DEI Club

Mobilizing men

How to get men to actively support gender equality

In this article, DEI Club join forces with Kasper Jelsbech, Partner and Chief Consultant at Living Institute, and PhD in Anthropology, to delve into the dynamics at play when it comes to men’s engagement in DEI and particularly in gender equality.

Improving diversity, equity, and inclusion and realizing tangible outcomes require the active participation of most employees within an organization, including the males. Although several studies have shed light on the barriers preventing men from getting engaged in DEI, it is worth noting that the majority of men support equal rights for both genders – meaning, the intention is there. Thus, it is crucial to understand the key factors that may impede their engagement.

What do we know about the engagement of men in DEI? 

Kasper: The issue of men's engagement in DEI has been largely overlooked. Research shows that in organizations where men are actively involved in gender diversity, 96% report progress (1). Conversely, among companies where men are not participating in diversity improvement efforts, only 30% show progress. Despite this, many organizations still primarily focus their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts on women.

When we talk about gender equality, there is a common misconception that it primarily concerns women. We often assume that the responsibility to address these issues rests solely with women. This perception extends to other aspects of diversity as well. 

DEI leaders tend to be women or individuals from other minority groups, serving as token representatives. However, it is important to recognize that women and minorities are not the ones responsible for creating most diversity related problems in the first place.

At the same time, we should bear in mind that there are also specific areas where men are falling behind, such as within the healthcare system or in terms of parental rights. Thus, it is crucial to understand that discussing gender inequality has advantages for men as well. 

Gender inequality is a significant and complex issue that goes beyond solely advocating for women's rights.

Are men generally less engaged in DEI? Are they on board or not?

Kasper: In general, there is a strong willingness to support gender equality. Research indicates that 94% of individuals believe in equal rights for both men and women (2). Therefore, the challenge lies not in men's lack of desire to support gender equality, but rather in the presence of biases and grey areas.

Interestingly, men tend to be more optimistic than women when it comes to gender equality, which suggests that they may underestimate the extent of the challenge. This is supported by the latest UN report, which reveals that nine out of 10 individuals hold biases against women, including the belief that men make better political leaders (3). It is disheartening to witness that such biases persist in 2023, but unfortunately not entirely surprising.

Moreover, despite these prevailing biases, there is an emerging trend of increased polarization. Approximately one in five men in Denmark below the age of fifty believes that the pursuit of equality has gone too far (4). This means that more than 20% of relatively young men, including current and future leaders, feel that the agenda has exceeded its boundaries. We experience this phenomenon a lot when working with clients, especially in the US, not only in relation to gender but also in the broader context of diversity. The diversity agenda has sparked resistance among certain individuals, often those who hold positions of power. 

What are the main barriers you encounter? 

Kasper: There are three overarching barriers that we come across in various contexts: 

  1. The Zero-Sum Game
  2. Fear of status loss
  3. Fear of saying or doing something wrong. 

The Zero-Sum Game

The predominant barrier we encounter is the perception of the zero-sum game. It refers to the belief among men that progress or advancement for one group, such as women or minorities, comes at the expense of another group, namely men or another majority group. It is crucial to acknowledge that this perspective is not entirely unfounded, as there are instances where such trade-offs occur. However, it is also rooted in a misunderstanding.

The underlying logic is as follows: To break the status quo, we cannot continue to include men as we have historically. We must adopt a broader perspective that goes beyond considering only 50% of the population for leadership positions. By expanding the talent pool, we also elevate the standard of qualifications. For men who may be mediocre, this can be frustrating because it diminishes their chances in a more competitive landscape. While this may seem inconvenient, it does not make it inherently wrong. On the contrary, why wouldn't we strive to raise the bar? That said, if you, as a man, possess exceptional competence, there is still ample room and opportunity available. The only consequence for you is that you are competing against a larger pool of talented individuals.

When discussing gender inequality, the use of quotas is hard to ignore and a subject of rising legislative pressure. For example, the EU is increasingly tightening compliance requirements, leading to rushed efforts in organizations as they strive to meet the growing demands. While conceptually simple, implementing quotas in organizations is loaded with complexity and practical challenge. 

Quotas can be likened to using a defibrillator on a system that is already lifeless and in need of a reboot. It becomes a necessary but short-term and unsustainable solution, as there isn't sufficient time to embed it within the company culture. 

Moreover, quotas can backfire in various ways, such as hiring underqualified women, inadvertently reinforcing biases against them. Similarly, capable women who possess the right qualifications may join a company but leave shortly after, resulting in the narrative that they "couldn't cut it." Instead, we should be asking ourselves why our culture failed to retain them. 

In a nutshell, this is the challenge with quotas; they often overlook the importance of fostering inclusion.

Fear of status loss

Another subtle yet significant barrier is the fear of losing status among many men. As a man in a predominantly male social gathering, would I openly discuss my feminist beliefs? It is uncommon for men to do so. The reason behind this hesitancy is the fear of diminishing their status in the eyes of others. 

Gender equality and the broader DEI agenda are often perceived as "soft" topics, particularly in industries like engineering, IT, and the financial sector, the latter being known for its high-performance culture reminiscent of the caricatured Wall Street image. While men may claim to support equal rights, it is not something they feel inclined to openly discuss or demonstrate support for.

