Organization as Gendered Communication Act

Albert J. Mills (Athabasca University)

Peter Chiaramonte (University of Western Ontario)

Abstract: A number of recent studies have suggested that sexual discrimination in the workplace can be addressed through strategies designed to alter organizational communications. This paper argues that such strategies, although worthwhile, fail to deal with the underlying character of organizations. The meta-communication character of organizations is examined through a number of historical and contemporary issues of gender.

Résumé: Des études récentes ont avancé que le problème de la discrimination sexuelle en milieu de travail peut être abordé par le biais de stratégies destinées à modifier la communication organisationnelles. Cet article tente de démontrer que de telles stratégies, au demeurant valables, négligent de prendre en compte le caractère inhérent des organisations. Le caractère méta-communicationnel des organisations est analysé à partir de quelques faits contemporains et historiques relatifs à la différence sexuelle.

This paper focuses upon the meta-communication character of organization, its impact upon other systems of communication and the implications for research into the relationship between gender and communication. It is argued that organizations are important cultural phenomena which have a vital impact upon the gendering of persons, and that organizations, as social constructs are, in turn, reflections of a gendered reality, i.e., that the very concept of organization has been significantly shaped by sexist understandings.

Drawing upon feminist and social identity theories, the paper's central theme is developed through analysis of recent studies of gender and communication, issues of identity formation, and the development of organizations. Through an emphasis upon meta-communication the paper raises questions about the efficacy of a focus upon change within organizations that is current in much of the women-in-management and gender and communications literature. Specifically, the paper takes issue with the notion that sexual discrimination can be addressed through improvements within organizations if the very concept of organization is left unquestioned; that changes in patterns and styles of inter-personal communications can lessen discrimination if questions of meta-communication go unexplored.

Through the utilization of Lana Rakow's (1986) view of sex as a cultural phenomenon, questions are raised about some of the limitations of focussing upon discrimination against women while leaving unquestioned the discriminatory construction of persons into "women" and "men." Namely, the paper questions the efficacy of challenging the impact of discrimination on women while leaving untouched the question of the impact of discriminatory practices on the construction of gendered persons per se.

Exploring Gender and Communications Within Organizations

Within management and organization theory there has been a flowering over the last decade of literature focused upon sexual inequities at work. Within this literature women-in-management research has been distinguished by a concern to identify and address barriers to female advancement in the workplace. Research has focused upon a variety of organizational features but surprisingly it was only recently that attention was drawn to the role of communication. This is surprising because organizations can, at one level, be described as "systems of communication" and because the significance of communication has been implicit in much of the research undertaken to date. Roberta Cava (1988), for example, while devoting only a handful of pages to "communication skills" discusses at length the need for females to develop certain styles of dress, posture, language and the presentation of ideas and self, and to avoid emotionality, gossiping, and bringing home-matters into the workplace; similarly Edith Highman (1985) encourages women to be aggressive, organized, practical, articulate, political, and risk-taking--all factors that concern the way a person intertacts with/sends a message to others. In these accounts communication is limited to inter-personal talk and body language.

Explicit concern with the issue of gender, communication and equal opportunity has developed over the last few years, not unsurprisingly, in the field of communications research. Although, as yet, very little feminist research has been conducted in this field of study (Dervin, 1987) a growing number of contributions have highlighted the significance of communication to an understanding of sexual discrimination; contributions that present communication as multi-faceted--involving various direct, indirect and interrelated forms of conveying meaning. Borisoff and Merrill (1985), for example, include space and ambiance, time in professional settings, along with appearance and body language in their definition of communication; Cox (1986) includes joking, small talk, management policy, and company advertisements; while Meissner (1986) includes organizational practices, methaphors, formal letters, and organizational names. Our own definition agrees with the multi-faceted approach in that we view communication as processes involving the conveyance of meaning.

