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Gender inclusivity: Four things male middle managers should do

Research suggests steps to help male middle managers become more inclusive

Truly gender inclusive male middle managers are a rarity, according to new research by professor of leadership and director of the International Centre for Women Leaders at Cranfield School of Management, Elisabeth Kelan.

Her new report, Men, Middle Managers and Gender Inclusive Leadership, details four practices male middle managers (who constitute 70% of the middle management workforce) should be engaging in. The report was compiled through Kelan shadowing three middle managers who excel at gender inclusive leadership, but such individuals were hard to find, she said.

“A lot of organisations said ‘yes come in’, but often I couldn’t actually find anyone there you would say was really doing this well,” said Kelan at an event launching the report. “They are out there, they’re just not very abundant,” she added.

Regarding why it’s so important middle managers become better at inclusivity, Kelan said: “In many cases senior leaders are just too removed. We need to find ways to make sure middle managers are active in this debate rather than assuming what the CEO says will be implemented.”

The four steps male middle managers should take, according to Kelan's research, are:

  • Celebrating and encouraging women – Kelan explained it is well documented that women are less likely to push themselves for more ambitious roles and responsibilities, and that women often don’t receive the credit they deserve in the workplace. She recommended middle managers ensure women’s contributions are visible and push women to consider high visibility assignments.
  • Calling out bias – Kelan reported that strong middle managers highlight the unconscious biases that may drive others’ decision-making, in recruitment for example. She recommended managers be alert to comments, such as praising a woman’s multi-tasking for example, that while well-intentioned may reinforce gender stereotypes.
  • Championing and defending gender initiatives – Most shocking to Kelan was the “bad reception” male middle managers often receive (from both men and women) for publicly engaging with gender equality initiatives. Managers must respond by steadfastly explaining the importance of such initiatives to the success of the organisation and of men’s involvement supporting these.
  • Challenging working practices – The middle managers Kelan observed had a strong sense of how traditional working practices are hindering both women's and men's work/life balance. Overt statements from men about working flexibly because of childcare commitments, and audibly congratulating flexible workers on sending a report late at night for example, should be encouraged.

Other tips on fostering more gender inclusive behaviour in male middle managers discussed at the report’s launch event included:

Unconscious bias training – “I’m a huge fan of that, we’ve rolled it out globally,” said Chuck Stephens, associate director of global diversity and inclusion at Barclays. “Some of that is about appreciating that you may be doing something you feel is supportive but others don’t.”

Senior leadership buy-in – “We are making it very clear that senior management expects that from them,” said Robert Baker, senior partner at Mercer and board member of PWN Global. Alex Lowe, industry head at Google UK added: “A middle manager needs to genuinely believe the CEO is behind this as a fundamental part of the organisation’s growth.”

Reward gender inclusive behaviours – “Our approach is that you have to display these behaviours to get on at the company, to get promoted,” said Baker, reporting the company was even considering linking financial reward to this. Lowe warned, however, that this could encourage the behaviour for the wrong reasons and that it was better managers benefitted through the more indirect, but no less powerful, reward of a high-performing team.

Reverse mentoring – At Mercer this involved women being paired with more senior men so they could hear about the challenges the women faced. Lowe described a ‘Switching Perspectives’ strategy at Google where male managers had to sit and listen to difficulties women faced without interjecting.

Avoid overburdening managers – “You have to be careful of giving too much academic research to middle managers,” said Lowe. “They all have so many spinning plates and won’t have the time to work out how to approach it.”