By Catalyst

Companies increasingly understand that they can reap significant benefits by eliminating gender bias, particularly through improved access to, and retention of, top talent and higher employee engagement. Achieving a gender-inclusive, bias-free workplace is not easy, however. When it comes to diversity and inclusion efforts, men have a critical role to play, yet they too often remain an untapped resource.

A recently released Catalyst report, Engaging Men in Gender Initiatives: Stacking the Deck for Success, examines current diversity and inclusion (D&I) practices for elements that discourage male participation. Through a survey of men in leadership positions at companies with 10,000 or more employees, researchers sought to identify factors that can heighten or dampen men’s interest in acquiring skills to become effective change agents for gender equality at work.

Previous research has shown that increasing men’s awareness of gender bias represents an important first step in enlisting their support for organizational initiatives aimed at correcting gender bias. Positive employee pre-training attitudes are a critical success factor for D&I training. The research shows that men, in particular, may be prone to negative pre-training attitudes and that these prior conceptions or misconceptions can limit what participants learn in D&I training, blunting its effectiveness.

Survey responses suggested four major areas on which organizations should focus to counter pessimism embedded in men’s pre-training attitudes toward D&I programs:

  • Enlist the help of influential managers to win wider support and enthusiasm among men throughout the organization. The more respondents believed that the average manager in their organization would participate in the proposed D&I training, the more they expressed a desire to take the training themselves. Having influential managers invite other employees to participate, as well as having them deliver training content where appropriate, can help increase men’s confidence that training is valued and supported by management. This can help to improve their attitudes toward participating in training.
  • Appeal to male employees’ desire to improve communities outside the business itself. The more respondents believed D&I training could help managers build skills that would allow them to better serve the communities in which their businesses operated, the more they expressed a willingness to sign up for the training. D&I practitioners should appeal to men’s “higher” ideals of making the world a better place for communities as well as business by framing D&I as both a business and a social issue.
  • Align training content and goals with participants’ job responsibilities. When men perceived the proposed D&I training as highly relevant to their current job, they expressed greater interest in participating in that training. Organizations should ensure that training programs deal closely and explicitly with participants’ day-to-day responsibilities and tasks, including opportunities to discuss and reflect on real-life job situations in which new skills can be applied.
  • Ensure men don’t see D&I training as a zero-sum activity. The more men believe they will suffer job losses on account of efforts to increase gender diversity, the less likely they are to express an interest in participating in D&I training. Therefore, D&I practitioners must help dispel the belief that women’s gains within the organization mean losses for men. D&I practitioners should communicate the personal benefits men can gain from a more gender-diverse and inclusive workplace, and work to articulate the ways in which their efforts improve the workplace for both women and men.

D&I practitioners should build a multi-dimensional case for why employees should become more engaged in organizational efforts to increase gender diversity. Still, communications about D&I training should be credible and realistic, setting a reasonable expectation of what men should expect. Having unrealistic or overly positive expectations risks backfiring and engendering more negative attitudes when training falls short of expectations. D&I practitioners must be skilled at building a compelling case for D&I training—one that convinces employees of the value of training so that they participate willingly and enter into the process with positive expectations.