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Gender and Organisation Theory


(99B) Each of the schools of feminist thought (liberal feminist, radical feminist and Marxist feminist) is like a different “paradigm” with its own assumptions of the world. Although all of them deal with the same problem, i.e., the inequality experienced by women in society and within organizations, these different assumptions result in different analyses of the problem and result in different solutions for the problem.


In the case of liberal feminism, it accepts the existing structure of hierarchy and control within organizations. It only questions the unequal distribution of power, prestige and wealth between men and women within organizations. Besides this, liberal feminism has an individualistic bias and tends to focus more on the individual experience than on structural or systemic factors that give rise to gender inequality. Liberal feminists support the passing of “equal opportunity” laws to increase the chances of women getting into positions of power, prestige and wealth within organisations. Liberal feminists also support changes in the socialization of girls, e.g., raising girls to be more ambitious and assertive, encouraging them to study technical subjects like science and engineering and so on.


As for radical feminism, this school of thought argues that the structure of organizations with its hierarchy, control and emphasis on discipline reflects “male values” and are actually forms of male domination over females. Thus, male managers will boss around female secretaries and clerks while male doctors will boss around female nurses. Some radical feminists argue that organizations stress “male values” such as competition and achievement at the expense of “female values” such as nurturing and relationships. Another expression of male domination within organizations is sexual harassment in the workplace. Radical feminists argue that women should actively resist these values of patriarchy. Female workers should not meekly accept the domineering ways of higher-ranking male colleagues but should resist and fight for better treatment. Women can even form their own women-only organizations (including commercial companies) as an alternative to participation in mainstream, patriarchal organizations.


Marxist feminists, on the other hand, emphasize the continued importance of class struggle between workers and capitalists/managers and argue that the class struggle in turn shapes relations between male and female workers. Thus, it is basically the capitalist system that gives rise to gender inequality. For example, discrimination against women allows capitalists to divide the working class along gender lines. It also allows capitalists to pay female workers less than male workers. When there is an economic downturn, female workers may be the first to be laid off into the “industrial reserve army”. The solution is to replace capitalism with socialism or to set up worker-owned and operated organizations.


(98B) Scholars who study organizations in a traditional way such as Max Weber and Frederick Taylor did not pay any attention to gender inequality within organizations (they are “gender blind”). These theorists who study organizations using a rationalist and technical approach have ignored the way in which expectations of the roles of men and women have led to ways of structuring work and authority within organizations which work to the disadvantage of women. For example, if it is assumed that adult women are housewives and unlikely to work outside the home, corporations will require employees (presumed to be male) to work late, work on weekends, travel frequently on business trips and so on. If it is assumed that adult women will work fulltime outside the home but only until they get married or until they bear children, employers will be reluctant to hire women, send them for training or to promote them into high-ranking positions. Thus, working women with small children at home will be greatly disadvantaged when working for such companies. Working women with small children find it stressful to take care of their children as well as work long hours, travel frequently on business trips and so on. However, if they do not work long hours and travel on business trips, their chances of promotion will be negatively affected. If women allow family responsibilities to interrupt their careers, e.g., taking time off to have children and to raise them, this will also affect their careers negatively. Thus, success at work for women requires the sacrifice of family life. 


In Japanese companies, employees are expected to work long hours and also expected to socialize with their colleagues in bars after work until late into the night. These expectations again work to the disadvantage of female employees.


In Malaysia, expectations about the role of women, e.g., with respect to taking care of the home (doing housework), taking care of children, taking care of elderly relatives who are sick etc. often mean that working women are heavily stressed by the “Supermom Syndrome” or the “Double Burden of Women”.


Labour Process Theory


Braverman presented an early and limited view of labour process within organizations. In his view, organizations are not rational systems for performing work in the most efficient manner but power systems designed to control and exploit workers. He argued that capitalists use techniques like Taylorism to “deskill” work by breaking down skilled work into smaller bits which can be done by unskilled workers. Furthermore, mental labour is separated from physical labour through the deskilling of work. Managers carry out mental labour while unskilled workers carry out physical labour after a job has been deskilled. Deskilled work is mindless, repetitive, boring and alienating for workers. One major objective of deskilling is to make it easier for capitalists and managers to control workers (besides trying to squeeze more surplus value out of them). Thus, management control through the deskilling of work is an instrument used by the capitalist class to control and exploit the working class. One major criticism of Braverman is that many new jobs which require a high level of skills have appeared, e.g., computer programming, systems analysis, financial analysis and so on. Jobs such as these may be very difficult to deskill. Another major criticism is that Braverman’s theory is simplistic and concentrates on the conflict between labour and capital to the exclusion of all else. Conflicts within the workplace are more complicated than these: there may also be conflicts between the workers themselves. For example, there may be conflict between workers from different ethnic groups such as Malay and Chinese workers, between male and female workers, between skilled and unskilled workers, and between immigrant and non-immigrant workers. Male workers may be given higher-paying, supervisory jobs while female workers are concentrated in the lower-paying, production line jobs. Immigrant workers (especially illegal immigrant workers) are often given the dirtiest, most dangerous and lowest-paying jobs to do. Conflicts among the managers may also occur, e.g., between managers in the finance department and between managers in the engineering department. Financial managers may focus on cost control and investment opportunities to increase profits while managers in the engineering department may push for more spending in order to produce technically superior products for sale.


Later Marxist theorists like Edwards argue that the workplace is actually a complex, “Contested Terrain” and that even if capitalists attempt to deskill jobs in order to control workers and increase the rate of exploitation, workers will resists such efforts and fight back through their trade unions, through sabotage at work and so on. However, the “capitalist state” may intervene on the side of the capitalists in order to suppress working class militancy, e.g., the Malaysian Government made it illegal to form trade unions in free trade zones initially. Later, only “in-house unions” were allowed to be formed. 


