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This paper seeks to define what is meant by gender issues in the workplace in relation to underlying tensions, indirect prejudice and unfair practices which often are perceived but continue without full recognition or sufficient direct management of the problem.
It proposes to question pre conceived notions of success based on qualities such as ability and skill and rather seeks to uncover the more tacit business environment; known but never fully appreciated in relation to career advancement and company progression. A number of conflicting theories proposed by both feminist scholars and male business analysts exist on this subject which makes it both a complicated and contentious discussion. It is also one that can justify the way in which workplace failings and successes can be interpreted from a number of angles where gender bias is concerned; politically, psychologically, socially and academically.
Typically gender inequality is a much deeper perception involving social hierarchy’s and preconceived notions of what men and women are capable of in terms of leadership and management. It is important to distinguish what is traditionally meant by advantage and disadvantage in an organizational setting and in the context of gender. Some examples might include; an employer may not hire, promote or wrongfully terminate an employee based on his or her gender, or that an employers pay is unequally based on gender, some employers show discrimination towards pregnant female workers, female employees are passed over for promotion in favour of more junior, less-qualified male co-workers. (Sahu, 2009) However looking at discrimination in its broader sense there is a widely held argument that as white and male it is easy to become invisible in society; to go unacknowledged and unrecognized, but once visible as a consequence of being labeled as say black, homosexual, a woman…individuals can adopt a greater empowerment just by being different (Robinson, 2000, Phelan, 2008, Haraway, 1999)
In 1994 a popular American journal, Business Week published an article which stipulated;
White, male and worried: White men still dominate corporate America. But in companies with aggressive diversity programs they are beginning to feel angry and resentful. What should companies do? (Burke and Black, 1997: 933-942)
From such theorizing it is possible to engage with the notion that perhaps by being ‘invisible’ this can perpetuate both political and social exclusion. World Modern History since the 1960’s has witnessed the rise of Civil Rights, women’s liberation, gay liberation and a more growing acceptance of diversity has resulted in the decentralization of the white male (Robinson,2000 :2) and a culmination of all these things could be attributed to a crisis in masculinity of sorts. In contrast Virginia Schein et al propose that men and women do not lead or manage any differently in the work environment, but that they are perceived in different ways and that effectiveness as a male in a leadership role is something which is automatically attributed to them. Whereas women who exhibit the same behaviours as men are not judged as being as authoritative or having the same skills, because this is what we traditionally perceive inherently about men and women. (Sinclair, 2005:25) And just as people can make themselves invisible in the work environment, so too can they make themselves visible. Being ‘visible’ represents a tangible ‘surface’ state, one in which someone can be seen to be visibly being excluded or different. At a deeper more conceptual level then there is a power to become ‘invisible’, often as a consequence of trying to attain the male norm. (Simpson and Lewis, 2005:1253-1275)
Caution however must be exacted when considering these theories which could also be used as a means to essentially make excuses for racist or prejudice practices in the workplace. (Pierce, 2003:53-70)
Other theorists of invisibility consider this to be a covert way of preventing either women or black co-workers to progress. That the ‘backlash’ felt by white male men is actually a means to subjugate ‘minorities’ in the work place even further. Scholars such as Nicholson conform to theories such as the Patriarchal culture which is instilled in men and women through a process of socialization from a very early age. For example that men are better than women in sport, or that men make better surgeons etc. (Nicolson, 1996:108)
There is a definite counter-argument where some previous traditional theories of invisibility have evolved. For example some research determines that men have become to think of themselves as being without gender, largely because they are oblivious to, or choose to ignore that invisibility generates inequality. Thus the invisibility of gender experienced by men generates the inequalities that are constrained by gender. That essentially many men are in possession; for whatever reason, of a number of structural privileges and power within the organizations that they work in and that by confronting their participation in maintaining inequality between themselves and women, that they should take responsibility for liberating themselves rather than blaming their problems on women. (McKay, 1997:11) Many men continue to disregard the notion of male privilege creating an invisibility of the problem itself. The more this invisibility is encouraged the more gender problems will continue to escalate. (Johnson, 2005:157)
Basically there is a strong argument to suggest the very fact that men in the workplace are perpetuating patriarchy and gender inequality, is because they are in denial of it and therefore the problem itself becomes invisible.
