Between self-evidence and blindness: How "male cultures" impede gender equality in companies

Between self-evidence and blindness: How "male cultures" impede gender equality in companies

By Gabriele Schambach and Julia Nentwich
April 6, 2021


In order to increase the proportion of women in management positions, a change in corporate culture is needed – this change exists as a challenge for (male) managers.

The equality-oriented  developments in corporate culture   are processes that take place through a wide variety of everyday interactions. As the results of the survey of almost 1,200 managers in the context of the "Leaders for Equality" project of the University of St. Gallen showed, male managers are already very active: for example, almost two-thirds of the male managers surveyed stated that they are careful not to make any remarks that (perhaps unintentionally) devalue women or do not take them seriously. Forty-five percent  address only other men when they make remarks that either devalue women, are sexist or misogynistic and another 25 or 32 percent can imagine making rude comments to women. This result is encouraging because, firstly, the majority of male managers are well aware of  the all-encompassing  "male culture" in which derogatory, sexist or misogynistic remarks are made and secondly, because they are in the process of changing this, or at least, intend to do so.  

This could be the end of the story…. 
If it were not for the analysis of the remarks by the women we surveyed. Women were asked about the activities of their male colleagues - and they come to a rather different conclusion: It is precisely with the two practices just mentioned (not using potentially sexist language directly to women and in their ambition to change this) that their scepticism is greatest.  Approximately one third of the women we interviewed even thought that it would be especially difficult for men to change their way of communicating. In other words, the difference between men's self-perception and women's perception of  men is particularly pronounced here. It could hardly be clearer!

What is behind this? Where do these different perceptions come from?
A look at the group discussions with male and female managers shows that both men and women think that women have a harder time in a male-dominated (leadership) world.  ndeed, women struggle to be perceived as female bosses. They are under constant observation to prove their competences again and again and have to work hard to gain the respect of colleagues and employees. They work against traditional role models that classify them as leaders either as too emotional or too masculine. Their strategies are adaptation, rebellion or just giving up. 

Both men and women recognise and talk about these differences and criticise them equally but in contrast to women, men hardly follow up with any ideas on how this could be changed. The rough tone of voice, the conservative image of women in certain professions and industries and the condescending manner of male customers, suggest a kind of “law of nature”. Women are just like that (timid, unambitious, quiet…) - that's just the way it is! 

The women in management positions that we interviewed, on the other hand, have clear suggestions on what should change within  corporate culture: they no longer want to just put up with the rough dismissive tone, but would like other men to intervene more and take a stand against it. They no longer want to "be on the front lines in the combat zone" every day justifying their (rare) elevated positions ,as one manager put it they want to be accepted as emotionally  as tough as men but want to be spared the "power games" of men, which are alien to them and which they do not want to adopt.

The obvious question is: Why don't men come up with suggestions to change the work culture of their organisation? Have they  become so immersed in this "male culture" that they are blind to it’s negative and discriminatory effects? Only one manager  self-reflected on this issue: What is actually my contribution to the problem? To what extent can I contribute to the solution? I would never think that I am part of the problem because I am so deep in the shadows that I don't see it."

How can these blind spots emerge from the shadows into the light? 
As banal and strange as it may sound, the best way is to talk to each other! Women and men need to talk about how they experience and perceive different concrete everyday interactions and situations - and what they would like to see changed. What is indispensable here is mutual goodwill and a constructive orientation towards a gender-inclusive evolution in corporate culture. This means that men could look at  their possible "blind spots" without having to justify themselves immediately. On the contrary, they can value them as practices they are now aware of and have now been able to question. Self-awareness and self-development are common traits of genuine leaders.For women, it means conveying their experiences, impressions and feelings, more on the basis of concrete examples and situations than sweeping accusations and generalizing statements about "the men", that might make men defensive. This advice goes, of course, in both directions. 
Building on such an exchange, so-called "gender-inclusive leadership practices", i.e. concrete ways of behaving, can be agreed upon together. Of course, these then apply to male leaders as well as female leaders - only together can a change in  corporate culture succeed.


We are pleased that the Handelszeitung as our project partner published this article in the print edition (please reset link) on March 25, and in the online edition on April 3.