To date, much of the gender and communications and the women-in-management literature has centred on the impact of discriminatory features on women within organizations. This, in many ways, has opened up our understanding of sexual discrimination but in other, more subtle, ways has been limiting (i) in suggesting (implicitly or explicitly) that people "enter" organizations as more-or-less fully formed personalities, and (ii) in maintaining the impression that organizations are objective entities or places. These are limiting because they deflect attention away from the role of organizations in the development of personality and identity.

The Self and Communication

Roberta Cava (1986) provides a clear example of the problem:

Learn to compartmentalize your life. Turn a mental switch off when you leave home. If your children are properly cared for, you should be able to turn their problems off. If you had an argument with your spouse, turn that off, too. Concentrate on matters related to your job. Do the same thing when you come home--turn the work switch off....It's deadly to be preoccupied, whether at home or at work....You have to concentrate on giving quality time at both places. (p. 19)

For Cava, business organizations are "places" that people go to, that they enter and leave: physical space and business activity are conflated into a single, objective entity--the organization. The question then for Cava is, "How can women make the best of their time in those places?" The answer is a series of communicative strategies aimed at fitting in. Implicit in this approach is the assumption that people have well developed, more-or-less fixed, identities prior to organizational "entry" that they may need to fine-tune and adapt once inside the organization: organizations are places that men have come to dominate, hence women need to adapt to the dominant communicative styles within those places. Women who wish to be promoted, for example, are advised by Cava to avoid talking about "anything except work-related matters during business hours":

Managers are watching you--and what do they see? They see dollar signs. And these dollar signs are flying out of the window because you are wasting not only your time but that of the person you're talking to. Suppose you and your co-worker are earning ten dollars an hour; if the two of you spend just fifteen minutes per day in idle chat, you've cost the company five dollars. Multiply that by 200 working days, and you'll see that you're wasting about $1,000 of the company's money a year! That's what managers see. (p. 19)

Through a necessary stress on what women can do to improve their organizational opportunities there is a neglect of why it is that masculinity and organizational dominance are so intertwined, and what the consequences of this are for a person's sense of gendered self. The relationship of organizational time to money, for example, is unquestioned by Cava yet we might expect that dominant values regarding the use of time can influence the way we view ourselves. Change in Cava's framework is represented by females becoming the managers who are "watching," rather than any differences in the way time is viewed.

Cava's work--with its basis in functionalist analysis--provides us with a relatively clear example of the problem under discussion but, although typical of much of women-in management research, it represents only a part of a sophisticated and diverse debate. The work of Judy Cornelia Pearson (1985) provides an example that is more directly related to the question of communication and gender. Pearson defines communication as "the process of negotiating meaning which begins with ourselves, occurs in a context, involves codes and consists of encoding and decoding, is transactional, consists of bargaining, has costs and benefits, and occurs in interactions which are either symmetrical or complementary" (p. 23). Here the concepts of self and context take on more complex meanings: communication is not something that is simply transmitted and received but is a process of negotiated meaning; context is not simply a place in which communication is received but is itself, in part, a negotiated outcome. This raises some important questions about the character of communication and its impact upon the construction of self and of organizations. How, for example, does negotiated meaning influence the way we come to see ourselves, and what part do symmetrically negotiated contexts come to play in the way we engage in on-going communicative activities? These questions, for understandable reasons, remain unasked by Pearson whose concern is with the gendered nature of interpersonal relations and its relationship to social inequities. Pearson's level of analysis concentrates on individuals as more-or-less distinct persons who engage in negotiative activities within "public contexts." Despite clear differences between Pearson's approach and that of Cava we are still left with an underlying image of the individual who faces discrimination as she passes through a series of organizations.

