Progress on workplace equality is impossible without considering the powerful and deeply implicit assumptions that privilege certain organisational players.
The current economic crisis may seem to be a financial one on the surface. But behind the rhetoric of credit crunch, speculative bubble and stock market slump, something more fundamental is hiding. Certainly, as a global society, moving on from where we are now will require not only a careful consideration of the fundamentals of the technical aspects of the corporate world, but most of all a thorough re-evaluation of the social dynamics of various groups of individuals working within modern organisations. Particularly deep-rooted assumptions that underlie decades of masculine domination in hierarchies of organisations have created inequalities that block much needed changes in the way our work life and work place are socially constructed.
By adopting a dynamic model of organisation, that is in fact a process of constant change, it is possible to recognise particular social mechanisms that created and preserve inequalities. In this essay it will be argued that those organisational inequalities are formed on the basis of deeply rooted assumption regarding the roles of particular social groups. The answer to the questions of what those fundamental assumptions are, how they have been formed and are continuously reinforced, could facilitate a successful improvement in workplace equality.
It is important to choose an appropriate concept of organisation that allows for an understanding of social phenomena that seems to lie at the heart of the problem of social inequality in organisations. It would not be possible to entirely understand this issue using the static and tentative approach according to which an organisation is a stable ‘social arrangement for achieving controlled performance in pursuit of collective goals’ (Huczynski and Buchanan, 2007, p 843). A dynamic concept could be more appropriate, particularly one that recognises organisations’ three distinctive levels: resources, social processes and organisational processes (Obłój, 2001).
It is through the interaction of those three levels that the organisation is constituted. Important social processes, such as communication, interactions, social patterns or conflicts, are being created through the combination of an organisation’s resources (human resources being one of the most critical) according to particular rules. Further, the organisational level comes forth through the interaction between institutional rules as well as legal constraints existing in the environment, and the process of learning and change of the social groups that constitute an organisation. The constant creation and re-creation of an organisation takes place through a never-ending process of negotiation between individuals and groups in the organisation. organisational phenomena become, in fact, processes in constant flux, changing in response to one another and the environment. ‘The relational processes – cognitive, social, and political – are at the heart of organising (…) These are processes in which realities are socially constructed to produce a ‘sense of social order’ which is narrowly or widely shared, and to produce social orders which may protect and promote particular valuations and interests at the expense of others’ (Hosking, 2003, p 60). Important to organisational survival is the process of institutionalisation, through which certain crucial social relationships in an organisation become relatively stable and durable. The process-oriented model of an organisation allows for an investigation of the social aspects of organisations, including issues related to inequality, which will be analysed in the following sections.
Just like any other social phenomena, inherent to organisations are the issues related to power, control and conflicts of interests. Given the process-oriented model of organisation proposed in the previous section, to understand particular underlying assumptions regarding the construct and dynamics of modern organisations, attention must be focused on the analysis of fundamental norms and values that prevail in societies, which have nurtured a particular model of organisation. Such investigation should also consider which values and norms certain powerful organisational subgroups might honor and follow what the dynamics within those groups are and finally what the individual group member’s assumptions, limitations and aspirations are.
The issue of inequality in modern societies and especially in organisations is a complex one. Once it is understood that an organisation employs a ‘whole’ human being, not only his skills but also the emotional needs, it becomes apparent that an organisation faces very basic issues of human social identity. Human sense of identity is greatly influenced by the groups in society that they belong to. Social identities are nested in social groups and established by the normative properties of such groups. They facilitate fundamental individual mechanisms of creating a self-concept, performing acts of self-evaluation and self-regulation (Hogg and Abrams, 1988). In a sense, to accept the indisputable fact that the identities of an organisation’s actors are socially constructed, and that those individuals belong to certain social groups they identify with, is to accept the existence of not only psychological but also social variety within organisations. Moreover, what also needs to be considered is that inherent in the hierarchical nature of the organisations of today are the political processes and the struggle for power between individuals. Therefore, it can be inferred that as individuals strive for achievement in organisations, and as they seek the support of a group that they identify themselves with, certain social inequalities will become apparent. The differences between social groups could manifest themselves in a historical context: they can be adopted into the organisational setting from other social arrangements that have evolved over the decades and centuries, for instance through the influence of academic thought, practices of other ‘successful’ organisations or basic social assumptions governing the everyday life of individuals.
