The importance of male middle managers in gender balance

by | Mar 28, 2017

There is a great deal of discussion around the lack of women at a senior level in organisations. Despite investment and a compelling business case, the gender balance needle is barely moving. In some cases it is stalling or even reversing. With men dominating business critical roles within organizations, they are in a position to exert considerable influence on the nature and quality of the corporate  culture. Gender parity frequently has the commitment of the CEO and even the board, but despite this, there are still pockets of resistance at lower levels in the organisation. With male middle managers driving and implementing corporate strategy, their interpretation of a senior vision is the one that will have the most lasting impact.

How male middle managers impact gender balance

Women tend not to leave organisations because of one incident alone. Even when a woman experiences outright bullying she will still exhibit a high level of tolerance of unacceptable behaviour and loyalty to a company. Women tend to leave organisations because of the build-up of seemingly insignificant behaviours which over time become toxic and unacceptable. Very often, but not always, these fall under the remit of male middle managers.

Creating an awareness of a male tone

Organisations are frequently male coded and it’s important that senior managers are aware of that. Whether it’s the decor in the reception, photos on the wall or the channels on TV in the cafeteria.  On a recent client visit, the reception area had images of men on the wall, as well sculptures symbolising men undergoing various physical challenges. The statues of women were playing with children. I was the only woman in the cafeteria and a cricket game was on two TV screens. It had a very "male" atmosphere.

Read: Male coded messages cut out women

Care must be taken with documentation (job profiles, adverts, product advertising) images or infographics to avoid conveying a male coded message. Using male icons as a default setting needs to be carefully examined. It is more widespread than you think.  Language choice should also be carefully monitored. Certain words are considered to have a male tone, and although to remove words such as "leader" totally, is patronising, care should be to avoid the use of military or sporting terminology. That sends out a message about the culture.  It tells us that women are not unwelcome, but must understand the terms of engagement.

The infographic below enforces the idea that leadership is a male activity!


Test assumptions

According to research from Catalyst shared by Isabelle Kurschner at the JUMP Forum in Brussels last week, even women with no children and stated ambitions, lag behind their male counterparts in terms of pay and career advancement. Male middle managers should be sure to test their own potentially gender based assumptions and establish the career goals of all their employees and not view women between the ages of 25 -45 as either a potential flight risk, or as an overhead.

It’s also important to test the assumptions of the employee herself. [Tweet "Very often women are held back by their own unconscious biases and expectations."] Erwin Ollivier CEO of Athlon, Belgium, recounts how one of his female employees self-deselected from a senior promotion process because she was pregnant at the time.  He encouraged her to engage and she is now a highly effective member of a gender balanced leadership team.

Read: Why aren’t gender inclusion policies working?

Run inclusive meetings

We all go to hundreds of meetings a year and they are the one area where corporate culture is on full display. The tone and values of a company are apparent.  Elisabeth Kelan, Professor of Leadership at Cranfield who shadowed male middle managers for a year in a research project, Linchpin, Men Middle Managers and Gender Inclusive Leadership  suggests:

Meetings are a central place where gender inequality is often played out”.

It is in this forum that male style communication patterns dominate, unless the meeting chair pays special attention to ensure inclusion. This can be in the form of monitoring interruptions (now known as “Manterruptions” ) ideas being high-jacked (“bropppiration”) and ensuring that women get credit for the work they have done.

Calling out bias

Elisabeth Kelan also emphasises how male middle managers are in a vital position to call out bias when they see it. This doesn’t mean causing conflict, but calling attention to a situation in a constructive way. In mentoring training I observe that when men mentor women, they frequently don't understand the challenges that women really face on a daily basis and the level of unconscious bias that exists for women. It is highly unlikely that a man would ever be mistaken for a secretary for example.  Male middle managers should also be active in promoting gender balanced panels and short lists.

Here is a video to demonstrate what women go through when the shoe is on the other foot!

Influencing peers

One of the biggest barriers to gender parity is the lack of support men receive from their male peers. Men are reluctant to take paternity leave and when they do, they receive flak from their peers and words of caution from their usually male bosses. It’s important that male middle managers are educated to influence and persuade their peers. They may have to defend their support of gender balance to what can be concerned , defensive or even hostile colleagues.

Read: Why HR does not do more for gender balance

Challenging the working environment

male middle managers


The most effective way that male middle managers can support gender balance is to set up systems of checks that identify and call out male coded workplace practises. It is this list of seemingly insignificant items that become the major deal breakers for women.

  • Hold meetings inside core business hours
  • Do not expect 24/7 availability and immediate response to mails and messages
  • Hold networking, team building, training and incentive events at lunch time – not at after work drinks in the pub.
  • Be open about their own childcare and domestic involvement.
  • Take paternity leave themselves.
  • Examine any gender pay gaps on the team.
  • Avoid male coded hospitality and team building exercises  - go-kart racing, sports matches and other activities
  • Show zero tolerance of gender jokes or "boys" banter which seems to have gained ground again recently
  • Lead by example

Gender equality is not just for women. To assume that is to embed gender stereotypes even further with special conditions being created to allow women to look after their children. To quote Hillary Clinton:

"Women’s rights are family rights."


If your company wants support with gender balance and  strengthening your female talent pipeline – contact 3Plus  

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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