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Is there such a thing as a gendered organisation?

Research suggests women may choose to work in different sorts of firms than men – those with flat hierarchies and a culture of collaboration

By Nigel Nicholson 20 March 2018

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The Me Too movement is wonderful, long overdue and momentous. It reminds us that we have taken the status quo in gender relations far too much for granted. I want to take this further to consider how we design and manage organisations, where we are also taking a great deal for granted.


My starting point is that of an evolutionary feminist, where gender differences can be celebrated as long as we maximise choice over how we use them and don’t abuse them. This puts gender differences in the wider frame of acknowledging that people differ in many respects but it takes events, environments and experiences for these differences to come to the fore or recede.


For example, games of pure chance offer the complete democracy of pure luck, while games of skill or style expose individual differences in people’s gifts, foibles and flaws. In the ways we think, feel and act men and women differ in degree rather than in the foolish Mars/Venus dichotomy that has been popularised.  I’m a keen tennis player but lots of women can beat me, yet it’s a sport where at the top level we are forced to segregate the sexes to keep the contest equal.  I’m also a keen bridge player (where lots of women also can beat me!) but at any level it can be counted as gender-neutral.


What if the same were true for organisations? This would mean that some environments bring out certain individual differences, while others quell and equalise them. Gender is a systematic source of such differences, so it is reasonable to ask if some are, by design, gendered more or less than others?


The recent scandal of the Presidents’ Club dinner, where men were “entertained” by women “hostesses” illustrates how a set of institutional arrangements can disinhibit the expression of oppressive impulses.


Gender-neutral business design


Fortunately, there seems to be an emerging consensus that we should create contexts that are gender-neutral, except where people explicitly want and consent to something different, so long as does not violate public norms and standards. So let us extend this idea to the design of businesses.


A little while ago I did an experiment through a small survey to 100 men and 100 women, surveyed at random, about their interest in joining or leading two contrasting types of organisation, as well as asking them if they would prefer to be led by a man or a woman in either case.


The two models contrasted were a) a classic corporate hierarchy with highly individualised performance and promotion criteria, and b) a team-based flat organisation with a strong emphasis on group collaboration and reward.


The results were startling. Gender differences in responses were extreme. Men strongly preferred both to join and lead type A, and women type B. They also strongly preferred to be led by a same-sex leader in their preferred model, and were indifferent to the leadership in their non-preferred model. We also asked them which they thought would be more innovative and profitable.


There were some differences – men expressing greater faith in the hierarchy than women, though both men and women believed model A to be more profitable.


This is intriguing and telling, since there is plentiful evidence that type A is very much “old” world, while type B is thriving as the most effective model in many areas of the digital world. So is a myth being perpetuated about the efficacy of type A? For it continues to persist in many areas of the economy where it is not the best way of organising.


Perhaps there is nothing wrong with having organisations run differently so that people can join whichever suits them: boys who like competitive climbing frames can go find them, and girls who like inclusive clubs can join them. But what if the boys who rise through to the top of type A organisations come to the self-serving but false belief that this is the best or the right way to organise? What if people are less free in their choice of organisation than we might wish?


What if organisations differ in how much they exploit or annul gender biases in preferences and style? What if many, if not most, have a pronounced systematic bias favouring the kinds of hierarchical win-lose games that men often prefer, practise and are good at?


One outcome might be that women will really not be motivated to seek advancement to the level of their potential, because they see around them men predominating and excelling in the tactics and manoeuvres that they feel at home with and in which all but a minority of ambitious and talented women are unpractised and dislike.


In such a world you might find that despite all the exhortations, encouragement and training the representation of women in the top ranks remains depressingly low.

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