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Gender fatigue: The ideological dilemma of gender neutrality and discrimination in organisation

Swiss research, February 2010

Deloitte, Diversity, Organisational changeThis is a timely article given the renewed emphasis on closing the 'gender gap' in organisations. Many organisations are now looking for ways to address gender issues in a different and more energetic way. A potential problem with this approach highlighted by Elisabeth Kelan (King's College, London) is that in many organisations gender discrimination has become implicit and there is now either reduced capacity or reduced will to confront gender inequities. 'Gender' has become invisible or has gone underground.

Moreover, the evidence indicates that many people have come to construct their workplaces as gender egalitarian or gender neutral, even though gender inequality continues to exist in terms of promotions and remuneration. However, whilst describing their workplace as gender neutral, employees describe the ideal worker more in terms of stereotypically masculine characteristics and behaviours, and gender neutral behaviour as more stereotypically masculine behaviour. These are the issues investigated in this paper.

1.1 Aims

The major aim of this study was to investigate the way in which workers in the Information Communication Technology (ICT) sector navigate the dilemma of simultaneously acknowledging gender discrimination whilst at the same time holding the view that their workplace is gender neutral. More specifically, the focus is on how these ideological dilemmas are created and what strategies employees use to make sense of them.

1.2 Method

Data were obtained from two organisations in the ICT sector in Switzerland. The ICT sector was chosen because of its location in the emerging knowledge economy and because ICT work is commonly perceived as egalitarian where job success is more likely to be based on performance. The assumption here is that if performance is the only relevant measure, the ICT sector is a true meritocracy where gender should not matter. This is also a sector, however, which is male dominated where there is a 25% gender pay gap. Overall, 26 qualitative interviews were conducted with 16 men and 10 women. 16 people were also job-shadowed for several hours. The age range of participants was 25 to 54, with most being in their late thirties. Data were analysed using a qualitative research software package.

1.3 Findings

Findings were summarised in terms of two major topics: (i) navigating the dilemma (with three sub-themes); and (ii) gender fatigue. The author also makes some general observations about the process of interviewing people. First, most people assumed that gender discrimination was something that happened mainly to women. Second, most people appeared to be uncomfortable in talking about gender issues.

(i) Navigating the dilemma

  • Gender neutral organisations: Most people held a strong belief that their workplace was gender neutral and that gender did not play a role in their organisation
  • Diminishing gender discrimination: Most interviewees acknowledged that while there is the potential for gender discrimination in their organisation, it is highly unusual for it to occur between work colleagues. More examples were reported of gender discrimination in interactions with customers. When gender discrimination was mentioned it was reported as something that had happened in the past, and a 'hurdle' that had to be overcome
  • Discrimination as individual responsibility: Two other strategies were reported as being used to help make sense of the gender dilemma. First, discrimination was attributed to "insecure macho men who have to prove themselves". These men were seen as lacking in education or were "old-fashioned". Second, women should take personal responsibility for overcoming or avoiding the discrimination. Rarely was gender discrimination attributed to structural or systemic problems.

(ii) Gender fatigue

In a further level of interpretation, Kelan argues that the data demonstrate that participants were suffering from gender fatigue: they had lost the energy to acknowledge and oppose gender discrimination. This leads to people adopting a position that involves dismissing the relevance of gender in the workplace. She argues that this interpretation is also supported by the observation that most participants were reluctant to talk about gender.

1.4 Conclusions and recommendations

As is pointed out by the authors, the conclusions for this study are limited by the nature of the sector (ICT employees) and the size of the sample (employees drawn from two companies). The study does, however, have a strong theoretical and empirical base both in terms of design and data interpretation. Additional research is needed in other organisations in other countries, focusing on gender discrimination and other forms of discrimination. For example, is there evidence of a race or age dilemma or of race or age fatigue?

Nevertheless there are some applications of this study worthy of consideration, especially if it is the intention of an organisation to engage in a sustained focus on gender.

  • The most important message from this research is that there is a need to understand the current mindsets, attributions and attitudes that all levels of staff have in relation to gender in their organisation. This will provide valuable information to help design new initiatives to address the gender gap
  • Conduct interviews with both men and women, racial groups and age groups to identify whether your organisation shows signs of "discrimination" fatigue (e.g. a reluctance to discuss discrimination issues). Including race and age in this analysis is critical to ensure that gender perspectives of different racial and age groups are included
  • Conduct facilitated focus groups (with single and mixed gender, race and age groups) to investigate group-based gender, racial and age experiences. This will help to highlight that discrimination is not an individual issue
  • Communicate the findings from the above activities to provide a 'voice' for inequalities to challenge the status quo. When inequalities are 'voiced' the possibility of the status quo being enforced and strengthened is reduced
  • Identify and communicate common stereotypes experienced in your organisation and develop strategies for people to use to overcome these, especially in relation to the reducing the impact on an individual's job performance.

For more information see: Kelan, E. K. (2009) 'Gender Fatigue: The ideological dilemma of gender neutrality and discrimination in organizations'. (Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences), 26 (3), 197-210.

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