Understanding organizational practices and processes is central to explaining gender inequality. While women remain clustered in secondary labor markets marked by lower wages, uncertainty, short career ladders, and few if any benefits, most men find employment in primary labor markets characterized by greater economic rewards. Occupational and job segregation continue to be an enduring feature within most firms. Additionally, gender differences in income, power, authority, autonomy, and status translate into men, particularly white men, enjoying systematic advantages over women. Despite changing social and economic conditions and legislation prohibiting sex discrimination, these inequalities persist and subsequently inform an impressive body of labor market and workplace analyses.
The study of ‘‘gendered organizations’’ as a distinct area of scholarly inquiry has developed over the last 15 years in an effort to explain such inequality. The concept, coined by Joan Acker, means that ‘‘advantage and disadvantage, exploitation and control, action and emotion, meaning and identity, are patterned through and in terms of a distinction between male and female, masculine and feminine’’ (Acker 1990:146). Although relatively new, this field has roots in second wave and radical feminist scholarship dating back at least to the 1960s. Scholars began merging gender studies with organizational literature in an effort to render visible women’s experiences, place men’s experiences in a gendered context (rather than a universal experience shared by all), and identify the ways in which gender inequality is (re)created and maintained over time.
Early work by Heidi Hartmann, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Catharine MacKinnon, and Kathy Ferguson revealed organizational dynamics that produce gender specific outcomes, which disadvantage women and advantage men. For example, Kanter’s classic study, Men and Women of the Corporation (1977), demonstrates how one’s structural position within a firm (e.g., the job one holds in the hierarchy) determines one’s ‘‘success,’’ defined in terms of career mobility, authority, and power. One’s job also affects one’s personality, behavior, and aspirations, such as women acting timid. Thus, women’s disadvantaged location stems from being disproportionately concentrated and ‘‘stuck’’ in positions with limited power and short to nonexistent career ladders. One of the primary strengths of Kanter’s work lies in the shift from individual level behavior of men and women to a structural explanation of gender inequality. Although Kanter provides mechanisms for how, once in place, gender inequality is maintained through occupational sex segregation, she neglects to explain the origins of segregation that leads to an array of unequal work rewards.
Turning to Marxist feminist scholars such as Heidi Hartmann helps find an explication of the origins of gender segregation and its consequences. According to Hartmann, capitalism and patriarchy are separate but interlocking systems that work in concert to structure social organization. (Hartmann defines patriarchy as a set of social relations with a material base, where hierarchical relations between men and solidarity among them enable men to control women.) Specifically, she contends that capitalism and patriarchy operate to subordinate women as individuals and as a collective group through various modes of production, the gendered division of labor, and subsequent sex segregation. Therefore, according to this perspective, patriarchy proceeds yet interacts with capitalism so that women enter the wage labor market at a disadvantage, and men’s actions maintain women’s subordinate position while protecting their own privileges. Hartmann’s theory acknowledges the interconnections between gender and other institutions. She also shows that men’s actions matter in maintaining gender inequality in addition to men and women’s structural positions, thereby making the link between structure and agency explicit. Since Hartmann’s account, feminist scholars have demonstrated the ways in which gender infuses
our lives through all institutions. Because institutions are intertwined and interdependent, we can use gender as a lens through which to describe and understand people’s experiences within them.
Joan Acker argues that despite such advances in gender theorizing, conceptions of institutions (other than ‘‘the family’’) remain gender free or gender neutral, when, in fact, gender permeates their ideologies, practices, and symbols. Indeed, many argue that gender constitutes an institution in and of itself, in addition to shaping other forms of social organization. That is, gender is not only an individual attribute but also a major organizing system that structures patterns of interactions and expectations across other major social institutions (Lorber 1994). Thus, gender fundamentally structures family and kinship, the economy, language, education, culture, interpersonal relationships, sexuality, ideology, and personality. Conceiving institutions as genderless, separate entities is problematic because this obscures the fundamental processes of creating and maintaining power inequities between men and women.
According to Acker, the gendering of institutions and organizations occurs through the following processes. First, there is the division of men and women into distinctly different realms, in terms of the type of labor performed, physical work locations, and acceptable behaviors and emotions. Second, symbols and images, such as language and culture, are constructed that reinforce these divisions. Third, gendering processes occur in interpersonal interactions between and among women and men. Individual identities also promote and reinforce gendered outcomes to the extent that people enact and internalize gender specific scripts for behavior. Fourth, gender constitutes one of the fundamental organizing elements of creating organizational structures.