Capitalists may also use psychological tools to try to squeeze more surplus value out of workers. Thus, the tools proposed by the Human Relations School such as job enrichment etc. are actually designed to exploit workers more effectively.


Capitalists may also try to control workers by threatening to close down factories and shift production to other countries if workers get too militant or wages get too high. For example, many American companies have closed down their factories in the United States and reopened them just across the border in Mexico. Thus, besides deskilling, capitalists can also use other methods to try to control and exploit the working class. These include "delayering", "downsizing", multi-tasking, contracting out, laying off full time workers and rehiring them on a part-time or contract basis, using temporary workers who have been referred by outside agencies etc.


Paradigms and Organisation Theory


Burrell and Morgan propose that there are basically 4 paradigms in Organisation Theory. These are the functionalist, interpretive, radical humanist and the radical structuralist paradigms. The functionalist paradigm was the dominant paradigm in Organisation Theory from the 1950s to the 1970s. Today, it is being challenged by other paradigms through the “paradigm debate”. The different paradigms generate different approaches to the analysis of organizations.


The functionalist paradigm assumes that organizations are structured along rational lines and that this emphasis on rationality benefits managers as well as employees and the larger society. The different parts of rationally structured organizations would work in harmony through specialization and the division of labour and thus would achieve efficiency and higher productivity.


The interpretive model emphasizes the actor’s frame of reference within the organization. Thus, the actor’s perceptions are subjective and this model argues that the positivist model should be rejected because of lack of attention to this subjectivity. The interpretive model does not push for radical change with respect to the structure and processes within organizations.


The radical humanist model, on the other hand, is critical of organizational structures and processes. They are seen to be dehumanizing and should be changed for the sake of the well-being of the people who work within such organizations. A radical humanist would attempt to find ways to make organizations less hierarchical and authoritarian and also try to influence decision-making within organizations to be more participatory. Radical humanists emphasise  the importance of human consciousness in bringing about radical change.


Radical structuralists emphasise the existence of major conflicts within society, e.g., Marxists who write about class conflict between capitalists and workers. They argue that these conflicts are reflected within organizations. These conflicts would bring about change.


Organisational theorists who are positivists and follow the functionalist paradigm see the “paradigm debate” as irrelevant and a waste of time. They see the debate as a distraction from the task of developing “scientific” theories about organizations. Others believe that the “paradigm debate” is now outmoded and that a multi-paradigm approach to the analysis of organizations is useful. For example, one can use a variety of paradigms to study the same thing from different perspectives. Thus, labour process theory has been enriched by feminist theorizing on organizations.


The “paradigm debate” has led to post-modern pluralism and the attack on a “grand narrative” with respect to theorizing on organizations and on other social phenomena. Post-modernists celebrate the diversity of perspectives. Critics of post-modernism argue that the different paradigms are basically incompatible and this view is called “paradigm incommensurability”. These critics also argue that the acceptance of post-modernist thought makes it impossible to develop a coherent theory of organizations and of society.


Morgan’s book called “Images of Organisations” argues that the organization can be visualized as a machine, brain, organism, prison or as cultures. If the organization is seen as a machine, one would view the organization as a thing whose parts work together in harmony to produce something. The various parts can also be replaced if they break down.


The brain analogy would emphasise the planning and goal-oriented action of organizations. Managers are the ones who do the thinking and planning within organizations. They will also send signals to the workers to carry out planned actions.


The organism analogy means that organizations are “born”, they can “mature” and grow in size, and they can also “die” if they are not properly managed. Organisations can also “reproduce” by spinning off new organizations.


The prison analogy views the organization as an institution that traps and restricts the freedom of its employees. Organisations control and discipline their workers through the enforcement of dress codes, codes of conduct, rules and regulations, monitoring of performance, etc. There may also be surveillance of the workers, e.g., through cameras and through surveillance using computers.


The cultures analogy proposes that different organizations have different corporate cultures. There can also be many “cultures” within an organization. For example, the culture of top management is likely to be different from the culture of the production line workers. Different professional groups within the organization (e.g. engineers, financial analysts) may hold different values and worldviews. Employees may come from different ethnic groups and so on.         


Post-Modernism and Organisation Theory


(99A) (99B) Labour process theory argues that capitalists/managers exert control over workers through external control systems such as the wage system and through monitoring of behaviour. Behaviour is controlled through dress codes, codes of conduct, rules and regulations, monitoring of work performance etc. The Foucauldian approach, in contrast, emphasizes “internal control” of workers, i.e., getting workers to control themselves voluntarily to the benefit of management. Internal control can also reduce the cost of control to management. Workers are persuaded to control themselves through the use of persuasion, i.e., management influences the subjectivity of the worker. For example, workers can be persuaded that hard work is good and that work is a means of self-fulfillment. Through emphasis on “self-improvement”, “excellence”, “quality service” etc. workers are taught to view themselves as contributing to the organization or even to the nation. In nations like South Korea, nationalistic propaganda is used to convey the message that hard work will help the nation to become strong and respected in the world. In Southeast Asian Chinese businesses, workers are taught that they are part of one big “family” and they are expected to be loyal to the company. Thus, the Foucauldian approach analyses how the knowledge held by workers is subjective and constructed (partly through the efforts of managers) and how this in turn influences action.


As the economy changes and service sector jobs become more important, the jobs will require more involvement and commitment from the employees. Thus the important of generating “internal control” or internalized self-control of workers in the workplace would grow. Internal control of workers can also be enhanced through the use of systems of surveillance (including electronic surveillance).