Credit: Martin Bond Photography

A Man’s Place: How Men Can Tackle Everyday Workplace Sexism

By Jill Armstrong, Researcher and Bye Fellow of Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge.

There’s a strong call for men to step up to help deliver gender equality of opportunity. Research shows there is a gap between being supportive of action and knowing what action to take. This blog suggests practical actions that individual employees and middle managers can take and leaders of organisations can facilitate.

Women find it more difficult than men to progress into leadership positions. There is a fall-off in the proportion of women represented in management as the roles get more senior. Much evidence shows that unintentional gender bias is to blame. The spotlight has recently shifted away from ‘fixing the women’ to succeed in the workplace culture in which they find themselves, and moved towards engaging men to act as allies for equality of opportunity for women. Indeed, this is now a hot topic on Business Fights Poverty’s website. It’s great that many men are supportive of equality and yet, a question that men, especially middle managers, often ask us is, “what exactly do you want me to do”?  The Collaborating with Men research from Murray Edwards College sets out to help answer that question. 

Framing it right: the case for collaboration

Asking men to be allies can suggest that men are being asked to solve the problem of inequality for women. This can alienate women and foster a reaction amongst men that it is not their place to act. It is far better for men and women to act as equal partners in creating equitable workplaces. Not least because women judge through the prism of unintentional gender bias too.

Men talking to men about sexism in workplace culture has real impact because more managers and leaders are men. Also, it’s more surprising. Men amplify and extend the impact of their perspective on this well-trodden subject and get more credit than women for their interventions. Although it has to be said, female feminists like me can find this a difficult pill to swallow!

How to interrupt everyday sexism

In our latest ‘Women Collaborating with Men’ reports, ‘Everyday Workplace Inclusion’ and ‘Inclusive Networking and Sponsorship’, we provide many practical pointers for action that  middle managers and individuals at all levels can take on board and leaders can facilitate. These recommendations come from participants in our research and interviews with blue chip organisations across different sectors. Our research has been UK-focused and reflects the globalised workplace. Just a few examples of effective actions from our reports are outlined below:-

Actions for individuals and middle managers

  • Engage your male colleagues by debating the ways in which gender stereotyping negatively affects them, such as the impact on health and on your ability to access shared parental leave of being expected to put work first. It helps to know ‘what’s in it for you’.
  • Research shows that when women speak in meetings, their points are often not heard.  Pair up with a woman on your team so in all meetings you are in together you can both intervene when your ‘pair’ is interrupted or not credited for their contribution. Say something like, “Samira, it sounded to me like you have more to say, please continue”. You will find more suggestions on phrases to use in our report.
  • There are many reasons men (and also women) don’t speak out when they notice everyday sexism. One big thing that can help is sharing ideas about what to say to call it out – and what to say when you are the one being called out. For example, “Can I just stop you there. What I understand by what you just said is…”. See our report for more examples.

Actions for leaders

  • Invest in understanding and measuring how inclusive your workplace feels to your employees. Understanding people’s qualitative everyday experience is powerful and tends to be under-explored. Our Everyday Workplace Inclusion report features case studies on ways to do this, including reverse mentoring and workplace culture workshops.
  • Build in structures such as diversity boards, nominated champions and specific interest groups, to deliver inclusion from the bottom up as well as the top down.
  • Appoint and train managers to be inclusion advocates and give advice about how to deal with inappropriate comments or behaviour.

For more information on the Collaborating with Men research and to download the latest reports, please visit the Murray Edwards College website.

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