Male Middle Managers: Linchpins of Gender Parity at Work - Ideas for Leaders
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Male Middle Managers: Linchpins of Gender Parity at Work

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Gender equality in the workplace can be undermined through everyday organizational practices, from sexually charged remarks to limiting female contributions to meeting discussions or refusing to give women credit for ideas or initiatives. Male middle managers are the key to halting such practices and fostering gender parity in their organizations.


Many CEOs recognize gender equality as an important strategic priority. However, top-level strategic priorities can be undermined if male middle managers display or enable gender bias through the type of small-scale everyday organizational practices that often go unnoticed… and become accepted as the way things are.

As a result, male middle managers are the linchpin to gender equality. Because of their position in the hierarchy, and the fact that they represent 70% of managers and leaders in organizations, they are the ones who must connect high-level gender equality strategy to the lower levels of the organization.

Leadership professor Elisabeth Kelan of Cranfield School of Management conducted a research study to identify the organizational practices gender inclusive middle managers engage in to ensure gender equality. Kelan’s research consisted of shadowing three gender-inclusive managers for one week. In addition, she conducted in-depth interviews of 20 peers, subordinates and superiors of the three men to gather more material on how these managers promoted gender equality in their day-to-day actions.

Based on the 130 hours of real-time observation of the three managers and more than 1100 minutes of interviews, Kelan identified four “meta-practices” of gender inclusive middle managers:

  • Celebrating and Encouraging Women. Gender inclusive middle managers ensure that the skills of the women in their departments do not go unnoticed. Women are encouraged to take on developmental roles and apply for promotions. Managers also celebrate their performance, and make sure that they receive full credit for their ideas and accomplishments.
  • Calling Out Bias. Gender inclusive middle managers avoid bias in their actions and words, and do not hesitate to call out bias from other men, including their superiors (although this must be approached with great sensitivity). Men in the workplace can display bias in a variety of ways: bonding with each other by discussing sports and other shared interests or, worse, sexually objectifying women; identifying with the similar, such as selecting a young male job applicant over a female applicant because “he’s just like me at that age”; or dominating meetings, not just by monopolizing the floor but also, in some cases, using patronising and sexualised humour to discount women participants. Gender inclusive middle managers deliberately point out the inappropriateness of sexually charged remarks, identify with the dissimilar and help other men do the same, and make sure that women are given a voice at meetings.
  • Championing and Defending Gender Initiatives. Gender initiatives are often resisted by men, who avoid or undermine women’s events, pity or belittle middle managers who promote gender initiatives (“How did you get stuck with that?”), or ignore others who display gender inclusive leadership. Middle managers should take an active role in women’s events and clearly defend such initiatives as important to the company. They should also provide positive feedback to male members of their team who act and speak in gender inclusive ways.
  • Challenging Working Practices. Traditional work practices can lead to bias. Total dedication to your work at the expense of family, for example, might have been possible for a man with a spouse at home, but is no longer tenable for two-worker families. Incessant efforts to competitively ‘out-do’ each other, using gendered language (e.g. sports or military metaphors), and discounting any emotional response to change are further vestiges of men-only workplaces. Gender inclusive middle managers challenge gendered language, reject hyper-competition in favour of more constructive working practices, are not afraid to make their private life responsibilities visible (example, declining to attend an last-minute early morning meeting because of child care coverage), and display emotional competence and intelligence. 


In addition to supporting gender diversity in their organizations through high-level initiatives, corporate leaders must also involve male middle managers in the process — for they are, indeed, the linchpin to making gender inclusive workplaces a reality.Much is made of women role models leading the way for other women to succeed in the workplace. Focusing on the many day-to-day practices that undermines gender equality shows that it is equally (if not more) important for organizations to cultivate male middle managers as roles models of gender inclusive leadership. This will encourage others to display the same attitudes and behaviours.

In addition, male middle managers can struggle with supporting and empathising with people who are different. Organizations should thus make every effort to encourage male middle managers to overcome the tendency of us all to identify with people who are like ourselves.

Finally, gender inclusive male middle managers tend to be self-reflective, recognizing the impact that they have on others. These middle managers will be encouraged if they receive feedback on their leadership from both senior level leaders as well as the people they manage.

In addition to supporting gender diversity in their organizations through high-level initiatives, corporate leaders must also involve male middle managers in the process — for they are, indeed, the linchpin to making gender inclusive workplaces a reality.



Linchpin: Men, Middle Managers and Gender Inclusive Leadership. Elisabeth Kelan. Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders Report (January 2013). 

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Idea conceived

December 31, 2015

Idea posted

Jan 2016
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