Issues remain across all ‘minority’ workplace discriminations. Barriers continue to exist despite western laws on equal opportunities and fair working practices. Essentially there should be no barriers to succeeding. And yet for black, disabled, gay, women or other traditionally marginalized workers there continues to be a significant problem where acquiring progressive job positions exists, indicating that there are a number of unseen issues and opinions being made below the surface and continue to remain invisible. (Hesse-Biber and Carter, 2005:75-78)
A recent research study of female engineers in the work environment was conducted in an attempt to illuminate this complex ‘in/visibility paradox’. The women engineers could be seen to be at once both ‘visible’ as women but ‘invisible’ as engineers. This contradiction then adds yet another element to the discussion, but also helps to explain why it is difficult to retain women in engineering roles. Their ‘invisibility’ as engineers can be attributed to the fact that they require considerable effort to be taken seriously in this particular job, thus undermining their overall confidence. As ‘visible’ women they face enormous contradictory pressures to ‘become one of the lads’, whilst maintaining their femininity and these in/visibility dynamics get taken for granted at the same time as building a cumulative and problematic outcome, not least because they are subtle and taken for granted. (Faulkner, 2009:169-189)
Similarly another recent relevant journal article relays the findings of a small-scale project which involved a study of men who moved over into what has traditionally been considered ‘women’s work’. One immediate outcome apparent in all ten men was experiencing the challenges of feeling emasculated and having their masculinity queried in a number of ways and in a variety of situations. The way in which the men managed these challenges is particularly interesting as they all attempted to maintain their masculinity and their traditional persona associated with masculinity by distancing themselves from their female co-workers. (Cross and Bagilhole, 2002:204-226)
Thus potentially making themselves ‘invisible’ to the situation. This provides some further interesting light on the notion of visibility and invisibility in organizational structures.
That men resolutely continue to re-enforce their gender and identity regardless of whether it is challenged or not, but in such a way that they make themselves invisible in the process. Might this then suggest that men will go to any lengths to maintain their dominant gender, even when they are performing those roles traditionally considered ‘women’s work’? Whilst it may also represent juxtaposition for the behaviour of women, often criticized in the work place for their defensiveness or ruthless behaviour. Perhaps women in turn are masking their femininity in a bid to be taken seriously or remain ‘invisible’ as they feel threatened by the challenges men pose.
What can be concluded from this complicated analysis is that it still remains difficult to determine whether invisibility exists, or whether it is a means of simply not seeing or acknowledging gender differentiation. Are male workers unaware of the fact that they are inherently patriarchal, or is it women who continue to see them in this way as they traditionally remain challenged and psychologically subjugated by their male co-workers? This might then suggest that there is no real suppression of gender taking place in organizations, but rather most women and men are defensive about their jobs and careers. This is a highly problematic area that continues to demand further research and a ‘rethinking’ of gender stereotypes for both management and workers generally. (Mavin et al, 2004:293-303)
What is apparent from this study is the degree with which both men and women ‘play out’ their insecurities whilst both hiding and exposing elements of visibility and invisibility depending on the circumstances. Invisibility, as has also been outlined in this document poses a much wider conceptual problem. The problem of barriers that exist not just with individuals but with whole organizations, those that choose to promote the types of people they consider suitable to the organization itself and therefore creating their own invisible discriminatory practices.
A complex system of psychological interactions can impact on the way in which people generally make themselves visible or invisible within an organization. There are many contributing factors, some of which have been explored throughout this document and many of which require considerable future research. It is clear that gender based priviledge exists. This is a reality in terms of the statistics which reflect the number of men in positions of power in contrast with the often lower salaried lesser roles adopted by women. But as to whether who is putting who at a disadvantage may be dependent on a whole series of contributory factors such as the culture and size of the organization itself, the way in which the individuals working in that organisation have been socialized and what values and expectations they have been encouraged to appreciate from birth.
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