Growing male engagement key for gender equality in Australia

29 July 2019 6 min. read

While upping male engagement is an essential part of improving gender equality, there remains an apparent mismatch between men and women on what needs to be done in the workplace to make change happen.

Workplace inequality is one of the most common flaws of the labour market, with discrepancies between male and female employees continuing to exist. Across the board, women are underrepresented in leadership tiers, they are less likely to be promoted into management roles and are paid less for similar jobs. On a positive note, gender parity has improved over the past decade, both globally and in Australia, yet change has been slow.

Improving female representation across the workforce is not just an ethical cause, it is known to generate a string of benefits. Across geographies and sectors, gender parity has been proven to positively affect business outcomes. According to Chio Verastegui, a partner with Bain & Company in Australia, “organisations with greater diversity have greater retention, higher levels of employee advocacy, overall better performance and faster growth.”

Four factors contribute to higher male engagement

Together with Freek Jorna, also based in Bain’s Sydney office, Verastegui looked into one key factor of how more gender parity could be nurtured – male engagement. “Corporate Australia remains far from reaching gender parity, so concerted action is still required to balance the scales. But, gender equality won’t be achieved without significant male engagement. Given their predominance in leadership positions, men’s support is critical,” they state in their report titled ‘Better Together’.

Traditionally, men show less support for gender equality initiatives than women. This is because some men are just not interested in the issue or don’t want to advance gender equality – “but those men are the minority,” highlight Verastegui and Jorna. More men do support the shift, yet operate in and are part of an environment with all kinds of barrier to female advancement. In a survey of over 1,900 male respondents, the authors found that the majority of men in fact sit in the benign middle, neither highly engaged nor fully disengaged.

Why men support gender parity

Having analysed engagements data points, four factors have been identified as drivers of higher male engagement – seniority, age, exposure to female role models and fatherhood. Senior leaders are nearly two and a half times more likely to be highly engaged than other employees. “This is encouraging, as visible and committed leadership is a critical factor in creating equal opportunities in the workplace.”

Women want men to engage more in gender diversity

Age is negatively correlated with support, with those younger than 34 years old 5% more likely to be highly engaged than their older counterparts. Having been exposed to more gender-balanced and diversity-conscious environments, younger men tend to see gender parity as a two-way street – that is, it addresses their needs as well as women’s. “They understand that workplace programmes that have been historically reserved (or marketed) for women, such as flexible work options and caregiver leave, benefit them as well,” write Verastegui and Jorna.

Men with children are considerably more likely to be engaged – at 19% for non-primary caregivers and 31% for primary caregivers. Those without children are the least likely to be engaged, at 12%. Finally, not surprising, men with female role models, either at work or at home, are more than twice as likely to be highly engaged compared with those who have none.

Factors such as ethnicity, sexual orientation and partner employment status were found to have no meaningful relationship to high or low engagement in gender equality.

Building engagement

From the perspective of women, there is a large need in the workplace for more male commitment to gender parity engagement. Almost 70% of women said that they would like men to be more involved with gender parity and participate more in initiatives. However, illustrating the disconnect between the sexes, a large proportion of male respondents (64%) feel satisfied with their current level of engagement. Men and women also value gender parity activities differently. Men generally aren’t participating in initiatives that women believe are most likely to advance equality, including calling out instances of gender discrimination and removing bias from people processes.

Men and women value gender parity activities differently

This disconnect is putting progress at risk, warn the authors. “If both sides don’t understand or recognise the counterview, a dangerous cycle could ensue, in which women demand more participation, causing men to disengage or retract their support. In this scenario, progress stalls as criticism and frustration mount on both sides.”

Based on their analysis, as well as Bain’s track record in helping clients with diversity and inclusion, the authors have crafted as list of five ways how organisations can advance gender parity in their ranks. First is to ensure that there is leadership commitment – male leaders create a strong impetus for change, particularly if they are in CxO roles themselves. Second, make sure that there are sufficient and tailored inclusion and diversity programmes in place. As with practically all change endeavours, building awareness and training are key levers of transformation.

Supporting continuous communication, both vertically from management to the workfloor as well as between men and women, building a stronger link between overall gender parity and the benefits that men experience as a result, and fostering better, not just more, engagement round off the list of tips.

“Men and women, companies and individuals, must move forward together to make a difference. This is one business problem that must be solved together,” conclude the authors.