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Why male middle managers are the key to equality in the workplace

Posted on from Cranfield University School of Management

In recent decades, diversity and inclusion and specifically gender parity have become a central feature of the business agenda with organisations putting systems and structures in place to improve gender equality.

My previous research shows CEOs understand the importance of gender parity, however women’s progress in organisations continues to be extremely slow. Which leads us to the question - what role should the 70 per cent of men in middle management positions play in creating fair and equal workplaces?

Given the high numbers of men in management it is pivotal that they understand how important they are in making the changes that are needed to create and sustain gender equality. My study, Linchpin – Men Middle Managers and Gender Inclusive Leadership, looks at how men can become gender inclusive leaders. Very often male
middle managers are not even aware that they may be holding women back. I often hear women say that they experience a level of discomfort, commonly expressed as “not fitting in”, being ignored in meetings or not being offered responsibilities that will stretch them. 

Valuable Research

At the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders, we understand that in order to gather research evidence on women, we need to take into account men. Studying gender parity purely as a women’s issue, whether it is a lack of women role models or gender specific behaviours, is missing the point. We need to understand how men and women interact and those practices are often deep rooted and unconscious.

It is the everyday experiences of women in the workplace that is chiselling away at their self-confidence and their motivation. This ranges from not being given the credit for their contribution, to being sidelined at meetings. Male middle managers have a big role to play in encouraging women to take on assignments that can advance their careers.

As part of my study I shadowed three male middle managers who were singled out as being gender inclusive leaders. It was actually a significant  challenge to find men who do gender inclusion well and many organisations struggled to find any gender inclusive middle managers. The three managers selected were based in Austria, England and Germany and worked in different sectors. The study was a classic ethnographic one where I was with them from the moment they arrived at work until they left at the end of the day.

Even though these managers were good at gender inclusion, I was surprised that even over a short period of time, gender discrimination began to creep in, such as, in one instance, with a woman not being given the floor at a meeting. What was of interest to me was to explore what happened next with one of the managers noticing that a woman has been overlooked in a meeting situation and making sure that she got to speak. 

More Men

So what lessons can we take away from this study? I believe we need more male role models for gender inclusive leadership. The managers I observed were very good at putting themselves in other people’s shoes. They had the ability to empathise with others and they were able to reflect on their own practice.

The men in my study were very mindful and they had the ability to consider the consequences of their actions and reflect on what they would do differently, which is an important part of inclusive leadership.

I believe that men in management positions can and must start incorporating gender inclusive practices into their daily work. Many men are keen to do so, not only because many organisations incorporate such practices into personal appraisals, but also because they are insecure when it comes to women. They raise questions like “how can I network with or offer advice to women without this being seen as inappropriate?” By using real examples in the form of stories my report provides guidance on how men can be gender inclusive leaders.

It is about empowering men to think about what they are doing and to do things differently. I’ve learned from my observations, good leaders are receptive to others. They don’t presume to know everything. 

Cranfield University School of Management

Cranfield University School of Management

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