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Women Redefining Role In Workplace


Women are redefining their role in the workplace and are more likely to seek personal fulfilment than top flight career success, research from the University of Leicester suggests.

The stereotypical view of women at the pinnacle of their profession in business and commerce -as illustrated by movies Disclosure and Working Girl - is outdated says Dr Jo Brewis, Reader in Management at the University of Leicester Management Centre.

Dr Brewis, whose research interests focus on the intersections between identity, gender, sexuality, the body and processes of organising, detects a sense of growing cynicism and disillusionment among women, who are questioning the need to succeed in a masculine business environment.

In the struggle for businesswomen to forge their way to the top, role models have always played a major part. For young women, however, these are likely to be showbiz celebrities such as Kylie Minogue and Madonna - not top businesswomen as highlighted in recent media reports.

“Of course Kylie, Madonna and other celebrities like Jordan and Victoria Beckham are businesswomen as well as entertainers,” Dr Brewis points out. “It’s perhaps because women celebrities are more culturally visible than top female managers.”

She also points out that, while Nicola Horlick, investment manager and mother of five, has taken an unusually high profile in adopting both roles, other women at the top are standing down in favour of their families, including Brenda Barnes (former President and CEO of Pepsi-Cola North America), who left her £1 million a year job because she was tired of trading off her children against her career.

“Women are questioning whether they really want to reach the top,” Dr. Brewis says, “and whether business is the kind of environment they want to excel in. Masculine qualities may be required in the business world, but is that really what women aspire to? Some of the more senior women in commerce and elsewhere are also quite formidable, because they have had to strive so hard to get where they are that they don’t come over as sympathetic characters.”

In the matter of role models, she also does not see the world of film as portraying the reality of women in business. Despite operating in a masculine world, if they are too masculine themselves then they are seen as ‘career bitches’. They walk an impossible tight rope, having to function in this masculinist environment while upholding their feminine characteristics. While the film Disclosure claims to overturn the stereotypes as the hero (played by Michael Douglas) is sexually harassed by a female boss (Demi Moore), in fact the woman becomes the caricature of a top businesswoman, ruthless to the point of being evil and someone who has seduced her way to the top, overtaking those with more ability.

In the real world, at least according to Dr. Brewis’s research data, women themselves seem to be re-defining the dream, questioning what success really means, whether it is being good at a job they enjoy or the fight to the top - whether, perhaps, it is better to be paid less and be fulfilled or to reach the top at some personal sacrifice.

Dr Brewis also questions whether women want to be defined by their jobs as men have traditionally been. “Why would women want to reach the top of most organisations? she asks. “To me, organisations would have to be very different sorts of places for many women to want to lead them.”

So, can the business world be ‘feminine’? What, for instance, do authority and power mean to women and do they mean something different to men? And there is also the question of whether all men find the masculinity which is seemingly expected of today’s organisational high flyers an easy thing to master, or whether it presents similar sorts of challenges for them.

Said Dr Brewis: “At the risk of stereotyping here, it is possible to define some of the qualities that women can bring to business. On the whole, we might regard them as less confrontational, more ready to compromise, good team players, consensual, caring, creative, more holistic in their approach and less threatening.” Indeed a group of women managers in the public sector studied by Dr Brewis indicated that while some felt they had to consciously adopt masculine attributes to be taken seriously, female qualities actually contributed to their success.

However, these managers believed they had to worry about their appearance in a way men do not. They felt, for instance, that if they were overweight they might be seen as incapable of taking control and if they were older they would be seen as in decline, to an extent that did not apply to their male colleagues.

Motherhood, pregnancy, menstruation and menopause are also all traditionally seen as working in conflict with business organisations, always attended by the accusation that they demonstrate lack of commitment from women. They have become events that have to be minimised and managed if women are going to compete on equal terms. But increasingly women are saying that it is not impossible for organisations to change to accommodate these biological facts of life, to encompass for instance maternity (and paternity) without seeing it as a threat.

There is a need, women say, to look beyond childcare facilities towards addressing stereotyping and prejudice, and more could be invested in breaking these down by training men and women together. There are signs that women taking time off for child-rearing are less afraid they will not be accepted back in the workplace and do not feel obliged to play down their role as mothers. Equally the advent of technology such as broadband opens up the possibility of combining work at home and in an office.

Dr Brewis has been asking some fascinating questions. Do women actually have more choices than men? Who is really trapped here, men or women? Women are more likely than their male partners to perceive parenthood as a barrier to a career, but is the real conflict not between men and women at all, but parents and non-parents? Does work threaten parenthood or parenthood threaten work? It is, she says, still true that women at the top of organisations tend not to have families, while their male counterparts do.

The question now seems to be not, does Superwoman exist? But does she want to? And as the trend grows to create more balance between work and home, the age old question applies to women – as it does to men – Do you work to live, or live to work? Women, it seems, might be able to teach men a thing or two about that.

Alex Jelley | alfa
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