Engaging men in workplaces in building gender equality

There is great interest these days in the role that men can play in building gender equality. Beginning perhaps in the mid-1990s, we’ve seen a significant increase in attention to men’s roles in building gender equality. This was signalled by various developments.

  • An increase in programming focused on men, in relation to sexual and reproductive health, men’s violence against women, fatherhood, and HIV/AIDS;
  • A series of international commitments on the need to work with men; at the Beijing Platform for Action, the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and elsewhere.
  • Popular accounts of male feminism

In recent media there has been lots of attention to male feminists, men who say things in support of feminism – men like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, actor Ryan Gosling, and others.

  • High-profile, men-focused campaigns

And more importantly, there are now a series of programs, campaigns, and networks focused on the role men can play in building gender equality. There are international efforts:

  • the UN campaign HeForShe;
  • MenCare, the global campaign to promote men’s involvement as equitable, responsive, and non-violent fathers and caregivers;
  • The White Ribbon Campaign, now in over 60 countries, involving men as advocates for ending men’s violence against women.
  • And various Australia efforts as well…

I’m delighted to see these. It is clear that ‘engaging men’ is on the agenda.

This turn to men in gender politics is part of a range of wider social shifts over the past few decades. There have been important shifts towards gender equality in Australia: shifts in work and political power, shifts in social norms and cultural ideals. And of course, shifts in the everyday fabric of women’s and men’s lives. Before we get too optimistic though, we have to acknowledge that in some ways, progressive trends towards gender equality have stalled, or even been pushed back.

Men’s lives are shifting too. I do research on men and masculinities: on men’s gender roles, on sex and sexualities, fathering, pornography, and domestic and sexual violence. And in each of these areas, there is cause for hope, and also cause for caution, cause for concern. I see signs among men of moves towards more equitable, caring, ethical gender roles. But I also see signs of backlash and resistance.

In any case, engaging men is on the agenda. And, if we really are to make progress towards gender equality, engaging men must be done well. It must be effective, principled, and based on evidence.

That’s where the report Men Make a Difference comes in. Men Make a Difference is intended to advance the work of engaging men on gender equality.

The report starts with gender, and gender inequalities, 101. It starts with two key points

First, gender shapes everyone’s lives, women’s and men’s. Gender often is used as code for ‘women’. But in fact, men’s lives are shaped as much as women’s by gender. ‘Gender’ refers to the meanings and patterns of men’s and women’s lives. And we know from four decades of research that gender is socially constructed – it’s the product of society and culture.

Second, if we look at the patterns of men’s and women’s lives, we see a pattern of gender inequality. A systematic pattern of female disadvantage and male advantage.

People often talk about gender inequality in terms of women’s disadvantage, discrimination against women, women’s exclusion from economic decision-making and political power. But the flipside of this is men’s advantage, informal affirmative action for men, and men’s monopoly of economic decision-making and political power.

Now, these patterns of gender inequality, in part, are personal and everyday. They shape the life of every man in this room. As a man, when I open my mouth, my views often are given more weight than a woman’s views. When I send in my CV or have a job interview, I may be seen as more competent, because I am male, than a woman with the same skills and experience. I’m a father, and if I work long hours at work, it’s unlikely that anyone will think I’m being selfish and neglecting my children. If I’m a senior leader, there is no tension between my gender and my role. As a man, I’m assertive, but she’s bossy. I’m enthusiastic, but she’s emotional. I network, but she gossips. When I take tough decisions, I’m confident or firm, but her, she’s a bitch.

Gender inequalities are personal and interpersonal. But they are also organisational and structural. They are built into the structures, processes, and cultures of workplaces: their divisions of labour, their decision-making, their informal norms and expectations.

So, why a report focused on engaging men in gender equality? Well, for two reasons. First, gender inequality, at heart, is a men’s problem. Sure, women help maintain gender inequality too. Women too may believe in traditional gender roles. But the bigger problem is men’s.

But the second reason, and this is the uplifting one, the positive one, is that men are a key part of the solution. Men have a vital role to play in building gender equality. Yes, men are part of the problem. And, men are part of the solution.

It is a guiding belief of this report that men will benefit from greater gender equality. And making the case to men, that men will benefit, is a vital part of this work.

Now look, the most important reason why men should support gender equality is that it is the right thing to do. The system isn’t fair, men often receive unfair privileges, and men have an ethical obligation to make things fair.

But it is also in men’s interests to change. Men ourselves will benefit from progress towards gender equality. Men will benefit personally, in our intimate and family relationships, and in our workplaces and communities.

