What do we mean when we say that enterprise or organization is gendered? As Acker (2003) argues, ‘‘to say that an organization, or any other analytic unit, is gendered 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.’’ However, the traditional approach to organizational analysis is criticized by a number of contemporary authors, including Acker, for its neglect, up until the 1980s at least, of women and gender. This neglect occurred firstly because organizational research often focused on senior levels of the hierarchy where men predominate. Secondly, men dominated the academic research process and generally showed little interest in female employees or gender as a unit of analysis. Critics argued that within traditional organizational analysis men’s experiences and interpretations of organizational life were taken as universal, producing gender neutral knowledge, which failed to recognize gender as a significant dynamic of organizations and rendered women invisible. Although some of the criticisms remain valid in regard to mainstream organization and management studies, there is now a significant and growing body of gender and organization literature, largely produced by women and often with women as the analytic focus, which sees organizations as important sites in which gendered meanings, identities, practices, and power relations are produced, enacted, and reproduced.
Much of the gender and organization literature is influenced by liberal, socialist, and postmodernist/poststructuralist feminist theories. Generally, the literature can be characterized according to one main feminist orientation, while perhaps reflecting insights from others. To summarize, liberal feminism conceives of people as autonomous individuals aspiring to fulfil themselves through a system of individual rights. Women’s inequality is rooted in attitudes, customs, and legal constraints standing in the way of their entry to and success in public life. Socialist feminism conceives of women as an oppressed social group facing a common struggle against male domination and exploitation. Women’s inequality is rooted in the capitalist and patriarchal systems of production and reproduction. Postmodernist/ poststructuralist feminism conceives of gender as a discursive practice through which femininities and masculinities are produced, sustained, and reproduced. There is less a concern with women’s material inequality than with demonstrating the ambiguous, unstable, complex nature of social categories and the subjectivity of identity. Influenced by feminist theories, the gender and organization literature has over time taken various turns producing a number of strands, although the themes and foci often overlap. However, no precise chronology of the emergence of the strands can be proffered, and indeed different strands continue to coexist in the contemporary literature.
One dominant strand of this literature, most strongly influenced by liberal feminism, focuses on women managers and vertical gender segregation. Here it is assumed that individuals aspire to climb the organizational hierarchy and that the fair organization will allow both men and women to realize their capabilities within a merit system. The research concerns include gender differences in leadership, work commitment, motivation and satisfaction, sex stereotypes, and gender biases in recruitment and selection. The conclusion often drawn is that if women became or behaved more like men (i.e., if gender difference were eliminated) then they would defy sex stereotypes and succeed in organizations. Therefore, there is a focus on women’s ‘‘deficiencies’’ rather than on any in built unfairness within organizations, with policy recommendations such as assertiveness training courses, or ‘‘dressing for success’’ with the general aim for the fair organization conceived as needing to ‘‘fix the women’’ (Kolb et al. 2003). More recently the perceived existence of gender difference is seen less as something in need of correcting than as a potential organizational resource to be celebrated. Critical authors generally regard this strand of the literature as an inadequate and one dimensional way of analyzing gender and organizations.
Kanter’s Men and Women of the Corporation (1977) is an example of an important turn in the literature in that it set out to show that gender differences in organizational behavior are due to structure rather than to the characteristics of men and women as individuals. Hence, from this perspective, it is organizations that need to change, rather than women, in order to encourage more women to join the race to the top. This perspective remains influential and policy oriented studies examining the gender structure of organizations continue to investigate the ways organizations might accommodate gender difference. For example, the contemporary ‘‘women in management’’ literature explores the problem of the invisible barriers to women’s advancement (often referred to as the glass ceiling). These include the lack of senior female role models in organizations, the culture of presenteeism, and the evaluation of individuals according to their ability to separate home and work. Policy recommendations, which are compensatory in nature, are postulated, including the establishment of mentoring for women, women’s business/professional networks, and schemes to enable women to reconcile work and family. However, the literature influenced by liberal feminism is uncritical of organizations fundamentally, for example the gendered processes of organizational decision making (e.g., why is it necessary to work excessively long hours?) or the dominant ideal of meritocracy (e.g., how is merit measured and judged?) are rarely questioned.