The problem with this approach is that it theoretically disengages the notion of the individual from that of social relations. In contrast to Pearson, we would contend that "context" precedes "ourselves" as a pregiven communicative process and that this has very different consequences for the way the self in communication is to be viewed. Here we agree with Duveen and Lloyd (1986) that

individuals are so inextricably interwoven in a fabric of social relations within which their lives are lived that a representation of the "individual" divorced from the "social" is theoretically inadequate. There is no pure "individuality" which can be apprehended independently of social relations. The complex interrelations of the individual and the social mean that, in effect, an individual is inconceivable as a viable entity without a sustaining network of social relations. (p. 219)

Sex, Gender, and Social Construction

A key part of the social construction of the individual involves gender identity. But it is a process, we contend, in which sex needs to be understood, not as some objective variable, but as part of the process of social construction. Oakley's (1972) distinction between "sex" (as "basic physiological differences between men and women") and "gender" (as "culturally specific patterns of behaviour which may be attached to the sexes") remains influential within feminist accounts of communication, and is a politically vital distinction for addressing sexual discrimination. The problem with Oakley's distiction, however, is that it suggests a degree of prior certainty about the separation of innate and environmental differences. As Lana Rakow (1986) puts it, "The relationship between biology and culture can no longer be assumed to be a simple layering of one on top of the other, resulting in cultural differences added on to already existing biological differences between two pregiven sexes" (p. 12).

Rakow refutes the notion of two distinct and sharply dimorphic sexes, arguing instead that, "two sexes are created out of a variety. Other combinations of chromosome patterns and secondary sex characteristics exist than what is considered male and female" (Rakow, 1986, pp. 20-21). This argument is important in drawing our attention to the powerful labelling process that underlies gender divisions and in indicating how this works not only to the relative disadvantage of those labelled "women" but to those people physiologically and/or psychologically unable (e.g., "hermaphrodite") or unwilling (e.g.,"homosexual") to comply with the two ideal typical notions of "men" and "women," i.e., that not only is discrimination based on sex but that sex is itself a discriminatory classification! Rakow's concern is to replace "sex differences research" with a focus upon gender construction as a process--`the doing of gender'; moving from a concern with the impact of discriminatory practices on women to a concern with how certain practices relate to the construction of gendered persons.

Re-examining Contexts

Drawing upon Rakow, we would contend that organizations need to be analyzed not only for those factors that discriminate against the person but for factors that contribute to the discriminatory character of persons--their sense of gendered selves. Thus, we need to examine not only the contexts of communication but the significance of contexts themselves in the process of communication. It is our contention that analysis of gendered acts cannot divorce the context of such acts from their interpersonal representations. It is theoretically inadequate to address gender discrimination within given public (e.g., organizations) or domestic (e.g., family) settings without taking into account the integral role of the setting itself. If, for example, as we discuss below, a public/domestic divide is an integral part of the image, identity and psyche of "men" and "women" then changing communication strategies, such as that proposed by Cava, Pearson and others, will not necessarily affect the more central problem of gender identity. We put forward the view that organization and organizations are central foci for understanding gendered communication, arguing that, as the locus of gendered cultural values, organizations serve not merely as "context" for communication acts but as meta-communication acts in themselves. As such, they are at one and the same time both structure and action, negotiated and negotiable meaning.

A closer look at Pearson (1985) may help to clarify the differences in approach. Pearson provides numerous examples of how "boys" and "girls," "men" and "women" fare differentially within "public contexts." In discussing "communication in the business world" Pearson cites, in turn, research on children, adolescents, and adults:

Children as young as three years old recognize that jobs are sex-typed. When children between the ages of three and six were asked the traditional question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" the boys tended to choose adventure careers, including police work, sports areas, etc; while the girls selected quieter careers, such as nursing. Seventy percent of the boys and 73% of the girls chose stereotypical careers for themselves. In addition, 14% of the children felt that it was not proper for men to feed babies; 20% felt it was not proper for men to pour coffee for seated women; and 49% felt that it was not proper for women to be repair-people....(p. 329)

On adolescents, Pearson states:

American adolescents were asked about educational expectations and occupational expectations. Men and women expressed similar educational expectations, but the correlation between educational and occupational expectations is lower for females than for males, a finding which implies that women do not have the same, high occupational expectations held by men.... Women frequently fear high occupational success, particularly in traditionally male jobs, because their success can result in disapproval from males. (p. 331)

Finally, Pearson goes on to indicate how "men" and "women" fare in the world of work, particularly in regard to the role of manager:

