Gender balance in the workplace: Going beyond the numbers game

gender I heard someone say the other day that the way to tackle gender bias at work is to create an egalitarian culture. I’d like to nuance this by adding the caveat… so long as this doesn’t inadvertently lead to a world characterised by sameness. It would be sad if we lost our distinctiveness as men and women. How boring and bland would that be! Far more enriching, I think, to go for equal but different.

By different, I don’t mean difference that has come about from un-reflexive truth claims and social constructs that has lead to the subjugation, marginalisation and-or discrimination of women. This has to be tackled if change is to be meaningful. In my view, however, a regulatory approach to ensuring gender balance on leadership teams, without challenging the dominant gendered and elitist discourse of leadership is, at best, cosmetic. It looks good on the surface, without really changing the underlying masculine worldview. If we don’t do anything about the latter, even if a leadership team is statistically balanced, women will continue to be evaluated by a macho model of leadership and continue to be subject to male biopolitics. During my career, I’ve talked to many women leaders who have felt trapped by this ‘psychic prison’, where the prison walls and bars are the rules and assumptions that govern how they should behave, what they do, and even the words they use, in order to be deemed good leaders.

One way to dismantle this invisible prison is to re-frame the very idea of leadership, ie, move away from the traditional scientific, rational, machine, pseudo psychological model of leadership, to one that views ‘workforce’, ‘labour force’ or ‘human resources’ as workplace communities. In my view, adopting such a communitarian approach work may be a way to finally consign the male centred, industrial revolution model of leadership to the annals of history. This is because different capabilities are needed when leadership is regarded primarily as a communal and relational endeavour.

Such a re-frame is crucial for the not-for-profit sector. This sector has its own unique set of beliefs, sometimes referred to as collectivist or voluntary ethics. The values associated with voluntary ethics include inter-connectedness (relationships); self-sacrifice on behalf of others (altruism); participation (community decision-making processes); care (physical and emotional) and a keen sense of social justice. Studies have shown that these voluntary ethics has been compromised by the introduction of market values and business practice, and the masculinised discourse that came with it. This probably  explains why, even in the traditionally female dominated third sector (eg, aid, development, missionary, pastoral, teaching, nursing, etc.), men rise quicker to leadership. They simply benefit from assumed technical and leadership capabilities, which were conceived by men for men. It’s even called ‘man’agement. The proverbial paradigm shift is needed. We need to move beyond gendered social constructs from the past that still informs managerialism today.

It may be that we need to compliment legislative approaches, with relational interventions predicated on mutual appreciation. This requires developing the capacity to be in relationship with another in a way that does not automatically conform to cultural prescriptions of masculinity and femininity. This is important because ideas of gendered difference has its roots in relational patterns and structures that subliminally bestows men higher status than women. While we live in a more emancipated era, particularly in the West, many gender stereotypes persist.  Freedom from this historical construct offers a wider range of responses and relational choices for the here and now.

I’ve just read an intriguingly entitled paper called ‘Beyond Different Worlds: A “Postgender” Approach to Relational Development in which the authors (Knudson-Martin and Mahoney 1999) proposes that change is more likely when we can avoid four unhelpful ways of thinking about gender:.

Trap One: Believing that men and women’s behaviour arises from “natural” differences and can’t be changed.

Trap Two: Unconsciously acting out invisible gender scripts.

Trap Three: Ignoring power differences.

Trap Four: Concluding that gender inequality is no longer an issue.

Reference: Knudson-Martin, C. and A. R. Mahoney (1999). “Beyond Different Worlds: A “Postgender” Approach to Relational Development.” Family Process 38(3): 325-340.

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