What does being a man mean?

WHAT DOES it mean to be male? It's a question that many people would assume is confined to academics and tree-hugging New-Agers rather than the latest course coming to your workplace.

But following the success of workshops designed specifically to help women in business, the Springboard Consultancy has come up with an alternative - for men. Midland Bank, Mazda Cars and Hampshire County Council are among the organisations that have been involved in the Navigator Men's Development Programme.

So why now? Said the Springboard Consultancy's chief executive, Jenny Daisley: "Women acknowledged that they needed the right skills and confidence to compete with men in the workplace a long time ago, and men are finally reaching a similar conclusion - not that they need to compete against other men but that they need to be able to cope in a similarly unstable environment."

After all, she explains, men have been traditionally reared to believe they would have jobs for life. "But now things are changing all around us and people need to be more flexible, be more balanced, take the initiative and be good at team working. These are skills many women have learned by necessity but that many men have not. That's what we're trying to amend."

Dianah Worman, equality adviser at the Institute of Personnel and Development, adds that men in the workplace are increasingly expected to use soft or "feminine" skills such as dealing with people, being empathetic, being organised, multi-skilling and using the right body language. Yet they are often given no guidance - another factor that the Navigator programme attempts to correct. Worman also claims the course assists in teaching today's men "that it's OK - even preferable - to balance work and family life in the way that many women do because it makes employees both more productive and content in the long-run."

This is one of the reasons why Navigator - which is run in four full- day sessions spread over three months - encourages participants to consider what it means to be a man both at home and at work.

James Traeger, co-developer and author of the programme, claims that even the issues incorporated on the course that are not gender specific - such as taking risks and creating networks - are best addressed in single sex groups. "Over 90 per cent of the course participants claim that it worked for them because there were no women present."

David Elphick, a 29-year-old engineer at Mazda who recently completed the course, agrees. "Men don't tend to talk about feelings at work but during this course, we all really opened up about what we wanted to develop,change or aim for."

For some participants, the increasing number of women in the workplace is something they find they have strong feelings about. Coupled with the fact that a large number of companies are currently downsizing, it can be easy for men to blame the ensuing insecurities on these women. The course attempts to put such scape-goating into perspective.

But Dr John Kramer, reader in psychology at Queen's University in Belfast, says it could have a converse effect. "By excluding women from these courses, the problems could in fact be exacerbated."

Another potential difficulty for the success of the course is, he says, that it is probably the men who are more open who will be most likely to sign up whereas "in reality, it's the macho types who need the course most of all".

The Springboard Consultancy can be contacted on 01453 878540