The Speed Bump in the Middle of the Road


By: Kalpana Tatavarti

…Conversations with Middle Management on Gender Inclusion

As we walk hand in hand with organizations to increase gender diversity and create inclusive workplaces, we find that one of the primary reasons organizational efforts are scuppered, is lack of middle management buy in and commitment. There is often a disconnect between leadership commitment/ organization agenda and the mid level leaders who have to execute the agenda at ground level.

This is not to say, however, that it is intentional.

What we hear in the conversations on gender inclusion, in our workshops with middle managers on sensitization, is typically resistance and skepticism :


“Why do we need women in the workplaces anyway?”

“Are we expected to compromise on quality/competence to fill our diversity numbers?”

“Opportunities are available for all employees who want to grow. Why separate/special treatment for women?”

“If women are competent they will definitely grow; if they are not rising to the top it probably means they are not competent enough.”

“We have been doing very well without a diversity strategy & agenda. Why do we need it now? We have been a highly profitable company always… what’s the need to change now?”

“I am not letting her get to the next level, I need my diversity numbers in this team.”

“Staying or leaving is a woman’s personal decision, why should I get into it?”

The role of middle management in the Diversity and Inclusion journey cannot be overstated. Middle Management has to role model inclusive behaviors to lead the cultural milieu required for inclusion and take equitable decisions by being aware of their own unconscious biases that could be at play.

To do this, they have to be convinced of the gender diversity & inclusion agenda.

I believe that if we approach this appropriately, we can harness the support and commitment of this critical layer in the system that could well be the lynchpin on the journey.


Here are a few pointers that we have seen working well:

  1. Collect and share data/metrics: Presenting data & metrics specific to the organization such as percentage of female representation at different layers of the organization, attrition rates at specific layers as well as quantitative/qualitative data from Focus groups, exit interviews makes the challenges real and enables the managers to view this as a business problem that has to be addressed. I have found it especially powerful to include qualitative comments.
  2. Make the Business case specific to industry and tie it to the organizational goals: Many times the messaging for this tends to be very confused; is this a moral issue? Human rights issue? Business issue? The biggest concern for this layer in the organization is their business results, hence we need to tie the agenda to this context. Why is gender diversity important for our organization at this stage in our growth? For the customers we are servicing? For the markets we are entering and new products we want to launch? This can be by far the strongest variable that can impact the Manager’s commitment.
  3. Share the strengths of gender diversity at a granular level: I call this ‘Strengths Based Diversity’. We need to share real time stories on how the different strengths women bring to the table play out…like the CEO at a factory shared how the entire stance of the union changed from confrontational to collaborative when they brought in a woman HR head; or the business head of customer services who pointed out how women are able to deflect conflict. One organization has launched a study to identify how & why mixed gender teams are performing…of course the risk of stereotyping is inherent in this process, but it makes the gender diversity agenda more believably valuable to middle management.
  4. Involve them in the target setting process: Setting Targets or not is a choice that organizations have to make; in most cases ‘targets’ are a language managers understand but making sure the targets are a signpost rather than a gun at their heads is critical. Besides, involving them in the target setting process by giving due consideration to their unique business or team makes the targets more realistic and achievable.
  5. Help them understand that gender inclusion means responding to differential needs NOT making concessions: The positioning needs to be clearly about employee engagement. Different groups of employees have different needs, and if they have to be engaged and performing optimally, we need give due consideration to their differential needs.
  6. Provide them with the skills required for gender inclusion: I remember one manager revealing (courageously!) “I don’t know how to build rapport with female employees the way I can build with male employees.” We have to understand that most leaders have not had the experience of working with women in the workplaces. They have to be equipped with the skills of mentoring and coaching women leaders taking into account the socio-cultural context.

Clearly, this is a long term process of building attitudes, knowledge and skills in the middle management but I believe if it is well thought out and planned, it can be integrated into the existing organizational processes.

More importantly it will ensure that the gender diversity agenda is executed with more zeal, commitment and rigor!

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