This report draws on a whole stack of research – that’s why it’s got 118 footnotes. And the research shows that gender equality is good for men. Men benefit, in all kinds of ways, when the women and girls they care about have fairer, safer lives; when traditional, narrow norms of masculinity are loosened; when men have feminist partners and gender-equitable relationships, when they’re actively involved with their kids; and when there is greater gender equality in their communities and in the country. And, for this report, it’s important to mention also that men benefit from workplaces with greater gender equality, workplaces with greater diversity, teamwork, and talent.

But to engage men in the work of building gender equality, we have to start with where men are at.

Again, there is bad news and good news.

If you surveyed all the men and women in your organisation, your workplace, you would probably find some typical patterns. Men in general are less supportive of gender equality than women. Men are more likely than women to believe that sexism doesn’t exist any more. Men are less likely than women to recognise sexist behaviour – discrimination, harassment, and so on.

What else do we know about where men are at?

Even if men agree that gender equality is important, they may see this as a women’s issue, and not of direct relevance to them. Men often over-estimate other men’s support for sexism, so they don’t speak up, because they mistakenly believe they’re in the minority. Men often fear that they will be judged – as soft, too sensitive, gay, and so on – if they say something. Or, they simply don’t know what to say or do – they lack skills in challenging sexism.

Still, there is good news. Most men in Australia have broad support for gender equality. They think that women and men should have the same rights to paid work, to political decision-making, to fair treatment in the workplace.

Some men are committed advocates for gender equality. They step up and speak out.

When men do advocate for gender equality – and note the irony here – often they are perceived more positively than women who do so. Male advocates are seen as less selfish or hostile. And if they are senior male leaders, they can take advantage of the seemingly natural ‘fit’ between being male and being a leader.

The ‘engaging men’ field is growing. This work has got smarter, and more effective. We’ve learnt some crucial lessons.

Perhaps the first lesson is that engaging men is not the magic bullet, the be-all-and-end-all. I love the fact there’s now a passion in Australia for inviting men into work to build gender equality. But let’s be clear, it’s one strategy among many.

And, while I’ve been a passionate cheerleader for engaging men, that doesn’t mean that men have to be in every room, every program. We still very much need women-focused and women-only efforts.

Also, let’s not give men a standing ovation just for turning up. Let’s not give men a cookie just for being decent human beings. Let’s not work so hard to praise, and reassure, and placate men, that we never actually ask anything of them, never ask them to do the public work or the personal work of change.

Let’s not assume that the only men who can make a difference are the men at the top. Instead, we need to engage men at every level. Middle-managers: in fact, male middle managers can be key obstacles to change e.g. in work-life issues. And men on the shopfloor, blue collar and working-class men.

Let’s not assume that all men are the same. Some men speak a language other than English. Some go home to a man they love. Some face Mecca to pray. Some were the first in their family to finish school. Let’s recognise diversity among men, just as we should among women.

When men do get involved, let’s invite them to think about how they treat women and girls (and other men and boys) in their everyday lives, about the messages about manhood or masculinity they grew up with. As part of this work, men have to try to live equitably in our own lives.

So, how can organisations effectively engage men? The report Men Make a Difference offers ten principles.

Get the foundation right

The first principle is, Get the foundation right. The key here is partnership – a spirit of partnership between men and women, where men and women work together, collaborate, and consult. What we don’t want is men coming swaggering into the room and announcing, “Okay ladies, we’ll take it from here”.

The report lists some inspiring examples where women and men work together to drive change, where men act as allies to women.

Get the framing right

The second principle is, Get the framing right. We’ve said, Treat gender equality as a business issue, not a women’s issue. There is a compelling business case for gender equality. And a key way to get men on board is to show them the practical benefits for their workplace, their organisation, of gender equality.

Now, I have a couple of cautions here. Yes, gender equality is a business issue, but that doesn’t mean that we only care about gender equality if it increases the firm’s productivity or profits. And we should care about gender equality also because it’s an issue of fairness, of equity, of justice.

Get the messaging right

Our third principle is, Get the messaging right. It’s hard to get men on board. But there are ways to make it more likely that you will inspire men’s involvement and commitment. The research on engaging men, even on really chunky, difficult issues like violence against women, endorses various strategies.

Recruit men who are already on side, men who are already supportive. Use men’s formal and informal networks to reach them. Bring senior men on board.

