women as decision makers


When we consider recent statistical revelations about the status of women and work, and in particular, women’s participation in management, it is easy to become despondent.  In spite of progress made with regard to women’s rights across many areas of personal and political struggle, women continue to be underrepresented in management, particularly the upper echelons in some industries and occupations, while being over-represented in others.

A study of the top 200 Australian Stock Exchange companies revealed that as at 30 June 2014, just 15.4% of board directors were female, while 52 companies do not have a woman on their board at all, according to the Australian Workplace Gender Equality Agency. Despite this, 87.8% of women aged 20-24 have attained year 12 qualifications or above in 2013, in comparison to 84.1% of men in the same age bracket.

At home and abroad, the issues are the same.  Regardless of their greatly improved levels of education, technical competence and their wealth of experience, women continue to encounter “the glass ceiling”, an invisible barrier that limits their access to more senior positions within organisations.  Furthermore, as highlighted by the Governor-General Quentin Bryce at a Women’s Leadership Conference in 2011, many women are hitting the “maternal wall” before reaching the glass ceiling.  Their ambition is tempered by competing priorities and moulded to some extent by the choice for greater life balance.

The issues that emerge on closer examination of these trends are complex and many-faceted.  While it is essential to understand the broader structural and ideological foundations that contribute to a power differential within our institutions and organisations, it is also necessary to examine the day to day practice that creates and recreates cultures, maintaining the status quo or continuing to push the odds against women.  Women’s liberation and empowerment, as with disempowerment and oppression, are forged on many levels.

Changes are required at the broader social-structural level; we need legislative, policy and programmatic changes.  For example, we need a taxation structure that supports women’s continued workforce participation; we need adequate, well-funded child care support; and we need dynamic, flexible work arrangements that promote life balance and support family life.  In practice, we need to analyse the needs of a diverse workforce and determine what flexibility looks like and redesign both the structure of work and career pathways.

However, an important shift also occurs at the level of individual empowerment and agency, to effect change within organisations, to create more productive and inclusive workplaces and to better manage one’s own energy and wellbeing. When discussing personal agency or intervention, it is important to remain ever mindful of the often subtle yet powerful relationship between the personal and the political. Individuals do not operate in a social vacuum but often unconsciously represent the dominant view.  In order to effect positive change, it is necessary to step outside of the “ordinary”, that which appears “natural”, to assume a more objective stance and move through the realm of unfamiliarity or even discomfort.  Giving birth is rarely, if ever, painless.

I want to look briefly at one aspect of the management of power within organisations that impacts women’s experience: the creation of organisational cultures through the management and negotiation of personal power within workplace relationships. I have chosen this angle because this is, I believe, the position from which a larger number of both women and men can make a difference.  It also provides a strong argument for supporting more women into management roles because, ironically, the power differential in asserting influence in this regard is currently tipped in favour of those in positions of power and authority, who as we have seen, are largely men.  It is essential therefore that both men and women perceive the benefits of greater gender balance in management and across all professions and remain committed to this end.

In an International Labour Organisation article, “Will the glass ceiling ever be broken? Women in management: It’s still lonely at the top”, it was asserted that the “glass ceilings” and “glass walls” will persist if “the structures and dynamics within organizations [do not become] more conducive and sensitive to gender equality concepts and practice”.  At an international meeting on the subject with delegates from 20 countries, discussion focused on the “social attitudes and cultural biases [that continue to be] a major factor discriminating against women and holding them back from attaining higher-level jobs”.  It underlined the important strategic issue of supporting more women into decision-making positions within organisations.

Organisations are embedded in the wider social and political culture but also have their own cultures and subcultures.  The culture of an organisation dictates “how things are done around here”.  As noted by Martin, the organisational culture is “taught” to employees through both formal programs and informal methods such as “stories, myths, rituals, and shared behaviour”.  According to Richard Seel’s emergence theory, culture is not something “imposed from outside but exposed from within”.  It emerges through daily interactions during the normal conduct of business.  Shared values, meanings and ways of doing business arise (and are maintained or reinforced) through these interactions.  According to this view, therefore, culture is continually created, recreated or maintained at an interpersonal level and can therefore be subjected to intervention with the objective of change.

