Gender as we know it: rethinking (in)equality in the workplace

posted in: Social innovation | 2
Everyone pointing at a sad woman.
Jessica Rose, CJBS Senior Associate Director of Development
Jessica Rose, CJBS Senior Associate Director of Development

It is no mystery that the private sector can be an extremely gendered working environment.

From glass ceilings (invisible barriers preventing women from achieving high profile positions) to the perhaps lesser-known glass cliffs (leadership positions becoming available only when attached to great risks and high chances of failure), gender inequality is a very tangible, and much studied, reality.

In recent times, this has led to a sharp focus on closing the gender gap in the corporate world. This is especially true in key areas such as achieving a better gender balance at the boardroom level, providing mentoring and leadership training programmes to women, and introducing deliberate policies and actions such as diversity targets and equal pay. Despite these structural changes, women continue to encounter marginalisation, discrimination and exclusion in the workplace[1].

Why is this, and what else needs to happen to swing the balance towards a more equitable state? In this blog, I suggest that both structural and interactional changes are required for gender inequality to be dismantled.

Gender as a construct

As Simone De Beauvoir famously wrote in 1949, ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’[2]. In fact, while western society views gender as purely biological, sex and gender are not equivalent. Gender is specific to humans, a product purely of society which depends on all of its members constantly ‘doing’ or ‘performing’ gender[3].

Interestingly enough, over the last 30 years, most theorists have shifted the terminology from ‘doing gender’ to investigating how we can ‘undo gender’[4]. The concept is similar, but places a focus on how society can undo gender stereotypes and limiting normative conceptions of sexual and gendered life by performing gender in a way that does not penalise femininity or masculinity.

In other words, gender inequality exists as a result of the way in which individuals perform gender; thus to achieve equality, gender must be performed differently.

Inequality in the private sector

Gender inequality exists in the private sector today for two main reasons. First, organisations within the private sector are still structured in a way that promotes gender inequality, particularly in regards to executive level positions. Second, human interactions continue to shape and reinforce sexism and gendered stereotyping on a daily basis.

Gender inequality is found within a system that advantages men over women in status, power, resources and authority. Within the private sector, profound structural changes such as industrialisation, the transfer of women’s work from the household to the workforce, as well as women’s accelerated entry into what have traditionally been male-dominated professions, have not managed to break down the traditionally gendered hierarchy.

In hierarchical structures women continue to join managerial ranks, but secretaries, clerks and cleaners are still primarily women. The way that work has traditionally been structured – eight hour days, away from home, with inflexible hours – does not suit those with obligations outside of work, and it is mainly women that have such obligations. These ‘inequality regimes’[5] also contribute to masculine ideas being implemented to a greater degree than feminine ideas, further perpetuating and maintaining gender inequality across institutions. Even where men and women perform exactly the same tasks, modern ‘gendered’ institutions still tend to value what men do more highly than women’s contributions.

Gender inequality can be also reproduced via subconscious interactional processes. Imagine a situation in which male members of a senior management team are often invited to play golf with the CEO on weekends. The lone female member of the team is not invited, as per the rationale that she doesn’t play nor even like golf. That may be so; however this activity enables the team to bond in a way that excludes their female colleague. Unfortunately, a scenario like this is all too common across organisations and provides a powerful demonstration of how daily, even banal gendered interactions still play a key role in working life.

I used to sit on a board that was all men except me and one other. I gradually realised they always looked to me or my female colleague to pour the coffee. Gents, please! I would love a coffee thank you sir. White, no sugar. Although to be fair, it took restraint not to get up and do it. I had to learn to perform differently if I wanted the men to as well.

Social intrapreneurs as agents of change

To achieve gender equality, pattern breaking structural and interactional changes are required across the sector. Crucially, changes need to work towards both men and women performing gender differently.

Social intrapreneurs are currently working towards a more equitable private sector for women. Initiatives such as Helena Morrisey’s 30% Club[6] and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In programme[7] are good examples of social intrapreneurs making successful changes.

Across the sector, women are certainly being encouraged to advance and empower themselves. Organisations pay a lot of attention to structural initiatives such as development and mentoring programmes, diversity targets and equal pay opportunities. But it is the daily interactions that involve stereotyping and sexism, whether conscious or unconscious, that continue to shape and reinforce inequality. In order for there to be true gender equality in the private sector, staff at all levels of the organisational hierarchy need to be conscious of how they are performing gender, and stereotyping others, in order to perform gender differently. A gap exists in that these women’s empowerment programmes and policies limit the opportunity or impetus for men to change their own gendered interactions. It is clear that more time needs to be invested in determining the best practices for performing gender differently, ensuring that the practice does not reinforce stereotypes, but neutralises them instead. An opportunity exists to dissociate work behaviour from gender. It is into this gap that more social intrapreneurs – both female and male – must venture.

Constructions of gender have formed over centuries of society, and are reinforced daily, from birth. But it is possible to dissociate gender from behaviour. It is also possible to perform gender differently, in a way that does not conform to outdated stereotypes nor penalise femininity. The current generation has grown up in an age with changed gender definitions. Much has evolved, even from the time our own mothers joined the workforce. It may not be possible, or even desirable, to completely undo gender. However, via pattern breaking structural and interactional change, I believe gender equality can be achieved in the private sector within the next couple of generations.


[1] “Confronting gender inequality: Findings from the LSE Commission on gender, inequality and power”, LSE, 2016

[2] “The Second Sex”, 1949

[3] “Judith Butler: Your behavior creates your gender”, YouTube, 6 June 2011

[4] “From doing to undoing: Gender as we know it”Gender & Society, 1 February 2009

[5] “Inequality regimes: Gender, class, and race in organizations”, Gender & Society, 4 August 2006

[6] “If I was doing it for a popularity contest, I probably wouldn’t say anything”, The Guardian, 27 March 2015

[7] “What data analytics says about gender inequality in the workplace”, Bloomberg, 31 January 2014

Jessica Rose

Jessica Rose

Jessica Rose is the Senior Associate Director of Development for CJBS and is currently undertaking the Master of Studies in Social Innovation at the School. Previously, Jessica worked as the Director of Development for Teach For Australia, part of the Teach For All global network.
Jessica Rose

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2 Responses

    • Jessica Rose

      What a fantastic piece Fiona, I’d love to speak to Jill. I particularly like the recommendations, especially the reverse mentoring idea.

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