Diversity & Inclusion

Engaging Men as Allies

Male executives play a key role in advancing gender equity and cultivating more inclusive workplaces.

By Vandana Juneja

Male executives have an important role to play in building inclusive workplaces. With men still occupying most C-suite positions, engaging them as allies is essential for driving meaningful change and creating environments where all individuals feel valued, respected, and empowered to succeed. Worldwide research by BCG shows that among companies where men are actively involved in gender diversity, 96% report progress compared to only 30% where men are not involved. So, how do diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) leaders engage men to be part of advancing gender equity, and what actionable steps can men take to cultivate deeper inclusion?

To involve men in advancing gender equity, HR and DEIB executives need to understand and address the factors that can prevent their support. Research from Catalyst highlights certain forces that can undermine men’s involvement and push for gender initiatives.

Among companies where men are actively involved in gender diversity, 96% report progress compared to only 30% where men are not involved.

  • Male executives may be apathetic about gender equity and may not see a compelling reason to become actively involved. To address this, help them appreciate how they can gain personally from changing the status quo. Raise awareness about the costs of gender inequality for men, as well as what men can gain from gender equality. For example, when gender inequality exists, men experience pressure to bear the primary financial responsibility for their household, experience more distant relationships with partners and children, feel pressured to acquire status and compete with other men, and can experience poor psychological and physical well-being. On the flip side, with gender equality, benefits include freedom to share financial responsibilities with one’s partner, more rewarding family relationships, and better psychological and physical health.

  • Men may fear losing status, making mistakes, and incurring the disapproval of other men. To address these concerns, DEIB leaders can discourage “zero-sum” thinking: the perception that gains for women will necessarily mean losses for men. Take deliberate steps to include men in gender-related initiatives or events. Invite them into discussions on gender issues to reduce their concerns about making mistakes or being judged as being sexist. And expose men to respected male role models who are actively championing gender equality and challenging the status quo.

  • Men may hold the belief that by virtue of being male, they are uninformed about gender issues. To respond to this real or perceived lack of knowledge, provide men with in-depth learning opportunities, including courageous conversations with powerful men role models, self-reflection, role-playing, and continuous training with hands-on “homework,” like interviewing women leaders to build greater understanding of their experiences and perspectives. 

By listening and learning, men executives not only gain a deeper understanding of the barriers faced by women and underrepresented groups, but also identify opportunities for meaningful action.

What can men do to be better allies? Here are five actionable steps men can take to advance gender equity and cultivate deeper inclusion.

  1. Challenge unconscious biases, micro-inequities, and stereotypes. Everyone has biases. It does not make them wrong or bad; it simply makes them human. Yet, biases are one of the most significant barriers to gender equity and inclusion in the workplace. As men executives have a unique opportunity to challenge these biases and stereotypes by actively promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion within their organizations, they can also advocate for gender-balanced teams, challenge discriminatory practices, and champion the advancement of women and underrepresented groups. For example, when leaders notice micro-inequities or microaggressions taking place, speak up and speak out. Be curious and ask questions rather than make assumptions. Create space for women to provide input, acknowledge their expertise, and amplify their voices. By challenging biases and stereotypes, men can create more inclusive cultures where everyone can thrive.
  2. Lead by example and be a role model. Men executives have a responsibility to demonstrate commitment to gender equity and inclusion through intentional actions and behaviors. This includes actively participating in DEIB initiatives, advocating for policies and practices that support gender equity, and holding oneself and others accountable for creating inclusive workplaces. For example, men can actively use or leverage flexible work arrangements like parental leave or part-time work. Rather than scheduling a daily meeting at 4 p.m., a manager could tell his team he is picking up his children from school. This helps build greater understanding of day-to-day commitments, relationships, and roles that require flexibility, and normalizing the idea of successful employees who also have commitments outside of work. By using opportunities for flexibility, they empower women to do the same, thereby contributing to greater gender equity. Through leading by example, men can set the tone for a culture of inclusion and inspire others to follow suit.
  3. Be curious and learn. Effective allyship requires listening to and learning from the experiences of women and underrepresented groups in the workplace. As men executives, take the time to listen to the perspectives and concerns of women colleagues, seek out feedback on DEIB initiatives, and intentionally learn about issues related to gender equity and inclusion. This may involve participating in training programs, attending workshops or seminars, engaging in conversations with diversity leaders, or holding one-on-one conversations with women colleagues. This can be a great way to learn how it feels to be on the receiving end of phenomena like “mansplaining,” being frequently interrupted in meetings, or being the “only” woman in the room. By listening and learning, men executives not only gain a deeper understanding of the barriers faced by women and underrepresented groups, but also identify opportunities for meaningful action.
  4. Promote mentoring and sponsorship. Mentoring and sponsorship are powerful tools for advancing gender equity and inclusion within organizations. Men executives play a crucial role in programs that pair women and underrepresented employees with mentors or sponsors who can provide guidance, support, and advocacy as they navigate their careers. Engage in reciprocal mentoring programs—matching men with women or other underrepresented groups—to help develop empathy and deeper understanding of inequalities that may otherwise go unnoticed. While a mentor can provide advice and feedback, a sponsor will advocate on behalf of a sponsee by leveraging their influence in the organization, providing visibility for the sponsee, opening up their network, or making warm introductions. Ideally, the sponsor will be two levels above this high-potential individual with a line of sight to their role and can advocate for them when roles and promotions are discussed. This actionable step helps accelerate women’s career advancement, helping to create pathways for success.
  5. Create psychologically safe spaces for dialogue and courageous conversations. Open and honest dialogue is essential to building trust and fostering collaboration and partnership between men executives and their colleagues across genders. Intentionally engage in constructive conversations about DEIB issues, whether through roundtables, forums, small group listening sessions, “conversation corners,” or virtual group chats. Share inclusion-related articles and thought leadership and provide perspective on them. By creating psychologically safe spaces, offering resources, and expressing opinions, men can support colleagues in feeling comfortable to share their experiences, voice their concerns, and propose solutions for creating more inclusive workplaces. By fostering a safe space for dialogue, men can demonstrate their commitment to listening and learning from colleagues, actively support women colleagues, help other men get comfortable with engaging in those conversations, and contribute to the transformation of workplace culture.

Vandana Juneja is the equity, diversity and inclusion officer at Thornton Tomasetti.

Tags: June 2024

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