Women Leaders and Organizational Change

Merely expanding the number of women in leadership roles does not automatically induce organizational change. Harvard professor Robin Ely and Debra Meyerson call for fundamental changes to transform organizations.

by Debra E. Meyerson and Robin J. Ely Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

Why are women so dramatically underrepresented in formal leadership positions, and what can be done about it? That’s the basic question contemplated in a book of essays called, The Difference "Difference" Makes, edited by Deborah L. Rhode.

In the book, Harvard Business School’s Robin J. Ely and Stanford University’s Debra E. Meyerson propose a new approach to viewing and solving the women-in-leadership shortfall. Traditionally, three goals for fixing the problem have been considered: fix the women; create equal opportunity; and celebrate the feminine. But each of those perspectives, or frames, focus too narrowly on women. A new broader approach is needed, they argue. HBS Working Knowledge’s Mallory Stark recently conducted an e-mail interview with the authors.

Mallory Stark: You argue that while women’s presence in leadership positions has increased, the increase has made little difference in the way organizations function. Why do organizations continue to operate in ways that are reminiscent of a white male power structure?

Robin J. Ely and Deborah E. Meyerson: First, most people in organizations, including women, do not view their work practices-how work is defined and how work gets done—as having anything do to with race or gender. They may notice that it’s mostly men who run things, and when a woman is in charge, they may notice this as an anomaly. But few people think about the fact that Western models for organizing and doing work were created by and for a certain subset of men—white, middle class professionals—or consider how this might not only limit who progresses but also constrain our very sense of what organizations are and what they can accomplish. This aspect of the "white male power structure" is invisible to most people. It’s just the way things are, like water to a fish or the air we breathe. What’s to notice? What’s to change?
To make progress on this problem, people must take risks, learn new ways, experiment.

The notion that the basic organizing principles that govern workplace practice, including many of the implicit rules for success, are closely aligned with idealized masculine interests, attributes, and life situations is a hard sell, especially to those who have become successful within this system—whether men or women, rich or poor, white or minority. People, understandably, are resistant to changing a system in which they have been successful at demonstrating their competence and getting rewarded for it. Yet, these are the very people who, because they have achieved success and hold positions of power, may be best positioned to lead the sorts of changes we are advocating. That said, it is not just the powerful who are resistant to change. Most people resist change, even when change might be in their interest, because change is threatening; it involves taking risks and experimenting, not knowing the outcome. This is hard for most people to do. It’s even hard for us to do, and we see the costs of the existing system, as well as the potential benefits to change! Hence, we continue to operate in ways that are reminiscent of a white male power structure.

Q: What are the elements of organizational change that can lead to more opportunities for women—going beyond merely expanding the numbers of women in leadership functions?

A: We believe that for this kind of organizational change to occur, people must be open to changing themselves in the service of achieving their goals. [HBS Research Fellow] Warren Bennis and others write about this as a key characteristic of leaders. The kind of leadership that is necessary to make the changes in organizations that we are advocating involves the capacity to reflect on and learn from our own life and experience; to solicit and integrate feedback from others; to remain continually open to reevaluating our beliefs in the face of new information that contradicts what we "know" to be true; and to maintain clarity about our priorities and goals, so that we can be constantly vigilant in assessing the connection between what we value and what we say and do. One need not have formal authority in an organization to exercise this kind of leadership. It is what Ron Heifetz [founder, Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School] calls the capacity to do adaptive work, to confront social problems that—like the problem of gender in organizations—have no known solutions. To make progress on this problem, people must take risks, learn new ways, experiment—incrementally making their way forward as they invent a different kind of organization.

Q: You outline three "frames" that have been used to attempt to explain the under-representation of women in leadership roles in the workplace. Is there a characteristic that each of these frameworks shares that makes them inadequate in explaining the problem?

A: The first three frames are rooted in the common tendency to think of gender as an individual characteristic and gender issues as stemming primarily from differences between men and women, either in the traits and skills they possess or in the ways they are treated. While interventions derived from these approaches, such as training and executive development, affirmative action, and work-family policies, have achieved significant equity gains for women, their impact has been limited. We argue that this is due in large part to their limited conceptions of gender. The fourth frame offers a conceptual leap from thinking about gender as an individual characteristic to thinking about it as a central organizing feature of social life, influencing not only men and women, but also the very knowledge that underlies our beliefs about what makes for good workers, good work, and successful organizations. This more expansive view of gender positions organizations as central to shaping the meaning of gender and helps us reflect more critically on current organizational life and how it could be different.

Q: In your research, have you encountered an organization that has been successful in making changes that have expanded leadership opportunities for women of all classes and ethnic backgrounds?

A: Only a few. The example we give of Dewey and Levin (a pseudonym) is one such organization.

Q: What are the biggest challenges that organizations face in their attempts to transform their working environments and structures to increase the representation of women in leadership positions in business, government, and the professions?

A: The biggest challenge, in our view, is the difficulty people have in being willing and able to question how they do their work and why they do it that way. Is it because it’s the most effective way, or is it because it’s the way it’s always been done? If the answer is the latter, and if the practice may be systematically, if inadvertently, creating differential opportunities for different groups, then the next big challenge is to garner support for experimenting with how people might do the work differently.

Q: How can women create change in their organizations?

A: Find allies—in other women, men, other "identity groups" in one’s company that have similar concerns—who might be interested in collaborating to make change. Then together, explore how existing work practices may compromise both equity and effectiveness; design small, local experiments to change these practices; monitor the effects of the changes; and then publicize, publicize, publicize the successes so that people can learn from them.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: We are currently doing research on offshore oil production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. These are fascinating to us because they are the quintessential dirty, dangerous, physically demanding, technically complex, risky—read: highly masculine—workplace, or, at least they have traditionally been. What we have learned to our astonishment, however, is that, over the past ten years, these workplaces have undergone a self-conscious change in culture from a rough-housing, hard-driving, hard-drilling, rough-and-tumble cowboy culture to a work environment in which men unabashedly eschew displays of machismo; where they admit when they make a mistake and explore how relational concerns may have been the cause; where men appreciate each other publicly at the beginning of every meeting they hold. These changes reflect an emphasis on safety—and therefore learning. They have consciously integrated learning practices into the everyday work routines of every individual on the platform with the idea that if you can’t expose errors and learn from them, then you can’t really be safe. In this process, they’ve come to see that what it means to learn is to question their assumptions, to be open to reevaluating their beliefs about what’s true. We are examining how this learning stance influences gender and race dynamics among employees.

Buy this book:

Mallory Stark is a career information librarian at Baker Library.

Robin J. Ely is a professor at Harvard Business School.

Debra Meyerson is a visiting professor at Stanford University’s Center for Work, Technology, and Organization. She wrote Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work:

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