Dr Victoria Pagan Victoria is a Lecturer in Strategic Management at Newcastle University Business School. She has worked in commercial research and consultancy for the public sector, local government and non-departmental public bodies, for an audience development agency and as a learning support assistant within a comprehensive school. Her main research interest is social interactions at the global level and the ways in which these influence the definitions of and responses to issues of inequality in the world. There are significant tensions and dilemmas faced by people as they consider how inequality may be addressed and recognise their role therein.
In this post, I reflect on meanings of danger in relation to workplaces. In particular, I hold up my own accounts of my experience of being a dangerous woman in supporting the reproduction of inequality in the organisations in which I have worked (Acker, 2006). I offer examples from memories to demonstrate how my participation in, and collusion with, oppressive behaviours served to reproduce inequality in the workplace. I form my accounts for the purposes of this paper in the first person, expressed through short, personal vignettes (Haynes, 2011) as if extracted from a diary format. I have focused on myself and my position, informal language reflects my naivety and emotion at the time, deliberately offering a compilation of experiential instances without organisational context so as to protect anonymities. There are three meanings of danger presented here: firstly, the structural danger of normalising inequalities in workplaces; secondly, the danger that I did not particularly think I was perpetuating such inequalities; and finally, the danger that even when I recognised inequality, I perpetuated it because I was benefitting from it.
The first example presented here represents the first meaning of danger, that inequality is normalised within workplaces.
I had my performance review today. They actually seem to be trying to formalise procedures and I was talked through what I need to complete and demonstrate in order to achieve promotion. Apparently I am ‘capable’ of achieving this at the next 6 month review point if I jump through the right hoops. I always jump through the hoops they want, do as I’m told. Why wouldn’t I? That’s the game. Of course I will do this, once I’m promoted maybe I will be able to take more responsibility to manage other change here. Could have done without being told that a stumbling block is ‘you’re ambitious, but you are too emotional, it would help if you worked on this.’ You want to see an emotional reaction? How about my fist connecting with your face, you smug patronising tw*t? ‘Yes, you are right’ I say instead, fighting back tears of anger, reinforcing his opinion of me as overemotional, ‘this is something I need to work on’…
I can’t believe it. It’s barely 6 months since I was promoted, having filled in every form, attended every interview, hit every income target. Today we get an email round to say [he] has also achieved promotion. Without having to do any of the crap I had to. Just a letter from [MD]. FFS.
In spite of written policies and procedures that should change the organisation of work to increase equality of opportunity, they do not change attitudes or culture and values (Kornberger et al., 2010). Such paper symbols may make organisations more attractive to clients, customers and/or future employees, but they may not protect those working therein because the employees and managers themselves do not accept them or recognise there is a need to enact them through adjustment in the behaviours and culture of the organisation. There is therefore inconsistency of the discourse of equality contained within written statements of organisational policy and procedure and the presented discriminatory behaviours of organisational actors. The power of the management structure of the organisation is frequently utmost and absolute, with change only likely if there is awareness and motivation of the need to change; there needs to be acknowledgment of the inequality (Acker, 2006). The different promotion methods shown here may be justified on the basis of not putting anyone else through the same bureaucratic exercise that I had experienced, despite the inequality created. My strategy? To tolerate and support the perpetuation of this unequal organisational world by carrying on. I accepted and submitted to the expected role.
Acker (1990) describes a set of practices that interact to create gendered organisations, which include symbols, for example, the promotions procedures illustrated above, and communicative contact that demonstrates control and subjugation, including sexualised expressions as exemplified in two examples following. In this instance, a culture had evolved to the extent to which that I and others did not see these behaviours as problematic, evidencing the second danger of not recognising that I was part of the perpetuation of inequality.
There’s a new phrase at work, being ‘good at your job’ is now a euphemism for being hot. It came from an interview where the potential client was an attractive woman, I don’t know how it came to be equated but we’re now using it every time we meet someone fanciable. I’ve adopted it too, it’s just banter.
Today I got a kiss on the end of an email from a male client. Nice guy but very definitely married, he’s a bit of a luvvy and so even when we meet he goes to kiss me on the cheek. I told the office about the email kiss, which provoked a whole discussion about using it to generate more business, to send a kiss back and see what happens, to maybe even ‘take one for the team’.
These everyday enactments are examples of the way in which the culture was generated and perpetuated over time through language and accepted discourse. The organisational parlance here is of an employee, client or potential recruit being ‘good at his/her job’ as a euphemism for youth and sexual attractiveness as opposed to judgments being made on actual ability to do the job (Duncan and Loretto, 2004). The language used in the instances described here, and in others, explicitly equates youth and sexual attractiveness with the ability to do a good job- not competence, not skill. The prime interface here is sex first, work experience second (if at all), with a language of double meaning hiding this in plain sight. I was part of the perpetuation of an environment in which young women in particular were sexualised first and considered ‘good at their job’ second. I yielded to the proposition that sexuality takes many forms in the workplace (Williams et al., 1999) and that judgements of female employees, clients and recruits are made on the basis of sex first, potential for absence through maternity second, skill third…and so on.
