Deutsche Bank had a forum on women in business and called it “Men Matter”

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Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
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Deutsche Bank has been holding its annual conference on Women in Business for 20 years and a related forum in Asia for five, but this year executives at the German finance house picked a theme that surprised many of those following the event on social media: they made it about men.

The Women in Asian Business conference, held in Singapore today (Sept. 22), was themed Men Matter.

It sounds counterintuitive, as event co-chair Antonia Cowdry, regional head of human resources for the bank in Asia Pacific, admitted: “It may seem paradoxical for a Women in Business conference to focus on men, but by turning our attention this year to the role they can play in improving gender diversity, we want to reach decision-makers who previously hadn’t considered these issues,” she said in a news release ahead of the conference.

The bank caught some flak on Twitter, where the hashtag #menmatter was picked apart by critics who saw it as heavy-handed:

But Deutsche Bank’s move is, in fact, a shrewd one.

It is already acknowledged that promoting gender equality in the workplace is not only fair, but makes businesses stronger. Many firms—including Deutsche Bank—have policies in place that aim toward that goal.

But they’re not all working. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of the gender consulting firm 20-first, wrote in the Harvard Business Review two years ago that women-only groups, even those with the express purpose of helping women move up the corporate ladder, aren’t succeeding.

“Women’s networks and activities end up as politically savvy deflectors for blame,” where in fact corporate culture at all levels should be assessed, she wrote.

One of Wittenberg-Cox’s solutions: “Get men to lead the charge.” This seems a reasonable bit of advice, especially for firms where there are still far more men in positions of power, with the ability to hire and nurture colleagues of any gender, than there are women positioned to help female colleagues.

Finance is beginning to realize this. HSBC in recent years renamed its women’s network Balance, and included men within it, in an attempt to make the furthering of women’s careers a less siloed effort.

Deutsche Bank’s aim with its conference today was undermined, to some extent, by its messaging. #Menmatter was a clunky moniker, with its unfortunate, though likely inadvertent, echos of the Black Lives Matter movement, which began in the United States to protest police killings of black people. It also appeared to some to put men center stage in a conference about women, and perhaps laid itself open to ridicule with some awkward phrasing:

Mostly, though, this goes to show that the attempt to achieve a point of equity has reached a stage not of sledgehammer policies, but of fine balance and enfranchisement. It’s a step in the right direction. One day a Women in Business conference may itself seem outdated and redundant. Until then, bringing men into these conversations seems a perfectly reasonable strategy.