Current Gender Equality paradigms don’t reach men in the way they should – and could

A current survey of almost 1,500 men, conducted by the JUMP, found low engagement levels in gender diversity and even resistance from one third of respondents. The finding becomes more alarming when factoring in that the survey audience consisted of a more-than-averagely interested group of men and those completing the questionnaire were at least inclined to do so. 

According to an article by JUMP founder Isabella Lenarduzzi, the survey “Do men want equality in the workplace?” found that 78% of men believe that they will benefit from more gender equality in the workplace. However, half of the respondents indicated they were not actively engaged. This may, of course, have different reasons, including lack of opportunity or peer pressure or other reasons. One third of respondents answered that they were against gender equality – which must include at least of few of those 78% saying they would benefit from it. Again, we should ask ourselves – as Diversity practitioners – where the resistance comes from and what the overall number of opponents might be, assuming that it will be more pronounced among men outside of the JUMP outreach or those responding to the survey.

No one should be surprised about male resistance

Over more than 15 years of Diversity evolution, many Diversity practitioners saw various eras. At the end of the 2000s, a lot of excitement and robust strategy-building happened, with Diversity getting explicitly integrated in Corporate values, business models or leadership frameworks. With the start of the political discussion about quota for women on boards, the climate quickly changed and so far has not recovered to the level where it was pre-quota. The quota discussion itself was conducted in an ideological way and with strong assumptions that it was the women’s right to get at least X % of certain jobs. To this end, a dialogue with men was difficult – and not wanted for the most part. Some main arguments for the quota included the assumed lack of progress in earlier years and the belief that a quota would create the desired momentum. It was possible to prove that these and other assumptions were at least incomplete if not incorrect. But the expert input was not sought out in the political discussion and it was misplaced in an ideological discourse. Today, a quota for women on boards serves as a presumed objective, suggesting it was the actual goal. But in a business environment, representation numbers should be seen as indicators for success. And success would be described by engagement levels, customer satisfaction, innovation capacity or employer image. To this end, the women quota has been a misunderstanding or a matter of miscommunication. Examples of Diversity storylines that position gender and related targets in a business paradigm show that acceptance and support from male stakeholders can be in excess of 80%.

Men are critical stakeholders in Gender & Diversity

When talking to male leaders, D&I practitioners sometimes wonder about the vast variety of perceptions, attitudes and behaviours they find. One aspect, though, can be found in almost every case: The influence of the personal situation. A study by King’s College already pointed to the relevance of a personal touch when CEOs are concerned about gender equality. Also the JUMP survey shows a certain tendency:

Those men generally in favour of more gender equality were more likely to be approaching the end of their careers, or they had at least one daughter or a partner who is also working.

Those men more ‘against’ were more likely to be in their 30s, or they had no children (or only boys) or a partner who did not work or who earned significantly less than they.

These results confirm that Gender & Diversity needs to be designed and communicated in a way that (the majority of) men can relate to the idea and see reasons to get engaged – even if their personal environment does not provide an immediate impetus.

What is in it for men?

As a majority of men told in the JUMP survey that they think they will benefit from more gender diversity at work, the question is which benefit they assume. The survey found slightly different results by levels.

While employees and middle managers expect equal access to work-life balance and a decrease of male stereotyping, senior managers emphasised higher productivity and better business results. Both groups expect to be perceived as more ‘modern’ through more gender equality. “The fact that men often don’t see how Diversity can support them in their immediate job priorities provides a clear hint as to where to steer the discussion,” Diversity expert, Michael Stuber, comments from his work with mostly male executives and managers. He knows that neither the external business case regarding employer or public image nor the high level business case regarding business performance or stock price provide compelling reasons for individual managers to get engaged. “We need to clear the air by addressing the white elephants in the room and then explore the field and connect the dots,” he describes some main steps pointing to the need for open dialogues, multi-dimensional analysis and comprehensive action plans that tie in with existing leadership tools.

And how much Gender Bias is involved?

Compared to other surveys, the JUMP sample reported lower gender bias levels: 20% of the respondents thought that women were less ambitious than men and 13% didn’t feel that women have the right leadership skills. Almost one in four admitted to have made sexist remarks at some point in time. The breadth and depth of gender bias in the workplace at large is more significant than those number – and it is currently addressed by workshops and at events.

The more worrying biases are illustrated by the result of the JUMP survey saying that men believed that the company they work for is already inclusive for women and that both genders are treated equally and fairly. The fact that they are unable to see discrepancies or gaps – despite the fact that they might well be reading JUMP’s newsletters – shows a strong need to bring up the different forms of Unconscious Bias that create dynamics that are largely invisible. Some of those biases lead men to instantly think about work-life balance or coaching when being asked about gender equality approaches.

What does it all mean?

The JUMP survey confirms that D&I practitioners are faced with concrete resistance from men that correlates to some extend with their personal background while it is fostered by unfortunate political communication (quota etc.). In order to provide relevant access, D&I needs to be positioned in relation to their specific business priorities and challenges (and not just as a general business case). Once the dialogue is established, awareness for the various forms of bias must be raised and finally, practical ways to address them must be offered in order for them to get involved.