Why male managers are important for equal opportunities

Why male managers are important for equal opportunities: A research perspective

By Julia Nentwich
February 27, 2020

In our research and intervention project we are tackling male managers’ role in equal opportunities. What do they think about women in management positions and respective measures for equal opportunities in the company and what are they willing to do or in what ways are they already involved? In this blog post I am explaining in greater detail why the commitment of male managers is particularly important and why it can have a different effect compared to women’s commitment in the topic.

The earliest argument I am aware of stems from Australian gender sociologist Raewyn Connell (2003): Since gender is a relational phenomenon, i.e. masculinity and femininity are in a relationship to each other, they must be changed together. In terms of gender theory, it becomes clear here that understandings of femininity can only be changed in interaction with masculinity, and that therefore change cannot be initiated by women alone. In addition, not only women but also men suffer from the negative effects of current gender relations. In particular, the still valid notions of masculinity have a negative impact, e.g. on the health and life expectancy of men (Scambor et al. 2014).

But how can this general insight be applied to measures to promote equal opportunities in companies? From a change management perspective, managers are crucial to the success of any change initiative. As men still represent the clear majority in leadership positions and especially in upper management, they are important players, on the one hand because of the quantitative ratio, but also because of their powerful positions. In addition, their leadership skills are less questioned, and they are better integrated into central networks than women in comparable positions (Eagly, Gartizia & Carli, 2014). It is this mix of gender and position that makes the support from male managers for gender equality issues so important. Interestingly, there is not much research being done on this so far. 

One exception is a study conducted by organizational researcher Jennifer deVries (2015), also stemming from Australia. She selected three interviews with male managers and one interview with a woman in a managerial position from a broader study in order to analyse in greater detail how promoting equal opportunities was perceived differently by these individuals. The analysis of the interviews shows that the male executives are often seen as "one of the boys" - i.e. as someone who belongs to the group of male executives as a matter of fact and whose competence in this position is not questioned. This is in contrast to the female manager, who, especially in a male domain, is often perceived as the "token women", and thus gains increased visibility, whereby their behaviour is evaluated more critically compared to their male colleagues. In the interviews it was also discussed that women are often assumed to have a self-interest in the topic, whereas men are assumed to have an interest in the matter. As a result, women's involvement is perceived as less legitimate and impactful, while the involvement of their male colleagues is more likely to be explained by rational considerations - such as the fact that gender equality serves the interests of the company.

The results of the interviews confirm the well-established state of research: While women in management positions are more questioned and are not regarded as competent in the same way, men are automatically attributed precisely these competencies by gender (Eagly, Gartizia, Carli & 2014). This gives men's leadership behaviour greater impact than the same behaviour shown by a woman. This is even more true when it is a management position in a male-dominated company (Eagly, Karau & Makhijani 1995). As deVries (2015) also shows, the men she interviewed are very successful in using their powerful position for a "good cause": They are committed to equal opportunities and can thus promote and support internal company programs and measures. Equal opportunities are thus perceived more strongly as an important corporate objective. At the same time, however, the commitment also appears to have an effect on the perception of the activities of female colleagues: They are supported in their concerns and their commitment to equal opportunities no longer needs to be as prominent as it used to be. In our view, this is an important step towards the success of these measures!

Connell, R. W. (2003). The Role of Men and Boys in Achieving Gender Equality. United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW).

de Vries, J. A. (2015). Champions of gender equality: Female and male executives as leaders of gender change. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, 34(1), 21–36. doi.org/10.1108/EDI-05-2013-0031

Eagly, A. H., Gartzia, L., & Carli, L. L. (2014). Female Advantage: Revisited. In The Oxford Handbook of Gender in Organizations. Oxford University Press.

Eagly, A. H., Karau, S. J., & Makhijani, M. G. (1995). Gender and the effectiveness of leaders: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 117(1), 125–145. doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.1.125

Scambor, E., Bergmann, N., Wojnicka, K., Belghiti-Mahut, S., Hearn, J., Holter, Ø. G., Gärtner, M., Hrženjak, M., Scambor, C., & White, A. (2014). Men and Gender Equality: European Insights. Men and Masculinities, 17(5), 552–577. doi.org/10.1177/1097184X14558239