Posted: 25 Nov. 2015 10 min. read

Linchpin – Men, Middle Managers and Gender Inclusive Leadership

Workplace diversity and inclusion strategy

As organisations race towards creating workplace diversity and inclusion strategies, and CEOs sign up to public statements of their personal commitment to inclusion, attention is shifting to middle management and how ready, willing and able they are to change. Since 70% of middle managers are male, the question of whether male middle managers know what it means to be a gender inclusive leader becomes even more important.

In this first research of its kind, Professor Elisabeth Kelan (Cranfield University, United Kingdom) conducted observational research – watching what inclusive male middle managers do differently and the impact they have on creating an inclusive environment for women in the workplace. Blending her observations and knowledge about the challenges facing women, Kelan found that inclusive male middle managers use 4 simple strategies:

  • Actively encouraging women and celebrating their successes
  • Calling out bias
  • Championing and defending gender initiatives
  • Challenging working practices with self-disclosure

Editor’s note: While small in scale, this qualitative research is highly significant as it provides rich insights into three of the six signature traits of a highly inclusive leader: commitment, cognisance of bias and courage.


The research aimed to identify the practical actions highly inclusive male middle managers take to advance gender equality. Rather than taking a high level approach, the researchers looked for tangible actions, at an almost micro level that highly inclusive leaders infused into their daily routines to counter systemic biases and stereotypes.


This study comprised a mix method of observational research (shadowing 3 different leaders in their workplaces for a week), interviews with co-workers and reports, and a literature review. The literature review helped to frame the challenges, whilst the observational data helped to identify the tactical responses.

A ‘middle manager’ was defined as a manager who reported into senior leadership and had people reporting to them. Each middle manager worked in a different sector (professional services, media and chemicals), and worked in a different country (Austria, Germany and England).

In total 130 hours of observation were recorded and 23 interviews were conducted with 11 men and 12 women.


Kelan found that highly inclusive male middle managers engaged in four distinct strategies to advance gender equity. Namely: they explicitly and actively celebrated and encouraged women; called out biases they observed; championed (and defended their involvement in) gender initiatives; and challenged working practices.

Celebrating & encouraging women

This practice involved recognising and giving credit to women for their achievements, and in turn, encouraging women to strive to reach their potential. Using pseudonyms, Kelan describes these practices via ‘Dieter’ (a male middle manager) and ‘Desiree’ (a female employee).

  • Encouraging and define a role/purpose: Dieter organised a panel and wanted to ensure a woman was featured along with the male speakers. Dieter sought out a Desiree whom he believed to be a relevant expert, but when he approached her, she questioned her suitability. Without worrying about whether Desiree was lacking in ambition or self-confidence (both of which are commonly attributed to women), Dieter steadfastly reiterated that he had sought her out specifically as he believed she was the best person for the role given her expertise on the topic. In this example, Dieter identified that a woman should have been part of his panel (inclusion practice), and encouraged the right woman to participate by ensuring she understood that her expertise and knowledge was the reason why he has specifically selected her for the role (encourage). Dieter’s strategy explicitly addressed the dearth of women in visible leadership (conference presentations) and framing bias (i.e. the bias to select those in an immediate frame of reference – “the usual suspects” – rather than stretching to find another suitable candidate). Editor’s note: In Australia, Male Champions of Change often take a “panel pledge” to speak only panels which have an equal representation of men and women.
  • Celebrate by visibly praising: Dieter fostered gender equality by praising and celebrating women’s successes. By way of example, Dieter told his colleagues a story about Dolores who had made a positive impact on a client as indicated by the client’s praise. Here, the example wasn’t about Dieter passing on that feedback to Dolores, but rather that Dieter was praising Dolores in front of others. This active sponsorship made Dolores’ achievements more widely known, promoting her client engagement skills, and contributing positively to her reputation within the organisation. Critically, these outcomes were achieved without Delores having to self-promote. In this way, Dieter’s strategy countered a gendered stereotype that results in women being slightly more uncomfortable about self-promotion that men, and therefore less likely to “blow their own trumpet”.
  • Ensure credit and acknowledgment: According to Kelan, women report that they regularly experience ‘the taking of credit’. Kelan observed that highly inclusive leaders countered this experience by ensuring credit was given where credit was due. By way of example, Deena overheard her colleague Declan telling their mutual boss that the work he and Deena had equally contributed to was all his idea. Deena reached out to Dieter, her mentor. Dieter agreed it was unacceptable behaviour and arranged a conversation with Declan about over-claiming credit. Declan, having listened to Dieter, a middle manager, rectified the situation at the next meeting where he gave Deena the credit she was due. This resulted in both Deena and Declan receiving acknowledgement for their work – a win/win. Dieter had employed an inclusion tactic by calling Declan out on his behaviour and correcting the misperception. In this way, he actively managed the misperception and helped Deena to avoid appearing like a “victim”.

Calling out bias

In contrast to the more subtle corrective strategies identified in the “celebrating and encouraging women” strategy, Kelan also identified that highly inclusive leaders explicitly call out biases and stereotypes when they see them. Once again, using pseudonyms, Kelan found examples of this strategy in Elliot, a male middle manager.

