A radical approach to the ‘gender’ problem

 The Gender ‘Problem’

I have being doing quite a lot of work recently on ‘gender’ in the work place.

It has become a fairly general truism that women are likely to be disadvantaged in their progress to the senior echelons in many organisations. The data certainly suggests that the ratio of women to men in management positions declines quite significantly towards the top of most management hierarchies.

A range of general assumptions are commonly made about why this is so, the most general being that organisational cultures tend to be patterned by masculine values, belief systems, attitudes and behaviours. Within this kind of umbrella assumption are included a wide range of views about the nature and extent of the ‘difference’ between men and women, the role of biology, social expectations and patterning, parenting, the interplay between work and family life, and so on.

Because something is defined as a problem, it is axiomatic that solutions have to be found, and because the problem is usually constructed in terms of a form of discrimination ‘against’ women, most solutions seek to redress the balance by various forms of positive discrimination, such as leadership or mentoring programmes, or sponsorship for women, and anti-discrimination polices and procedures to ensure equal opportunities, and so forth.

Whereas these solutions may well have been useful to some extent, the ‘problem’, as defined, is still with us, and has been for some time. I think continuing with these kinds of solution is merely trying harder, and that it is time to reformulate how we think about the problem.

What I want to suggest is that we stop trying to ‘fix’ the women or ‘fix’ the men. This has the perverse effect of making both men and women feel bad as the source of the problem. If we focus instead on the relationship between men and women, and invite them to reflect deeply and robustly on what they are co-creating together, and what they would like to change, we start to address the systemic nature of this phenomenon.

I was introduced to a method by Martha Morris Graham, a colleague of mine, who has been one of the pioneers of a new approach involving setting up ‘dialogue groups throughout the organisation.    

 Why Dialogue Works

Business discussions are typically conducted at the level of opinion, conjecture and conclusion. They are focused on debating points of view and making decisions as quickly as possible in order to move to action and solutions.

 In dialogue people are asked to slow down that process in order to disclose more of the personal assumptions and beliefs that lead them to the conclusions they draw, opinions they hold and actions they take. As these assumptions and beliefs are generally out of people’s conscious awareness, bringing them into the open is often illuminating and leads to a quality of conversation most people have rarely had before in a business context.

The experience of being in this type of conversation is a powerful intervention in itself and builds capacity amongst leaders for deeper exploration of issues of vital importance to the organisation.

A dialogue approach enables men and women in the organisation to sit down and talk together with deep honesty about how their careers have actually developed. The benefits from this approach are that:

  • Greater understanding will emerge between men and women about similarities and differences in how they see the world and their careers, how the environment and culture impact them and what unconscious biases and assumptions they make about each other
  • Individuals, both male and female, who participate will gain insights and may feel empowered to enact change
  • At the same time the organisation can collate the themes from their collective thinking to inform structural or process changes as necessary at a later stage

The method is very simple; twelve people (six men and six women), who have a real interest in the topic, and are potentially up for doing something about it, are invited to a facilitated ‘dialogue’ that lasts for about a day. The simple and rather radical key to this process is that the participants are invited to act on what they learn in whatever way they see fit, rather than expect some central function like HR to set up an initiative. This is change based on local initiative rather than a project rolled out top down.

A more general application

 One of the participants in one of these sessions in a large corporate company, apparently went to her boss afterwards and said, “this is the way we should work with change”

I was reminded of Patricia Shaw’s book “Changing the Conversation in Organisations” and thought that this is a ‘method’ which we can adapt to work with any change issue; simple but effective.

Bill Critchley, July 2014





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Isn’t it interesting how much time and energy managers invest in re-structuring their organisations?

One of my clients has such a complicated matrix structure that each time I join them to do some work, not only do I have a hard time understanding the interweaving of vertical, horizontal and diagonal relationships, not to mention the various acronyms which describe each unit, I also have to get my mind round how it is about to change!  This regular re-arrangement of the structure is apparently accepted as a normal and inevitable consequence of being in a rapidly changing industry.

I am not so sure.  I notice how weary and cynical people are about the game of musical chairs.  They comply, like good soldiers, and turn up at away-days to listen to the latest round of explanations and exhortations, but they long to get on with what they see as their real work.

There is an old French saying; “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.  The truth is that for the majority of employees most re-organisations leave their work more or less un-changed; they may find themselves reporting to a different boss; they may become part of a different geographical grouping, but their work and often their immediate colleagues remain the same.  So what is the point of all this re-structuring activity?

Generally what managers intend by a re-structuring is to re-focus on, for example, a new market or regional opportunity, or to achieve a different orientation, for example a greater focus on ‘customer solutions’ rather than shifting product, or a cultural change, for example to increase the level of employee responsibility and initiative-taking.

Usually a particular structural change is initiated by some re-shuffle of senior managers.  The new manager arrives in post and understandably wants to make a demonstrable impact.  He/she identifies an area for improvement,  and then retires to his office and ponders on how to achieve it.  Automatically, it seems, he/she reaches for a pad and pencil and starts to sketch new structural options, which of course he needs to keep to himself in case the ideas cause needless anxiety.  Unfortunately this self imposed need for secrecy means that he/she develops the options more or less in isolation until the moment when he/she announces them to his most senior subordinates.  By that time he has become rather committed to them and his managers, knowing this, are disinclined to openly challenge them, and so another structural change, designed with little robust consultation, is launched.

It seems managers can only envisage achieving their desired effects through re-arranging the formal relationships between units and people.  It is as if this is the only tool they believe they have at their disposal.  .

While they are usually frustrated and disappointed with the failure of their re-designed organisation to achieve the desired objectives, and tend to put it down to poor implementation, ineffective communication, or ‘resistance to change’, I am not surprised.  It seems to me that altering the reporting relationships and lines of formal communication, often accompanied by some overall drive for increased efficiency, is unlikely to have much impact on the subtle rhythms, patterns and informal relationships which constitute the way things get done in organisations.

The most a structural change can do is signal an intention, a shift in priority.  As such it is only the start of a change process.  The worst it can do is to rupture the vital fabric of working relationships, to disrupt people’s sense of worth and identity, and consign the tacit knowledge inherent in those informal customs and practices to the dustbin of time.

We would not appreciate a carpenter who turned up to lay a new wooden floor in our sitting room with only a saw and a hammer; we would expect him to have a box of tools capable of bevelling, turning, sanding, polishing and so forth.  Isn’t it interesting how dependent managers have become on a few rather crude tools when they intend such complex and subtle effects?  Maybe this is because they think of organisations as if they were somewhat like a machine to be ‘re-engineered’.  Maybe, unlike the carpenter, even increasing the range of tools at their disposal is not the answer.  Perhaps it is the way we think about organisations, as ‘things’ to be manipulated, that is the problem.  If we were to take the perspective that organisations are social processes, essentially people in an ongoing process of communicative interaction, we would come up with a different way of thinking about change.

Wouldn’t that be interesting?

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Welcome to my blog!

Welcome to my new blog. My new look website is also up and running, please take a look. The website outlines the services I offer and a comprehensive list of my published articles.

If you feel you could use my experience to help you with any aspect relating to organisational change, do please contact me to arrange an exploratory meeting.

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