The Prescription For More Gender Diversity in the Workplace? Fix Middle Management

gender diversity in the workplace

In the past few years, American corporations have increased their focus on attracting and retaining talented women to build gender diversity.

Companies tout everything from diversity targets to enhanced maternity leave to bias training to flying nannies. Many leadership experts, such as Harvard Business School Professor of Leadership John Kotter, believe that change needs to be driven from the top down. And yet evidence from over 10,000 employer reviews analyzed by Fairygodboss suggests that the top-down approach is necessary – but not sufficient to build a path to a truly gender-diverse workplace.

Nearly half of women on Fairygodboss, an online career community for women, say that women are not treated equally at their workplace. Even at the most highly rated companies, women often report that experiences can vary greatly depending upon the department. One-third of women on Fairygodboss say that their workplace experience “depends on their manager.” In other words, whether women face gender discrimination at work is generally not driven by corporate mandates or a CEO’s proclamations, but in day-to-day interactions through the chain of command. That’s why understanding the male perspective is so important: In corporate America, managers are still disproportionately men.

This summer, we surveyed over 300 U.S. full-time working men. Our survey was not random, nor was it intended to be. We simply wanted a cross-section of perspectives on how men felt about women’s workplace inclusion. And while the sample was not representative of all working U.S. men—three-fourths of participants have incomes of $100,000 or more, almost half work in the technology, Internet, or telecom sectors, and over half in management, finance, or technology roles—we did end up gathering a wide range of opinions on women at work.

Also read: 5 Lessons: What It Will Take to Promote More Multicultural Women at Work

Here are some of the most revealing insights men shared about women at work

  • “It’s a problem, just not where I work.” While a full one-third of men think women are treated unfairly in the workplace, in general, just 10% of respondents agree that women are treated unfairly in their workplace. In other words, the men we spoke to don’t believe that gender bias happens in their own backyard.women in the workplace
  • “Diversity is a culture issue. There is no gender wage gap.” When asked what challenges women most faced at work, men pointed toward an overall feeling of inclusion as the single biggest issue (by over 50% of respondents). Work-life balance, childcare, and mentorship came in a close second, but other more fundamental issues, such as compensation, promotion, harassment, and even flexible work options, were named much less frequently. Less than 25% of men, for example, named compensation as a big challenge faced by women at work, and similarly, less than 17% men viewed harassment as a challenge. Compare this to what women tend to say about the gender wage gap and sexual harassment, and you begin to see a real schism in what women and men say about workplace issues.challenges for women in the workplace
  • “I want to help, but it’s kind of awkward.” When asked, men say they are eager to help women. Almost half say they have advocated for equality, inclusion, and diversity publicly, and over half have done it privately. A full one-fifth, however, admitted that they have not yet acted as an ally.women inclusion in the workplace

What should companies do in light of these insights?

  • The first step – Get the facts: We recommend every company perform a brief survey about gender diversity in their workplace, and gather side-by-side responses from men and women. Laying bare the facts about how men and women perceive gender diversity issues in their own workplace differently would be the first step to helping everyone recognize how deep the perception gap can be.
  • Have honest conversations: Employees should be encouraged to have open and candid discussions about how gender bias impacts their workday. If men hear from female colleagues about the barriers they face at work, they may feel more compassionate and more motivated to help eliminate them.
  • Hold managers accountable: A commitment from the top to build a diverse, inclusive workplace is not enough—managers have to be held accountable. Rewarding managers for creating an environment where diverse talent can thrive is important.
  • Train managers: How managers manage truly matters. Research out of Stanford highlights that when people are assigned to better bosses, they are less likely to leave the firm. The first year as a manager is key for developing skills and habits. Often, managers are judged solely on financial performance; yet structured training and clear expectations for leadership quotient should be an essential element of every company.
  • Try, learn, iterate and share results: Finally, at an organization level, companies should continue to experiment with different approaches, or at least dialogues, to pinpoint their firms’ unique gender-related strengths and challenges.

Not all of the above strategies will work for everyone, but experimenting with them will help you find the right activities for your team and culture. Actively including men in these efforts, is vital—without it, women’s workplace progress will continue to stall. And the more companies are willing to share their results with each other, the faster and smarter we can all forge a path to more gender inclusive workplaces everywhere.

Also read: The Top 10 Best Job Titles and Departments for Women


Christy Johnson, CEO Artemis Connection

Christy Johnson is CEO and founder of Artemis Connection, a strategy and design firm that is reinventing consulting and providing meaningful work for women. Christy was an engagement manager at McKinsey & Co, was a VP at several corporations and was an award-winning high school math and economics teacher. Christy holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a MA in Education from the Stanford School of Education.

About the Author

Romy Newman is president and co-founder of Fairygodboss, a career and job destination for women. Previously, Romy ran digital advertising sales and operations for The Wall Street Journal, and worked in marketing at Google and Estee Lauder. Romy holds a BA from Yale University and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.