Blogs / 27 Feb 2021 8 min

10 senior management behaviours that set back gender equality: and what to do about them

International Women’s Day 2021 falls on March 8, and this year’s theme, #ChooseToChallenge, is close to my heart. How often do we see behaviour that actively inhibits progress or even sets us back?

Often, we aren’t quite sure how to speak up. This year, IWD reminds us why it’s so important to do so. Women, and indeed all minorities, still face daily challenges in the workplace. Privilege is often invisible to those who possess it and as such, both men and women senior leaders can unwittingly behave in a way that subtly reinforce old gender hierarchies and stereotypes.

This week, I invite you to #ChooseToChallenge and ask yourself if you recognise any of the behaviours in this list in your workplace or even in yourself – some of them may surprise you!

It’s only with understanding and awareness that we can create a truly equal and inclusive workplace, so I encourage you to share this article to spark lively and open discussion.

1. Pitching in

Camaraderie is important. Team leaders who leave their office and roll up their sleeves to help their team bring projects over the line win the respect of the people they manage. However, there’s a difference between supporting the team in busy times and instilling a culture of out-of-hours work.

Top companies are rife with stories of overwork, of team members pulling all-nighters for their clients or to work on a pitch. But this sort of behaviour naturally excludes staff who have obligations outside of work and simply can’t put in the hours. What’s more, it subtly creates a narrative that those who will advance will do so at a personal cost.

This can be demotivating for women, who disproportionately bear the double burden of work and domestic responsibilities and realise they simply won’t be able to do what’s necessary to get ahead.

2. Being chivalrous

Imagine a male C-suite executive who’s known for being warm and friendly and polite to a fault. When entering the office in the morning, he rushes to open the door for his female colleague. In meetings, he pulls out a seat for her. And on the occasional walk outside, he offers her his coat if it’s cold.

While perfectly well-intentioned, this set of behaviours is out of date for the modern office. By treating women in the office differently than men, this executive is unwittingly and subtly disempowering them, playing into the age-old stereotype of men as protectors, and women as being in need of protection. When a senior executive does this, the effect is magnified.

Let’s be clear, I’m not knocking good manners! But as the demographics of the office change, with a historically large number of the working age population aged 50+ interacting with a new generation of workers under 35 with a very different understanding of gender roles, it’s good to be aware of shifting cultural norms and to even try to plan for a low-level culture clash so that everyone can deal with it empathetically and openly, and no one feels the need to grin and bear it.

3. Saying “I don’t see gender/colour”

Again, this attitude normally comes from a well-intentioned place, but it speaks to an outdated view of equality. On the surface, it demonstrates the speaker’s belief in a level playing field. But the reality is that women, people of colour, and all minority groups face additional challenges in the workplace, whether their colleagues choose to see it or not. Microaggressions, sexism, unconscious bias, and unequal access to the networks and sponsorship that enable career progression are the tip of the iceberg. Refusing to acknowledge these challenges does nothing to redress inequality in the workplace and is tantamount to turning a blind eye.

4. Mentoring Women

Of course, mentoring women is a good thing. The problem here is that this often does not go far enough. As I have discussed in a recent blog, sponsorship is a much more effective way to help womens’ careers. Sponsorship – the act of public advocacy and support for a more junior employee – plays an important role in how individuals advance within their organisations. Research shows that men in general are 25% more likely than women to receive sponsorship. Additionally, senior-level men are 50% more likely to have a sponsor [1].

Without a sponsor’s advocacy in senior executive circles and closed-door succession discussions, women are not always equally considered for opportunities.

5. Not calling out interruptions

If you’re not part of the solution, the saying goes, you’re part of the problem. Microaggressions in the workplace are still all too common, and women are used to being interrupted: in meetings and in casual conversation. Not all men directly contribute to this behaviour, but the failure to call it out can be a tacit condonement. Thankfully, this one’s easily sorted: by stepping in when a woman is interrupted, and having ground rules for meetings to ensure everyone is heard equally, senior management can send a powerful message about what behaviour is acceptable.

6. Not understanding privilege (theirs, or others)

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”. This famous quote neatly sums up the resistance that is sometimes exhibited to even the most benign inclusion and diversity initiatives. Recognising the benefit of privilege means understanding that women (or any minority groups) are generally not able to achieve the same level of opportunity, recognition, and material reward for the same amount of effort. It is essential to have senior leaders who understand at a personal level what their privilege is, and do not view conversations about privilege as a personal attack. A tip: start by understanding privilege as relative, not absolute. I explore privilege in more detail in a separate blog.

7. Perpetuating the myth of meritocracy

Amazingly, research shows that when male leaders believe they are meritocratic and objective, they are more likely to behave in a sexist way [2]. It is obviously tempting to believe that we deserve our success, but this mindset can obscure structural factors at play, and leads to the false notion that what separates success from failure is simply a lack of aptitude and application. Ironically, individuals who fully believe in their moral credentials are less likely to examine their own behaviour, or actively look for indicators of their own bias.

8. Not taking paternity leave

When men neglect to take paternity leave or openly prioritise work over family life, they reinforce outdated gender roles, portraying themselves as the primary breadwinners and relegating women to being viewed as caretakers.

It is well documented that women frequently experience pushback when they take maternity leave. Upon return, they often have their competence questioned, or find themselves assigned to less senior tasks than they had done previously.

By taking their full paternity leave entitlement, men can help advocate for and normalise a much-needed work-life balance that can benefit everyone.

9. Not splitting chores – at home…

According to analysis by the ONS and International Labour Organisation, women perform 60% – 75% more unpaid labour than men [3, 4]. This often takes the form of domestic chores such as cooking, shopping, cleaning and planning. The women most likely to advance in the workplace are therefore the ones not burdened with an uneven share of physical and mental labour at home. Real change starts at home.

10. …or in the office!

This pattern is replicated in the office, with women often doing the lion’s share of non-revenue generating, low-reward work that entails a substantial time commitment. Making coffees for meetings, organising staff parties and internal events, and recording meeting actions are all prime examples. When taking on these tasks, women have less time to fully participate in visible, career-advancing activities. Leadership can help by paying attention to who is performing these ‘below the radar’ tasks, and actively working to ensure they are distributed evenly.

Sharon Peake is the founder and CEO of Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.

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[1] Ibarra, H. (2019). A lack of sponsorship is keeping women from advancing into leadership. Harvard Business Review. August 19, 2019.
[2] Castilla, E. J., & Benard, S. (2010). The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 55(4), 543–676.[3]
[4] International Labour Organization (2018). Care work and care jobs: For the future of decent work.