It is well documented that male participation is vital for organisational efforts to promote the success of women to be effective. The 2017 BCG Gender Diversity Survey found that 96% of companies see progress when men are included, compared to just 30% when they are not. However, an Ipsos Mori study from 2019 found that “[h]alf of all men agree that too much is expected of them to support women's equality.” So where does that leave us?

There is only so much room at the top. While the financial and cultural benefits of a gender-diverse organisation are well documented and some men are on board with that thinking, there are men for whom gender equality feels like voting against their best interests. There are others who are simply disinterested. As such, long term behavioural change is required to make progress.

A survey I recently conducted on gender equality issues shed light as to the potential reasons for this. Despite encouraging as many men as possible to participate, only 20% of respondents identified as male – perhaps because the topic itself is deemed a “female issue”. When asked to rank the effectiveness of various strategies, “discouraging ‘lad behaviour’ or sexist language” featured in the top three for men, while it didn’t even make the top five for women. If men consider gender equality as being, at least in part, about policing male behaviour then it is unsurprising that they are less likely to engage with it. Further, I know from personal experience that sexist language can be dismissed as “just banter” and not seen as a serious issue to be addressed.

By simply asking men to help create success for women, I suspect that we are preaching to the converted for the most part and alienating the unconverted in the process. Many commonly used strategies exacerbate this problem. We could invest a great deal of time persuading men to be more involved, but it is very difficult to alter behaviour in this way and we risk being counter-productive; it is far more efficient to change behaviour through process design.

To draw a comparison: the “I’m Not A Plastic Bag” campaign launched by Anya Hindmarch in 2007 (recently re-launched) was endorsed by celebrities, garnered huge press coverage globally, and ignited debate around the use of plastic bags. The campaign was effective in raising awareness but did little to change habits. It was only in 2015 when shops started charging, that use declined. According to the UK’s .gov website, the number of bags used has gone down by more than 80% in England as a direct result of the policy – upwards of nine billion fewer bags in total. 

This aligns with the results of my survey. Female respondents ranked ‘increasing the visibility of women in the business’ and ‘male leaders showing their support’ among the least effective strategies. This is because they are regarded as paying lip service if they are not backed up through action. Beyond that, there were two strategies that were deemed to be counter-productive. Some respondents described how they had received training which aimed to help women “fit in” to male-dominated environments. Others talked about how Women’s Networks create resentment when men are not allowed to join and how they are at odds with being more inclusive. “I am equally resistant to all-female networks as all-male ones” said one. While my personal belief is that there can be merit in such networks, there is a risk that these strategies tell men that they do not need to be involved, doing little to change the minds of the unconverted.

When asked to identify the most effective strategies, women cited the use of ‘fair recruitment processes’ such as eliminating gender bias, robust assessment design, diverse interview panels, and ‘introducing flexible working policies’ since these specifically address their barriers to success. 

If organisations encounter roadblocks when asking men to help, we need to design strategies that modify behaviour instead. This means - consistent with my survey findings - designing fair recruitment and appraisal processes, as well as removing ‘second-generation bias’, which describes policies that appear gender-neutral but disproportionately disadvantage women in practice. These strategies are effective because they create consistency, they are objective, and they help organisations to make good decisions. Importantly, they don’t feel like a sacrifice from men. They can, however, have a profound effect on how men regard women in the workplace. 

Put simply: design policies and processes well, and we can help men do more by asking them to do less.