The content of the message matters too:

  • Appeal to a sense of fairness. Heighten men’s sense of what’s fair, what’s just, as this has been show to motivate men’s support.
  • But also appeal to men’s care and concern for the women they know.
  • Emphasise the positive – that most male staff are supportive of gender equality. Emphasise that other men agree.
  • Emphasise that men have a valuable role to play, without minimising the reality of gender inequalities or men’s sexist behaviour.
  • Appeal to men as bystanders – to men’s ability to speak up about and intervene in sexist behaviour and attitudes by other men (and women).
  • Identify small, practical actions men can take. Don’t expect men to have gone through some kind of wholesale personal reconstruction before their first gender equity meeting. But give men small, practical steps they can take to start making change.

One of the challenges here is to move men to more substantive involvements and understandings. Some men start off seeing themselves as protectors, heroes, or rescuers. They may recognise obvious forms of sexism, but they don’t see underlying systems of inequality. And they don’t acknowledge or address their own role in perpetuating this. To use the language of one of the pieces of research we use, these men are ‘allies for self-interest’. We want to move men to being ‘allies for social justice’. These men work with women. They recognise their own stake in change. They work with and challenge other men, rather than focusing on how they are ‘different from’ and ‘better than’ other men. And they have a passion for building gender justice.

Engage a diversity of men

Another principle is to engage a diversity of men. Men’s lives, just like women’s, are shaped not only by gender but by class, ethnicity, sexuality, age, disability, and a host of other forms of difference.

Go wide

The fifth principle is to ‘go wide’. The research on gender, work, and organisations tells us that gender inequalities are embedded across organisations. So if gender inequalities are both wide and deep, then gender equality work has to be wide and deep as well. That means paying attention not only to the most easily recognised areas where there may be inequality – pay, rewards, and decision-making and leadership – but also other areas: people’s interpersonal relations, caring responsibilities, and community involvement.

Educate about how to lead change effectively

One common strategy is to involve male executive leaders as ‘champions’ for gender equality. Yes, this makes good sense, and getting senior men on board is vital. But I’ve got three points here.

‘Male champions’ aren’t enough by themselves, and organisational and structural strategies are vital too.

We have to make sure that the principle of gender equality isn’t just something that individual leaders can take or leave, but actually built into our very definitions of leadership, and into organisational values.

Senior male leaders are more likely to be credible agents of change if they show consistent, genuine support for gender equality initiatives; their support is visible and ongoing; and if they ‘walk the walk’.

Make the connection between work and home

The seventh principle, make the connection between work and home, comes from the recognition that gender inequalities in paid work are intimately tied to gender inequalities in the home, in parenting and caring work. And that in fact, many men pay a real price in workplaces which are inflexible and family-hostile.

Make the connection between work and communities

Eight, we must make the connection between work and communities. Organisations and workplaces can play valuable roles in addressing the gender and community issues which have a profound impact on the workforce and on the wider community. By adopting policies on domestic violence, forging partnerships with community organisations, and sponsoring research.

Build individuals’ gender confidence and capability

If men are to play a role, they need an awareness of sexism and gender inequalities, and they need skills in how to challenge these. So how do we do that? How about we get all the men together, for a one-off, half-hour, lecture? Will that do this? No, what if we use Powerpoint as well? No. We have to involve men, and women, in education and training. Get smaller groups together, get them talking and reflecting, give them stuff to read and explore, and teach them skills.

Encourage men and women to challenge and change gender-biased organisational policies and practices 

The final principle is a vital one. We need to change organisational systems, policies, and practices. Examine how workplace systems are influenced by gender stereotypes and gender inequalities. Replace gender-biased models of success with fairer ones. Build the achievement of gender equality outcomes into accountability processes. Establish male advocacy and ally programs. And use gender equality measures and targets.

Now, I haven’t done justice to the rich examples and strategies explored in this report. But I want to end by pointing you to the title of this report. ‘Men make a difference’ – yes, this report argues, that engaging men makes a crucial difference to our efforts to build gender equality at work. But this report is also a call to action. It says to men, make a difference. Whether a man wears a hard hat and a high vis vest, or a suit and tie, whether he works in a cubicle or he’s got a corner office, he can make a difference. Men can join with women, to help build gender equality.


Citation: Flood, M. (2017). Engaging men in workplaces in building gender equality. Speech, Diversity Council of Australia launch of the report Men Make a Difference, June 15 2017.

Note: You can find the full Men Make a Difference report here. Also see the XY collection of guides and reports on Men building gender equality in the workplace, here.