How men perceive gender difference in the workplace

In this blog, my colleagues and I often write about companies that seek to help female employees move up organisations and advance their careers. Rarely, though, do we touch on how male employees perceives such initiatives.

Evan Apfelbaum, assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, usually studies how people of different races wrestle with this issue in social settings. But his work has implications for how different genders relate to each other.

Apfelbaum’s research deals with white people who claim to be “racially colourblind,” meaning they ignore or overlook racial and ethnic difference.

His research has found that while many white people avoid talking about race in order to appear unbiased, this approach often makes them appear more prejudiced.

Apfelbaum says a similar notion applied to gender issues. He told me: “The notion that everyone is the same – that race and gender do not matter – is very convenient for those who are in [power]. If an organisation says ‘We are equal opportunity, gender does not matter and we care about merit and individual abilities,’ to me that is a red flag.”

We are not all the same, and most workplaces are uneven playing fields for the sexes. “Women have extremely different experiences in the workplace. So we need to be thinking about how they have an ability to progress, receive feedback, and have opportunities for mentorship.”

But just as white people are often resistant to multicultural rhetoric because they feel it is introduced at their expense, men may also be resistant to women’s professional initiatives because they fear these initiatives come at a cost their careers.

“It introduces the notion of ‘What am I losing in this deal?’ People see it is a zero sum game – that the attention, efforts, and policies that are awarded to one group will come at another’s expense. To break that mindset, the [initiatives] need to be reframed so that men do not see it as coming at the cost of their career progression.”

Managers need to be diplomatic and mindful of the fact that “no one wants to be left out” of an initiative or discussion, Afelbaum says. “Espousing a culture in which gender is recognised does not mean that men cannot have a seat at the table. It just means that men need to recognise that gender can shape the experience that individuals have in an organisation, just as age and race can.”

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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.