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Achieving gender balance is about men – not women

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I was really happy to recently hear that my article published last year in HR Zone was the most read article in that quarter!  So, I am re-posting on my website for all of you who missed it….


Why is it that whenever anyone talks of gender equality, the immediate thought is about women’s rights, feminist chants of discrimination in the workplace, pointing the finger at male leaders creating barriers to female career progression? Is it possible our UK society has swung too far in the opposite direction, favouring women over men?

No, I hear many of you reply.

We have a gender pay gap of over 18%, there are still 12 all-male executive committees in the FTSE 100 (as reported by the Hampton-Alexander review on 1st October 2016), and you only have to speak to a handful of maternity returners to recognise the challenges they face progressing their careers on a flexible or part time basis.

And you would be right, these issues are clearly very real.  But why are we making such slow and painfully steady progress in addressing them?

Creating gender balance by focusing on women

Organisations typically address gender issues by focusing on the barriers for women. They put in place women-only leadership development programmes, women-only mentoring schemes, offering coaching to build female confidence and run workshops to support women returners.

Perhaps we can’t solve the gender balance problem by solely focusing on women?

By doing so makes the problem a women’s issue – women lack confidence in their ability, they don’t self-promote as much as men, they have more nurturing leadership characteristics etc.

What’s going on for men?

The current generation of new fathers want to be more active and involved in childcare than their fathers before them.

They want to have a closer relationship with their children, opting more towards doing the school drop-offs and pick-ups and being present at bath time and bedtime rather than being purely weekend fathers.

And yet research has shown that fathers who choose to take time off for family reasons or work part time suffer lower long term earnings – a 26.4% earnings penalty.  Of course mothers also encounter this type of penalty but fathers get hit worse.

Why?  Because organisations expect a woman to return from maternity leave on a part time basis in order to take care of her children. But they don’t expect a man to do the same.

The traditional role for a man is to provide for his family by working hard. By going against this norm, men get more heavily stigmatised for lacking commitment for their job and not prioritising the organisation’s needs over their family.

Not only that, but they also get feminised for wanting to take on the traditionally female caregiver role. They are perceived a less dominant, less assertive, more sensitive and emotional. A bit of a dilemma for a man wanting to strike a balance between his work and family!

Flexible Fathers Research

In October 2016, Avenir Consulting in partnership with Henley Business School and the 30% Club, published research findings that looked more deeply into how organisational culture influences fathers’ decision to work flexibly (download the key findings).

Local culture in the father’s immediate team was found to be most influential, i.e. if team members worked flexibly and if the line manager was vocal about how important flexible working is, actively encouraged it and worked flexibly themselves.

One father explained, “Will my manager approve it?….You don’t want to ask the question unless you’re fairly sure what the response will be”.

Findings also found that a supportive organisational culture for flexible working impacted fathers’ satisfaction with their work-life balance – possibly due to having more autonomy to manage their time to fit with work demands and family commitments.

Higher satisfaction with work-family balance positively impacted their job satisfaction and they had less intention to leave the organisation, highlighting the importance of developing a flexible working culture on productivity and retention.

What’s this got to do with creating gender balance?

The research also found that men working flexibly and taking an active childcaring role has a positive impact on female career progression.  More specifically, when men played an equal or main caregiver role in childcare, 47% of female partners had progressed their career since having had children.

When men played very little or a moderate role in childcare activities, only 26% of female partners had progressed their career. That’s a 21% difference in female career progression.

So, what we’re saying is, organisational culture impacts fathers’ decision to work flexibly, which is related to how active he is in childcare duties, which impacts his female partner’s career progression.

Secondly, and of equal importance, an organisational culture where both men and women are supported and encouraged to work flexibly creates a level-playing field for development and promotion opportunities.

No longer is there a conscious or unconscious bias related to recruiting a man over a woman because of their working arrangements – everyone is working flexibly in a way that suits the business and their individual lives.

Five reasons why organisations should focus on men

1. Individual productivity and commitment

Our research findings highlight the critical link between organisational culture for flexible working and fathers’ job satisfaction and their organisational commitment, loyalty and intention to stay. A recent study by the Smith Institute also points to a better work-life balance leading to higher productivity.

So, creating a flexible working culture for all employees leads to tangible productivity and retention benefits. And also intangible reputational benefits as employees actively advocate the organisation and encourage fresh talent to apply for roles.

2. Increasing financial performance

The impact of creating a genderless organisation, where both men and women are supported to work flexibly, spirals up the organisation.

It breaks the common progression barriers allowing more diversity up the leadership chain.

Research has found that greater gender diversity in senior leadership positions improves financial performance – McKinsey reported a difference in return on equity of over 40% between companies with the most women on their executive committees and those with none, and a 56% difference in operating results.

3. Stronger leadership and better decisions

Furthermore, McKinsey found the significant benefits of a gender-balanced leadership team.

Women help to improve organisational performance through their participative decision making, their focus on people development and their role-modelling behaviour.

Men enhance organisational performance through their individual decision making and their control and correction of actions.

A balance of the two approaches leads to stronger leadership, better decisions and more innovation.

4. Attracting and retaining young talent

If organisations are to survive in a competitive, global market they need to attract young talent.

Male and female millennials want and expect flexible working compared previous generations and they are more likely to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the organisation by walking out the door.

Top reasons for millennials to quit their job, as reported by EY, were excessive overtime hours, too much overnight travel and the negative stigma associated with working flexibly.

5. Family health and wellbeing

From a corporate social responsibility perspective, organisations that actively support flexible working for men play a vital role in the health and wellbeing of families.

Over 44% of all divorcees state that lack of equality was a contributing factor in their split, i.e. an unfair balance between work and housework or childcare.

So, happier and more stable young people will develop from fathers feeling supported and able to work flexibly.

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