Another strand of the gender and organization literature is influenced more strongly by socialist feminist theory. This posits that paid work cannot be the sole unit of analysis and that the intersection between the public and private spheres (or work and the home) must be explored in order to understand women’s position in the labor market. Analytically, research is often concerned with the macro level of the labor market and the temporally and spatially persistent pattern of vertical and horizontal gender segregation, which is seen to disadvantage women. However, empirical studies are often situated at micro level, although seeking to raise questions and offer arguments and illustrations that are applicable to the wider labor market. Research tries to uncover the social processes and relations involved in sustaining and reproducing women’s inequality and calls for transformation of organization structures and cultures. Generally, organization researchers influenced by this theoretical orientation favor qualitative case study methods that make visible informal gendered processes, relations, and practices.
For example, Collinson et al. (1990), through their detailed case studies of recruitment practices in the banking, mail order, insurance, hi tech, and food manufacturing industries, show that gender divisions of labor at home and in employment are both a routine condition and consequence of organizational recruitment and a common means of legitimizing sex discriminatory practices. Collinson et al. also show how sex discrimination is reproduced in recruitment practices through the agency of management, labor, men, and women to high light how the perpetuation of job segregation is characterized by a self-fulfilling vicious circle incorporating three key recruitment practices of reproduction, rationalization, and resistance. They argue that taken for granted beliefs about the male ‘‘breadwinner’’ and female ‘‘homemaker’’ inform the preference for either men or women in particular jobs so that preconceptions about the domestic responsibilities of both sexes are often perceived to be of central relevance to selection decision making.
The themes of reproduction, rationalization, and resistance are also evident in Cockburn’s (1991) case study research situated in retail, local, and central government and trade unions. For example, Cockburn explores the way that powerful men in organizations use cultural means to deter women from aspiring to senior jobs by striving to retain women’s loyalty to men and to the status quo. This then discourages women who are successful from identifying with women at the bottom of the organization. Cockburn is also concerned with horizontal segregation, what she calls the ‘‘ghetto walls,’’ which keep the majority of women, especially mothers and other women with domestic ties, in low paid, part time work.
To bring down the ghetto walls, she argues, it is necessary to institute structural change in organizations by redesigning jobs or retraining staff; reevaluating occupations and restructuring grade systems to reduce differentials between people at the bottom and people at the top. Cockburn’s work is important in that it integrates class analysis with the study of gender in organizations, shifting the focus simply from managerial and professional women to consider the majority of women in low level employment.
Similarly, Bradley’s Gender and Power in the Workplace (1999) argues for a theoretical integration of gender and class in order to understand change and continuity in the gendered nature of organizations. She also draws attention to the polarization between younger and older women, whereby younger women are grasping the opportunities provided by the feminization of work and organizations and by ‘‘woman friendly’’ policy developments. However, Bradley finds marked patterns of gender segregation in her case study organizations, which are maintained in part, she argues, by a powerful set of gendered images about masculine and feminine attributes and their association with particular jobs and forms of employment. For example, as Cockburn (1991) and Collinson et al. (1990) assert, the jobs of trade union official and insurance sales person are permeated with masculine meaning, while the lower status, less well paid jobs of retail sales assistant and clerical support worker are permeated with feminine meaning. This powerful gender symbolism means that individual women or men who transcend traditional gendered occupational boundaries (e.g., women fire fighters, male nurses) often find themselves in a precarious and isolated position such that both sexes more typically keep to ‘‘gender appropriate’’ jobs. An interest in the gendered rhetorical devices, discourses, and imagery that sustain gender segregation is now a prominent theme in the gender and organization literature.