Both men and women may perceive themselves differently as managers. Women view themselves as having additional health problems because they "experience unique problems--stresses and strains which are not undergone by their male counterparts."... In self-evaluations, women and men provide significantly different responses. Male managers view themselves as performing better than women in comparable jobs, and as having more abilities and higher intelligence. Also, men rate their jobs as more difficult than the jobs women hold, an impression which is corroborated by their subordinates.... Indeed, it appear that at this time, men have more demanding jobs, than do women. It is also true that men are more likely than women to view themselves as successful and to attribute their success to their own abilities. (p. 339)

We have quoted Pearson at length both to indicate the valuable examples of the relationship between organizations and gendered thinking and the theoretical limitations entailed in the presentation of such examples. It is our contention that we are designated a gender, initially on the basis of our genitalia, and that we spend the rest of our lives learning--accepting, altering, resisting--what that entails. The process of "doing gender" is a constant aspect of our identities, i.e., we "are" men and women in so far as we constantly enact, in mind and deed, the things that men and women are socially at a given time thought to do. Hence, in the case of the children quoted by Pearson, we would argue that they are not simply "recognizing" that "jobs are sex-typed"; that they are not simply pregiven gendered persons understanding the social limitations of their status, but that they are "doing gender"; that they are also confirming/acting out their gender identity. Thus, for example, a girl is not just a person who is confined to "nursing" or some other "quiet" career, but also someone who is a carer, who nurses people, whether in the home or within a specific organizational setting. The gender/location association is one that is constantly reinforced as children grow to adulthood, and can be seen to go through various stages of internalization. As Pearson notes, adolescents confirm their gender as they confront expectations about future occupational location, while adults confirm their gender identities within the experiences of organizational life; not surprisingly, given the fundamental nature of organizations, women "experience unique problems" in comparison with their male counterparts.

Exploring the Gendered Character of Organizations

To date, very little research has been done on the relationship between organizations and gendered identity but what little there is suggests a relatively close and important link.


Feminist research into the division of social life into public and domestic spheres provides us with rich clues as to the relationship between gender and organizations. Nancy Chodorow (1978), for example, indicates how notions of childbearing potential, child rearing practices and domestic location became conflated and inseparable from the notion of woman. The child-bearing capacity of some persons distinguished them physiologically from a large category of non-childbearers and the activity of childbearing provided a biological basis from which other social activities were developed and defined. Those early germs of differentiation based on perceived biological differences were, in turn, built upon by sometimes subtle but often widespread social practices. As Chodorow points out, social development has increasingly involved the creation of distinctive spheres of social life. Childbearing, in social development, has moved from a simple biological potential to an expectation and distinct sphere of social activity. Childbearing began to be viewed not simply as a biological function but as a role indistinguishable from the growing activity associated with giving birth to and rearing children. The emerging concept of "woman" is emmeshed in this process; i.e., a woman is not simply one who gives birth but also one who engages in certain child-rearing practices, the two aspects being indistinguishable.

The development of spheres of social activity has, according to Rosaldo (1974), taken on increasing importance with the rise of industrial societies: "The fact that, in most industrial societies, a good part of a woman's adult life is spent giving birth to and raising children leads to a differentiation of domestic and public spheres of activity that can ... be shown to shape a number of relevant aspects of human social structure and psychology" (p. 23). This has resulted in men becoming "the locus of cultural value": "male, as opposed to female, activities are always recognized as predominantly important, and cultural systems give authority and value to the roles and activities of men" (Rosaldo, 1974, p. 19). Cultural significance and public activities became intertwined, adding yet another layer upon the distinction between men and women. Women now became associated with a distinct, yet relatively inferior, set of socio-biological activities.

