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The barriers to advancing women: What men aren’t seeing

Men may think gender problems in the workplace are a thing of the past, but Jeffery Tobias Halter says they are mistaken.

5 min read


Women in business


Women’s advancement is stuck. The number of women in senior leadership and the executive level has been stuck at approximately 15% for the last 10 years.

Many people find this hard to believe, as organizations have been working hard to resolve their lack of women’s retention and advancement. Despite decades of women flooding into middle management, only one out of five are senior leaders today and less than one out of 10 CEOs are women. The problem is, men see a lot of women in the workplace and think the problem is solved.

Male gender fatigue defined

Elisabeth Kelan, a lecturer in Work and Organisations at King’s College in London, describes “gender fatigue,” as when people in the workplace lack the energy to tackle afresh something that they no longer see as a problem.

In her breakthrough research, “The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling,” Sylvia Ann Hewlett uncovers some of these very issues. With a sample size of almost 3,000 U.S. business men and women, she discovered that male leaders don’t see a lack of women in their organizations.

  • 56% of men think women have made considerable progress over the past 10 years.
  • Only 39% of women see it that way.

Male gender fatigue or blindness refers to senior leaders looking around their organization and seeing “lots of women.” They assume their companies are doing a good job in promoting and advancing women. Unfortunately, what they do not see are the titles and position that these women hold. Women are largely stuck in staff functions, middle management and administrative positions.

The critical mass of women in organizations today is still in staff positions —  not profit and loss responsibility or assigned to head up areas. They are not where decisions are made that are directly linked to the organization’s top strategic initiatives. Additionally, the research highlights that men are far less likely to believe that gender bias exists.

  • 49% of women believe gender bias is alive and well today
  • Only 28% of men agree.

This is the critical point: almost one in two women in your organization believe that gender biases are alive today.

Gender bias is alive in the workplace

This obviously presents a huge organizational challenge. Are gender biases and sexism real issues in the workplace? Yes, of course they are. Every organization has elements of biases and sexism. That being said, I would like to believe that most men in most organizations are not consciously engaging in biased and sexist activities. What is important is to use these numbers and data to engage the organization in a meaningful business dialogue regarding the differences of men and women.

Alison Maitland, co-author with Avivah Wittenberg-Cox of the book “Why Women Mean Business,” says this bias is often unconscious.

“It’s rooted in the systems, expectations and ways of behaving in organizations that were designed and built by and for men in another era — when men were the primary, and often the sole, breadwinners,” said Maitland.

As Maitland explained, senior leaders must understand that advancing women is a business issue, not something left to women to solve on their own.

The cure for gender fatigue

Research suggests that male CEOs with daughters are more likely to champion gender equality. At the top of that list is President Obama who recently shared his understanding of the issue and outlined the role fathers of daughters can play to eliminate gender fatigue and work with a sense of urgency to dispel inequities in the workplace.

The cure for gender fatigue is twofold. First, organizations must treat the recruitment, advancement and retention of women as a business imperative and then staff and fund it appropriately. Most companies staff their women’s resource group with volunteers, budget a few thousand dollars toward programming and think that they have “fixed” their women’s problem. What was the last product you introduced or big merger and acquisition you did with some volunteers and $20,000. Yet this is how companies treat their women’s advancement initiatives.

Second, men need to do one simple thing: ask women, in a genuine manner, about the experiences they are having in the workplace. Most women do not want to tell you the truth. They believe it will hurt their career. Many women do not want to be the flag-bearer for women’s issues in your company. They want to be recognized as great leaders, researchers or sales managers. If male leaders ask, in a genuine open manner, the answers to your problems will spill out in front of you.


Jeffery Tobias Halter is a leading male expert on engaging men in women’s leadership issues and the president of YWomen. YWomen focuses on driving actionable business plans and strategies to help organizations create Integrated Women’s Leadership Strategies. Halter is the former Director of Diversity Strategy for The Coca-Cola Company. He is the author of two books, “WHY WOMEN, The Leadership Imperative to Advancing Women and Engaging Men and Selling to Men” and “Selling to Women.” For more on this topic, watch his TEDx talk, Wanted: Male Champions.

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