Arguably, this interest is influenced by postmodernist ideas within the social sciences, although authors take these ideas in different directions. For example, Bradley retains an interest in ‘‘real’’ differences ‘‘out there’’ between men and women and their experiences of organizations, while perceiving discursive constructs as significant in constituting the gendered social relations that contribute to producing the differential ‘‘real’’ experiences. Other authors influenced by postmodernism have less of an interest in material gender inequalities or setting out policy implications and more in the ‘‘performance’’ and ‘‘accomplishment’’ of gender by individual men and women in organizational contexts.
Another research focus in the strand of gender and organization literature influenced by postmodernist/poststructuralist feminist theories is on ‘‘femininities’’ and ‘‘masculinities.’’ These terms point beyond categorized, biological sex differences, treating them more as forms of subjectivities and using them to describe cultural beliefs without any close connection to men and women. In terms of what this means for the study of gender and organization, it is argued that men and masculinity remain taken for granted, hidden, and unexamined in much of the literature, which more typically equates gender with women. In contrast, studying masculinities is regarded as central to understanding the process and structuring of gender relations and discriminatory experiences. In this vein Collinson and Hearn (1994) call for men to be ‘‘named as men’’ in order to expose men’s power, discourses, and practices which under pin the asymmetrical gender relations found in organizations. They identify five discourses and practices of masculinity that remain pervasive and dominant in organizations: authoritarian ism, paternalism, entrepreneurialism, informal ism, and careerism. The consequence of their reproduction is a perpetuation of women’s inequality arrived at through the exercise and development, particularly by managers, of coercive power, protective practices, competitive approaches to business and performance, informal relationships between men, and aggressive concern with hierarchical advancement.
Some authors note the class differences in masculinities, arguing that although paid work as a source of masculine identity and power transcends class boundaries, class is a variable in terms of how masculinities are practiced in organizations. For example, a number of studies show how male manual workers seek to maintain masculine identities through discourses and practices of identification and differentiation, including hetero sexualized humor and sexual harassment. Sexual humor, it is argued, constructs an image of men as assertive, independent, and powerful and one of women as passive and dependent.
Having evolved over time, the gender and organization literature is now at a crossroads, with some authors arguing for the integration of gender into mainstream organization analysis and others foreseeing dangers in integration, namely the neglect of gender as a unit of analysis once again. It is clear, though, that studying gender will no longer mean studying just women.
- Acker, (2003) Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations. In: Ely, R., Foldy, E.,
- & Scully, (Eds.), The Blackwell Reader in Gender, Work and Organization. Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 49-61.
- Alvesson, & Billing, Y. (1997) Understanding Gender and Organizations. Sage, London.
- Calas, & Smircich, L. (1996) From ‘‘The Woman’s’’ Point of View: Feminist Approaches to Organization Studies. In: Clegg, S., Hardy, C., & Nord, W. (Eds.), Handbook of Organization Studies. Sage, London, pp. 218-57.
- Cockburn, (1991) In the Way of Women. Macmillan, London.
- Collinson, & Hearn, J. (1994) Naming Men as Men: Implications for Work, Organization and Management. Gender, Work and Organization 1(1): 2 22.
- Collinson, D., Knights, , & Collinson, M. (1990) Managing to Discriminate. Routledge, London.
- Ely, , Foldy, E., & Scully, M. (Eds.) (2003) The Blackwell Reader in Gender, Work and Organization. Blackwell, Oxford.
- Kanter, M. (1977) Men and Women of the Corporation. Basic Books, New York.
- Kolb, D., Fletcher, , Meyerson, D., Merrill-Sands, D., & Ely, R. (2003) Making Change: A Framework for Promoting Gender Equity in Organizations. In: Ely, R., Foldy, E., & Scully, M. (Eds.), The Blackwell Reader in Gender, Work and Organization. Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 10-15.
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