Mary Ryan (1979) has indicated how the specific development of public and domestic spheres of life in the U.S. contributed to changing notions of womanhood. In the earlier, pioneering stages of the U.S. with men and women working side by side on colonizing the land, notions of womanhood and location were relatively weakly associated. The association remained relatively weak through the early industrialization period in which large numbers of women not only formed a sizeable part of the labour force but also played an active role in a number of the public forums in the smaller towns and villages. This began to change fairly drastically towards the middle of the nineteenth century:

Conditions peculiar to America in the early stages of industrialization--the demand for female workers, the social freedom of small-town republican government, and the relatively sex-blind ideology of hard work and moral vigilance--had fostered an unusual amount of experimentation with women's roles. After the 1840s these conditions would change, and the range of women's action would narrow accordingly. (Ryan, 1979, pp. 90-91)

Indeed, as Ryan shows, the concept of womanhood itself was to undergo a radical change. Economically a large number of factories--mills in particular--began to replace American-born women with cheaper immigrant workers. Social and geographical changes led to the rapid rise of larger cities and the increasing importance of national politics. In both cases the ability of women to participate in public life was diminished. Naturally this developed out of existing sexist attitudes and practices but it also enhanced the association of men and public life and women and domestic life.

Domination, Masculinity, and Organizational Development

Marilyn French (1985) suggests that the dynamics of capitalist development led to a heightened stress on masculinity that involved the degradation of women. In feudal society men and women, albeit unequally, gained social worth through a number of social ties. In the emergent capitalist society the ordinary person's worth was based on his or her potential to labour. The self and the workplace took on important new associations. In the market economy--which incorporated many existing sexist values--the worth of females was further devalued; among other things their childbearing potential was likely seen as a hindrance to their labour potential! The character of the emergent economic system was to lead to new styles of toil, new values and new forms of control--all of which have implications for the development of gender relations.

Hard Men/Soft Women

French argues that the harshness of industrial work may have fuelled the need in male workers to seek a new image of domesticity and womanhood:

In the cities, controlled, regulated, bought and sold--like women--men outside the small, privileged, and shrinking upper class abandoned the image of sensitivity, social grace, and emotionality that had been popular in the previous two centuries, abandoned the the notion of the "gentleman" who did not soil his hands with work, and adopted an image, still popular today, of hardheartedness, of harshness and brutality, toughness, realism.

Women were cast into roles that most contrasted with this one. They were "exalted" as pure, virginal, frail maidens out of touch with reality and unable to bear its pressures; they needed men to intervene between them and the world, men to guide and control them. Men were not primarily links, however; they were firmly set within reality, and the fragile girl was the link between a man and something divinely pure, free from the taint of this new, dirty, completely male reality. (French, 1985, p. 201)

With the development of capitalism forms of industrial work and masculinity have become intertwined. Paul Willis (1977) has indicated how those links persist today as young, working class males adopt macho images as they prepare to take their place in the industrial world. Similarly David Livingstone and Meg Luxton's (1989) description of masculinity among Canadian steel workers gives us a feel for the persistence of the link between male image and industrial work. In the words of one steelworker describing what it takes to do his job: "You got to be tough and you got to be willing to take risks. You got to be strong. It takes a real man to work here" (quoted in Livingstone & Luxton, 1989, p. 252).

Rationality, Competition, and Control

Capitalism, as we know, involved the shifting of production from farm to factory, from use values for immediate consumption to exchange values for the market, from broad social arrangements to narrow financial concerns. In the process people were increasingly atomized. They had little to sell but their labour power. They were thrown into competition for jobs and faced uncertainty about their future. A new individualism was born which encouraged people to become competitive and self-centred. Marilyn French (1985) describes this at its starkest:

[M]en's self-image changed with increasing industrialization, and with it, men's behaviour. Heightened aggressiveness and competitiveness, a frantic racing toward a goal that suggested power, and a shrugging off of scruples or sensitivities that might impede their race characterized the new breed of men. (p. 203)

At the top,

America's new "aristocracy" was made up of men lacking social background--steel and railroads lords, speculators and bankers--who bought culture and wives who could provide it. Narrow in interest, driven only by the race for money power, they quickly came to dominate America's economic and political life. Even pleasure--felicity--lost its primary value: consumption was valued for its conspicuousness....(p. 203)

Some interesting questions are raised by exploring the development of capitalism and the rise of the modern organization. In particular, what is the relationship between forms of masculinity and types of organization? French suggests that economic dominance was in the hands of males who put their stamp on organizational expectations and control--expectations and control that favoured men and rapidly became associated with men. Time and space, for instance, became controlled in ways that did not favour persons likely to become involved in childrearing: employees were expected to come to work, to work certain and long hours, to be continually available for work, to work in a given place. Hence the structure of work was inherently built around the notion that non-childbearers, i.e., males, would form the backbone of the workforce.