In a pathbreaking article, Acker (1990) uses complex, bureaucratic organizations as an example to detail how organizations reflect specific gendered expectations and relations. More specifically, she shows that jobs, work rules, contracts, evaluation systems, and firm cultures (e.g., organizational logics) are not gender neutral. Rather, she draws on feminists such as Dorothy Smith, Joan Scott, and Sandra Hardin, who advocate that gender constitutes a meaningful analytic category to argue that a gendered substructure undergirds the entire bureaucratic organizational system. Notably, this substructure is gendered masculine, with the interests of men at its center. Therefore, gender inequality stems from the very organization of bureaucracies rather than being produced solely by the actions of particular gendered individuals enacting gendered scripts for behavior within them.
To illustrate, in organizational terms ‘‘jobs’’ constitute an abstract category, filled by an abstract worker, one with no gender. In this conception, the successful performance of a job requires a worker to focus on a set of tasks commensurate with a certain level of skills, credentials, and remuneration. Also, we expect a worker to be unencumbered by competing obligations that would interfere with job demands. Acker makes clear, however, that real people fill jobs; that is, jobs are embodied. And by examining jobs this way, we can see that the abstraction best reflects men’s lives, since men stereotypically assume the majority work in the public sphere while having few competing demands in the private sphere. Instead, women perform reproductive, childrearing, domestic, and care work in the private sphere, which enables men to work outside the home. Thus, Acker shows that a gendered division of labor provides the foundation for the conception of a job.
Procreation, childrearing, and stereotypically feminine emotions upset the successful functioning of jobs within bureaucratic organizations, again making clear that jobs are based on men’s lives, men’s bodies, and masculinity, while relegating women to the margins. Thus, despite the inroads women have made into traditionally male dominated occupations and the greater number who have entered the ranks of management, gender inequalities between men and women remain remarkably stable. Although Kanter’s theory would have predicted more equality as more women changed structural positions within organizations, Acker suggests that such mobility offers a futile attempt at disrupting gender differentials due to the gendered substructure privileging men that operates as a fundamental structuring element of the organization itself.
Empirical projects examining Acker’s theoretical claims can be found in a burgeoning literature bridging multiple academic disciplines. For instance, significant work is devoted to the ways in which occupations and jobs are gendered. In her book Gender Trials (1995), Jennifer Pierce demonstrates how norms and expectations for lawyers and paralegals in corporate law firms are culturally constructed, symbolized, and reinforced through masculinity and femininity, respectively. For instance, successful lawyers are characterized by their ‘‘Rambo’’ litigating techniques where they obliterate their enemies in fierce competition. Token women lawyers (tokens because they represent a numerical minority in the occupation) must also conform to these ultramasculine behaviors in order to achieve success and not be considered weak and incompetent (or impotent). In contrast, women paralegals must nurture and mother their bosses or suffer consequences of criticism from them. Yet men paralegals do not experience the same set of constraints and experiences.
This work is similar to Williams’s (1992) account of how men as librarians, elementary school teachers, and nurses face different experiences than women in the same occupations. Although these occupations are gendered feminine, men are promoted at exceptional speeds, ‘‘riding the glass escalator’’ rather than facing barriers to advancement. Such scholar ship varies significantly from Kanter’s findings of how women experience tokenism as having little power, needing to prove themselves, and exclusionary. These findings illustrate how a masculine gendered substructure operates to benefit men even where men constitute the numerical minority of workers in a given occupation or firm.
Other scholars have studied gendered organizational practices and policies across a broad spectrum of settings ranging from restaurants and prisons to an Anglican parish, Malawi NGOs, and a Latino health organization in Los Angeles. For example, Britton (1997) shows how training materials and examples for prison officers are presented as generic, but in actuality are constructed as though all of the trainees are men. The material neglects issues and information germane to women’s prisons (only men’s), and completely ignores sexual harassment of officers from inmates.
The journal Gender, Work and Organization was created to advance interdisciplinary theoretical and empirical work on the process and outcomes of gendered organizational structures. Additionally, one can now find scholarship in this area in business journals, which historically have neither published extensively on women’s experiences nor analyzed men’s positions as gendered beings. Gender and Society also devotes considerable space to analyses on gendered processes and outcomes across a variety of institutions and organizations. Although challenges to integrating literature on gender, work, and organizations remain along theoretical, gender, and geographic lines, there is excitement about both the possibilities of ‘‘striking out’’ into new territories and problematizing current work in an effort to enrich this field.