Inequalities in organisations can relate to quite different spheres, as varied as the social identities that individuals develop according to particular differentiating factors: one could identify himself or herself with certain ethnic groups, at other times the social differentiating factor might be one’s sexual preference or particular life-style choices. Indisputably, the most common throughout the world of organisations is, in fact, the gender inequality issue. In the remaining part of the essay, the gender factor will be used to bring to the surface particular problems related to the workplace and organisational inequality. During the past few decades Feminist academic work and organisational practice has provided us with abundant material that allows for a thorough analysis of the issues of primacy of one gender group over the other in the organisational environment. The instance of gender inequality might bring to light certain assumptions and mechanisms that support inequality on other levels. But to answer the question of what are the organisational assumptions that create and sustain inequalities by privileging certain actors belonging to a particular gender group, in the next section the pervasive concept of modern organisation will be revisited. An argument of gendered processes that underlie organisational reality will follow.
The way modern organisations operate and the way their members are thought to behave have been influenced by centuries of human social activities. Indisputably, there are few important assumptions that underlie various expectations of workforce dynamics. The model of organisation introduced in the previous part allows for an analysis of those presumptions that relate not only to the organisational level of a ‘workplace’ (‘who we are in relations to other groups in organisations?’ or ‘what does the organisation assume us to be’?), but also those issues that develop on the social level. This takes into consideration aspects of how broader social representations of reality influence an organisation.
Perhaps the biggest impact on the construction of modern organisations has had the notion of homo-oeconomicus, a concept of an individual that is behaving rationally and according to his self-interest (Kirchgassner, 2008). The idea of such an organisational actor has been developed primarily by the science of economics; therefore, it concentrates on the economic rationality and economic self-interest of individuals. And those seem to be the primary concerns of early capitalist entrepreneurs that have shaped the landscape of modern business enterprises and their expectations regarding workers’ characteristics.
Managers practicing business administration have come a long way since the analysis of human economic activities conducted by Adam Smith. At the beginning of the 20th century few significant concepts of organisations were developed that still hold a strong intellectual grip on the way managers perceive organisations and particularly individuals involved in organised work. Those concepts rest on an ‘economical’ assumption of rationality that seems to have deprived organisations’ actors of their human side and emotionality. According to Max Weber’s approach to the design and management of organisation, its ideal form is a bureaucracy. Characterised by hierarchical structures of rational and legal authority, bureaucracy is a system of impersonal, formalised and explicit rules, which specify the obligations of the members of an organisation. The efficiency of that organisational setting comes from a well-defined and categorised ‘technical knowledge’ (Pugh, 1997). Similarly, earlier works of Frederick Taylor and the notion of scientific management offer a very narrow concept of a worker. Taylor’s two distinguished groups of organisational actors – management and workers – are treated as internally homogeneous in their valuations and interests. This simple assumption reduces organisational social relations to formalised structures of co-operation in the rational pursuit of shared financial goals (Hosking, 2003.) In the co-operative reality of organisations individuals act rationally, in a calculative way, have to assume primacy of organisational goals and cannot express or even have emotions in the workplace (Dobbin, 1994.), all in the name of the organisational efficiency.
Another point is the role of broader social assumptions that, when combined with a particular organisational concept, generate space for inequalities. Situated in a wider social context that constantly creates and recreates social meanings that individuals carry into their workplace, by following the assumption of rational and efficient behaviour of workers, organisations inevitably attracted and promoted particular social groups.
If sex is the biological difference between men and women, then gender would be the social difference between them. Evolutional psychologists argued that the gender roles evolve over time in order to adjust to the demands of the environment, but this change occurs within limits set by human biology. Various historical data suggests that over the centuries particular male characteristics reached the status of social norms, creating powerful divisions between genders. Men have been assumed to possess the best psycho-physiological constitution to perform leadership roles, have high status aspirations, need to test themselves against one another but also are goal-focused, achievement motivated and single minded (Nicholson, 2000.) Those preconceptions became prevalent in the entrepreneurial world as they fit the economically rational model of organisation and also were supported by the already male dominated organisational environment. The support came not only through the selection of the most suitable individuals but also through the mechanisms that regulated organisational life.
The still popular concepts in organisational thinking such as abstract jobs and hierarchies that are part of Weberian and Tayloristic approaches seem to assume a disembodied and universal worker. The reality is entirely different. In fact, those concepts have been constructed and largely influenced by the social representation of gender. A ‘worker is actually a man; men’s bodies, sexuality, and relationships to procreation and paid work are subsumed in the image of the worker. Images of men’s bodies and masculinity pervade organisational processes, marginalising women and contributing to the maintenance of gender segregation in organisations’ (Acker, 1990, p 139).
It is a man who is assumed to be able to commit to work and perform his tasks in a rational way. This is visible in the logic that organisations follow, a logic that is materialised in the form of written rules, contracts, directives and documentary tools, such as job evaluation, which are used by organisations to rationalise their hierarchy and to help in setting wages (International Labour Office 1986). Essentially, job descriptions can be seen as built over a long period of time sets of rules of assessment of job characteristics, such as knowledge, skill, complexity, effort and working conditions, for which managers are willing to pay. Those sets of rules will reflect and reproduce particular managerial values and sets of beliefs and they will provide at least part of the blueprint for organisational structure.