  • Identifying with the similar and gender stereotyping: Elliot was on a panel to select the best candidate for a vacant position. His fellow panelist exclaimed that “Edward should be hired, he reminds me of myself at his age!” Recognising that the panellist had succumbed to similarity attraction bias, Elliot questioned whether his colleague was looking at the skills of each candidate closely. Elliot asked the panel members to reconsider the skills required and explained why he believed that Eloise exceeded expectations. The other panellist disagreed, arguing that Eloise “wasn’t very assertive”. Elliot, noting again that this comment had gendered undercurrents, argued that although Eloise wasn’t as boisterous as Edward, she handled herself well in the interview. Further, Elliot suggested that if Eloise had behaved as assertively as Edward, such behaviours would not have been appreciated by the panel. In this example, Elliot identified that his fellow panel member was finding comfort in similarity, and reoriented him to think more about the skills required. He also identified the differing standard that was applied to Eloise – as a women (assertive vs aggressive). His gentle yet vocal challenges helped to correct the subtle biases (Eloise was hired and highly successful in her role).
  •  Sidelining or interrupting in meetings: Kelan noted that “Meetings are a central place where gender inequality is often played out”. This dynamic can be exemplified by ignoring comments from women, or not giving women an opportunity to speak. Kelan used the example of Eleonora (a pseudonym), who was a spokesperson for a taskforce. Elliot, an inclusive male middle manager, was the deputy spokesperson. As Eleanora took a moment to reflect on what she was going to say, a man gestured to Elliot to bring the meeting to a close. Elliot, noticing this, considered speaking to the group – but remembered that it should be Eleonora who reported. Instead of taking the stage, Elliot looked to Eleanora and she began her report. In addition to ensuring that he observably respected Eleaonar’s role, Elliot’s subtle non-verbal gesture allowed Eleonora the chance to speak up, instead of communicating in a manner that could be perceived as patronising.

Championing & defending gender initiatives

One of the obstacles to implementing gender equity initiatives is the likelihood that they will be subtly or overtly derided by those wedded to maintaining the status quo. These tribal behaviours represent a personal challenge to male middle managers, requiring courage to visibly defend gender equity. Kelan outlines that during her research, she witnessed negative, demeaning and belittling comments targeted at men who were involved in, or supporting gender parity initiatives. She also observed courageous behaviour by highly inclusive leaders.

  • Defend and support importance of gender initiatives: Kelan found that it was important that men who took on roles such as gender parity champions, called out negative or demeaning comments about the initiatives straight away. She observed Felix (another pseudonym for a male middle manager) talking to his colleague about a new work package that formed part of a gender parity initiative. His colleague joked that Felix must have been forced to take the role. Felix dismissed the joke and emphasised his personal commitment to the role. Without observably and immediately restating his commitment, Felix’s colleague comments would have corrosively eroded Felix’s (and others) active support for equality. Kelan’s finding highlights that champions of gender equity should expect resistance from the old-guard.

Secondly, Kelan observed the importance of correcting misconceptions that gender parity initiatives disadvantaged men. For example, when Fiona discussed with Faye that a Girls’ Day advertised on her company’s website would be unfair (as her sons would be excluded from visiting on that day), Felix explained that Girls’ Day was designed to encourage girls to take a look at their organisation, build the pipeline of potential talent and thereby remedy the overall imbalance at women in their workplace. Kelan found that an important role for inclusive male leaders is to defend the merit of gender parity initiatives in their organisations.

Challenging working practices

Kelan noted that working practices have developed without significant regard to employees balancing work and caring responsibilities. In the main, it is women who experience the greater degrees of challenge arising from this legacy. Kelan noted that highly inclusive male managers were sensitive to this tension and often expressed a belief that traditional working practices are “hindering both women and men to combine a private life and career”. As a consequence highly inclusive male managers actively challenged current working practices. She cited the example of Guido (a pseudonym for another male manager)

  • Existence of a personal life: Kelan noted that a manifestation of the tension created by traditional working practices arises in relation to work hours. In this regard, she observed that Guido sought to have an 8am rescheduled to later in the day, to enable him to drop his child at school. Guido’s express request for accommodation, and transparent reasoning (he didn’t use a different excuse for why he couldn’t attend the meeting at that time), helped to challenge the appropriateness of the meeting time. Transparency about his own commitments outside of work helped normalise work/family balance for others, and in particular to break the mindset that it is only women who have commitments with their children. Kelan suggested that when men courageously role model their work/family balance activities it corrects for a long-standing gender bias.
  •  Develop leadership capability of diverse individuals: Guido hired Gabriella specifically to develop her as his deputy. As such, he regularly included her in meetings to ensure she was exposed to information and key stakeholders. Guido noticed that the other team members began to feel uncomfortable about the extra attention Gabriella received. To alleviate the situation, he organised individual conversations with the other team members to assure them as to their own jobs and the reason why Gabriella was attending the meetings. Once again, an inclusive leader is required to show courage, not only in the championing of diverse talent, but in addressing challenges from the old-guard.


The specific findings of this study suggest that inclusive male middle managers take active steps to redress conscious and unconscious biases and stereotypes. These steps subtly correct for bias by celebrating women’s successes and disrupting assumptions about men and their caring responsibilities, for example and overtly correct for bias by calling out bias in others and championing women’s initiatives. Most importantly, Kelan suggests that these corrective strategies have a positive impact and are thereby helping to advance gender equity. They represent a way to thaw the ‘permafrost’ and operationalise organisational strategy and executive intent.

Extrapolating from this study, organisations might wonder whether their diversity and inclusion efforts – such as overarching strategies and plans – could be accelerated through specifically targeting male middle managers to engage them as key change champions. Assuming that the CEO and the executive team are already committed to making a change, and education has been provided about the nature of gender, then a focus on equipping middle managers to adopt these 4 inclusion tactics is likely to prove highly effective.

To read the full article, see Kelan E. (2015) “Linchpin – Men, Middle Manager and Gender Inclusive Leadership” download full report here. 

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This article was originally authored by Hannah Massingham.

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