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Nov 17, 2022

Going Further Together: The Unique Power of Mixed-Gender Coalitions Advocating for Gender Equity

Gender equity in the workplace is a goal many are striving toward – but the question of how to effectively realize this ideal remains somewhat nebulous and is thus likely to engender a variety of approaches. Recent research co-authored by Elad Sherf, associate professor of Organizational Behavior at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, may offer pragmatic guidance for how gender equity advocacy groups can accomplish their vision. Sherf and his co-authors (Insiya Hussain of the University of Texas and Subrahmaniam Tangirala of the University of Maryland) demonstrate that in the context of gender equity, coalitions comprising only a single gender struggle to be perceived as legitimate – albeit in different ways.

When a group of men advocates for gender equity, its efforts fail to receive coalition legitimacy, or the perception that the group’s members are the correct spokespeople to be discussing the issue. By contrast, gender equity coalitions comprised of only women are often not granted issue legitimacy, or the perception that gender equity is of strategic importance to a business organization. Across multiple domains, the authors find that mixed-gender coalitions can overcome both problems and thus be uniquely effective at accomplishing gender equity goals.

To further explore this issue, we asked Sherf several follow-up questions to probe how men and women can work together to eliminate gender disparities, as well as to discern areas in which further research may be needed.

Since men have traditionally had more influence in the workplace, how can men effectively advocate for gender equity without crowding out the perspectives of other genders?

Let me begin by challenging the premise of the question. I am not sure advocating for gender equity is a zero-sum game. In my earlier work, I found that men often question whether they have a place in these types of conversations. Part of the point of this new paper is that there is a place for them.

Having said that, I think it is wise to think about the ways men can be more effective, as some forms of advocacy can lead to backlash. My suggestions is to follow the three C’s:

  1. Be Curious. Approaching issues of equity from a place of humility and curiosity is likely to be more effective in ensuring that men’s ideas and advocacy is not seen as paternalistic and domineering. Before advocating, it may be worthwhile to validate your own thoughts and experiences with both men and women privately. Attempting to understand others’ perspective can help shed light on how you may be blinded to the experiences and perspective of others.     
  2. Be Collaborative. As our work on coalitions for gender equity has shown, men can be more effective by joining women’s existing efforts and lending their support. Such collaborations signal the legitimacy and wide appeal of the issues and ideas, possibly leading to more favorable reactions by decision-makers.
  3. Be Compassionate. Gender equity is a delicate subject that many people have strong opinions about. People’s positive and negative reactions to advocacy for gender equity are likely rooted in their experiences and beliefs and may even be guided by unarticulated fears, justified or not. Respect for people’s emotions on the subject can go a long way. The compassion should be extended to oneself, as we will all make blunders and may offend some. It is OK to err, as long as we keep learning. As Maya Angelou said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

As remote work has become more common, do the paper’s findings hold up in a remote working environment? Are workers still able to form effective coalitions when working remotely?

I would start by saying that our studies were not designed in any way to examine such questions. But given that our studies were conducted with online participants, we can at least say that being exposed to information about coalitions online is effective.

In our research, we did not study how such coalitions are formed. However, online tools and social media have been critical to mobilization on social issues in the present era. For instance, the Women’s March on Washington was organized across cities and even countries via online tools. Moreover, most major companies have internal online forums which serve as ground zero for employees to share their thoughts and concerns, and these have often resulted in more coordinated action, such as live marches, protests, and walkouts.

I think the challenges related to remote work in this context are like other challenges of remote work. That is, the extent to which remote work reduces the possibility to connect and discuss these types of issues. Whereas in the office, collations and other advocacy efforts may emerge from “watercooler” talks and chance encounters, these may occur less if people work remotely. Hence, the challenge is to create possibilities for informal interactions.

Do the same dynamics apply in an industry or working environment that is predominantly male or female?

Great question. Although we did not test the role of industry or work environment specifically in our research, it’s generally possible that mixed-gender coalitions would be especially effective in such work environments. Our studies do suggest that men contribute more to both legitimacy signals in the eyes of managers who tend to hold more sexist beliefs. Thus, to the extent that such beliefs are more common in male-dominated industries, we might extrapolate (with caution) that men’s participation in gender equity advocacy coalitions matters even more in such situations. The most important takeaway, though, is that despite these nuances, mixed-gender coalitions still out-performed single-gender coalitions across participants.

How can managers take these findings into account?

Advocates should be strategic when forming coalitions so that they ensure, via coalition composition, that they are signaling a right to raise the issue as well as the legitimacy of the issue itself. Men and women gender equity advocates can mutually benefit by seeking each other’s partnership rather than going at it alone.

Note, however, that our findings are descriptive rather than prescriptive. In a more perfect world, women’s advocacy for gender equity should not necessarily require the involvement of others.

When assessing advocacy efforts, managers may want to ask themselves whether they would see the issue raised by a coalition similarly if the composition of the coalition were different. If I heard the same message from a different messenger, would that change how I view the issue? To the extent that the answer is positive, or even just unclear, it may be worth further investigation of the issue being advocated. 

Do the findings around mixed-gender coalitions apply to other issues beyond gender equity?

In this paper we examine the legitimacy of demographically diverse coalitions with respect to gender equity issues only. It is possible that our findings apply to other social issues as well (e.g., race, LGBTQ rights or even advocacy on climate change). For instance, it is possible that a mixed-race coalition that includes both Black and white members would be more effective at advocating racial justice for Black Americans than a coalition of only Black or only white members. This is because a mixed-race coalition would best be able to signal both coalition legitimacy and issue legitimacy. It’s important to note, though, that issues of race are different than those of gender, and each issue involves unique considerations. Thus, further research is needed with respect to some of these other issues.

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