The logic of the disembodied worker assumes that he would exist only for work and have no imperatives that would collide with the job description and the hierarchy. In fact, the closest to that ‘ideal’ worker that suits the assumptions of modern organisations is the male worker whose life revolves around full-time and life-long employment while his wife takes care of his personal needs and the family (Connell, 1987; Lorber, 1994.) The prevailing rules and organisational arrangements will mostly reflect masculine experience, values and socially constructed life-style, because those norms were set and nurtured over decades by male managers in consideration of other men. In that sense, ‘a job’ is a gender concept because it contains a gender-based division of labour and the segregation of work life and private life. And so gendered is organisational hierarchy – responsibility and authority are assigned to those who actually can fully commit to paid employment. Those ‘uncommitted’ and seeking balance between private life and work are kept at a lower level of the organisation (Acker, 1990.)
Feminist authors recognise few gendering processes in organisations that produce and reproduce identities, relations and knowledge and help disclose how gender inequality is socially constructed. First of all, formal practices and policies that are, on the surface, gender-neutral might in fact lead to further differentiation between men and women. Bringing back the case of fundamental job descriptions, it is clear that such practice might significantly favour male workers. Also, the informal practices and norms nurtured in organisations might lead to inequalities on a very basic level. The instance could be the norms about meeting times or staying at work beyond the formal ‘office hours’. A third set of gendering processes rests in the creation and reproduction of an organisation’s symbols and images that are widely accepted manifestations of organisational culture (e.g. image of ‘ideal supervisor’ who is putting work above all else). Everyday social interaction is yet another gendering process in organisations that might reflect the patterns of gender dominance. For instance, in some organisations men will be assumed to speak for the rest of the group. The last set of gendering processes include internalisation and expression of individuals’ own gender identities, in other words, what it is and means for individuals to look, talk and act like a man or a woman (Meyerson and Kolb, 2000).
Considering the powerful and deeply rooted assumptions in human social identity regarding gender presented in the previous sections, it can be assumed that the process of creating a gender equal organisation is not a simple one. A successful attempt to pursue a fundamental change in gender equality calls for a particular understanding of gender as not essentially about sex differences being given by nature or fostered by the organisation. It needs to be understood that ‘sex differences are an active, ongoing social construction’ (Mayerson, Kolb, 2000, p 563). Gender needs to be considered as an organising principle that forms individual self-concepts, knowledge and organisational social frameworks. From this perspective the basic assumptions about the role of men and women in family, paid work and the broader community would have to be re-established.
Although no one is really sure what a gender-equal organisation would look like, there is a strong conviction that this would lead to a better and fairer way of organising our work life. The notion of the so-called ‘dual agenda’, linking the goal of increasing gender equality and work-personal life integration to the goal of improved workplace performance (Rapoport, Bailyn, Fletcher, Pruitt, 2001), uses the language of efficiency – so common for the current organisational establishment – to introduce alternative ways of looking at work-life balance and gender segregations in organisations. Authors of that concept seem to be asking how much of the cognitive and relational capital we are losing by recreating and sustaining the assumptions of masculine rationality and masculine ways of dealing with organisational issues. Critics of the currently prevailing model of organisational efficiency argue that feminine values would lead to the creation of less hierarchical and more holistic organisations, with bigger capacity for compassion, valuing means over ends, recognising and celebrating diversity and creativity (Morgan, 2006), all of which seems to be of most importance in the life of modern organisations operating in an ever changing and complex environment.
There is no easy solution to the problem of workplace inequalities. The gender inequality example presented in the essay explains the fundamental nature of particular stereotypical assumptions carried by individuals in organisations and fostered by organisational structure. The mechanisms of constructing social identity reach deep into the aspects of basic concepts of an individual’s self and unconsciousness that by definition cannot be entirely controlled. Particular assumptions regarding the role of men and women in modern organisations and outside of them have been constructed over centuries of social interactions. It is not only the concept of a rational worker devoted to the economic rationality of an organisation but also the social construction of the gender roles that favored male workers, pushing women to the lower levels of organisational hierarchy. In male-dominated organizations gender inequalities have been reinforced by various social processes, ranging from formal job descriptions and task evaluation to informal rules of behaviour.
The work of Feminists has already started the process of understanding and re-evaluating gender social assumptions. Given the fundamentality of particular social concepts that live within and outside of organisations, it needs to be understood that change cannot and will not happen overnight. Perhaps the current economic situation and the ever-present sense of vulnerability among organisations will create a good atmosphere to embrace changes in the fundamental concepts that certainly added up to the economic crisis. Seeking new ways of obtaining efficiency might allow feminine traits to gain importance for organisations allowing both women and men to choose their social and organisational roles for themselves.
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