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How men can become role models for gender inclusivity in the workplace

From popular culture depictions of the #girlboss to advice and books about how women should “lean in” to further their careers, discussions about gender equality at work tend to focus on how women leaders can be good role models for other women. But books, advice and training about leadership at work often appear gender neutral, failing to discuss leaders’ responsibility to encourage gender inclusivity.

Research shows, however, that to create truly gender-inclusive organisations, men can – and should – become role models for gender equality too.

Take the example of Cuthbert*, a senior leader at a global company who I met as part of my research on how men can help encourage gender equality at work. He thought he was doing right by gender equality by paying attention to biases when hiring people and by making an effort to support women by, for instance, mentoring them to help with career development.

But during a mentoring session with Phillipa, one of his mentees, Cuthbert suggested she could advance her career by finding a female role model. Around the same time, Cuthbert was also mentoring a man called Ben. During one of Ben’s sessions, Cuthbert suggested that Ben should be a role model for others.

Reflecting on these two mentoring conversations, Cuthbert was struck by the difference between the advice he gave to his two mentees: find a role model and be a role model.

Of course, Ben and Phillipa may well have needed different advice on career development. But what Cuthbert inadvertently did chimed with research that shows women are often encouraged to find a role model, while men are encouraged to be a role model.

This research also questioned why there are numerous books on women’s leadership but no comparable literature on men’s leadership – because the latter is typically equated with leadership in general. General books on leadership often don’t talk about how leaders could be more gender inclusive.

In an article for the journal European Management Review, I defined change-makers as those that lead their organisation on the path to inclusion. To make a difference when it comes to gender equality in the workplace, change-makers need to realise that even the advice they provide to their mentees might, in fact, have a gender dimension.

This is true for both women and men who act as mentors. However, since men are generally overrepresented in senior positions they are more likely to mentor others. This makes it even more important that they know how to be gender diversity leaders.

Creating change-makers

In my recent book, I distinguish between three stances that men in the workplace take on gender equality. Some men have supported gender equality before and have a pretty good idea of what to do. Others have trouble reconciling the need for gender equality with the idea of merit. But there is also a third group: men who want to promote gender equality, but do not know where to start.

During my research, I found that the group that wants to promote it can really benefit from learning how to become a change-maker for gender equality. Then, the onus is on these potential change-makers to seek out situations where they can make a difference through their actions.

First, it’s important to think about the personal reasons for supporting gender equality. Male leaders then need to create an environment where others can take action to enable gender equality. This could be as simple an act as explaining the importance of programmes for gender equality if others challenge the idea.

Role modelling is the third component of becoming a change-maker for gender equality in the workplace. This is how change-makers influence others’ actions in relation to gender equality. A role model displays desirable behaviour that others can emulate or that more generally facilitates change.

Many workplaces are trying to become more diverse. Ground Picture/Shutterstock

Modelling inclusive behaviour

Role modelling can encompass a wide array of activities. Aside from mentoring colleagues, as Cuthbert does with Ben and Phillipa, another important task is to call out any behaviour that hinders gender equality.

This could be in relation to hiring. For example, pointing out when candidates are discussed in a biased way, or that someone is trying to hire people who are similar to themselves. It could also be discussing whether the most favoured candidate is seen as “fitting in” because they resemble most people already working at the organisation.

More generally, a change-maker might point out that men and women are measured with different yardsticks. The classic example is that if a woman is assertive, this is often read as aggressive. They might also repeat and properly attribute a comment a woman made at a meeting that was ignored – or have a private conversation with someone that ignores a woman’s comments after a meeting.

While in some situations confronting the behaviour that does not support gender equality head on is the right way to go, in other situations subtle interventions might be highly effective. An important skill for a change-maker for gender equality is to figure out which strategies to use in what situation. This is the path towards inclusive leadership.

Of course, leaders might still get things wrong or have to correct course. Patience is needed because many of the practices that create gender inequality at work are difficult to shift. But it is essential that men, not just women, act as change agents and role models for gender equality in the workplace and beyond.

*Pseudonyms have been used.

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