Posted: 22 Nov. 2019 07 min. read

Fear, Status & Solitude

Men and gender equality at the top

Why do organisations still struggle with gender equality at senior levels? One hypothesis is that men may feel culturally constrained to pursue status in the workplace—preventing them from sharing non-work responsibilities with their partners in a way that would allow women to more easily advance. To investigate this idea, Deloitte’s 2019 report The design of everyday men explores men’s experiences with work, family, and masculinity as well as the impact of organisational and cultural expectations on their behavior - both within and outside the workplace. 

Based on both secondary research and an intensive ethnographic study of 16 professional men in Toronto, the report concludes that business leaders have a significant opportunity to change organisational cultures to enable men to approach gender equality, not just as supporters, but as active participants. 

The report also argues that today’s “always on, always available” workplace culture is a key factor holding back gender equality at senior organisational levels. Individuals often prioritise work over family, personal commitments, and well-being in order to rise to the top of their workplace, and men may be more predisposed to making this tradeoff at the expense of their outside-of-work commitments. Women, in contrast, tend to pick up household and other non-work responsibilities, thereby diminishing their ability to meet the “always on, always available”.  

Findings and implications: Four themes of masculinity in the workplace 

The study revealed four key themes that keep professional men tied to ‘traditional gender roles’ and hold them back from approaching gender equality as active participants - each with implications for business leaders: 

1. “It’s on me.” Men place enormous pressure on themselves to handle responsibilities on their own as individuals. 

Implication: Corporate cultures that prioritise individualism over collectivism risk burning out their people and devaluing collaboration - where responsibilities and trust are more equally shared. 

2. “I’m terrified.” Men are afraid of failure, which leads them to overcompensate with hyper-competitive behavior to mask their insecurity and earn professional success. 

Implication: The most ambitious people may also be the most insecure, which puts their long-term performance at risk; they also set an unrealistic expectation for the devotion required to be successful in the organisation that others can’t meet. 

3. “I can’t turn to anyone.” Personal relationships and vulnerable interactions help to alleviate pressure and fear, but men have difficulty building these connections. 

Implication: Discouraging vulnerability in the workplace reduces trust between people and increases barriers to getting the help people to need to take on challenges. 

4. “Show me it’s okay.” Men look to leaders and peers in their organisations to understand what behaviors are acceptable and lead to status. 

Implications: Policies and programs for change are not enough; senior leaders need to role-model and reward the behaviors they want to see in order to establish new norms for people to follow.

Three calls for action 

The report recommends three calls to action for business leaders to change the game on advancing gender equality—with men as active participants. 

First, it is important for business leaders to recognise that the expectations organisations set for achieving “success” are a leading cause of gender inequality. 

The “always on, always available” expectation for success – where individuals are expected to prioritise work over family and other personal commitments - is a leading cause of gender inequality. The insights in this report suggest men are more willing to adhere to the expectation and sacrifice ‘out-of-work’ commitments – thus maintaining their status in the workplace. The result? Those who are successful and rise to senior leadership ranks, are more often men than women. 

Organisations need to move away from an “always on, always available culture”. Not only to support a more diverse and inclusive culture, but because the research has repeatedly shown that working longer leads to poorer outcomes across many areas – including interpersonal communication, decision-making, quality of output and employee retention rates. 

Second, it is helpful for leaders to reflect on their own behaviors to understand the expectations they are setting for what success looks like and how to achieve it. 

Leaders should consider reflecting on their own leadership style, and seeking input from others on the following: 

  • How you lead: How are you, as a leader, role-modeling the behavior you want to see from others? 
  • How you build community: How are you showing your people that their peer group supports and embraces their actions, as expressed in the everyday interactions between individuals? 
  • How you develop your “whole self”: How are you considering the individual’s interests, needs, and desires beyond their development as an employee? 
  • How you help individuals grow: How are you helping individuals embrace and accept their own imperfections as they develop both as employees and as people? 

Third, business leaders and organisations can take practical steps to break down the barriers to change and build a more gender-equal workplace. 

Tangible actions for business leaders to consider include: 

  • Starting all meetings with a thoughtful personal story. Show others you’re more than just a business leader. 
  • Putting your own imperfections on display. Revealing your vulnerability opens the door for others to feel safer sharing their own fears and shortcomings. 
  • Having one-on-one conversations with people that go beyond workplace formalities. Do this especially with those you know the least or who seem different from you. 
  • Checking in on people who seem like they need it the least. Realise that some individuals use ambition as a mask for insecurity and might hide their need for help. 
  • Taking a vacation and parental leave actually. Fully turn off when taking extended time away from the office to invest in your outside-of-work self and give space at work for others to grow while you recharge. 

On a broader level, organisations can: 

  • Offer personalised coaching to all individuals. Help people navigate difficult decisions at work and give people autonomy. 
  • Build learning and development programs around life goals, not just professional aspirations. 
  • Audit the informal behaviors that lead to success. Perform a gap analysis to see if these informal behaviors align with the formal measures written in performance evaluations.
  • Define the desired behaviors for success through a diversity lens. Use feedback from diverse individuals to ensure this list does not inadvertently disadvantage specific individuals or demographics. 
  • Identify and transform jobs to capitalise on the unique human value people bring to work. Catalog the human values (such as empathy and caring) that will be vital to organisational success and automate the rest. 

The time is now for business leaders to enable and encourage men to take an active part in creating a more equal and inclusive future. If they do, organisations will be more competitive, women will be more empowered, and workers – regardless of gender - will be more fulfilled. 

Download the full report, The design of everyday men, to learn more about how business leaders and organisations can lead change to help close the gender gap.

Meet our authors

Carolyn Lawrence

Carolyn Lawrence

Associate Director

Carolyn is a passionate and experienced corporate executive dedicated to designing inclusive cultures. After 4 years building and leading Deloitte Canada's Diversity & Inclusion Consulting practice, she is now Deloitte Global's first ever Inclusion Leader. Carolyn leverages the latest thinking in strategy, inclusive leadership, human centred design, human centred design and qualitative and quantitative measures to build strategy, leaders and talent systems that don't just focus on fixing people, but doing business inclusively. Prior to Deloitte, Carolyn spent 10 years at President & CEO of a renowned Canadian company, Women of Influence, to advance women through access to role models, courses and content through events, media and executive education. It was here that she realized gender equality will not be achieved just by helping women, but by evolving our culture to one of inclusion, for everyone.

Eric Arthrell

Eric Arthrell

Global Consulting D&I Manager

With over six years of experience in strategy consulting and human-centred design across an array of industries (banking, retail, diversity & inclusion, institutional investment, insurance, energy & resources), he is adept at applying human-centric approaches to big, hairy problems.