Similar expectations and control mechanisms are very much part of organizational life today. Organizations are operated within certain time constraints including such notions as the "9 to 5," night-shift, shift working, overtime, the "40-hour week." Those who work for an organization are normally expected to work full-time, during set hours. This pattern, combined with spatial constraints, does not favour those whose major responsibility is that of child-care. In societies in which the female is expected to assume the major responsibility for child-care this favours males. Organizational commitment spans the borders of time and space in the requirement that employees make the organization their central life commitment. This takes the form of expectations about continuous, unbroken service coupled with an expectation that the organization's requirements will take precedence over all other commitments. The theoretical potential to bear children, regardless of a person's inclination or actual capability, often serves to preclude females from being viewed as worthy of full organizational membership (Crompton & Jones, 1984).

Organizations, as spatially bounded phenomena, generally require some level of restriction to a physical or notional location. People have to "turn up for work" or "go out to work" and in a way that clearly separates them from their home and family responsibilites. Organizational space is dedicated to task-oriented activity but also serves as a series of boundaries that exclude activites associated with home and family responsibilities. Organizational spatial requirements favour those who are socially able to separate themselves from their domestic commitments and, again, this is to the detriment of women (Chodorow, 1978; Cooper & Davidson, 1982).

Turning to the question of dominance it is clear that organizational ownership and control has long been in the hands of men (Bilton et al, 1983). While arguably, as Ryan indicates, this meant that organizations were shaped out of the experiences of men it is important to remember that the experiences of some men were valued more than those of others. Michael Hatton's (1990) history of the corporation, for instance, indicates that most of the early corporate forms that shaped the development of the modern organization had evolved "from largely democratic organizations into close corporations controlled by a few" (p. 15). It was ultimately the elite few who decided the rules of corporate life that the majority were expected to conform to and it is worth speculating how those rules contributed to the shaping of forms of masculinity that less powerful males were expected to conform to. In other words, it is arguable that organizational masculinity is not simply a reflection of male power but has helped to shape notions of manhood.

Hatton's analysis also reveals the links between dominance and the creation of organizational forms. Corporate developments tended to arise out of a desire on the part of some (men) to gain exclusive control over a specific area of social life--be it trade, commerce, exploration, religious life, craft, training or education. In almost every case the power of control was sought from either the church or the nation state, and those organizations that survived tended to be those that complemented rather than usurped the granting authority. Not surprisingly corporations often reflected the hierarchical structures of their benefactors--with many taking on bureaucratic forms. The Jesuits, for example,

developed and maintained a corporate structure radiating from Rome that stretched throughout Europe, Asia, China, Japan, the East Indies, and North and South America. It was a model of efficiency, perseverance, and adherence to the pursuit of its basic corporate goals: survival, growth, and the accumulation of power. In its scope and nature it compares favourably with broad multi-national corporations of today. (Hatton, 1990, p. 8)

Bureaucractic dominance has been linked to the development of rationality. According to Max Weber (1976), the rise of capitalism owes much to the spirit of rationality--a notion of reality based on calculative logic and self-interest that formed the basis of the philosophy of newly-formed Protestant sects and which found perfect expression when applied to their business practices. This is intriguing for it suggests that a particular set of values and understandings associated with a male dominant religious order played a key role in the construction of dominant organizational forms.

