Psychological standing and men’s participation in gender-parity initiatives

Gender sign

by Elad N. Sherf and Subra Tangirala 

A gender-balanced workforce is an economic and moral imperative for organizations. Advancing women’s equality is not only right from a social justice perspective but as a recent report by McKinsey Global Institute suggests it can add $12 trillion to global economic growth. Not surprisingly, many organizations have launched gender-parity initiatives or organized attempts to improve the balance of the gender make-up of their workforces.

Yet, such gender-parity initiatives frequently fail to meet their desired objectives. Although multiple reasons potentially contribute to such failures, one crucial reason may be men’s passivity or lack of enthusiastic involvement in those initiatives.

When men stay on the sidelines, a critical stakeholder is left out of conversations on how organizations can approach and implement gender-equitable policies and practices. That is, gender-parity initiatives run the risk of getting marginalized as “women’s issues” that fail to capture and mobilize the attention and resources of all members of the organization. As men are frequently in positions of power and authority, their lower involvement can thus especially contribute to gender-parity initiatives’ lack of success.

Why do men remain on the sidelines?

Men do disassociate themselves from discussions regarding gender-parity because they often hold negative attitudes toward gender-parity programs (for instance, due to sexism).

Yet, even when men support gender parity programs and have positive ideas that they can contribute, they often tend not to get actively involved. We propose that a possible explanation for this reluctance lies in men’s lowered psychological standing on issues of gender-parity.

Psychological standing refers to a person’s self-perceived legitimacy to perform an action with respect to a cause or an issue. It reflects a judgment on the part of a person about the extent to which “one has a place in” or it is “one’s business” to participate in conversations about an issue. It can explain why people who hold a very strong attitude towards a policy (e.g., moral outrage), curiously refrain from taking action on it (e.g., protest).

We argue that when it comes to gender parity initiatives, men experience lowered levels of psychological standing—that is, feel that it is not their place to engage with those initiatives, which explains why they often remain silent in relation to such initiatives.

In a recent paper, we presented four studies (using correlational survey data and psychological experiments) that demonstrated that men are less likely to believe they have psychological standing on gender-parity discussions in the workplace than their female coworkers. This lowered psychological standing explained why men were less likely to participate in gender-parity initiatives. Importantly, this explanation remained crucial even when other possible explanations, such as prejudicial attitudes or overt sexism, were taken into account.

In one study, we presented undergraduate students with two initiatives purportedly being considered by their university. One initiative pertained to the renovation of recreation center while the other pertained to the lack of gender parity in the engineering school. We then measured their willingness to get involved with the formulation of the program and speak up to university authorities about it.

When it came to the recreation center initiative, men and women reported similar levels of psychological standing on the initiative and were similarly likely to get involved. Yet, when it came to the gender parity initiative, men reported lower psychological standing, which led to lower willingness on their part to get involved.

What can organizations do to involve men in gender-parity conversations?

In another study, we explored whether the way a gender-parity program is communicated and framed within the organization can change men’s willingness to participate. We found that when communication regarding gender-parity programs explicitly and directly highlighted how all employees in the organization (irrespective of their gender) had a material stake in the conversation, men psychologically experienced greater standing on the issue and become as likely as women to participate.

Although our paper focused on gender parity initiatives, its findings are likely applicable to efforts to recruit support for policies benefiting minority populations in the workplace. Organizational leaders, by framing their communication in a manner that highlights the stake that all employees have in the proposed social change, regardless of their majority or minority status, can motive them to universally engage with such change. This can allow for the exchange of ideas and opinions amongst different stakeholders and limit behavioral indifference on the part of the majority.

Elad N. Sherf is a postdoctoral research scholar at the management and organizations department of the Stern School of Business, New York University. Subra Tangirala is associate professor of management and organization at Smith School of Business, University of Maryland.

This article summarized findings from “It’s Not My Place! Psychological Standing and Men’s Voice and Participation in Gender-Parity Initiatives,” in Organization Science.

Image: Johannes Jansson via Wikimedia Commons


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