I’m Just a Middle Manager, So What Can I do about Gender Equality?

Mar 03, 2024 5 Min Read
a man and a woman standing on a scale

Image is from freepik.com by @pikisuperstar

Five Tips from Behavioural Science

While gender equality strategies tend to be decided by senior leaders, behavioural science shows what middle managers and all people leaders can do to improve gender equality.

Even better, these tips will help you create a more inclusive workplace for everyone. - And you can do them with zero cost.

1. Own your role

Where companies have well-developed and publicised gender equality policies, this can lead managers to see their workplace as meritocratic and to stop scrutinising their own behaviour. One study showed that managers who were told their employer guaranteed fair treatment of job candidates were less careful to assign fair salaries to women. “....when managers work for meritocratic organizations, they believe they are more impartial, and thus (unknowingly) give themselves permission to act on their biases. And when people view themselves as unbiased, they are less likely to self-scrutinize”.

One technique that may help is to remind yourself, prior to making major people decisions (recruitment, promotion, etc) about your role in gender equality, like in this example of the timely 5 minute training.

Another technique is to get involved: join the diversity taskforce, actively sponsor underrepresented people. You don’t need a hearts and minds reset to make a contribution. You can act your way into the change you want to see. Read more here and here.

2. Get great at managing flexible work

Flexible work is key to workplace gender equality. Yet making flexible work effective for employers and or the organisations requires good management. How do you ensure performance evaluation is about outcomes, not proximity bias, where people in positions of power tend to treat workers who are physically closer to them more favourably? A SHRM study found:

·       two-thirds (67%) of supervisors overseeing remote workers admitted to believing remote workers are more replaceable than onsite workers.

·       42% of managers said they sometimes forget about remote workers when assigning tasks.

This article suggests addressing the problem of decreased face time with remote workers by initiating more frequent and more low-stakes performance evaluations or one-on-one check-ins, making more visible to you team members’ outcomes and achievements.

Also, get good at running hybrid meetings: share and manage to an agenda, invite comments from remote participants first, ban side conversations between those in the room, monitor the airtime and intervene if one side (in-person vs remote) is dominating, etc.

3. Debias your hiring decisions

While recruitment policies and practices may be set at a corporate level (see what works in this context from Iris Bohnet and GABI), as a middle manager there are still things you can do to de-bias the hiring process:

·       The candidate pool. Are you making great women default candidates for key roles? See here for more on why opt out promotion pools can improve diversity without disadvantaging anyone.

·       The shortlist. Did you insist on a gender balanced shortlist? Many organisations believe that adding a woman into a selection process for promotion or recruitment will improve gender equality, however, “if there’s only one woman in your candidate pool, there’s statistically no chance she’ll be hired”.

·       The remuneration.  If you are involved in setting starting salary, remind yourself – each time, as part of your process – of your role in reducing the gender pay gap. This has been shown to result in higher (more equal) starting salaries for female candidates. See this study.

4. Do an opportunity audit and take action on what you learn

This idea that I have personally implemented with incredible results is based on the work of Dr Grace Lordan. As a middle manager or people leader, you see and allocate multiple opportunities each quarter or each year: professional development, stretch opportunities, high profile projects, secondments, etc. One study showed that 71% of senior leaders identified stretch assignments as the biggest career enabler in unleashing their potential.

Here’s the hack: make a list of the opportunities that have crossed your desk in the last 3-6 months, then note down who got each of those opportunities. Stop. Ask yourself: are any people or groups systematically missing out? For example, we know that mothers of young children are often overlooked for these opportunities, often because managers are keen to respect their caring responsibilities and not ask too much of them, but did we ask those women if this is what they want?

Next, ask "how can I correct any unintended exclusion by offering upcoming opportunities, in the next 3-6 months, to those who have been missing out?".

However, mind the “office housework”, which is not the same as a stretch opportunity and which is more often allocated to women and minorities. Office housework is time consuming and unrewarded. Examples might be: setting up a team offsite, supporting the onboarding of a new colleague, managing distribution lists. This work needs to be done, but the load needs to be shared equitably. In a study by Harvard Business Review, women received 44% more requests to volunteer for non-promotable tasks than men, regardless of the gender of the manager making the request. See more on how office housework is linked to gender pay gap here.

Discover: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Starts with Leaders

5. Take ownership of the norms you’re shaping

An employee’s experience of their immediate manager has disproportionate influence on workplace climate – their day-to-day experience of organisational culture. While strategy and policy may be set at the corporate level, middle managers and people leaders have disproportionate influence on the experience of their team members. In that context: what norms are you reinforcing? For example, do you work flexibly? Do you talk about your equal share of domestic labour?

Consider the CEO of a major Australian business who, post-COVID lockdowns, said he was happy for people to continue to work from home, however he would be in the office every day, as that was his personal preference. Of course, the effect was that his direct reports also returned to the office every day, even where this was not their personal preference, so that they did not “miss out”. This effect then spread to their direct reports, and so on. The HR Director pulled the CEO aside to draw his attention to this unintended effect of his choices. His response: but I like being in the office. The HR Director’s response: but you are a leader, shaping norms that do not serve our business, so you may need to put your personal preference aside for a few days a week. For more on the effect of leaders’ behaviour on flexible work norms, read this.

Bonus: Consider targets

While some targets are set at the corporate level, what’s to stop you setting your own? This brilliant behavioural science study from Ericsson shows the power of target setting.

Edited by: Kiran Tuljaram

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Penelope Cottrill is an alloyed behavioural scientist. She helps employers access and implement evidence-based practices for creating more equal and productive workplaces. In her 20 year career, Penelope hased research, shared and advocated what works, helping workplaces make the best use of all of their people.


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