Even though research has shown that there are concrete benefits to hiring and promoting more women into leadership positions, progress remains stilted in corporate America—especially at the top. Only 14 percent of executives at Fortune 500 companies are women. While the number of female board members has been increasing, the number of female executives remains stagnant despite efforts and stated corporate commitments to change the ratio.

Jeffery Tobias Halter thinks that men should help spearhead efforts to change that. Tobias is the former director of diversity strategy at Coca-Cola, but since 2001, he’s been working as a consultant focused on getting men to participate in gender-balancing initiatives. His company, YWomen, has worked with dozens of Fortune 500 companies, including McDonald's, Walmart, GE, Citigroup, and Costo.

Halter describes himself as  a straight white guy. But he argues that white men are exactly the people who need to get involved in diversity efforts. I recently spoke with him about his work, the reports of systematic sexism at Uber, and how diversity initiatives go from lofty promises to an operational strategy. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.


Bourree Lam: How did you get into this type of work?

Jeffery Tobias Halter: I spent 20 years in sales with Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble. I was working in sales training in 1999, when Coca-Cola had a $200 million discrimination lawsuit. Overnight, I was assigned to run diversity education.

I’m a straight white guy. I was wondering what meeting I didn’t go to to be put in charge of running this program at such a contentious time. I heard stories of racism, sexism, and homophobia. I had the white male epiphany, where you realize what privilege is. Then I moved to an advocate role, and I’ve been doing this for 15 years. There are a lot of social issues in this country, and I believe that business is a way to drive significant change.

Lam: Have you been following the sexual harassment story told by one of Uber’s former engineers?

Halter: There are five things that are unprecedented about the Uber discrimination issue. You have a CEO who was completely unaware and came out in the press and said so. That’s so rare for CEOs. Even though in the aftermath he expressed that they are going to correct this, why didn’t he know? There’s a real issue if senior leaders don’t know what’s going on in their organizations on a day-to-day basis. And they need to ask tough questions to find out.

You also have human resources being culpable in the cover-up. That’s very common in many companies, when you have “high potentials” and they’re given free reign. Sadly, most of those “high potentials” are men. You would think, today, companies would have a heightened awareness. You’ve got Silicon Valley, which was put on notice five years ago that their diversity and inclusion numbers are horrible. CEO acuity should be up; HR should be really on top of this and they’re not.

There is also the impact of social media. Susan Fowler is able to publish a blog post and is immediately able to reach millions of people. We have more transparency today than we’ve ever had. The EEOC reports that 70 percent of sexual harassment goes unreported. I think it’s going to go up, because people will go out on social media to make their claims.

Lastly, you have board members who seemed unaware that this was going on. That really raises the bigger question of whether board members are holding senior leadership accountable and asking tough questions about why women numbers in technology have barely moved in the past five years. Most companies are not prepared to have this dialogue, and this is the work I’m doing now.

Lam: Why aren’t companies having that conversation?

Halter: They have no training or expertise. You have maybe 50 companies in the Fortune 500 with progressive, integrated women strategies. They tie executive compensation to meeting strong advancement and retention goals. It links very closely with the fact that men don’t want to do this work, because of the man code.

Lam: Tell me what the man code is.

Halter: First, avoid all things feminine. It’s soft and weak and has no place in business. This aversion is drilled into most boys early on in the playground, and it’s self-reinforcing. It’s an unconscious bias. You have to hold the company ahead of all else. The third thing is being a man’s man, which means keeping the company of other men. Having lunch with your buddies, you have to realize that is very exclusionary to women and minorities and people not in that power circle. So leaders need to be much more aware of this.

There’s the belief that other men are being left behind if men advocate for women. There’s just no truth to that. Even in Catalyst Award [an award that recognizes efforts in advancing women in business]-winning companies with aggressive strategies to promote women, the majority of promotions are still going to men. The data just doesn’t support it.

Lam: Why is it so hard to talk about this? There are other HR issues that used to be difficult—paid leave is a really good example. Cultural changes made it more normal for men in some sectors to take leave.

Halter: It absolutely has to start at the top with vocal leadership, symbolic gesture, and systemic changes. It starts at the top, but it has to be reinforced by progressive HR policies.

There’s a basic fear. Men don’t want to have this conversation, we are so afraid we’ll screw this thing up that it is easier for us not to engage in a conversation about gender and differences. There is limited upside, and only potential downside if it goes poorly. [Men] can have a long healthy career just by not giving honest feedback and keeping [women] in place or advancing [women] slowly. This is why we have to have these conversations. What some people don’t realize is that women don’t want to have these conversations either; they don’t necessarily want to be the flag bearer for all things women.

Lam: I think most women just wished that things were equal.

Halter: They do! Most women just want to be recognized as great engineers, or researchers, or sales people. Neither side really wants to have this conversation, and yet it’s absolutely critical. It takes a very courageous leader to ask that question and initiate these conversations.

You also have to get legal on board for a whole host of reasons. Most corporate legal counsel’s jobs are to provide safety for the company. A great example is pay equity. Every CEO in the country can run a report, and within 10 minutes know by gender and job grade what the pay balance is. Legal counsels might not want you to run that report, because they know what the numbers look like. If you know the numbers, they then become discoverable in a lawsuit. Progressive companies are running that report.

I don't want to be the ‘lawsuits are coming’ guy. I want you to do this because it’s good for business. Clearly, there’s a veiled threat. But what are you losing? Revenue and talent.

Lam: What interventions have you seen in the companies you’ve worked with?

Halter: Best in class for me is putting women into the business planning process. Work through that process to determine an opportunity gap, what resources are needed, etc. Just like any other business initiative planning process, you have a five-year operating plan with real resources, measures, metrics, scorecard, and accountability.

The best interventions are led by senior women who have convinced their CEOs this is a good idea, and we work in unison to make this happen. They will bring me in to talk to the senior leadership team. I’m working with a commercial real estate company ... they came up with 13 root causes that were holding women back. They didn't justify any of them, but they’re picking off these 13 things now. They came back and said it’ll take seven years to reach [their goal].

Lam: How do you convince people to make that leap? People don’t particularly like change.

Halter: The companies that get this either want to initiate a culture change or they’re feeling pain from what they're missing out on. There’s a war for talent. For me, I’m seeing Baby Boomers leaving the workforce, and many are old white men. Women and minorities are entering the workforce, and Millennials as well. Women are getting advanced degrees in greater numbers than men. You can’t talk about women without talking about the intersections of Boomer retirement, education, skilled workforce, minorities, and Millennials.

It’s really two-fold: a lot of facts and data. But this also goes back to bias: [Senior executives] need to know that this isn’t some soft pro-women initiative. They need to know there rigor, metrics, measures tied to it.

Lam: I’ve heard this before, the argument that white men should be diversity officers because their social status allows them to avoid punishment when they  advocate for diversity.

Halter: That’s because of the biases [senior executives] carry and don’t want to acknowledge. As an old white guy, you and I could stand in front of the same leadership team, say the exact same thing, and they’ll think you’re a raging feminist.

Lam: The bigger picture to me is that if male leadership, male CEOs, even male workers have such an aversion to anything “soft and female,” then the changes are only going to be incremental. It’s going to be really slow.

Halter: It’s going to be very slow. We need a sense of urgency around this. If you look at the number of women in the C-suite in Fortune 500 companies, it hasn't changed remarkably in 10 years. None of the leaders I deal with would say advancing women isn’t a top five initiative; the problem is they spend all their waking hours on numbers one to three. The core of my work is to move people from a conceptual understand to an operational strategy. Men are 85 percent of the problem, but we're also 85 percent of the solution. You can’t drive change without men.