Women managers – How far have we travelled?

road travel
(photo: 44833 via Pixabay)

I came into consulting in this area, gender and diversity, from an academic perspective having done a MSc and then a PhD and I immediately noticed the lack of spillover of academic work and business in this area. There is a huge body of academic work on the subject of gender work and organization that spans 30 years and more, but you wouldn’t think so reading some of contemporary corporate and media debates on women at work. So I have tried through my writing and practice to introduce and integrate some sociological and organizational theory and ideas to the corporate diversity agenda in what is hopefully an accessible way. It is important for some of us who are outside organizations to provide the kind of critique and challenge the prevailing language and the rationale that exists in the corporate world.


In 1984 British academic Judi Marshall (1984) described women managers as ‘Travellers in a Male World’. Back then hope and expectations were high that women would soon be taking their place in positions of power and influence alongside men. And of course there has been huge progress in many areas – we have had 40 years of equality legislation! The top echelons of all organizations however have proved much harder to reach. Following the collapse of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers precipitating the financial crisis, its former chief executive Jeremy Isaacs stated “Business remains a world created by males for males”. The lack of women at senior levels was highlighted following the crisis and women were then seen to be the possible saviours of our fragile financial system (as happened in Iceland but DID not happen in the UK). However that and the threat of quotas from the EEC means that gender in business has now become a much talked about topic both in management circles and the wider media.

What the publicity has done is allow the debate to develop and a forum now exists in which both men and women can talk. However, the terms of this forum or discourse must be set by women themselves or the ways in which the issues are discussed will remain limited. What is still so often lacking is the link between what goes on inside organisations and what goes on in wider society. The fact that women were barred from many workplaces until relatively recently (historically) is not considered relevant to today’s discussions of women on boards. Put in a historical context there has been a huge change in the role of women in the workplace. But quests for positions of power do not go undefended.

Women’s studies or the study of feminism has been successfully kept to the margins of academia, meaning that the majority of graduates have no knowledge of the history of women’s historical subjugation followed by emancipation at all. No wonder then that the debates that go on in organisations are limited by a lack of knowledge and fall back on ‘common sense’ (always powerful) explanations of women’s biology to explain their lack of presence in elite and senior positions in society. Thirty years on from Judi Marshall’s work (1984), we can legitimately ask the question – how far have we travelled? If not far enough, why not? Why is change in this area so difficult? It will be a rare diversity professional to say that change has happened naturally or without a struggle.

road travel
(photo: 44833 via Pixabay)

Once we have understood better both the historical perspective as well as the cultural context in which we work, it becomes clearer to see why making change in this area is like swimming upstream. We must acknowledge the less comfortable/palatable issues of power and resistance. I suggest that the problem of resistance to women’s equality was not adequately considered at that time although Cynthia Cockburn discussed it at length in her book, In the Way of Women in 1991. It certainly was not addressed by organisations – indeed it seldom is today. Even when formal and legal barriers are removed, cultural and informal barriers remain in place to exclude and/or marginalise women in organizations. These have proven much more stubborn than the legal ones. This cultural resistance needs analysis, identification even and has been the subject of much of my work academically and practically. Understanding an organizational culture requires an understanding of the wider social status and value of women. If women are devalued in wider society then organizations have a steep hill to climb to expect equality and respect for women among their employees. To understand what happens in organisations we need to also understand wider gender relations. As an example it is extremely worrying to see the increasing sexualisation of women and young girls occurring at a time when women are now outnumbering men at university.


Understanding the big picture is important but then too is having something tangible and workable on the ground, so to speak. What can we do in this organization to change the way we work so that we are really utilising all the skills and potential that one half of the population have to offer? Culture is a slippery concept used to explain all kinds of things … understanding your own culture is key to culture change of any kind and gender is no different. My work explores the different definitions of culture and what we mean by it and I use the term to include both attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. It identifies where culture acts to exclude and/or marginalise women managers. Over a number of years I have developed a model of organizational culture which is holistic enough also to incorporate these big and more theoretical debates which I think would benefit/enrich the discourse on diversity and in particular gender. My research uses this detailed model of organisational culture which enables an analysis of where the cultural practices are gendered and where they may exclude or marginalise women.


Many of the suggested solutions to the paucity of women in senior positions have focused on ‘levelling the playing field’ by ‘developing’ women through mentoring and coaching to learn the ropes of men. I have no doubt of the integrity of this approach, however I would like to see more men in senior positions challenge some of the cultural norms in their organisations that have historically developed around their interests to the exclusion of women. In a small way this is being tackled through the intervention of unconscious bias training which has become the number one training initiative for most big corporates. Whilst helpful in its place in identifying our hidden prejudice, it does nothing to explain why stereotypes of women are so often negative nor it deals with the less palatable topics of direct discrimination, sexism and power. It also focuses on an individual change whilst ignoring the systematic marginalisation and exclusion of women that has occurred in different ways for many years.

So pay attention to the more problematic aspects of types of historical masculinity. Pay wider attention to gender relations and status of women in society. Start young! Expect to employ people with positive attitudes rather than having to ‘train’ them once they are already in the organisation. Teach children at school to respect and value both genders. A holistic take on the organizational cultures provides a very good starting point before any intervention is made.


sarah rutherford
Dr. Sarah Rutherford

Author: dr. Sarah Rutherford, a widely respected figure in the diversity field and has over 20 years’ experience of research and consultancy. She has worked with many of the leading organizations on their diversity strategies. She combines deep academic knowledge with hands-on practical experience. She has a strong business background, having been an investment analyst in an investment bank (Robert Fleming) and then a financial journalist on national publications (Sunday Times, London Standard). She was a non-executive director of bank Singer & Friedlander until its sale in 2005. She has a M.Sc. in Sociology of Employment and Research Methods and a PhD in the Impact of Organisational Cultures on Women Managers.


0 replies on “Women managers – How far have we travelled?”