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It is time to remake the case for promoting gender equality in the workplace. The overwhelming majority of Britons now reject traditional gender roles and support gender equality at work.

Yet a large minority of the British public (43%) also believe that we have gone so far in promoting women’s equality that we are now discriminating against men. A majority of men (53%) agree with this view, as well as a third of women (33%).

Analysis of gender pay gaps suggest that this is quite a stretch. In 2022, the gender pay gap among full-time employees was 8.3%, reflecting the fact that women are over-represented in lower paid roles in organisations and men in leadership positions. These figures exclude part-time workers, the majority of whom are also women, where they are much less likely to receive pay rises or promotions, leading to the so-called ‘mummy’ trap. Moreover, women are disproportionately employed in low-paid, insecure work. But there lingers a fear, among some, that men might be left behind.

What is driving the gap between our perceptions and reality? A key factor is our failure to take gender seriously. Those of us making the case for change too often talk the talk of gender equality – and this conversation is certainly not done – but to accelerate the pace of change we need to also act and dismantle the gender stereotypes that affect men as well as women. To do that we need to focus on how gender inclusive workplaces benefit everyone.

A gender inclusive workplace is one that recognises several key features of our human workforce:  First, we do our best work when we are mentally and physically well. Second, our teams are most creative when we benefit from diversity of thought.. Third, we are most effective and efficient when we can speak truth to power.

All three of these attributes of a healthy workplace are undermined in cultures of hyper-masculinity, where colleagues feel pressure to be invulnerable, are homogenous in background and experience and work within rigid hierarchical structures.

Indeed, in the aftermath of COVID-19, there is an opportunity for us to give greater respect to the role physical and mental wellbeing play in a productive workforce. However, more of us are also facing the flexibility paradox, a term coined by Professor Heejung Chung from the University of Kent. Many office workers have more choice about where we work, but this is often accompanied by a growing sense that work is bleeding into every aspect of our existence, damaging our physical and mental wellbeing. Promoting a positive work-life balance for all – including frontline workers – would benefit men and women, as well as the bottom line.

This trend is exacerbated by cultures that valorise overwork and are prevalent in many high-reward male-dominated sectors and roles, typifying a toxic masculinity that discourages men from spending time with their families and looking after their physical and mental health – and too often excludes those, especially women, with caring responsibilities. An ‘always, always on’ culture is toxic for both men and women.

This is evidenced by a 2022 study of the Australian construction industry. The authors illustrate how the hypermasculine culture predominant in the sector, featuring a ‘dog-eat-dog’ mentality alongside competitive presenteeism, is associated with depression, anxiety and burnout among both men and women employees, and a high exit rate from the industry amongst women.

Tackling cultures of competitive presentism by focusing on rewarding outputs instead of efforts would go a long way towards both improving productivity in the workplace and creating a genuinely gender-inclusive working environment. Employers who promote genuine flexibility, with give-and-take from both employers and employees, will benefit from more diverse teams and meritocratic processes, where the most talented – and not those most able to signal their commitment with excessive hours – reach the top.

Professor Rosie Cambpell is the Director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership and Professor of Politics at King’s College London. 

This article was published in the latest edition of Centre Write. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Bright Blue. 

Read more from our August 2023 Centre Write magazine, ‘Back to business?’ here.