UCL School of Management

29 March 2022

Challenging masculine prototypes to increase women’s senior representation

Photo of a woman in a tuxedo with the word "elegant" written over the top to play on gender stereotypes

Despite decades of effort for equality in the workplace, women remain severely underrepresented at senior management level. Writing for Maddyness, Felix Danbold explains why the problem of “masculine prototypes” is a major contributing factor to why women are still overlooked and underrepresented, globally. 

Across the globe, underrepresentation at senior levels is at a devastating low with only 29% of women making up senior management, a number which gets catastrophically worse the higher up the ranks you go, with a shocking 5% of women worldwide making up Chief Executives. Felix explains that even when women and men are hired at the same rate in entry-level positions, fewer women are promoted to senior positions. 

As individuals, we develop a “prototype”, a collection of features and traits that we associate with people in a category. Felix uses the example of firefighters, “when people think about the category of “firefighters,” traits like “strong” and “decisive” may come to mind. The more an individual possesses these traits, the more “prototypical” they will seem. Those who are seen as best fitting the prototype are rewarded, and will have an easy time succeeding in that category whereas those who are seen as less prototypical are treated with scepticism and struggle to fit in.”

This poses a problem as typical “masculine traits” are often those we associate with leadership, such as assertiveness and strength, such that it is easier for us to imagine men in those positions, as these traits are not typically associated with women.

The masculine prototypes mean women have to work harder to be recognised as good leaders. This usually results in them taking on more masculine prototypes, and they are then penalised for violating gender stereotypes. Furthermore, those who do succeed feed the prototypical image of men in senior positions.

Felix suggests a way organisations can combat masculine prototypes is for us to change the idea of prototypes to make them more inclusive. “If people can recognise stereotypically feminine traits – like compassion or empathy – to be just as important as stereotypically masculine traits – such as decisiveness or assertiveness – then this can weaken between being masculinity and success.”

He continues that as leaders we can control prototypes in hiring, promotion and evaluation procedures, as it’s in those spheres that organisations signal to employees what traits are valued and what traits aren’t. “Essentially, this communicates to employees what the relevant prototype is. If the traits that you routinely reward are seen as stereotypically masculine, you’re effectively making it easier for men to get ahead than women. A more balanced set of criteria can ensure that people don’t use masculinity as a heuristic for potential success.”

Read the full article 

Last updated Friday, 1 April 2022