Whatever the extent of the actual link between Protestantism and capitalism, rationality has become a central organizing principle of capitalist organizations. Rationality is a major discourse in organizational life. Employment is based on contractual arrangements, based on what both parties (employer and employee) calculate they can get out of the deal. The same ends-means calculations are applied to a number of activities that are undertaken under employment contracts. Hence a major aspect of preparation for the world of work involves being socialized to the need to adopt a logical and calculative approach to life. In the event, rational-legal forms of bureaucracy have come to stress the need for efficiency and impersonality, the divorce of organizational from domestic life, and a purging of emotionality from the workplace (Burrell, 1984).

Rationality, in becoming strongly associated with the character of organizations has become attached to the notion of maleness. The constant concern to divorce aspects of human emotionality from organizational life, according them a place in so-called "domestic" life has led, in the words of Glennon (1983), to a "dualism of private-expressive and public-instrumental selves and worlds" (p. 18). It is as if, with emotionality being restricted at work, a place had to be found for it and, in the process, "domestic life" took on a new stress or understanding: home/domesticity/emotionality/ femininity have become just as much associated as the workplace/masculinity/rationality.


A vital aspect of the creation of contrasting images of public/domestic, masculine/feminine worlds has been a strengthening of the notion of heterosexuality. Various studies of the link between industrial work and masculinity show how much of the imagery is developed through sexual references, references that often contrast homosexuality negatively with an assumed norm of heterosexuality. Livingstone & Luxton's (1989) study of Hamilton steel workers, for example, found that the work was characterized by the men as feminine and to be conquered, as in "it's a real bitch," and "give her hell":

Similarly, malfunctioning machinery is called by derogatory terms for women -bitch, slut--which often have explicit sexual connotations. Disliked bosses are similarly described by terms which cast aspersion either on their masculinity and sexual ability--wimp, cream puff, dick--or identify them with negative female terms--bitch. (Livingstone & Luxton, p. 253)

Boland & Hoffman's (1982) study of a machine shop found that:

Each worker, over time, establishes a strong self-identity in the shop....The self-definition includes such things as his manner and type of dress, morning ritual of arrival, dressing, having coffee, checking his machine, etc. It also includes his identity as a (skilled worker)--the level of skills and capabilities he asserts.... The use of jokes to deny an asserted self-identity is a major theme... The individual's position in the hierarchies of sexual prowess, physical strength, intelligence, or skilled (worker) is a basis for much of the mimicry. (Boland & Hoffman, pp. 376-377)

The stark use of sexuality on the shop floor can be contrasted with that of the office and professional worker:

Here--in the world of bureaucracy--expectations of masculinity have been shaped around notions of rationality. A male entering this area of work soon comes to learn that the rules of... (the) game involve appearing to be detached, logical, unemotional, and absorbed in the work process....The male bureaucrat and professional derive their sense of `manhood' from milieux that associate rational behaviour with masculinity. (Mills & Murgatroyd, 1990, p. 103)

At the top corporate levels males find that they are expected to exhibit male-associated characteristics of toughness, competitiveness, aggressiveness, and control. These concepts make up part of our understandings of management--a concept that is riddled with notions of masculinity (Mills & Murgatroyd, 1990).

In some cases organizations have been founded on more-or-less explicit values of heterosexuality; Denyse O'Leary (1988), for example, claims that heterosexuality is a central religious value underlying the United Church of Canada. Certainly to communicate anything less than heterosexual values at work is still a dangerous proposition for those who wish to advance or at least maintain their jobs (Hall, 1989). Arguably, heterosexuality is the vehicle through which the gender system is enforced!

Organizations, Gender, and Communication

Organizations dominate social life. They are such a part of our day-to-day existence that we live, in the words of Denhart (1981), "in the shadow of organization." Organizations are not merely entities that we enter now and then only to return to the safety of our home environment; rather, they are a prevalent cultural phenomenom that represents and in turn shapes our social patterns of thought (Smircich, 1985).

