Stop trying to ‘fix the women’

censoring_womenLast Friday I had lunch with a long standing client, a senior (female) manager from a large multi-national professional services firm. As with many businesses today, this particular firm has a diversity strategy which includes increasing the number of women to senior leadership positions. They are making slow progress. This was to be expected, my client stressed as they started from a low base and change takes time. Fair enough I thought (I am aware of the genuine intent together with some practical measures that have been put into place).

But why are so many businesses obsessed with ‘fixing the women’, my client asked me knowingly? Co-incidentally the previous week I was handed a copy of a report by Professor Elisabeth Kelan of Cranfield University’s School of Management, which drew attention to the same question.

The usual critique of (the lack of) female diversity, particularly at the Executive level, follows a familiar set of themes:

  1. Instead of ‘leaning in’, some women are now actively choosing to lean-out. Generations Y and Z in particular do not have the same career aspiration of people like me or my client (both Gen X). They want more control over how, where and when they work.
  2. Women don’t seem to have the same leadership qualities as their male counter-parts. There is a good example of this type of gender bias in a HBR article by Kathryn Heath and Jill Flynn under the title of How Women Can Show Passion at Work Without Seeming “Emotional”
  3. Women do not experience the same level of sponsors as their male colleagues nor do they have access to the informal networks that often determines key work allocation decisions.

All of the above is of course true, to some degree, but what I was really struck by in Kelan’s report – Linchpin – Men, middle managers and gender inclusive leadership, is the role of male middle managers in identifying and challenging a whole set of daily micro-interactions that impact on men and women differently. A useful example of a micro-action that seeks to de-value the contribution of women is given in Kathryn Heath and Jill Flynn’s article. In the example a female VP at a consumer products company is effectively shut down during a key meeting due to what her male colleague considers to be emotional thinking. (This plays into the classic gender bias of women as emotional). Other examples of micro-inequalities could include not making eye contact with female executives or talking up the projects of some team members and not others.

How male middle managers can support women in work

In her report Kelan helpfully sets out four key areas where men as middle managers can indeed work as change agents on gender diversity. These areas are:

Celebrating and encouraging women: Examples here included:

  • Being aware that women may be less inclined to put themselves forward for promotion and encouraging women to apply for leadership roles.
  • Actively seeking opportunities for women to speak at key business events or be a conference panel speaker.
  • Praising women colleagues in front of other (male) colleagues. Praising often works by raising an individual’s profile and visibility.

Calling out bias: Research tells us that we all have a natural tendency to work with people who are similar to us. Ways in which male middle managers can challenge these biases include:

  • Being aware of how we attribute male and female behaviours. Research tells us that men are often described as assertive, but when women display similar behaviours they are labelled as aggressive.
  • Calling out the casual remarks that often position men and women differently, for instance men as closing the deal and women as great home-makers.
  • Ensuring women are provided with the space to contribute at team meetings and have their ideas and suggestions taken seriously.

Championing & defending gender initiatives: It’s become much more standard for businesses to have some kind of gender inclusion programme or initiative. Within this context, male middle managers can play a key role in pushing the agenda forward. Examples include:

  • Step in and challenge when gender projects, such as women’s network events are dismissed as ‘political correctness’ or not taken seriously by others. Explain the wider importance of these to longer-term business goals.
  • Acknowledge the good decisions of others. For example complimenting a colleague who may have appointed a talented woman to a senior position within the business.
  • Attending gender diversity events such as women’s networks as a show of support.

Challenging workplace practices: The traditional work model to date has and continues to be fairly male centric, in that it demands 24/7 availability and office presenteeism. Today these practices often put off men from moving up the career ladder as well as disadvantaging women. Challenging workplace practices includes:

  • Being aware of the type of language used in the workplace. Research suggests that men often use sport or military metaphors such as ‘rallying the troops’. This kind of language plays into a male bias and can be off putting for many women.
  • Research shows that men tend to boast about their achievements whilst women might under-play theirs.
  • Talking about home-life responsibilities, for instance picking up children, challenges that idea that ‘work is everything’. If men begin to talk about these kinds of responsibilities and interests out of work, this helps to contribute toward a more inclusive work culture.

Of course these ideas should not be limited to gender diversity. We can take the above and use it as a framework for promoting a range of diversity initiatives within our businesses. What this work also suggests is that we need to stop trying to fix the outsider groups or seeing them as the problem and instead recognise that it’s often the insiders with the authority and power to make real and lasting change happen.

Dan Robertson

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Dan Robertson is the Diversity & Inclusion Director at the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion, ( He is highly respected as a subject matter expert on workplace diversity & inclusion management, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. Connect on LinkedIn: Dan Robertson or Twitter: @dan_robertson1

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