Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

The male blueprint: What it is — and how it stops women from reaching the C-suite

The male blueprint — a set of characteristics, behaviours and expectations traditionally associated with leadership roles and attributed to masculinity — is among the factors holding women back from gender equity at the top of the business world.

The male blueprint — a set of characteristics, behaviours and expectations traditionally associated with leadership roles and attributed to masculinity — is among the factors holding women back from gender equity at the top of the business world. Image: Getty Images

Silvia Wiesner
Consultant, Leadership Advisory, Egon Zehnder
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Gender Inequality

  • Despite progress in gender equity over the years, there remains a significant female representation gap at the top of companies.
  • Within a complex set of drivers for the disappointing status quo, the male leadership blueprint stands out as a key problem.
  • Successful interventions like quotas and inclusive, company-specific people policies aim not to “fix women”, but to enable structural change.

Progress has been made worldwide in terms of promoting gender diversity in leadership. However, that progress comes with caveats.

LinkedIn data indicates that representation of women drops to 25% in C-suite positions on average, compared to 46% in entry-level positions. And while the proportion of women hired into leadership positions has been steadily increasing by about 1% per year for the past eight years, we recently observed a decline, as pointed out in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.

Progress largely comes from external pressures and individual efforts rather than the system itself. And now, a certain fatigue has crept in. While the goal of gender equity is still a long way off, companies that have overcome the old norm (in which there are only men on the board) are settling into a new norm for having one woman on the board. But only one.

Female Executives also do not stay as long in their roles. Data from Germany shows that the average male Executive stays for 6 years and 11 months while the average female stays only 3 years and 2 months. The key driver behind this difference is the fact that female Board members over-proportionately come from outside — lacking informal knowledge and networks — and work in more exposed, cross-functional functions such as human resources, both linked to shorter periods of time irrespective of gender.

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Social expectations are impacting the promotion into and the stay on Executive Boards. For example, Herminia Ibarra of INSEAD says that companies are still more likely to ask men to turn around an ailing division or to start a new one. Thus, women fail to get the really stretching jobs necessary to win experience and promotion.

Self-stereotyping may also hold women back without their (conscious) knowledge, for instance, making them think they are not the best person to lead the company. Lack of sufficient, attractive role models helps perpetuate this confidence barrier: The leaders of large public companies are almost universally male.

Further, women lack networks. People bond when they have much in common, and women are more likely to separate their personal and professional networks.

Introducing the male blueprint

These factors all play a role in the board-level discrepancy — but there is another, even more pernicious problem: We still measure everything against the male blueprint.

The male leadership blueprint refers to a set of characteristics, behaviours and expectations traditionally associated with leadership roles and attributed to masculinity — assertiveness, decisiveness, competitiveness and confidence, for example, have been valued and emphasized in leadership roles. This is also due to the fact that, historically speaking, leadership positions in many cultures have been predominantly held by men.

While it is accepted that women are on an Executive Board, they are still seen as something special. “It is simply not yet normal,” said one female Executive in an Egon Zehnder and FGS Global survey.

Women in top management positions are subject to structurally higher expectations and must prove that they are better than their male colleagues. Dozens of studies have demonstrated that women face a trade-off between competence and likability. In sociological terms, women violate social expectations of typical female behavior, which clashes with the qualities we think are necessary to perform a typically male job.

This effect is reflected in and exaggerated by gender stereotypes in media coverage. When editorial teams interview male board members, professional aspects take centre stage. In interviews with female Executives, on the other hand, private matters such as family, childhood or appearance are more frequently discussed. Sentiment analyses also show that media coverage of women generally turns negative more quickly than that of men as soon as the person becomes better known. And when a woman fails, she is rarely reported as an individual case, but often as a representative of the cause of all women.

“It's always ‘the woman has failed’,” said a female Executive in the Egon Zehnder and FGS Global report, “but never ‘yet another company has failed to integrate a woman’.”

Stereotypes can be found even in corporate communication. A study by BCG in collaboration with TUM showed that in press releases on management changes, leadership and business skills are more frequently attributed to male managers than to female managers, whose skills are primarily mentioned in talent and project management.

Women also actively decide themselves not to extend their contracts because they don't want to put up with the political tactics, for example, or they don’t want to pay the price of, for instance, not being the kind of parent they want to be. As prestige is often less important to them, they tend to pull out.

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Interventions to achieve gender equity at the top

Today, there are two classes of interventions designed to achieve workplace gender equality: Those designed to boost ambition, and those that try to provide women with needed abilities to achieve these positions. While such initiatives are generally well meaning, they tend to be based upon (and reinforce) stereotypes of what women lack.

Instead, the interventional focus must be shifted to society and companies. Since debiasing minds is hard, we need to change the structures, organizational context and culture in which female talents are embedded.

Debiasing systems happens via structural national interventions, e.g. quotas, and company-specific DEI programmes driven by invested business leaders — including the CEO and Board Chair — modeling and incentivizing inclusive leadership. They need to understand and target all the personal, organizational and societal challenges women face when developing their professional trajectory and cover each phase of the employee lifecycle.

The composition at the top of a company and the leadership behaviors displayed — inclusive ones or not — set the tone of the organization and have signaling impact both inside and outside to existing and potential future employees. They tell a story of what is attainable and/or desirable for female talent.

It is time to challenge the underlying factors, primarily belief systems and informal assessments, that have been counterproductive for the appointment or tenure of female Executives. A real cultural change means fundamental rethinking and learning new patterns of behavior — this starts with each individual.

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