Collaborating with men

Gender Mixed Team


How do we get to workplace equality? Employers who met at a recent’s roundtable agreed that it is about asking questions and challenging the status quo continually.

There is also consensus that for too long the focus has only been on women, with men not even part of the conversation.

One organisation which is seeking to change that and to tackle the issues as ones about workplace culture rather than women is Murray Edwards College at the University of Cambridge. It recently released a report entitled Collaborating with Men based on its research into culture change.

The research came as a result of a survey Murray Edwards, one of three all-women’s colleges at Cambridge, conducted of its alumnae in 2014 for its 60th anniversary. The Women Today, Women Tomorrow survey sought to find out what the barriers were to women’s career progression. It found that workplace culture – with all its associated biases – was far more of a barrier than women having problems after having children.

The college wanted to dig a bit deeper into the data it had obtained and look at the issues that emerged for women and ask men what their views were on the problems. Jill Armstrong, research associate at Murray Edwards, started by doing a literature review which showed there was much research that evidenced problems with women being heard in meetings; different reactions to the same behaviour by women and men; benevolent sexism; male-dominated informal networks and their impact on decision-making; and access to opportunities to work on prestigious projects and sponsorship.

Seeking solutions

Yet, there was virtually no academic research on what men thought impeded women at work.  Jill set up workshops with 40 men who favoured gender equality, mainly in early to mid career. The structure involved creating little vignettes around issues such as men interrupting women at meetings and then asking participants if they recognised them and/or had experienced them. “We are looking for solutions and so we wanted to focus on the majority of men who are in favour of equality, but who may not really know the problems women face and what they can do about it,” said Jill.  “We know that at the senior leadership level many CEOs see diversity as a top priority, but we wanted to know how that was being translated down the line.”

She found that there was an “implementation gap” between senior leaders setting policy  about gender equality issues and what was happening day to day. Men who speak out about the general culture – for instance, on issues like bullying, harassment, excluding women from networking opportunities, speaking over women – often face a backlash. “We want to support men to get involved,” she said.

She has kept in contact with the men and says some of them said they were asked by colleagues why they were getting involved. “Diversity is still very much seen as a women’s issue,” said Jill. “Until it is seen as an issue for all, things will not shift.”

The interesting thing, she says, is that younger people generally think they are living in an equal world. “They have been to university where there are more women than men and when they start at work there seem to be a lot of women there,” she said. “They may think the battles have been won. It is only when they start spending time in the workplace that they start to see the differences in the way women and men are dealt with. It is only when they get older that they appreciate that women are disappearing.”

By the time men get to middle management level and are more aware of the problems women are facing, often as a result of their partners’ experience, they may be too busy to do anything about it in a very competitive environment, says Jill. That can sound like they don’t care, which is not necessarily the case. What is needed is for them and their employers to find ways to institute change within the working day.

Just ask

One of the exercises she included in the recommendations to her report came about by chance. Before she met the men in the workshops she sent them a summary of the research on the workplace culture problems experienced by women. Some of the men then took that back to the women they worked or lived with and talked about them. That developed into one of the report’s Just Ask recommendation. This involves managers holding moderated mixed gender discussions about the issues for women and the possible solutions.

Other recommendations include power audits conducted by mixed gender teams after a project is finished to make visible how and where decisions were made; extending mixed gender networks to make it more likely that a woman comes to mind when an opportunity arises, for example, through mixed gender mentoring; repeating a woman’s idea and giving her credit where interruptions and speaking over women is a problem; and encouraging seniors leaders to reward and support men who make changes to support gender parity.

Jill says the recommendations go much further than unconscious bias workshops and aim to tackle the everyday issues in the workplace rather than take people out of the workplace to do a training course. Although she says unconscious bias training can be helpful if tailored to a particular organisation and is effective for areas such as recruitment, she stresses that any long-term solutions need to connect to people’s everyday working lives.

She adds that there are benefits for men in changing the workplace culture too. More dads want to be involved with their children. She adds that greater equality makes for better employee engagement and a happier, more trusting workplace. There is reams of research showing the business benefits of diversity.

Jill says because of the nature of gender politics collaborating with men has to be done sensitively. Women may feel than including men in forums and networks that they have seen as theirs takes some of their power away. She is also critical of terms such as male champions as she feels this has a “knights in white charger” feel to it. “Men and women have to work together as allies,” she says.

“There are a lot of benefits for everyone. Work changes fundamentally for women and men when they have children. These are not just women’s issues.”

Culture change

She thinks the emphasis has been too much on initiatives such as women leadership programmes that aim to change women rather than workplace culture. While these programmes can be effective, she says, they will not bring the overall change in the system that is needed. “There is a reason why things are not significantly changing and why women are still lost in the middle. These interventions are fine, but 30 years of experience suggests that they are not enough. The culture has to change,” she says, adding that her previous research with mums and daughters suggests that things may be going backwards for those who are about to enter the workplace. “Women of my generation faced different pressures, but my research showed that even though they have grown up with working mums working long hours and most felt they were well mothered, young women are already anticipating problems when they themselves have children.”

Since doing the workshops Jill has been working with individual employers using the recommendations and later in the year will begin investigating masculinity and how it relates to competitive practices.

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