Intention can be a mediocre predictor of actual behaviour change, with many people not following through despite a willingness to – something labelled the intention-behaviour gap.
There could be several key barriers that undermine male support for initiatives to end gender bias. According to David Smith and Brad Johnson, the authors of Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace, when men hear something is a women’s issue, they mentally tune out – not because they don’t care – but because they assume “it’s for women” and there is little need to support taking action.
Fear can be a major factor too – fear of losing status being the chief issue. A study by the non-profit group Catalyst shared a zero-sum perspective that men supporting women may somehow lead to diminished opportunities for themselves. Men also said they believed they would inadvertently expose themselves to criticism from women – despite their good intentions – leading to intense scrutiny about whether they were part of the problem.
Men can often feel stigmatised through association with women’s initiatives at work and often feel inhibited not so much by women’s judgements but by those of their male counterparts. And finally, ignorance can be a factor; the less aware men were of gender bias, the less committed they were to issues of gender equality. The Catalyst report found that interviewees were apathetic and did not find a compelling reason to become actively involved in gender initiatives, perhaps because men are often unaware of what they stand to gain by championing gender equality.
While women’s rights and empowerment have evolved over time, men have hardly matched pace with their idea of masculinity; old stereotypes – of men and their role at home and at work – from decades ago are still intact even though the world has changed.
Today, the movement for women’s equality has once again stalled and remains stymied.
Women continue to experience discrimination in the public sphere. Sarah Everard’s tragic disappearance and death, followed by the work of the Everyone’s Invited campaign, highlights the need for a massive change in the status quo. We need support from men to effect positive change for women of every colour and race, in every community and profession. However, that change can only be initiated once we start bridging the intention gap.
So how do we do that? The most persuasive arguments for men to support diversity are business case arguments that demonstrate how gender equality is better for everyone, not just women. A recent report from McKinsey Global Institute estimated that $12 trillion (£8.5 trillion) could be added to global growth by advancing gender equality.
There are plenty of personal benefits for men too, including liberation from limiting masculine gender norms. Research shows that societies with lower levels of gender equality have the highest rates of male suicide. The likelihood of depression, divorce, or suffering a violent death is smaller in more gender-equal countries. The latter applies to both men and women. Not feeling the need to follow outdated gender roles also gives freedom to share financial responsibilities and flexibility over parenting.
The events of the last 15 months have turned workplaces, education and childcare upside down. Without more empathetic and flexible workplaces, companies risk losing women in leadership – and future women leaders – and unwinding years of painstaking progress towards gender equality. “Corporate America” is said to be at a critical crossroads and the UK faces a similar juncture.
However, men stepping up as allies can help lay the foundation for a more flexible and equitable workplace of tomorrow. They have the opportunity to positively affect those around them and further afield. Even the smallest act of activism can be powerful enough to erode ingrained stereotypes.
Converting good intention into positive action is a conscious choice that can help now – and create a better world for future generations.
Hira Ali is an author, writer and speaker her new book, ‘Her Allies: A Practical Toolkit to Help Men Lead through Advocacy’ will be published by Neem Tree Press on 30 June