What can male managers do to foster equal opportunities?

What can male managers do to foster equal opportunities?

By Julia Nentwich
March 23, 2020

The organizational scholar Elisabeth Kelan has investigated for the UK what male managers can do to foster gender equality in their company. In a systematic literature review, Kelan (2018) distinguishes two basic practices: Firstly, "gender-exclusive" practices, i.e. those practices that actually produce inequality. This are the practices we already know a lot about because they are very well researched. Second, the less frequently studied "gender-inclusive" practices that actually promote equality. For our project “leaders for equality” gender-exclusive practices are relevant as they must either be omitted or transformed into inclusive practices in order to foster equal opportunities for women and men. However, as we have already heard a lot about the problems of exclusion so far, I am dedicating today’s blog exclusively to the gender-inclusive practices.

In her study, Kelan (2015) identifies middle management as the central "linchpin" between top management and the lower levels of the hierarchy. It is this middle management in particular, and thus their everyday practices that are crucial for driving the organizational change needed. In her study, Kelan accompanied three managers for one week and observed their everyday routines, rituals and interactions. This “job shadowing” allowed her to depict especially those practices that are usually hardly noticed by the people involved and also rarely reflected upon. The observations were supplemented by 23 interviews with various colleagues of each of the three managers respectively. 

Kelan identifies a total of four different areas in which the managers she observed got engaged and had developed supportive practices, thus showing very fundamentally that the everyday practices of managers are crucial for the advancement of women.


1.    Celebrating and Encouraging Women
By encouraging women individually, e.g. to take on a new role or extra responsibility, women become more visible in the company and their skills and successes are more widely recognised within the company. According to Kelan's observation, managers need to be aware that women often behave more cautiously or are less likely to come forward and take on a task. For the managers she accompanied, for example, it is a matter of course not only to make female employees aware of exciting tasks or the next career step, but also to be tenacious and strongly encourage them to do so. They also personally search for suitable women when experts are needed for events. In order to make the contributions of women in the company more visible and to increase their colleauges’ awareness, managers also praise their female colleagues in a serious, meaningful way and emphasize their competences and abilities.


2.    Calling out Bias
The primary aim of this field of practice is to identify prejudiced statements about women in everyday working life and, in a second step, to counteract them. As Kelan shows in detail, this should not mean being confrontational. Rather, it should be brought to the attention of others when a situation is perceived as inappropriate or when a decision seems to be based on stereotypical perceptions. According to Kelan, prejudice and stereotypes have a discriminatory effect especially when they are tacitly accepted or tolerated. Questioning prejudice therefore has the potential to change working relationships and organizational culture towards equality. 


3.    Championing and Defending Gender Initiatives 
According to Kelan's observations, an important field in which the commitment of male managers in particular has a major impact is that of internal gender parity initiatives. If men show initiative here by attending and engaging in events, or by supporting the initiative of other men and, in case of doubt, defending it against critics, the importance of gender initiatives in the company increases significantly. In everyday corporate life, men are ascribed greater objectivity and are less likely to see the personal relevance when it comes to the topic of equality - even if this does not necessarily have to be the case for each individual. The commitment and acknowledging statements of male colleagues are perceived as significant, especially by men in the company.


4.    Challenging Working Practices 
A fourth area Kelan identifies as crucial is the role of male middle managers to change existing working practices. The managers she researched clearly stated that today's workplaces are not designed for today's lifestyles. However, many companies stick to traditional practices: 24/7 availability, culture of presence, full-time as a career requirement, uninterrupted working patterns, etc. This is where the commitment of male managers is needed. How visibly and credibly do they themselves practice a convincing "work-life balance"? To what extent are they available to their employees at "eye level", how responsive are they to various, also private, concerns? Kelan's study clearly shows that organizational change towards more equal opportunities in the company needs more and more convincing role models.

With her research, Kelan in our eyes successfully and convincingly demonstrates that equality begins in manager’s everyday work practices and this is where we have to focus on if we want to achieve impact. As is so often the case, it is the supposedly "small things" that make a difference here. Our everyday work practices consist of a great many ingrained routines. And it is these routines that must first be brought to our attention before they can be changed. Kelan's detailed descriptions of the four topics are crucial in helping us identify the most important areas for equality, enabling to reflect upon our personal behaviour and to develop new practices that are championing, supporting and promoting women. If you want to have a closer look, we recommend reading the full report. It is written in a very comprehensible manner and especially the comic stories are communicating Kelan’s findings very concisely: https://elisabethkelan.com/2015/09/linchpin/

If you are curious to learn about the ways the practices described by Kelan are also relevant in Switzerland, we recommend coming back in only a few months. The online questionnaire we developed to study the relevant leadership practices in Switzerland will soon be sent out. From late summer onwards we will report on the results in this blog, among other things!

Kelan, E. (2015). Linchpin—Men, Middle Managers and Gender Inclusive Leadership (S. 33). Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders.

Kelan, E. K. (2018). Men Doing and Undoing Gender at Work: A Review and Research Agenda. International Journal of Management Reviews, 20(2), 544–558. doi.org/10.1111/ijmr.12146