At a personal level, through daily interactions, employees also learn how to negotiate their personal power, to achieve what they want for themselves, whether that be money, security, harmony, experience, opportunity for creative and innovative contribution, popularity, a sense of belonging, personal or professional development, to make a difference, advancement at any cost, to be CEO, or all or any of these things. At a management or organisational level, employees negotiate power on behalf of the organisation, while also negotiating their own power.  Organisational power is often mediated through personal power. It goes without saying, therefore, that it is the decision-makers within organisations who are key agents of change.

Returning to Seel’s view of organisational culture and the culture of change, it is as decision-makers that women are best able to create the conditions and circumstances for a more equitable and inclusive mode of operation.  Change is never easy and women, too, often cling to the familiar while crying out for something new.  Change brings with it ramifications at all levels and it is necessary to endure through the chaos toward a new order.

At the level of individual agency and through daily “conversations”, women (and men) can exert influence in a number of ways.  First of all, it is essential to know who you are and what you want.  While it is important to achieve congruence between the values and goals of employees and organisations, it is not sufficient to allow ourselves to be defined by organisations and institutions because this limits our conscious assertion of authentic power.  We need to identify our own unique qualities and contributions and determine our capacity to use them to effect change.

Secondly, it is necessary to recognise the personal power we bring to every situation and every interaction, and make conscious and informed choices every step of the way.  We need to recognise that everything we do involves personal choice.  Even the failure to decide or act in a situation is a choice.  The more our choices and actions become conscious, the better we are placed to intervene and change the “conversations” that give rise to organisational culture.  As Seel  asserted, “if you want to change a culture you have to change all these conversations – or at least the majority of them”.  In his earlier article, he likens the role of change agent to that of “midwife”, a metaphor which regards “the organisation as a complex self-organising entity to be worked with rather than worked on”:

…the good midwife develops a personal relationship with the pregnant woman; she recognises the uniqueness of each encounter, treating the woman as a living being not a machine; she knows that birth should not be forced but assisted; she understands the importance of working with the body’s natural processes .

According to Seel, the metaphor still does not go far enough however because it places the change agent outside of the system rather than within it.

Women who operate consciously and exercise authentic power in decision-making roles within organisations are powerful instruments of change.  Each generation of women brings with it a renewed energy and agenda for change.  This energy needs to be supported within organisations, actively supported at all management levels and by the organisation as a whole, so that it does not become diluted within the mainstream of the cultural status quo.  The creation of more balanced organisations is an important strategy for increasing competitive advantage and profitability, and will ultimately benefit both men and women.

Staff development programs that help heighten the awareness of personal power, personal responsibility and wise choice, that support women in negotiating their personal power in the workplace and that support organisations toward heightened success through cultural renegotiation, can provide an excellent catalyst for initiating desired change. They represent a small investment in the future health and wellbeing of both organisations and individuals.


Statistics sourced from: https://www.wgea.gov.au/sites/default/files/2013-02%20-%20Stats%20at%20a%20glance.pdf

EOWA, Commonwealth Government of Australia (2001-2006), “What Does Flexibility Look Like?” and “Why Does Flexibility Matter?” http://eeo.gov.au.

EOWA Australian Census of Women Executive Managers, 2014, http://www.eowa.gov.au/Australian_Women_In_Leadership_Census.asp

Falkner, W.  (2009)  “Doing gender in engineering workplace cultures II. Gender in/authenticity and the invisibility paradox”, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19378620903225059#.VC4R_PmSx1Y

Korporaal, G. (2011). ” G-G uses women’s forum to take swipe at glass ceiling” http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/g-g-uses-womens-forum-to-take-swipe-at-glass-ceiling/story-e6frg8zx-1226016766582

Seel, Richard (2006) “Culture and Complexity:  New Insights on Organisational Change”, Culture and Complexity-Organisations & People vol. 7, No. 2. pp.2-9.
“Emergence in Organisations”,2006,  http://www.new-paradigm.co.uk/emergence-human.htm