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Status, fear and solitude

Men and gender equality at the top

​Why is workplace gender equality still so difficult to achieve? Much of the answer may lie in an unexpected place: how traditional masculinity keeps men tied to the strenuous expectations of many organisational cultures.

WHY do organisations still struggle with gender equality at senior levels? Largely, it may be because men still feel culturally constrained to relentlessly pursue status in the workplace—preventing them from sharing nonwork responsibilities with their partners in a way that would allow women to more easily advance.

Deloitte’s new report The design of everyday men investigates men’s experiences with work, family and masculinity to explore the impact of organisational and cultural expectations on their behaviour both within and outside the workplace. Based on an intensive ethnographic study of 16 professional men in and around the Greater Toronto Area, the study concludes that business leaders have a significant opportunity to change organisational cultures to enable men to approach gender equality, not just as supporters, but as active participants.

Today’s “always on, always available” workplace culture is a key factor holding back gender equality at senior organisational levels, the study finds. Individuals often prioritise work over family, personal commitments and well-being to rise to the top,1 and men may be more predisposed to making this tradeoff at the expense of their outside-of-work commitments. Women then wind up picking up the slack on household and other nonwork responsibilities, thereby disadvantaging themselves by becoming unable to adhere to the “always on, always available” expectation as easily.2

Four themes of masculinity in the workplace

The study revealed four themes that keep professional men tied to traditional gender roles and hold them back from evolving, each with implications for business leaders:

  • “It’s on me.” Men place enormous pressure on themselves to handle responsibilities on their own as individuals.
    Implication: Corporate cultures that prioritise individualism over collectivism risk burning out their people and devaluing collaboration, where responsibilities and trust are more equally shared.
  • “I’m terrified.” Men are afraid of failure, which leads them to overcompensate with hypercompetitive behaviour to mask their insecurity and earn professional success.
    Implication: The most ambitious people may also be the most insecure, which puts their long-term performance at risk; they also set an unrealistic expectation for the devotion required to be successful in the organisation that others can’t meet.
  • “I can’t turn to anyone.” Personal relationships and vulnerable interactions help to alleviate pressure and fear, but men have difficulty building these connexions.
    Implication: Discouraging vulnerability in the workplace reduces trust between people and increases barriers to getting the help people need to take on challenges.
  • “Show me it’s okay.” Men look to leaders and peers in their organisations to understand what behaviours are acceptable and lead to status.
    Implication: Policies and programmes for change are not enough; senior leaders need to role-model and reward the behaviours they want to see in order to establish new norms for people to follow.

Three calls for action

Business leaders have both the power and the responsibility to lead change for everyone. Men are heavily influenced by role models in organisations and learn from them what behaviours lead to success. To help achieve gender equality, business leaders can set an example for all individuals to follow by pursuing three related actions.

First, leaders should recognise that the “always on, always available” expectation for success is a leading cause of gender inequality. Organisations that evolve away from an “always on, always available” culture may even improve business results beyond delivering diversity and inclusion benefits. Research has repeatedly shown that working more hours leads to poorer outcomes in ways ranging from poorer interpersonal communication and impaired judgement to increased insurance costs and higher employee turnover.3 Further, specifically for knowledge workers, scheduled and predictable time off improves business outcomes such as overall productivity and quality of output.4

Second, business leaders should reflect on their own behaviours to understand the expectations they are setting for what success looks like and how to achieve it. Reflections can include discussions with others that cover:

  • How you lead. How are you, as a leader, role-modelling the behaviour you want to see from others?
  • How you build community. How are you showing your people that their peer group supports and embraces their actions, as expressed in the everyday interactions between individuals?
  • How you develop the “whole self.” How are you considering the individual’s interests, needs and desires beyond their development as an employee?
  • How you help individuals grow. How are you helping individuals embrace and accept their own imperfections as they develop both as employees and as people?

Third, business leaders and organisations can take action to start breaking down the barriers to change and building more gender equality. Actions for business leaders to consider include:

  • Starting all meetings with a thoughtful personal story. Show others you’re more than just a business leader.
  • Putting your own imperfections on display. Revealing your vulnerability opens the door for others to feel safer sharing their own fears and shortcomings.
  • Having one-on-one conversations with people that go beyond workplace formalities. Do this especially with those you know the least or who seem different from you.
  • Checking in on people who seem like they need it the least. Realise that some individuals use ambition as a mask for insecurity and might hide their need for help.
  • Taking holiday and parental leave—actually. Fully turn off when taking extended time away from the office to invest in your outside-of-work self and give space at work for others to grow while you recharge.

On a broader level, organisations can:

  • Offer personalised coaching to all individuals. Help people navigate difficult decisions at work and give people autonomy.
  • Build learning and development programmes around life goals, not just professional aspirations.
  • Audit the informal behaviours that lead to success. Perform a gap analysis to see if these informal behaviours align with the formal measures written in performance evaluations.
  • Define the desired behaviours for success through a diversity lens. Use feedback from diverse individuals to ensure this list does not inadvertently disadvantage specific individuals or demographics.
  • Identify and transform jobs to capitalise on the unique human value people bring to work. Catalogue the human values (such as empathy and caring) that will be vital to organisational success and automate the rest.

The time is now for business leaders to enable and encourage men to take an active part in creating a more equal and inclusive future. If they do, organisations will be more competitive, women will be more empowered and men will be more fulfilled.

Download the full report, The design of everyday men, to learn more about how business leaders and organisations can lead change to help close the gender gap.

This publication is written and authorised by Deloitte LLP, the Canada member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. The content and views presented are solely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Deloitte US Firms.

Doblin Human-Centred Design

​Deloitte’s Doblin Human-Centred Design and Human Capital Consulting practices bring together the capabilities to understand how employees behave in, experience, and navigate workplace culture and then devise innovative ways to transform the organisation for the better. Doblin’s empathy-driven approach surfaces the most pertinent issues to solve for through ethnographic research with relevant stakeholders, while Human Capital Consulting establishes the structures, mechanisms and processes to make change real.

Learn more

The authors would like to thank Pat Daley (vice chair, Deloitte Canada, and cochair, Inclusion Advisory Council), Ken Fredeen (general counsel, Deloitte Canada, and cochair, Inclusion Advisory Council), Minnar Xie (insights lead on the report delivery team), and Hailey Kuckein (insights support on the report delivery team) for their contributions to this report.

Cover image by: Peter Horvath

  1. Erin Reid, “Embracing, passing, revealing, and the ideal worker image: How people navigate expected and experienced professional identities,” Organisation Science 26, no. 4 (2015): pp. 941–1,261.

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  2. Melissa Moyser, “Women and paid work,” Statistics Canada, March 8, 2017.

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  3. Sarah Green Carmichael, “The research is clear: Long hours backfire for people and for companies,” Harvard Business Review, August 19, 2015.

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  4. Leslie A. Perlow and Jessica L. Porter, “Making time off predictable—and required,” Harvard Business Review, October 2009.

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