Creating more gender equitable and inclusive cultures is high on the agenda for many organisations. However there is often a disconnect between existing staff development activities and efforts to create the desired cultures. More explicitly linking individual development to organisational change can make a big difference to the return on investment when developing staff. The ‘bifocal approach’ translates this ideal into reality through clear principles and program design.

Engaging men in gender equality work

The consensus has been growing for some time. Gender equality efforts need to engage much more effectively with men and with leaders. Often these two categories overlap. This is a topic I've written about in earlier blogs back in 2014:  What about the Men? and Men and women as partners for change. In both blogs I pointed to leading edge initiatives and argued that men and women need to partner (moving beyond men as allies and champions) in this work.

I've also written about the gender differences for male and female Executives as leaders of gender change.

In this blog I once again stress why engaging men is so important, and link you to some of the latest reporting and research.. We're talking about it and researching it. But how is it being implemented? Are our organisations sufficiently 'gender mature' to move towards implementing initiatives where men (at all levels) are squarely within the frame? Tim Muirhead and I have been working in this area, using our Partners for Change approach and have found it to be enormously optimistic and rewarding. If you're ready, read on. 

A gender equality narrative focused around women can only take us so far. Initial progress plateaus (Male Champions for Change, 2011), with further progress requiring a ‘whole of organisation’ culture change approach to diversity and inclusion. This next step according to the MCC, requires recognition that gender equality for women and men will only be achieved by engaging with men and women and the roles they play in both the public and private spheres. As Strachan et al. (2016) emphasise in their report Women, Careers and Universities: Where to from here? ‘the male breadwinner model persists, and its prevalence is impeding efforts to reduce gender inequities’.

Engaging men in the organisational context is critical for the following reasons:

  • Men hold proportionately more positions of power and capacity to distribute resources and opportunities, and therefore greater power and capacity to bring about or resist change. 
  • Men’s behavior (competitiveness, male oriented networks, affinity bias etc) can have profound effects on women's careers and success.
  • Gender equality can be seen as a zero sum game where if women gain, men lose – this creates increased misunderstanding and backlash which needs to be addressed.
  • Men have gender too – not all men are advantaged by masculinist norms, and there are disadvantages and costs to conforming to masculine stereotypes, both in and out of the workplace.

I was delighted to see a recent HBR article Deloitte's radical attempt to reframe diversity  set in the US context. The described reliance on Employee Resource Groups (e.g. Women's Networks, GLBTI groups) in the big corporates to drive change is not as typical in the Australian context. However the overly strong focus on the non-dominant group in strategies and interventions still holds true and requires a paradigm shift in thinking.

Author Avivah Wittenberg-Cox described this as Deloitte's turning its approach upside down.

The firm is ending its women’s network and other affinity groups and starting to focus on…men. The central idea: It’ll offer all managers — including the white guys who still dominate leadership — the skills to become more inclusive, then hold them accountable for building more-balanced businesses. 
Leaders need to be part of the conversation and advocate for women. To do so they have to hear the stories and understand what that means.

Wittenberg-Cox argues that affinity groups, for women, GLBTI, and disability for example are appreciated by the people in them, and offer a 'feel good, we are doing something' experience for the organisation, but basically let leaders and the organisation off the hook. 

In my own research I found that leaders' assessment of their organisation's gender progress was strongly flavoured by the presence of successful women's initiatives. Leaders substantially over-estimated progress. I'm not sure I want toss out successful women only initiatives but they cannot stand alone. The risk that women's initiatives are symbolically seen as 'making gender equality women's business' and that they can singlehandedly shoulder much of the required change must be mitigated by strong messaging and a range of strategies including a focus on men and leaders. In women's programs that I design men are  invited to hear women's experiences and become actively engaged in the change process.   However Deloitte's are sending a strong and critically important symbolic message - diversity and inclusion is everyone's business.

A number of additional useful resources to assist with this focus on men have recently become available. Murray Edwards College, a women's college at the University of Cambridge, in their  Collaborating with men research report examined the behaviours and perceptions of men regarding women's workplace experiences. Men, they claim, are the missing ingredient in achieving equality for women in the workplace. Their follow up Collaborating with men: From research to day-to-day practice  focuses on practical strategies for men and organisations to adopt. 

In Australia the Diversity Council Australia (DCA) recently released research by Michael Flood and Graeme Russell,  Men Make a Difference: Engaging men on gender equality .The website provides a quick overview and a tenpoint plan, with links to a synopsis of their report.. Importantly this report reflects on lessons learnt in the Australian context and provides a firm foundation for understanding what is required to move ahead. Michael and Graeme stress that men's engagement be done in active partnership with women.

Moving away from a focus on women, and towards men and women in partnership working for change does require a major change in thinking and focus. And it is the next step. As I've said previously:

This focus on women can not adequately address structural issues and the ways in which men also need to change. A more progressive approach is seeing men and women as partners for change, with men and women doing different but complementary work in building gender equitable workplaces.

For more details on my co-facilitated Partners for Change work with Tim Muirhead see:

If your organisation is ready to take the next step, please get in touch. We'd be delighted to work with you to design and implement a customised approach for your context.