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Gender diversity remains a hot topic at work as more organisations commit to creating an inclusive environment.

The number of C-suite female leaders is gradually on the rise. And companies that are embracing flexible working are helping people to gain better control over their time, predominantly benefiting women who largely shoulder the primary caregiver responsibilities.

That said, big equality gaps remain, especially in areas such as pay and professional development opportunities, writes Carina Harvey, CIPD Chartered Professional and Personal Identity Coach.

Plenty of statistics show that a diverse workforce has direct advantages for the business, including increased profitability, broader client appeal, and wider talent pools. The value is also evident for individuals and society as a whole. Thankfully, we’re heading in the right direction, even with a way to go. However, one aspect that rarely gets discussed is how this culture shift might affect men’s sense of identity.

Carina Harvey, CIPD Chartered Professional and Personal Identity Coach

Traditionally, gender diversity has been led and championed by women. This is also changing for the better, as men are being brought into the debate and becoming actively involved in the transformation agenda. Yet, not all concerns are being addressed. This is especially true when organisations struggle to improve diversity and revert to tactics like quotas, which some see as a ‘box ticking’ exercise or forced measures. Some might even see these tools as strategies set to push men out. Where previously male employees were only required to justify themselves based on their suitability for the role, these new statistic-driven considerations may seem unfair. In reality, it was never an even playing field before, but we still shouldn’t ignore or diminish these worries without seeking to resolve them.

Raising the topic doesn’t detract from the importance of equality, far from it. It’s much better to understand where certain attitudes come from and provide reassurance. If we really want to advance equality then we must involve everyone in the conversation, acknowledging all perspectives.

How identity impacts attitudes and behaviours

To tackle such a nuanced topic, first we need to explore the importance of identity. Identity relates to how we define ourselves, and it plays a huge role in how we connect with others. In a workplace context, identity frames how we perceive our position within the business beyond our roles and responsibilities on paper.

Humans don’t like change. If external factors evolve outside of our control, it can affect our sense of self and make us feel exposed, impacting everything from motivation and mindset to communication and mental wellbeing. When it comes to the conversation around gender equality, many male employees admit they’re not sure what’s expected of them anymore or how to behave ‘correctly’. They don’t want to come across as ignorant, patronising, or cause offence. By and large, they want to offer support, but that isn’t always easy to navigate when their identity is thrown into question. These feelings of insecurity and uncertainty soon create issues that can affect the whole team.

Given that men occupy the majority of senior roles, many of them will be leading strategies to promote gender equality. It is essential that they feel seen and understand what part they play in driving change. A lot of the discussion looks at removing barriers for women. But this will never happen fully without the active participation of men.

Encouraging open conversation and collaboration

Making a difference in the long term relies on awareness and understanding. Organisations should start by creating a safe environment where men feel comfortable being honest, asking questions, and raising any concerns. Of course, this takes time and these conversations don’t have to happen in an open forum. The key is keeping communication channels with HR and management open so that everyone has the option to share their thoughts.

Rather than instructing men on what women need, advising and coaching male colleagues to better understand the female perspective may prove to be more effective. In addition, showing men how they add value to these strategies is a key part of bringing them into this agenda and highlighting the important role they can play.

When people feel excluded they often opt out of the conversation altogether, which is the last thing companies want. Some areas men in leadership can influence include bias-reducing hiring processes, identifying female talent, mentoring and coaching programmes, effective returnship support, and training and upskilling women. By explaining how men play a crucial role in achieving gender diversity, it becomes easier for them to see the best ways to add value.

There is also a lot to be said for promoting the benefit of diverse teams on soft skill development. Having a more diverse workforce encourages higher levels of emotional intelligence and communication, which is ultimately better for colleagues and culture.

Above all, men need to know that true equality leads to mutual gain. Part of that process means improving internal communication, strengthening working relationships and creating a culture where everyone is confident to present their authentic self at work.

Key takeaways for making everyone’s concerns count:

  • Define the important role that men play in advancing gender equality
  • Emphasise the personal development and wellbeing aspects for both men and women
  • Highlight the tangible benefits for the business’s bottom line
  • Keep communication channels open
  • Focus on education and awareness