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Gender inclusivity for middle managers

Male middle managers must be encouraged to view gender equality as business-critical

It is a much-lamented issue that there are not enough women in leadership positions. A common approach has been to support women to ensure that they fit into organisations. However, ‘fixing the women’ has not solved the issue. Instead of changing women it is organisational practices that need to change.

The majority of leaders and managers are men and in a numerical majority to effectively progress change in organisations. Male managers are in a central position to influence organisational cultures. With many CEOs making gender parity a priority, middle managers should listen to this call for action and reflect on how they could support gender equality. The hierarchical position of middle managers means that they translate the strategic direction they receive from the top to their immediate environment. HR professionals should guide male middle managers on that journey.

While great strides have been taken to make workplaces more gender equal, gender inequality is perpetuated by many subtle workplace practices. The practices male middle managers can engage in to support gender parity largely centre on such small-scale behaviours. These practices were derived from research that included job shadowing and interviews with male middle managers and their co-workers. They fall broadly into four categories.

Celebrating and encouraging

Celebrating and encouraging women entails male middle managers ensuring that women’s skills are recognised and that women take roles that advance their careers. Men as middle managers can, for instance, praise women in front of others. Equally importantly male middle managers must ensure that women receive credit for the work they have done. Male middle managers might mentor women and have discussions with them about how to interpret promotion requirements. If a male middle manager is responsible for putting together a panel of experts he could make sure that the panel includes a female expert. By encouraging and celebrating women male middle managers can show gender inclusion.

Calling out bias

Many situations at work can potentially harbour gender bias. It is often up to a male middle manager to recognise gender bias and draw it to the attention of others. It can be very powerful if men call out this gender bias.

For instance, if in a recruitment process the preferred candidate is a younger version of the boss it might be useful to point out that identifying with the similar is not the best strategy. It might also become apparent that women are judged differently to male applicants – ever heard that men are assertive whereas women are aggressive? A male middle manager could point out that this is a double standard. If a woman’s contribution in

a meeting is ignored and a man repeats a similar point a bit later and is praised, the manager can draw attention to the fact that the woman has already made that point. Calling out bias does not mean aggressively confronting others but rather being aware of bias and ensuring that it does not influence the situation or decision.

Championing and defending

Many organisations have developed specific initiatives to foster gender parity. However, they are often questioned internally. Male middle managers should support gender initiatives but also ensure that they defend those initiatives to others. When male managers lead gender initiatives they are often belittled and it is presumed that they are not involved voluntarily. Male middle managers should be prepared to justify their commitment to gender parity. Similarly, specific initiatives for gender parity might be questioned within the organisation. It is then the role of male middle managers to create an understanding of why the initiatives are important and valuable, and to provide positive feedback to others who show gender inclusive leadership.

Challenging the working environment

Working practices are often geared towards 24/7 availability. Those kinds of demands are not only often difficult for women but also ill-suited to many men.

Male middle managers can challenge those practices by holding meetings during core working day hours rather than in the morning or late afternoon and evening. They can also make their responsibilities outside of work visible by, for example, pointing out that they cannot attend an early morning meeting because of childcare commitments. Challenging the working environment goes beyond that and includes such deliberate actions as considering how metaphors might resonate more with men than women, and how that can create exclusion. Male middle managers can function as role models for making the work environment more gender-sensitive and gender-inclusive.

Designing HR practices that develop managers as gender-inclusive leaders

HR professionals often think that they need to find female role models to raise women’s aspirations. However, it might be equally important to find male middle managers who are role models for gender inclusive leadership practices. Male middle managers can encourage others to display gender inclusive leadership. HR professionals might also think about rewarding male middle managers who do gender inclusion well through the performance evaluation process.

Gender inclusive male middle managers coach, develop, mentor, sponsor and support the people they manage. They are able to put themselves into the shoes of others and empathise with them. HR professionals can support this by ensuring that middle managers not only become coaches to those they manage but that they coach and develop people who are different from themselves. Another key skill of gender inclusive middle managers is that they are self-reflective. They think about their impact on others and try to improve their own behaviour. HR professionals should develop the ability for critical self-reflection which can, for instance, mean just setting a few minutes aside to think about how others might have been excluded during the work day.

Gender parity in organisations should not be a conversation ‘about and for women only’. Men as middle managers have an important role to play in gender parity efforts and they form the lynchpin that can allow businesses to develop gender parity and make it a reality. It is therefore important that organisations make middle managers partners in the process of gender equality and provide opportunities for them to support the change effort and generate impact.

Elisabeth Kelan is a chaired professor of leadership and the director of the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders at Cranfield School of Management.