Organizational destination and association form an integral part of our language, as for example in "preschooler," "unemployed," "homemaker," "retiree," "high school drop-out," "regular church-goer." Accompanying those organizational images are gender associations; domestic environments and associated styles of behaviour are seen as female while organizational environments, particularly business organizations and their associated styles of behaviour, are seen as male (Hearn & Parkin, 1986). The developing child is, from the beginning, confronted by a world that signals at every turn complex organizational associations in which sex, organizational location, and behavioural expectations are intertwined. Mother, woman, home, domestic are as conceptually interwoven as that of father, man, work, protecter. Indeed, the term "father" is more likely to convey a simple statement of parenthood to the listener than that of "mother" which more often than not is taken to signify "what the person does." The contrasting images of "domesticity" and "work" are a result of discrete task roles and competencies. For example, consider the tasks of the home and those of business. In one, cleaning, caring, and cooking are associated with irrationality, emotionality, and expressiveness. In the other, tasks requiring technical, mechanical, and physical acumen are associated with rationality, instrumentality, and impersonality. Male children learn that if they are to grow up to be men their behaviour must contain a degree of aggressiveness and they must be "sensible" and not cry. The message is, of course, different, for those that are being conditioned to grow up to become women.

It is hard to escape the view that organizational destination and performance bear heavily on the way we are socialized and learn to communicate. Organizations are not simply places--physical spaces where things get done--they are in effect patterns of communication, sets of explicit and implicit rules that govern how any given collection of people should work together. Those rules bear on how we are constructed as "men" and "women" and that forms an important part of how we need to view organizational communications. To be effective, authentic voices in the workplace more often than not need to communicate authority, toughness, logic, formality, and so on. This will be easier for males because not only are they prepared for the dominant communicative style of organizational life, but maleness is perceived as an integral part of the style of organizational life. Females, on the other hand, face a double bind of attempting to be effective in a system of communication which, at one level, serves to achieve on- going organizational goals but which, at another level, contributes to confirming gender differences. The implicit links between certain styles of communication (e.g., being hardnosed) with heterosexuality add to the problems of a number of people who seek to be accepted as competent organizational members.

The meta-communication character of organization raises a number of crucial research issues in the field of gender and communication. Organizations need to be viewed as processes as well as contexts. People are not simply more or less discriminated against within organizations. Organizations are a crucial aspect of the process of "doing gender" (Rakow, 1986). Much of the literature on "women in management" focuses upon changes "within" the organization. Women are encouraged to adapt to existing organizational arrangements (Kakabadse & Margerison, 1987); organizations are encouraged to modify their arrangements to accommodate more equitable employment patterns (Snyder & Miles, 1980). What continues to be ignored is the underlying nature of organizations themselves; their social significance and relationship to the broad process of gender differentiation and development. If "the medium is the message" (Miller, 1971) then the message can only ultimately be altered if the medium itself is altered. Adapting to what may be unsuitable structures, systems and arrangements may ultimately be the cause of physical and mental distress among female managers and employees rather than a way of resolving such problems (Cooper & Davidson, 1982; Larwood & Wood, 1979; Leonard, 1984; Pearson, 1985).

We cannot continue to ignore the integral role of organization in the process of gender development. It has implications not only for gender discrimination with organizations but for gender discrimination per se. Research should be aimed at exposing the complex interrelationships between organization and gendered identity, with a view to changing and eradicating gender discrimination.

This is not to suggest that sexual discrimination throughout organizations and other social arrangements should not be challenged. Each challenge and each change can be an important step in a process of broader challenge and change where consciousness of that relationship is understood. We share Morgan's (1986) radical humanist view that consciousness is a key aspect of change. We need to improve organizational arrangements but we must recognize, as we do so, that these are only steps in a broader goal of organizational deconstruction (Habermas, 1979; Illich, 1973; Foucault, 1977).


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Canadian Sociology and Anthropological Association annual meeting, Victoria, B.C., May 1990. We would like to thank the Athabasca University Research group--Mike Gismondi, Lynda Ross, Cathy Bray, Judith Van Duren, and Richard Hotchkis; and Peta Tancred, Charles Gordon, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on on an earlier draft. We would also like to thank Jean Cote, Julie Mills, and Ron Haukenfrers for generous technical assistance.


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