The elusive search for gender equality in organizations

By Banu Özkazanç-Pan.

On my Amtrak-commute to work, I noticed a group of thirty-something men and women in business attire occupying the seats in front of me engaged in a lively conversation. At one point, a young woman got up and started asking the five other members of her group if they wanted anything from the café car—three women said, “no, thank you” while one woman asked for tea. A blond young man who remained sitting, turned his head towards the woman and with a sly grin, he said, “I’d like eggs benedict!” His statement was followed by laughs and “oooohs” from the women while I glared at him in disbelief. The woman didn’t say anything, shook her head and walked to the café car presumably to get herself and her coworker a drink.

Moments like this are much more commonplace in organizations than perhaps we like to believe and ever harder to study for researchers who try to understand how and why gender inequality still happens. Recently, we have been privy to some of these insights through the efforts of Harvard Business School (HBS) as they aim to redress gender inequity in their faculty ranks and promote an atmosphere that welcomes women. Perhaps we can call these efforts in the spirit of feminism even if Susan Faludi points out that in similar efforts, like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In ‘revolution’, feminism has been co-opted by individualism, careerism, and capitalism, leaving very little room to discuss social change and equality.

To understand why HBS efforts to change behaviors outside the HBS classroom failed and why the Lean In revolution cannot bring about gender equality, one area we have to focus on is gender relations. Using my Amtrak-example, I will suggest that gender relations, or how relations of difference and power impact the opportunities, experiences, and life-chances of people, is an important process that needs examination.

On the surface, the ‘eggs benedict’ example may seem funny but in reality, it can only take place based on implicit assumptions that people adhere to regarding gender roles or behaviors that we think are normal for men and women. By asking for ‘eggs benedict’, the man treated his coworker and colleague as a waitress as he ‘ordered’ his eggs. The other women did not chide him and in fact, some laughed at his remark. The woman who was the target of his remark remained silent. Looking at each these key moments and events in this one example, we can understand how they speak to broader issues around gender norms, individualism, and inequality in organizations.

They reflect what Deborah Kolb and colleagues call second generation gender bias where organizations have “informal policies and practices that look natural and neutral but can have differential impacts on men and women”. This stands in stark contrast to those overt and formalized discriminatory policies organizations may have practiced in previous years. Leaning In may have worked for some women who had to overcome overt forms of discrimination. Yet the world of work is much more complex. Indeed, the Amtrak-example highlights why changing a workplace and organizations more generally to achieve gender equality is difficult.

The issue is that we need to change the game not just the rules of the game. It’s about examining the assumptions we’ve made regarding women and men in the workplace and then engaging in a change effort to address the inequity they may promote through informal practices. In addition, it’s about understanding how the economic system and organizational structures impact the choices and opportunities available for us. The UN development index underscores the impact of these broader issues in their most recent Human Development Report including a focus on Gender Inequality.

Going back to the Amtrak-example, what could have been done differently in order to call attention to the informal exchange and subtleties of this situation as potentially promoting gender inequality? One idea is to promote by-stander awareness such that the woman who was treated as a waitress by the man and found no support from the other women had a vocal ally that could have asked, “Why is this so funny?” My guess is that such a question would require people to consider the why and what: Why are they laughing? What is funny about this situation? Perhaps this would call attention to the assumptions that were made recognizing that it would be a difficult and potentially uncomfortable conversation.

Despite this potential solution, the focus on such exchanges in organizations is necessary but not sufficient to promote gender equality. We still need a conversation about our economic system and rising income inequalities across nations including the U.S.. Within this context, how do our formal and informal arrangements at work promote or prevent equality in the opportunities available for women and men? I believe this question is central to those of us who want to work in organizations and live in societies that not only value equality but actually engage in practices to achieve it.


7 thoughts on “The elusive search for gender equality in organizations

  1. I think this blog continues the conversation about personal responsibility in perpetuating oppression. It is an example of our individual roles as bystander-witnesses (even participants) to the behaviors that are often regarded as personality flaws rather than part of a reinforcement of the culture that spells out the gendered roles. It is important to check out the impact of our decisions to dismiss or laugh at behavior that perpetuates an oppressive structure. Confrontation of oppression is not comfortable or we would all do it all of the time. Yes, we should pick our battles, and I would argue these seemingly harmless interactions have the power to influence future behavior. They allow the nor to continue.

  2. Pingback: Tough Times…Britney says, “Work B#tch!” | Organizations and Social Change

  3. Great points Banu! Excellent observations both about microinteractional as well as macrostructural aspects in the formation and reproduction of gender relations in our society. Unfortunately, when it comes to intervening in these issues they often are discussed as either/or rather than both/and, and often as a matter of sex differences rather than gender (and race and class …) relations, thus imagining potential solutions to continous processes which are fundamental in maintaining power relations and inequality more generally. The work of Joan Acker, her relational focus on practices and processes and the production of inequality regimes as they can be observed in organizations, is another approach worth considering.

  4. I agree with Banu that paying attention to the subtleties of daily interaction is important to understanding how gender roles get reproduced and/or questioned. Although in that case I am not quite sure that the “ooohs” were about him treating her like a waitress, or rather about his unexpected (or expected) cocky-funny response. (Maybe he is known for being a jerk and thus he feels the need to cultivate this reputation.) In any case, I don’t think that asking questions like “Why is this so funny?” are particularly helpful. Not being able to deal with jokes and/or irony is typically associated with insecurity. Making fun of him and his own weaknesses would have probably been more effective (e.g. “Can you even spell it?” or “Didn’t you eat ten minutes ago? I am worried about your tummy.”). More seriously, I think that increasing structural equality (equal pay, equal opportunities for promotion, equal sanctioning of misbehavior) make such interactions much less important. Also, with better legal protection (sexual harassment, stalking) certain forms of behavior that used to be commonplace have become much less likely to occur. (And the U.S. seems more advanced in this regard than most of Europe.) So maybe no equality yet, but less inequality perhaps than just a few decades ago…

  5. Thank you Professor. It is certainly hard to disagree with your conclusion. Coming at it from a different angle, and perhaps some others can chime in here, if one is to assume that there is a benefit to this social system that re-creates these same norms over and over in keeping gender power relations as they are (unequal, disparate, and so on), what is that benefit? What invested interests do those in positions to potentially make policy changes at the public or private level have in not working to make these changes? (and/or why would they?)

  6. and from today’s New York Times yet another piece that wonders about the constraints on women’s participation in the workforce, the subtle economic social and economic forces that hold them back, and how to address them.
    But as Banu observes, the issue goes to the heart of gendered identities. The framing of this as a ‘womens issue’ is part of the problem – Deborah Kolb moves in the right direction, bringing focus back to masculinity, the construction of our ideal ‘organizations’ and ‘leaders’ and ‘entrepreneurs’ in hypermasculine terms.

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