Fear of making mistakes

Men can also be apprehensive about saying or doing the wrong thing and being called out for it. In our efforts to promote equal opportunities, we sometimes unintentionally utter things we have learned and internalized over time, only to face public shaming. 

In a workshop we conducted, for instance, a male participant referred to women as "ladies," prompting a woman in a higher position to call him out, saying, "Stop calling us ladies." While her intention may have been to raise awareness, she neglected to consider her power and authority over him. As a result, he felt publicly shamed. 

Situations like these should be avoided as they are unproductive. It is paradoxical; while we strive to create psychological safety, we sometimes forget that it is a two-way street. Psychological safety should extend to everyone, including the majority, for it to be truly effective.

So, now we have identified three main barriers to men’s engagement in gender equality and the broader DEI agenda. What are effective strategies then for engaging men, considering these barriers?

Kasper: The zero-sum perception mentioned is not necessarily accurate. When we meet it, we must reframe it and choose our words carefully to change people's mental models. 

When it comes to gender, we often speak in binary terms of men and women, which locks us in a binary paradigm. We must reframe the conversation to focus on diversity and inclusion more broadly. Inclusion is relevant to us all. And we must discuss the value of diversity beyond just gender. Intersectionality and diverse ways of thinking help us understand the value of imbalances in our group dynamics. It's about how diversity can contribute to leadership and work. When men break free from societal expectations it allows them to explore various aspects of their identity without being limited by gender distinctions, to the benefit of all.

As for barrier number two – fear of status loss, successful companies address this by spotlighting men who champion equality and positioning them as heroes within the organization. By doing so they legitimize male support for gender equality. Our culture is generally influenced by a status hierarchy, and this fundamental aspect of masculinity perpetuates the focus on status and hierarchy. When alpha males express softer values such as equality and inclusion, it becomes easier for other males to align themselves accordingly. It is important that the male champions are genuine in their commitment – that it is not just a new plumage adorning but something real rooted in authenticity.

As it relates to barrier number three, the fear of being "cancelled" affects many, not only men, and is a significant barrier to DEI progress. To counteract this, we must provide individuals with the tools they need to avoid shame and blame. 

We should start by acknowledging that the majority genuinely wants to support equality. The problem lies not in the intentions and attitudes but rather in the misalignment between intentions and behaviors. From a group dynamics perspective, when mistakes happen or stereotypes are expressed, it is essential to focus on psychological safety. Such instances should be seen as a learning opportunity - rather than pushing individuals to the periphery. Our emphasis should be on creating an environment of psychological safety and providing the necessary tools to have these conversations.

What are some successful examples or case studies of mobilizing men in DEI initiatives? What were the key factors that contributed to their engagement and active participation?

Kasper: There are similarities among companies that have succeeded in this area. What do these successful companies do differently? 

The evidence suggests that “diversity by stealth” initiatives have been effective. These initiatives embed diversity without explicitly labelling them as such. It involves practices like job rotation, self-managed teams, reverse mentoring, or formal referral programs. The reason they are successful is that they address a fundamental problem related to visibility and challenge in-group bias. 

In practical terms, it means that when I collaborate with you, I first and foremost perceive you as an individual named Cecilie, as opposed to labelling you based on your gender. This increased visibility helps bring to light talents that may have been previously overlooked, addressing one of the significant challenges: the lack of visibility. Such stealth interventions prove effective as they expose individuals in positions of influence to diverse talents and capabilities.

Counterpoints to this type of intervention includes explicit harassment or bias training, which solely instructs people on what not to do which tends to backfire. Research shows that when men participate in sexual harassment training, they become less likely to report harassment afterwards (5). Finger-pointing training that focuses on getting men to behave properly fails to make an impact. So, we must focus more on action and less on talk!

So where do we start?  

Kasper: Let's begin by considering the drawbacks of rigid categorizations, such as men, women, black, and white. 

When we rely solely on these categories, people tend to disengage, and there's a risk that they won't actively participate. The reason is that these categories make it impersonal and abstract. Instead, if we prioritize getting to know individuals on a personal level, it creates a stronger inclination to listen to their unique experiences, including the challenges they've faced. 

By seeing the person first, we open ourselves to better understanding the systemic barriers they face. Taking the opposite approach by solely focusing on the system tends to create distance, making it difficult for us to relate and take action.

When we approach discussions systemically, starting with topics like race, ethnicity, and physical disabilities, unintentionally we exclude individuals from the equation. We end up seeing them merely as representatives of their respective groups, which leads to a sense of alienation.

Therefore, the sustainable solution lies in exposing people to diverse groups and prioritizing seeing the person first before comprehending the systemic dynamics. It's essential to recognize that everyone faces unique disadvantages that others may not experience, and acknowledging these differences becomes more apparent when we expose ourselves to diverse perspectives.

In conclusion, one of the most effective strategies for mobilizing men is to expose them to diverse groups, which broadens their understanding of systematic disadvantages. 





(1) “Five Ways Men Can Improve Gender Diversity at Work”, BCG publication, 2017
(2) Pew Research 
(3) UN Gender Social Norms Index 
(4) Research article in Mandag Morgen (in Danish) 
(5) "Getting to Diversity - what works and what doesn't". Harvard University Press, 2022