12/23/2014 02:53 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About Gender

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On November 7th, I spoke at this year's TEDx Naperville event, one of the original TEDx events and the largest in the Chicago area. The focus of my talk, "The Missing Piece in the Gender Equality Puzzle," is the impact and importance of the role of men in the achievement of gender equality.

Often when we talk about gender equality what we really mean is women's rights, empowerment and opportunities. While these are critical issues that deserve more attention and resources, the conversation usually stops there. What we don't talk about is the role that men can play in enabling greater equality and the benefits that accrue to men as a result.

For far too long this notion has persisted, that the best way to increase rights for women is to focus on women. While not incorrect, this strategy is incomplete. It overlooks the systemic issues that women -- and even men -- face in achieving what they most want. Most of all it ignores the critically important role that men play in creating more equal, inclusive workplaces, communities and societies.

After all, men are the primary decision makers in the vast majority of governing bodies, companies and communities throughout the world. There's only so far we can all go without men's partnership and support.

So what is at stake for men? Like women, men face obstacles and hardships as a result of existing gender norms and identities. Many men are taught to believe that being vulnerable, asking for help, and expressing emotions like fear and sadness are akin to being unmanly. These traditional concepts of masculinity leave many men in a vicious cycle wherein they need to continually prove their manhood. As a result many men feel isolated and unable to share the emotional toll this takes on them.

The impacts on men are grave. According to experts like Michael Kaufman, these gender norms are linked to increased addiction to alcohol and drugs, a higher number of fatalities from workplace accidents, and a greater likelihood of committing suicide than women.

It's clear that both women and men stand to gain from improvements in gender equality.

So how do we close the gender equality gap and reap the individual, organizational and societal rewards available to us? We start talking about it, openly and courageously. Both women and men need to engage in a dialogue that ensures our unique needs, differences and perspectives are taken into account. We need to have a conversation that focuses not on what we don't have, but what we ultimately want and are committed to creating.

In other words, we all have to challenge and change the status quo wherever possible, be it paid maternity and paternity leave, pay equality for women and shifting the stigma around men needing to be the breadwinners, or challenging the notion that it's ok for "boys to be boys" when they are hurting themselves and others in the process. This will broaden the definition of what it means to be a woman, and to be a man, so that there's no limit to what we all can do.