When it comes to gender equality policies there is one thing missing: men. That was the conclusion of Giorgio Siracusa, head of HR at Procter & Gamble Europe, the consumer goods company which recently hit the headlines for its “toxic masculinity” campaign.
Typically, he says, when you “talk about gender, you talk about women, when you talk about race we talk about non-whites”.
The company partnered with Catalyst, a non-profit organisation that advocates gender equality in the workplace, and put 1,000 leaders (60 per cent male) through its Marc programme (men advocating real change). Mr Siracusa says it helps “men understand the powerful role they can play in levelling the playing field”.
While many companies have instituted women’s groups and launched training programmes aimed at women’s advancement — and these can be valuable — they can also make women feel that the problem is theirs alone to solve. Men may feel left out and resentful, particularly those who do not feel they benefit from any particular male privilege.
And men’s involvement in equality programmes makes a difference. Research by Boston Consulting Group found that in companies where men play a role in gender equality policies, 96 per cent report progress, compared with 30 per cent where they do not.
A recent report on the UK workplace from Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, identified seven ways in which women’s career progression can be hampered by corporate culture. These included women being judged more harshly than men when behaving in the same way, different evaluations due to stereotypes and male-dominated informal networks, and women being interrupted or ignored in meetings.
Jill Armstrong, the report’s author, says: “If you frame it as men coming to the rescue, then it annoys women. If you blame men and talk about toxic masculinity then it upsets men. You need to get us all to work together.”
Men as allies
One common corporate strategy is to create ally programmes in which men advocate for women. The implementation, however, can often be “hokey” says Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California. These include, for example, a “breakfast of champions” where men are given badges to “show what good guys they are”.
Men have to be humble when assuming ally roles, says Chuck Shelton, chief executive of Greatheart Consulting in Seattle, which advises on corporate diversity programmes. Men cannot just be self-appointed allies, he says, they have to be seen by women as allies.
This is not without risk. A 2018 article in the Harvard Business Review outlined the ways in which male allies might be penalised, and judged to be low on confidence, ambition, competitiveness and competence. The authors also describe the pedestal effect “in which men are given special treatment and shout outs for even small acts of gender equality.”
Being an advocate means not being defensive, says Mr Shelton. “It’s acknowledging you are not perfect, it’s not easy stuff, it’s to do with ego.”
Leading from the top
Many diversity initiatives demand that senior leaders model behaviour such as conspicuously leaving the office early to have dinner with their children, thereby giving permission to those further down the corporate ladder to do the same. Yet this does not necessarily happen.
Prof Williams describes a “perma-freeze in the middle”. She says: “Companies have discovered it’s very easy to have fervent declarations of love for diversity and inclusion from the CEO but nothing much changes after that . . . If you have a problem, it’s because subtle bias is [operating] throughout the business, so you need to change the business.”
A report by EY, the professional services firm, found 35 per cent of respondents believed a focus on diversity at work has meant white men are overlooked, including from promotion and mentoring programmes.
Gender equality efforts can be perceived as “threatening” to men, says Elisabeth Kelan, professor of leadership and organisation at Essex Business School. They might feel they are being told off, others might feel their own life choices are devalued. “Men might also complain about their lack of career opportunities . . . that they will not be able to advance their career because the organisation will only promote women. The perception is often that women are promoted regardless of merit and qualified men are left behind in spite of much evidence [to the contrary].”
Research on gender equality, says Charlotte Holgersson, associate professor of the division of organisation and management at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, shows that there can be “resistance from men on middle manager level to gender equality efforts”.
This might be linked to both the conviction that there are no gender-equality problems or that the fault lies with women’s choices or competence.
One key barrier, says Prof Holgersson, is that policies are typically in addition to day jobs. “Some male managers I have interviewed have expressed frustration over lack of support to achieve this, both in terms of knowledge and resources. The result is that such initiatives are not valued.” Prof Kelan says that even when they are willing, many male middle managers do not know how to make a difference.
If a company prioritises equality, they will make it part of performance evaluation, she says. “This means if you do gender equality well, this will contribute to your bonus or a promotion.”
The principal problem says Pooja Sachdev, co-author of Rewire: A radical approach to tackling diversity and difference, is not overt hostility but a lack of engagement. She says diversity programmes need to engage and inspire everyone rather than “fix the problem” (women). So that diversity and inclusion “is not scary but interesting”.
By talking about gender in relation to other biases, says Prof Williams, makes men see that they might be subject to other biases such as class, or race. She says: “If you talk about it that way then you’re not saying ‘Hey guys let’s do something for women’. You are saying that if we fix this it might help you.
“In my experience — some of the men who are most resentful of gender bias training are men who feel discriminated by class. They get angry when they hear that white men have all the privilege, as they are white men who don’t have all the privilege.”
Prof Williams has created a tool called “bias interrupters”, which encourages managers to tweak business systems such as hiring, performance evaluations and promotions to correct discrimination at work.
For example, in performance reviews managers should give evidence to explain their rating, and ensure all — or no — employees are scored on likeability or modesty. The tool also recommends not using terms such as “culture fit” unless this can be explained with evidence.
Sponsorship might be another way of engaging men in diversity programmes. Pooja Jain-Link, executive vice-president at the Center for Talent Innovation, points to the transactional nature of such relationships, where the person who is being sponsored does a project for the sponsor. While mentors act without expectations, “sponsors are expecting good returns on their investment”.
However, she points to the need to track the outcomes, such as the person being sponsored having been promoted, received a pay rise or taken on extra responsibilities. “If you’re not tracking that success, how do you know what works?”