When it comes to programs aimed at increasing gender parity, diversaity officers struggle to engage men.
In a paper recently published in Organization Science, we investigated a potential reason: psychological standing. Psychological standing refers to whether a person feels they have the legitimacy to perform an action with respect to a cause or an issue, or whether it is “their business” to participate.
From a set of four studies, we show that men often refrain from participating in or speaking up about gender-parity initiatives, because they experience lowered levels of psychological standing than women. This explanation held even when other possible explanations, such as possible prejudicial attitude or sexism, were taken into account.
In the first study, we presented undergraduates with two initiatives purportedly being considered by their university, and evaluated their willingness to get involved. When it came to involvement in a gender-parity initiative, most male students said they did not feel it was appropriate for them, even after controlling for the extent to which they privately supported the initiative.
In the second study, we surveyed 124 professionals about their willingness to get involved in gender-parity initiatives in their companies. We found that women, as compared with men, were more likely to participate in and speak up about such initiatives, and that this difference was again explained by men’s lower psychological standing.
In the third study, we asked working adults to imagine their company was looking for volunteers to head its companywide task force on gender parity. In this scenario, 63 percent of women volunteered, as compared with 43 percent of men. Men’s reduced sense of psychological standing was a stronger predictor than sexism for these differences in participation rates.
In the final study, we explored whether the way a gender-parity program is framed can change men’s willingness to participate. While half of the participants were randomly assigned the material from the third study, the other half also read a message from the CEO of the company stating that both men and women have experiences that can help the company formulate and implement a program to enhance gender parity. For the second group, which saw the CEO’s message, the participation rates for men and women were statistically indistinguishable.
Organizational leaders need to explicitly communicate that all employees, regardless of their gender, have a stake in and can meaningfully contribute to gender-parity programs.
Elad N. Sherf is a postdoctoral research scholar at the management and organizations department of the Stern School of Business, New York University. Subra Tangirala is associate professor of management and organization at Smith School of Business, University of Maryland.