student, facts, suggestions for action and links to research on unconscious bias.

For example, a few recent vocabulary terms highlighted and defined in “five sentences” were “double standard” and “office housework.” A double standard for women is the expectation that they’ll act in ways not typically asked of men. “Office housework” is administrative tasks that help out but don’t pay off professionally, such as taking notes, cleaning up after meetings and planning social events.

Ford says that “making space for other voices besides my own results in better ideas and happier colleagues.” (Photo by Jim Block)

A woman shared this anecdote about a workplace double standard: “My manager told me that a close work friendship with a male colleague was discrediting me, because people perceived the relationship to be flirtatious — yet nobody told my male colleague they thought our relationship was discrediting him.”

Here’s another about office housework: “At Haas, I have to actively stop myself from volunteering for extra roles that I don’t enjoy and that can be low status. As a woman, I feel that there is a strong expectation for me to be perceived as helpful.”

How do your monthly “Guy Talk” sessions work?

Guy Talk sessions are in-person discussions that provide structured time for guys to learn more about women’s experiences and to engage in conversations about gender equity. We aspire to create a nonjudgmental atmosphere so men can ask questions and have conversations we normally wouldn’t (out of fear of embarrassment or saying the wrong thing).

We held one lunch session where the guys interviewed women about their experiences as women. I had provided “Interview a Woman” handouts with 25 or so questions men could choose from. This might seem simple, but how often do men take the time to directly ask women about their experiences?

We had another session where we formed a “fishbowl” in which a group of five women shared their experiences with each other — personally, professionally and at Haas — while men listened in, without talking. After 40 minutes of this, we had a group conversation about different issues that came up.

Patrick Ford and Mike Matheson stand with 2017 Women in Leadership Conference co-chairs Shipra Agarwal (left) and Chiaki Nakajima. They worked together on the theme of the recent Berkeley-Haas conference, Power of Us, which focused on men and women working together to advance women in the workplace. (Photo by Jim Block)

Are you noticing encouraging results among your fellow male MBAs? What do female MBAs say about the manbassadors?

I’ve had many men tell me how much they love the program. A friend said the other day that a classmate considers the manbassador program a favorite part of his entire MBA experience. A female classmate said she was was stunned and happy to hear a male classmate bring up the topic of unconscious bias while they were hanging out. At an end-of-year presentation by the Haas Gender Equity Initiative — a group that works to increase the representation of women and improve the culture for women in the MBA program — one woman said the manbassadors have been a bright spot, and that she appreciates it when men speak up as advocates for women in class.

I’ve also heard from some men that it’s still really hard for them to engage in dialogue around gender equity for fear of saying the wrong thing and being attacked for it. I think this is a national, if not a global, phenomenon and something we’re looking into how to address constructively, moving forward in our Haas MBA community.

I’ve also been surprised by the impact the program has had on some female classmates. One wrote, “For me, the existence of our manbassadors program was significant because gender dynamics are not just seen as a ‘woman’s problem,’ but as an issue both men and women need to address together.”

Another said, “The program has raised my expectations for men in the workforce and pushed me to think of gender as something everyone should be talking about, not just a conversation to have with female friends.”

Ford says he and his fellow male classmates became manbassadors to “better understand our own unconscious biases, and how those play out in personal and professional settings.” (Photo by Jim Block)

What’s next for the Haas manbassadors? Will someone be taking over the leadership?

Leadership of the manbassadors changes every fall, so I’ve already handed things off to MBA students Emily Gordon and Mark Angel. It was their idea to have to have the role shared between a man and a woman, which I think is brilliant. They’re already improving the program, and we’re continuing to work together to make it even better.

What’s your goal now, as you graduate and head into the workforce?

In addition to the nonprofit consulting and executive coaching I’ve been doing the past few years, I’m starting an initiative to help business schools collaborate on their own manbassador programs. This network of manbassadors would grow past business schools and into the workplace as students graduate.

I recently launched a website for men to pledge their commitment to male allyship and to begin finding men interested in this cause. It’s already gathered hundreds of signatures at most of the top business schools. I’ve also been collaborating with many dedicated folks across other top business schools on educational materials and ideas for the future, and I’ve written a guide for outgoing MBA men on how to continue being advocates for gender equity at work and at home.

Almost all the top U.S. business schools have a manbassador program (though not all of them call it that) in some stage of development. All these programs could be much stronger if we share resources and best practices, collaborate on a unified strategy and have a plan to engage our committed members once they graduate. Graduating manbassadors from all these top schools — many graduates will be going into high-level roles at Fortune 500s and a wide range of enterprises around the world — can have a huge impact where they work. The network I hope to establish will not only be extremely useful for sharing best practices, but also to start this kind of initiative within the workplace.