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Author's profile photo Gabriela Burlacu

Getting men involved in workforce gender equity issues: The Ripple Effect


Workforce gender equity is in the spotlight these days, with companies pledging to drive greater transparency, more equitable pay, and equal access to opportunities for men and women. These may be new efforts but the problems they are addressing are quite old—it has long been known that women are at a disadvantage in the workplace, occupying positions that tend to pay less, offer a lower chance for advancing to the top, and sometimes lead to discriminatory experiences that tend to push women out of their careers earlier than men. All of these factors converge to produce outcomes like 96% of the CEOs of S&P 500 companies being male. To make matters worse, this cycle is self-perpetuating.  Fewer female role models at the top means fewer females applying to certain roles, which means fewer females moving up through the corporate pipeline. With research showing that gender diversity at all organizational levels is good for the bottom line, business leaders know it’s time to break this cycle. But this organizational challenge has yet to be solved in a meaningful way.

We’ve certainly tried. In the past decade we’ve seen a surge of programs designed to help women succeed at work. Many companies have mentoring or development programs designed to expand women’s networks and even the playing field when it comes to access to leadership and other career-building opportunities. But many of these programs are run for women by women, offering female employees a chance to connect with—you guessed it—other women. So where are all the men?

Recent research shared in a Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology (SIOP) annual conference symposium sheds light on why men are so important in this fight—and why they may not be joining it. Researchers from Rice University tested this in a number of fascinating ways. First, they created two articles, one about gender equity issues and the other about a neutral, non-gender related topic. They presented these articles to readers with only one minor difference—some of them appeared to be written by a female author, while the others appeared to be written by a male. They asked readers to report back on how well-written the articles were, to what extent they inspired action, and how important they made the issue at hand seem. The findings were clear—when the article had nothing to do with gender, both men and women responded in a similar way to both male and female authors. When the focus was on gender issues, men were overwhelmingly more positive toward the male authors. So it became clear that the message had the most impact on men when they were hearing it from other men. But the researchers also took this a step further to identify what types of messages were most effective. They created articles that presented the problem in a number of ways:

  • Asking men to take perspective (i.e., “Imagine a day in the life…”)
  • Making it an issue for all (i.e., “A win for women is a win for everyone”)
  • Asking men to extend their experiences (i.e., “Think about the women in your life…”)
  • Mentioning male role models (i.e., “Men championing women”)
  • Appealing to ethics (i.e., “Calling on your sense of fairness…”)

Once again, this study showed that men responded more positively to gender equity messages coming from other men, but the message that was most effective was the mention of male role models who also champion women’s issues (least effective, interestingly enough, was asking men to take the perspective of women in this issue).

So what do these studies mean for companies promoting gender equity in pay, opportunities, and leadership positions? First, they offer compelling evidence of something pretty depressing—the voices of women raising gender equity issues may not be loud enough to reach men. But I choose to look at this as something positive. This is evidence that men can be brought in to the discussion of workforce gender equity issues, that they can be advocates for the cause and that the key to increasing equity for women is to actively involve men in the effort. If men are more likely to compel other men to act, and men are most persuaded by messages of male role models in this area, then it’s simply time to build our male role models. And I can think of no better place to start than with our senior leaders and managers.

The research shows that people in these leadership positions are far more likely to be men. These leaders are frequently in support of development and mentoring programs for women, which is a start, but I think there is a lot of opportunity for them to more actively role model what gender equity looks like. Male leaders that make a concerted effort to pay fairly, to provide fair access to opportunities, and to develop men and women in a similar way demonstrate to the men below them that this is how work should be done. The Rice University studies suggest that this will have a “ripple effect” where demonstrated gender equity, promoted by male role models, will ripple on to compel the men at lower levels to think the same way. This won’t magically solve all the gender equity issues we see in the workforce today—we know these are the complex result of many factors. But it will have many positive effects, including bringing both men and women to the table to discuss how we can make work more fair overall. We can only truly start to move the needle in this area once everyone is involved in the discussion.

SAP SuccessFactors is committed to helping organizations create fair and equitable practices for all employees. Please be on the lookout for more Diversity & Inclusion research, insights, and recommendations coming soon!

Trump-Steele, R. C. E. & Hebl, M. (2016, April). Male allies: Men convince other men that gender equity matters. Paper presented at the annual conference for the Society of Industrial-Organizational Psychologists (SIOP), Anaheim, CA.

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