Men's Role in Breaking Gender Stereotypes in the Workplace

Women have worked long and hard to break through the glass ceiling, but progress has been slow, according to a recent McKinsey & Company survey, and men play an important role to help eliminate old mores.

The survey shows women make up just 14% of Fortune 500 executive committees and there are even less CEOs. Only about 7,000 of the nearly 140,000 women McKinsey interviewed have become vice presidents, senior vice presidents or made it to the C-suite

Diversity programs may espouse high ideals around gender parity, but unless these programs incite male leaders to action, unconscious bias and hidden mindsets will hold back women from participating fully in the corporate world, says Gary Namie, senior consultant at Work Doctor and author of The Bully-Free Workplace. Only 30% of company human resources leaders say their gender diversity programs are well-implemented, the survey finds.

“White men were given the benefit of the doubt that they could do the job until they proved to me they couldn't,” Frank McCloskey, retired vice president of diversity at Georgia Power, says of his early career days. “Everyone else could not do the job until they proved to me they could.”

Now more 35 years later, McCloskey says he has a different understanding of what it means to be a strong man. “I don't have to satisfy a blind need to be in control and powerful at the expense of hurting others,” he says. “Has my personal and professional growth been easy and perfect? Heck no.”

Easy or not, experts agree men must personally be willing to engage as partners with women and to be educated that parity benefits the organization and, as important, that gender barriers are restrictions on men’s lives, says Rohini Anand, senior vice president and global chief diversity officer at Sodexo Inc.

Men should also be made to realize that the gender pay gap causing women to earn 81 cents on the dollar hurts them, claims Michael Kimmel, author of The Guy’s guide to Feminism. “Everyone’s Plan A is the dual career family. If Plan A does not work out, what is Plan B?”

Leadership sets the tone

Experts say senior male leaders must set the tone for gender parity, and communicate their message and reinforcing it with action. “The higher up the organization I went, these values became a 24/7 commitment,” claims McCloskey. “Just like safety.” CEOs need to reach out to get other senior male leaders involved, making them catalysts for change in shifting mindsets and behaviors.

When the leaders of the company make advocating females a priority, it’s easier for all male employees to follow suit and eliminates any fear of being put on the "daddy track," which can jeopardize advancement and compensation, says Kimmel.

When male leaders, particularly CEOs, share insights they are investing personal capital in gender equity, underscoring its importance as a strategic business objective and helping build a more open and accepting culture.

Senior male leadership involvement also needs to extend to employee networking groups. At Sodexo, ENGs include members beyond the group’s target demographic, and executive leadership participates in meetings, particularly at the local level.

This level of networking provides females exposure to male senior leaders, enabling important conversations, says Lareina Yee, a McKinsey principal and study co-author.

It’s important male leaders talk to females about career aspiration because according to Yee, women are less inclined to throw their hats in the ring for a high-profile assignment or promotion. With that said women need to become more comfortable pursuing career advancements.

What’s more, it’s incumbent on male senior leaders to share the unwritten rules of the corporation with female talent. “Men frequently take other men under their wing to share this information,” Anand says, “but if they don’t get communicated to a woman, she has to learn the hard way.”

Leaders can also influence the talent pipeline. Probing questions about what the talent list looks like—asking why “Judy is not on the list”—is more subtle than a metric but goes a long way to showing leadership commitment, Yee says.

Being hands-on also means that leaders check bad behavior, calling it out and making sure there are consequences. “Clear direct rules with swift punishment for violating the rules work best,” Namie says.

Conversely, leaders can publicly champion performance that supports gender diversity and influence policies that pay for performance that aligns gender parity with recruitment, promotion and succession-planning.

Says Anand: Aligning parity to business growth warrants that the diversity discussion begins in a potential hire’s first interview.