Several scholars have responded to Acker’s original treatment of gendered organizations, including Acker herself. Consensus exists on at least two of the future directions for work in this field.
First, scholars must seriously consider the specific context in which gendering processes occur to avoid criticisms that arguments of a gender substructure are essentialist and a historical. That is, instead of conceiving organizations as stable and rigid structures, Acker and others emphasize the process oriented and con textual nature of gendering. For instance, in ‘‘The Epistemology of the Gendered Organization’’ (2000) Dana Britton notes that one of the major themes in this field claims that bureaucratic organizations are inherently gendered masculine. Britton argues that turning a testable proposition into an underlying assumption stifles potential for changing the ways that work places (re)produce gender inequality, short of eradicating complex bureaucracies and replacing them with collectivist organizations. Moreover, such a static conceptualization does not account for the ways in which some formal bureaucratic practices benefit women (see Cook & Waters 1998) and protect women from sexual harassment.
Additionally, Britton cautions scholars examining the ways in which occupations and jobs are gendered, most of whom rely on the extent to which occupations are male or female dominated. According to Britton, this approach presents the tendency to conflate sex with gender while simultaneously neglecting the complex historical process that leads to occupations being gender typed as feminine or masculine.
Context also remains important as organizational boundaries and contemporary work configurations change, partially fueled by globalization. Patricia Yancey Martin and others call for more systematic analyses of how contemporary practices, such as flattened hierarchies, team based approaches, telecommuting, and e commerce, affect gendered occupations and practices and subsequent inequalities.
Second, a substantial body of literature demonstrates that inequality is patterned along gender, race, and class lines. Moreover, the intersections of these stratification systems translate into white men enjoying systematic advantages over other men as well as all women. In some instances, white women experience privileges that men and women of color do not, depending on the context. Thus, patterns of inequality are far more complex than simply noting gender inequities between all men and all women.
In response, scholars argue to move beyond solely examining the gendering of organizations to account for other axes of inequality, namely race. In What a Woman Should Be and Do (1996) Stephanie Shaw provides an exemplary study of how teaching as an occupation is both gendered and raced. Moreover, Collins (2000) draws on work by Barbara Omolade to argue that organizations maintain (white, masculine) power by having professional black women in supervisory positions who ‘‘serve white superiors while quieting the natives’’ (e.g., other women of color).
In addition to her suggestions noted above, Britton calls for greater theoretical clarification and refinement in an effort to create meaningful strategies for social change. Patricia Yancy Martin, Jeffrey Hearn, and colleagues contest this call for synthesis, finding strength in the ‘‘ambiguity, contradiction, paradox, and multiplicity’’ that accompanies the diverse literature in this field (Martin & Collinson 2002).
- Acker, (1990) Hierarchies, Jobs, and Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations. Gender and Society 4: 139-58.
- Britton, (1997) Gendered Organizational Logic: Policy and Practice in Men’s and Women’s Prisons. Gender and Society 11(6): 796-818.
- Collins, H. (2000) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 2nd edn. Routledge, New York.
- Cook, & Waters, M. (1998) The Impact of Organizational Form on Gendered Labor Markets in Engineering and Law. Sociological Review 46(2): 313-39.
- Ferguson, (1984) The Feminist Case Against Bureaucracy. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
- Hartmann, (1976) Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Job Segregation by Sex. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1(3): 137-69.
- Hearn, , Sheppard, D. L., Tancred-Sheriff, P., & Burrell, G. (Eds.) (1989) The Sexuality of Organizations. Sage, London.
- Kanter, M. (1977) Men and Women of the Corporation. Basic Books, New York.
- Leidner, R. (1993) Fast Food, Fast Talk: Service Work and the Routinization of Everyday University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Lorber, (1994) Paradoxes of Gender. Yale University Press, New Haven.
- MacKinnon, (1979) Sexual Harassment of Working Women. Yale University Press, New Haven. Martin, P. Y. & Collinson, D. (2002) ‘‘Over the Pond and Across the Water’’: Developing the Field of ‘‘Gendered Organizations.’’ Gender, Work, and Organizations 9(3): 244-65.
- Reskin, & Roos, P. (1990) Job Queues, Gender Queues: Explaining Women’s Inroads into Male Occupations. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
- Williams, (1992) The Glass Escalator: Hidden Advantages for Men in the ‘‘Female’’ Professions. Social Problems 39: 253-68.
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