How to get men involved with gender parity initiatives

Gender inequality in the workplace is still commonplace, and leaders face considerable challenges when seeking to institute a more gender-equitable company culture. They find it difficult to systematically hold managers accountable for gender-parity goals, to implement unbiased performance management systems, and to modify the way in which talent is sourced.

Research on organizational change suggests that the success of any change effort requires the involvement of employees. When employees actively participate in the formulation and implementation of change programs, they are more likely to support them and less likely to resist them.

But when it comes to change programs aimed at increasing gender parity, diversity officers struggle to engage men, who often constitute the majority in organizations and hold more positions of power and influence. In fact, men frequently stay on the sidelines and avoid speaking up about programs aimed at creating gender parity. So, such change programs often become labeled as “women’s issues” within organizations and fail to resonate with internal stakeholders.

To address this challenge, we first need to understand why men do not get involved in such initiatives. In a paper recently published in Organization Science, we investigated a potential reason: psychological standing. Psychological standing refers to whether a person feels they have the legitimacy to perform an action with respect to a cause or an issue. It reflects how someone judges the extent to which they “have a place in” conversations about an issue, or whether it is “their business” to participate. It can explain why people who hold a very strong opinion about a policy refrain from taking action on it (for example, by protesting).

From a set of four studies, we show that men often refrain from participating in or speaking up about gender parity initiatives because they experience lowered levels of psychological standing than women — that is, they feel that it is not their place to engage with those initiatives. This explanation held even when other possible explanations, such as possible prejudicial attitude or sexism on the part of men, were taken into account.

In the first study, we presented 178 undergraduate students with two change initiatives purportedly being considered by their university, and evaluated their willingness to get involved. One initiative focused on the university’s plan to renovate the recreation center, while the other focused on the lack of gender parity in the university’s engineering school. When it came to the recreation center initiative, male and female students both demonstrated similar willingness to get involved. Yet, when it came to the gender parity initiative, male students reported lower psychological standing — they said they did not feel it was appropriate for them, as men, to get involved in the initiative, and were unwilling to sign up for it. Such reduced psychological standing explained the male students’ lower participation levels, even after controlling for the extent to which they privately supported the initiative.

In the second study, we surveyed 124 professionals, working for a diverse set of U.S. companies in a large East Coast metropolitan area, about their willingness to get involved in gender parity initiatives in their companies. We found that women, as compared with men, were more likely to participate in and speak up about such initiatives, and that this difference was again explained by men’s lower psychological standing on those initiatives. The findings from the survey closely track with anecdotal information gathered by our research team during interviews with men working in a Silicon Valley technology startup who were trying to implement initiatives for improving gender parity. These men often explained their reluctance to get involved by saying things like “It’s not my place to say anything [about gender parity] because I haven’t experienced what [women have] experienced…”

In the third study, we conducted an online experiment with 151 working adults in the U.S. We asked them to imagine that they were working for a company that was looking for volunteers to head its company-wide task force on gender parity, and we asked them about their willingness to volunteer. When presented with this scenario, 63% of women volunteered for the task force, while only 43% of men volunteered. Although more men, as compared with women, saw gender parity initiatives as less important and scored higher on a measure of overt sexism, men’s reduced sense of psychological standing was a stronger predictor than sexism for differences in participation rates.

In the final study of the paper, we explored whether the way a gender parity program is communicated and framed can change men’s willingness to participate. With 215 working adults in the U.S., recruited from an online panel, we repeated the above experiment. However, while half of the participants (group 1) were randomly assigned the same material from the third study, the other half (group 2) also read a message from the CEO of the company stating that both men and women have experiences that can help the company formulate and implement a program to enhance gender parity at the workplace. In other words, the second group got more information about why not only women but also men needed to participate in the task force on gender parity. For the first group, our results replicated our previous experiment: 70% of the women volunteered for the task force, while only 33% men volunteered. However, for the second group, which saw the CEO’s message, the participation rates were statistically indistinguishable for men and women, and men in this group reported greater psychological standing on the issue.

The lack of men’s involvement in gender parity initiatives is a problem. Participation in such initiatives can help change men’s minds about the importance of gender parity at work. For example, research suggest that even men who initially hold negative or sexist attitudes regarding the role of women in the workplace become more supportive of gender parity programs (more effectively implement them, for example) when they are actively included in conversations about such programs. Moreover, it appears that men’s attitudes toward gender parity are becoming more positive over time. If these supportive men publicly support gender parity initiatives, they can more effectively counter resistance to such initiatives and act as liaisons to other men who might be more persuaded by “in-group” advocacy.

Unless men and women both feel that their ideas and concerns have a place in the conversation, they will not equally feel responsibility for the success of such programs, and fundamental change in organizational culture toward gender parity might not be realized. Our findings indicate that organizations can take actions to increase men’s participation. In particular, increased attention should be devoted to how such programs are explained to members of the organization. When men are made to feel that they have a legitimate role to play in such programs, they may be more likely to participate. Hence, organizational leaders need to explicitly communicate that all employees, regardless of their gender, have a stake in and can meaningfully contribute to gender parity programs.

This article was originally posted on Harvard Business Review by Elad N. Sherf & Subra Tangirala


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