Inequality was invisible to me for most of my organisational life, or when it was visible I was privileged so why would I think there was a need to acknowledge what was going on and change it? This final danger is illustrated in this instance as follows.
I got a lift with [him] to the team building this weekend – I don’t care what people think, it means I can find out more about what’s going on in the management as well as showing off about what I’ve achieved that he wouldn’t know about.
I was in a powerful position through my responses, my interests were being realised. I both “internalized oppression” (Itzin and Phillipson, 1995, p. 88) and externalised it through my complicity in the culture, behaviours and enactments of these workplaces. Maybe it was a coping mechanism, and maybe I was deliberately acting in a malicious and destructive way. Through exercising internal agency I took positions according to circumstances. I subjected myself to inequality and perpetuated it, employing strategies to mobilise elements of my identity in order to progress in my career in the naïve belief that by playing the game I could change it. In doing so I was frequently privileged through promotion, additional responsibility and a decent salary in the organisations in which I worked. I remember thinking that inappropriate workplace behaviour was ‘just how things were’, ‘just a laugh’.
Even when I began to lose out and feel excluded where once I had been included, there was no place to voice complaints or concerns, because I had colluded with the cultures therein (Casey, 1995; Ozga and Deem, 2000). I lost myself and my values through this process, valuing organisations and their work over and above anything else. I do not consider these experiences as ‘other’ to myself, as an objective, separate observer in a position of evaluative judgment. In my experiences, I not only accepted and yielded, but perpetuated these as I tried to actively manage situations within power games (Ely, 1995) which initially maximised the personal benefit of some (positive) discrimination, for example, promotion opportunities, additional responsibilities, increased pay. However, the longer term consequences of employing such strategies to manage the institutionalised power differential between organisational actors on the basis of age and gender come to be realised as it becomes toxic to workplaces, their operations and the colleagues therein.
Writing this paper is dangerous as I am vulnerable in my disclosures (Haynes, 2011). I am wiser as a result of these experiences, I am not proud of my actions but I live with them and transform myself and my identity as a result, see the experiences for what they were, and try to understand them in the context of what would have been the expectation of me at that time. This “active reflection on a personal interactive moment may carry on for years, in and out of the ‘field’, and may reveal the fresh worlds of meaning and emotion” (Kohn, 2010, p. 189), acknowledging the lack of linear progression of our meaning making and identity construction, rather the past, present and future are collapsed categories. This approach enables sensemaking of past experiences to learn from and apply to present and future, for example, I now take the time to think more carefully about my place within my workplace: who am I, how am I acting, what are the consequences of pursuing my own interests in particular ways, how am I formed by and forming the culture and practice of my organisations? There is critique that we do not record all of our experiences, that much comes from within and that this somehow reduces the robustness of our decisions. But allowing for subjectivity is more honest and revelatory of workplace experiences, rather than maintaining an illusion of rationality and objectivity, which has clearly done nothing to prevent inequality.
Am I still a dangerous woman? I think so. Now it is more because I think about inequality in my workplaces and I try to challenge and subvert it, rather than unwittingly or intentionally reproducing it. Although this always remains a danger.
Acker, J. (1990) ‘Hierarchies, jobs, bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations’, Gender & Society, 4(2), pp. 139-158.
Acker, J. (2006) ‘Inequality regimes – Gender, class, and race in organizations’, Gender & Society, 20(4), pp. 441-464.
Casey, C. (1995) Work, self and society : after industrialism. London: Routledge.
Duncan, C. and Loretto, W. (2004) ‘Never the right age? Gender and age-based discrimination in employment’, Gender Work and Organization, 11(1), pp. 95-115.
Ely, R.J. (1995) ‘The Power in Demography – Womens Social Constructions of Gender Identity at Work’, Academy of Management Journal, 38(3), pp. 589-634.
Haynes, K. (2011) ‘Tensions in (re)presenting the self in reflexive autoethnographical research’, Qualitative Research in
Organizations and Management: An International Journal, 6(2), pp. 134-149.
Itzin, C. and Phillipson, C. (1995) ‘Gendered ageism: A double jeopardy for women in organizations’, in Itzin, C. and Newman, J. (eds.) Gender, culture and organizational change : putting theory into practice. London: Routledge, pp. 81-90.
Kohn, T. (2010) ‘The role of serendipity and memory in experiencing fields’, in Collins, P. and Gallinat, A. (eds.) The ethnographic self as resource : writing memory and experience into ethnography. New York ; Oxford: Berghahn Books, pp. 185-199.
Kornberger, M., Carter, C. and Ross-Smith, A. (2010) ‘Changing gender domination in a Big Four accounting firm Flexibility, performance and client service in practice’, Accounting Organizations and Society, 35(8), pp. 775-791.
Ozga, J. and Deem, R. (2000) ‘Carrying the Burden of Transformation: The experiences of women managers in UK higher and further education’, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 21(2), pp. 141-153.
Williams, C.L., Giuffre, P.A. and Dellinger, K. (1999) ‘Sexuality in the workplace: Organizational control, sexual harassment, and the pursuit of pleasure’, Annual Review of Sociology, 25, pp. 73-93.