Workplace leaders: lose gender, target behaviour

Associate Professor Yvonne Due Billing (image courtesy of University of Copenhagen)

How does a job become gendered? And what are the fundamental differences created by workers, organisations, governments and various other stakeholders when that happens?

The Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing’s Adjunct Associate Professor Yvonne Due Billing (University of Copenhagen) posed these questions, and others, on gendered expectations in the workplace, and in particular, for leadership, during an 8 March seminar.

Having researched the area since 1989, focusing on both men and women (mainly in Scandinavia), Yvonne reflected on findings that continue to pop up in gender studies:

“There are still a lot of generalisations. Organisations [however, continue] to be different — they recruit different people, work with different clients. Career possibilities, cultures and norms, and family friendliness [are all unique to an organisation].”

What has changed in nearly three decades however, is a near equal number of men and women in employment in Europe. Unfortunately though certain work continues to be gendered, such as healthcare and administration for women, and the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) categories for men. Adds Yvonne of work and gender labels:

“Most jobs are sex-typed as feminine or masculine and then seen as suitable (only) for women or men – biological criteria are defining people; and the social construction of jobs in these terms, and of gender categories as oppositional, is crucial for the gender division of labour.”

Associate Professor Due Billing also discussed the role of accountability and gendered norms in organisations, for it is here, she says, that the concept of ’doing gender’ — the production, reproduction and dissemination of the differences we construct in our daily interactions which are not natural — comes into focus:

Associate Professor Yvonne Due Billing
Associate Professor Yvonne Due Billing

“Leadership is traditionally equated with masculinity, but now there seems to be an interest in defining leadership in more ‘feminine’ terms, like post-heroic: shared egalitarian practices, collective understandings and power ‘with’ rather than power ‘over’. …When one gender dominates the area [it]…will been seen as ’natural’ for this gender. …[And] while accountability is central to a manager’s role, are they being held to account as a ’manager’, or a ’female manager’? Has a women been placed in a leadership role as the token woman?”

In concluding, Yvonne advocates for the attribution of a leader’s behaviour to the context of specific cultures, societies, workplace structures and interactions, and not the person. Because gender is never static — it is fluid and reproduced by behaviour, and cannot be assumed to form the only part of a person’s identity, whether men or women are doing the leading is irrelevant. Instead, the leader needs to hold the values and cares relevant to the society, culture and context of the time; the followers or subordinates by whom that leader will also be often held to account.