For years now we have wanted more women in the top positions.

Even though new rules and laws have been implemented and stimulation programs have been developed, it seems we are unable to realize this goal.
Many reasons are suggested for the lack of women at the top but the wrong discussion is being conducted. The discussion shouldn’t be about equal positions for men and women, but about the differences between men and women. We have to let go of the gender discussion and focus on the characteristical differences between men and women. We believe that a good balance between these characteristics is necessary for an an organization to survive in a rapidly changing society with a focus on agility, sustainability and the need for meaningfulness.

The difference between masculine and feminine is to a great extend determined by our endocrine system and later in life influenced by our cultural norms and values . It is our hormones that determine how we behave in order to survive and to reproduce. Both sexes produce the same hormones; men just make more of the one hormone and women make more of the other. For this article, when we speak of masculine we are referring to the behaviour that arises because there’s more male hormones being created. When we speak of feminine we mean the behaviour that arises because more female hormones are being created. If we apply this definition of masculinity (MASC) and femininity (FEM) to our work environment, we can identify certain characteristics.
Some features:
A masculine personen (MASC) needs a clear hierarchical structure. A feminine person (FEM) however needs more cooperation and therefore prefers to work in a network structure. MASC is more focused on the end goal and FEM more on the process. MASC is more directive and stronger in decision making. FEM is guided more by intuition and prefers to develop organically. MASC is more competitive whereas FEM goes for cooperation. In conflict situations, MASC often reacts directly and refers to the facts. FEM will quickly proceed to negotiation and seek a win-win situation. MASC focuses more on short-term profits and FEM more on long-term added value.

There is no right or wrong when we look at this division. It’s a good thing to recognize the dichotomy so you can assess which skills are needed in which situation. It is important to keep in mind that nobody is only MASC or only FEM. We are all a mix of both.


For their book ‘The profit of difference‘, the Dutch writers Eric Koenen and Chris Brinkgreve interviewed several men and women in top positions about masculinity and femininity. It became clear that it is difficult for many female managers to penetrate top positions because many organizations are masculine oriented. If new candidates are being evaluated with a masculine perspective, feminine leaders do not seem appropriate.


Many organizations are masculine oriented but nowadays it is necessary to have a proper balance between masculine and feminine characteristics. These days, traditional paradigms are shifting and it is slowly becoming more important to be ‘healthy’ rather that ‘wealthy’. Production in terms of quantity is making way for quality as a guiding principle for our growth. New technology makes it possible to share, access and create insights. New organisations use new business strategies which are better balanced. These are brand new principles compared to what we are used to; it is therefore necessary to organize differently. Organisations need to become more network orientated and employees need to start working together and sharing knowledge. Concepts like trust, transparency and flexibility become the new values.

In the book ‘Exponential Organizations‘, authors Yuri van Geest and Salim Ismail describe which features fast-growing and successful organizations such as Uber, Airbnb and Facebook have in common.

If you look at these characteristics, you will see a good balance between masculine features (e.g., interfaces, dashboards, algorithms) and feminine characteristics (e.g., community & crowd, social, engagement). In addition, they indicate that these organizations are extremely ambitious (MASC) yet they are organized in a very flexible and small manner (FEM).
It’s obvious that the power lies in finding a perfect balance between these different features.


Even in the traditionally masculine oriented organizations, we are starting to move more easily between our personal masculine and feminine sides but the organizational structure in which we move around holds us back. For example, employees are encouraged to innovate and experiment but they are still judged on hard measurable goals. Providing feedback for continuous improvement is becoming increasingly common and yet the instrument of ‘performance review’ is still used to make sure you are doing it “right.” New young management teams emerge that lead from the principle of trust but still concrete figures are requested by the board. Feminine behavior is therefore effectively discouraged since this is often not practical or measurable.

These inhibiting factors make it difficult for employees to express feminine characteristics, let alone develope into great feminine leaders in a top management positions. The aforementioned gain of being raised by parents in a time of equal rights, is thus lost.


It might be difficult to break through the masculine organisational culture. The masculine norms and values are deeply rooted in the behaviour of employees. Things that are not measurable or do not yield concrete results are not seen as valuable in this corporate culture, transparency and disclosure are most of time seen as a sign of weakness and, according to this culture, can make organizations vulnerable. To change this, it is necessary that everyone working in an organization is aware of the fact that organizations are managed from a masculine perspective. Current processes, systems and cultural values maintain the dominance of this masculine behaviour. If we are all aware, then will be room for change, towards a better balanced organizations.

Implementing the rule that there must be 30% more women in top positions in Dutch organizations only intensified the focus on the – in our opinion  incorrect – idea that women and men should occupy the same  positions. While this could ultimately be the result, it should not be the main reason for gender diversity: the reason for wanting masculine and feminine diversity within an organisation is that a better balanced organisation is in the interest of the organisation. It is in the interest of masculine oriented organizations, to add more femininity to the leadership whick can be represented in both men and women. Only that reason will create the intrinsic motivation to change, and not the fact that there is a quota that needs to be reached.


This article is written by Ilja van den Berg in collaboration with: Janine van OostenCharlotte van der Laag and with the assistance of Nicole GregoireBrigitte OpelKatja KeucheniusMartine BroekmanHarry KoteyRobert van Oirschot.


Design: Demetres Charokopos, Photography: Antonis Katrakazis produced by Panos Kostouros

I’ve been ‘one of the guys‘ most of my life, during High school, University, as an entrepreneur and as a consultant. For me it was an honorable title, it gave me the feeling that I belonged to a group and apparently my idea was that the ‘guys-group’ was the better group to belong to. I expressed more of my masculine side to belong and I ridiculed strong feminine characteristics even though I had them equally as much as my masculine characteristics.  It gave me status: I was tough, strong and on the other hand nice to look at.

Later in my career as an innovation consultant, I learned that these feminine characteristics were just the characteristics organizations needed to become a future ready organization. This meant that the masculine IT organization  I worked for, needed to create a culture that valued these feminine characteristics more, like I should’ve done myself years ago. Although our direct client agreed, his Unit managers (5) didn’t believe that there was anything wrong with their culture. Surprisingly enough the only female manager was even more opposed to my suggestion than her male peers. Maybe she wanted to belong to her male peer-group, just like I did. Sadly enough because the managers didn’t think that there was anything wrong with their current behavior, nothing changed within the department and unfortunately the female manager left the department shortly after.

–  Ilja van den Berg  –

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