Achieving gender balance is about men - not women

Gender balance
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This is part one in a two-part series on achieving gender diversity. The second part looks at the practical steps organisations can take.

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.

The UK government 2020 target for women on boards is 33% and yet progress towards this target has slowed over the past 12 months.

Organisations typically address gender issues by focusing on the barriers for women. 

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. 


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

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.

Men working flexibly and taking an active childcaring role has a positive impact on female career progression.

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.

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

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

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 [PDF] 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.    

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.

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.

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 [PDF], were excessive overtime hours, too much overnight travel and the negative stigma associated with working flexibly.

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.

About Nadia Nagamootoo

Photo of Nadia Nagamootoo

Nadia is a chartered psychologist and completed an Executive MBA at Henley Business School in 2016.  She is a professional coach, business consultant and facilitator.  With over 10 years’ experience in the field of organisational development, leadership development and talent management, Nadia has enjoyed working with a diverse range of global clients including HSBC, GlaxosmithKline, BP, the NHS, Kellogg, BAE Systems and the Civil Service.  Nadia has a deep expertise and specialism in the field of diversity and inclusion.  Her 2016 ground breaking research on men working flexibly and the systemic impact on women, organisations and society has achieved significant publicity and attention.  She works with leaders and organisations in their cultural journey towards creating gender balance.


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30th Jan 2017 14:34

This is an excellent article in that it looks at the whole picture rather than through just one lens. There is no doubt that we do need to step back and review our stereotypes on gender - including what are considered normal 'male' or 'female' characteristics. Males can be nurturing and females can be competitive and aggressive. Even those of us who are working on gender issues can find ourselves being drawn into these labels and they undermine the quality of our thinking and approach to the issues.

Thanks (2)
to Chris Woodman
01st Feb 2017 11:07

Hi Chris, thanks very much for your positive comment. Completely agree with your view! I'm sure sociologists and anthropologists would tell us we have our work cut out in challenging gender stereotypes and norms. But our UK society has changed in what men and women want and need - it seems the stereotypes that are associated with this is much harder to shift. Organisations play a huge role in this evolution though and they need to start recognising and doing something to address it.

Thanks (2)