How men matter for gender parity

The rarity of women in senior leadership positions is regularly lamented. It is now well understood that a key problem lies in the so-called feeder pipeline for leadership positions where women often get stuck. However changing this pipeline requires organisational cultures to change. Culture change can only happen if gender change initiatives not only focus on women; they must engage men. Men form the majority of leaders in organisations and as such have a central role to play when it comes to changing organisational cultures.

I have recently completed a British Academy fellowship, which allowed to me to explore what gender inclusive leadership might look like. It focused particularly on men as middle managers. Why this group? Well, we know that men make up 70% of managers and leaders. When those managers and leaders change how they act, this will have a major ripple effect.

Exploring gender inclusive leadership

To explore what gender inclusive leadership might look like I needed to unlock unconscious micro-practices in the workplace. Those are small-scale practices that that are largely performed in an unconscious way. We engage in those practices routinely but often without reflection.

In order to research those subtle practices, I shadowed three male middle managers during every day work activities. I also conducted interviews with the middle managers and their co-workers. The middle managers were selected because they were seen as gender inclusive leaders. All of them had direct reports and the middle managers themselves reported to senior leadership.

The four sets of practices

I found four sets of practices through which gender inclusive leadership was performed:

  1. Celebrating and encouraging women means that male middle managers recognise women’s skills and empower women to take roles that advance their careers.
  2. Calling out bias means that men recognise gender bias and draw it to the attention of others, for instance when they are recruiting people like themselves.
  3. Championing & defending gender initiatives means that men should play an active role in gender equality initiatives and explain them to others.
  4. Men can challenge working practices to make them more gender inclusive by for instance noticing exclusive metaphors and language.

Men can be role models for gender inclusive leadership. For this to happen they need to be able to put themselves into the shoes of others and to reflect critically on their own behaviour. Men as middle managers have an important role to play when it comes to making gender parity a reality in organisations.

Blog reproduced with permission from


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