Patriarchy and the world of work

Industrial psychologist Phiona Martin gives three reasons why the "P" word is still affecting women's career progression

The current position of women in society, which is reflected in the lacking representation of women in organisations, can predominantly be attributed to patriarchal systems and structures that continue to prevail. Increased access to education has allowed women to challenge stereotypes of male domination and female subornation in the workplace, equipping them to participate and thrive in historically male-dominated occupations. But, in terms of remuneration and promotion opportunities, the inequity remains apparent.

Due to the lack of representation of females in senior positions, gender issues are not often prioritised. Even though there are government policies and laws that favour women, societal norms filter into corporate cultures that hinder the progression of women, perpetuating the notion of a glass ceiling for the fairer sex.

Here are three “informal” and intangible factors within organisations that continue to work against the progression of women.

1. Access to (powerful) informal networks

Women seldom benefit from internal networks within organisations. This is particularly true for women with children because they usually spend less time at work than their male counterparts. Even if they are fathers, men usually work longer hours and, as a result, are more frequently ineach other's company, building strong relationships. Informal networks within organisation are very powerful and much of the decision-making emanates from these networks, which are fostered and strengthened through inner circles that exclude women. Sometimes referred to as 'boys clubs', these inner circles are formed and reinforced by taking part in activities that females do not typically participate in. Whether they are playing golf, discussing sports, or having a beer after work, men bond during activities that are typically exclusionary to women.

2. Women and their need for work-life integration balance

Work structures and organisational cultures are still based on the traditional view that the ideal worker does not let their outside responsibilities interfere with working hours or job commitments. The workplace has changed very little in the last fifty years, yet the workforce has changed dramatically. Organisations need to support and recognise women’s career and relationship priorities in order to retain and accommodate talented young professional women. Without recognition and support for their multiple life roles, women find themselves unable to fully embrace their work responsibilities. This limits them to pursue careers that are more suited to their primary roles as caregivers in the family unit. It has been suggested, however, that things will begin to change as older men retire and the younger men, who are much more likely to have working wives themselves, will be forced to share childcare and domestic tasks. Organisations that create work environments that do not disadvantage women who need integrated lives will have a more competitive edge in keeping their talented female employees

3. Devaluation of “female characteristics” and stereotypes

Sex-based stereotypes are still pervasive. Women have to, therefore, behave in ways that are unnatural to them in order to get ahead. This illustrates that the platform for women to use their natural behaviours to progress is not available in organisations and perhaps not valued. Women are expected to take on male characteristics and interactional styles in order to be competitive in the organisational context, immediately putting them at a disadvantage. Men are generally extrinsically driven by a desire for status, power, money, winning power games and social comparisons, whereas women present themselves as being intrinsically motivated by a desire to do a good job and contribute to organisational functioning. Organisations need to be sensitive to these informal dynamics that are prevalent in the organisation as they play a crucial role in the interactions and social atmosphere within the organisation. Women’s characteristics, natural behaviours and values need to be legitimised and given a platform to the organisation in order to level the playing field between the two sexes without discriminating against either.

Even though formal efforts, policies and strategies exist on paper to negate gender disparities within the world of work, the undocumented and informal cultures, practices and norms within organisations are equally (if not more) powerful in maintaining a workplace that is not designed with women’s unique disposition in mind. There needs to be more focus on addressing the informal structures and cultures to compliment the formal strategies.