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.”