Book Review: The Triple M of Organizations, by Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger

WU Prof. Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger debunks myths and codes that continue to exclude women from professional success

Deconstructing Discrimination

Austria seems like a good place to start when one sets out to examine gender equality at the workplace: The number of women on advisory boards and in top management positions is as low as the pay gap between the sexes is high, and childcare facilities for young children and infants are next to non-existent.

Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger, professor for Gender and Diversity in Organizations at the Vienna University of Economics (WU Wien), examines the “myths” and organizational structures that effectively work as obstacles for women to reach higher positions, especially on a management level and in the technical and IT industries. Hanappi-Egger, who is also head of the Gender and Diversity Management Group at the WU, has conducted numerous research projects on organizations, gender and technology during her career. In her new book, The Triple M of Organizations: Man, Management and Myth, she draws on this rich experience and presents several case-studies in order to de-mask the central myths prevalent in the world of business and technology.

Hanappi-Egger borrows theories from the social sciences to underline her points. So she adopts Roland Barthes’ definition of a myth as a discursive construction that provides a meaningful understanding of everyday phenomena. The crucial thing about such myths is that they are passed on through generations and in the end lose their historic and political context. As Hanappi-Egger puts it, myths “are constructed to mask historical intention as natural law, to empty realities of political meaning, where political meaning refers to the structure of human relations as well as to centers of power.”

Myths thus become depoliticized statements, which offer simplified explanations and enable society to make sense of the world. The good news here is that myths, although disguised by processes of naturalization, normalization and de-contextualization, can be de-masked when put back into their historical context.

One main issue she examines in her case studies is the dualistic conception of gender in society, a very prominent myth that is regarded as natural law and therefore masked in a scientific and bio-logistic manner. Hanappi-Egger elaborates here on the difference of the biological sex of a person in opposition to the societal construction of gender. Her claim that the terms “are largely regarded as synonymous” seems striking, as the humanities and social sciences have long applied this distinction.

Not so in the case of business and management research and literature, at least not to the same extent, and with regard to the exclusion of women at the workplace, it surely does not hurt to stress the difference between the concepts once again.

Hanappi-Egger concentrates on the differing codes of masculinity and femininity, which work as modes of socialization on an organizational level and still exclude women from top-level positions. She now presents several case studies, all conducted in Austria, to illustrate her points: In her first chapter, entitled Man and Management, Hanappi-Egger deconstructs the myth that “Women will change the fields of science, engineering and technology.”

Presenting a case study of Austrian women who quit their jobs in software engineering, she shows that the IT-industry, contrary to its claims, is not gender-neutral. In fact, the myth that the influx of women into the IT-industries will lead to different approaches and modes of production is debunked, as women are also socialized by the education system and by their professional life. As a result, they tend to identify more with the specific, existing codes of the profession in question than with potential alternative values as women or the supposed codes of femininity.

Theories like this are similar to those in journalism, where studies have shown that journalists who are members of non-mainstream social or ethnic groups do not necessarily bring a different viewpoint to the media landscape, but are, possibly from a desire to succeed, socialized by the professional codes and norms prevalent in journalism, as for example Charles Husband pointed out in his paper “Minority Ethnic Media as Communities of Practice: Professionalism and Identity Politics in Interaction”.

On the other hand, within the profession, women are still perceived as “The Other” – the women surveyed reported that female experts were not trusted, and they often felt uncomfortable with the general work culture, reporting a lack of understanding for child-care obligations and similar private responsibilities.

The second chapter, “Management and Myth,” challenges the prominent assumption that business decisions are always rational. On the one hand, Hanappi-Egger shows that while most managers are convinced of the positive impact of diversity measures and flexible working arrangements when it comes to employee satisfaction and measures of enhancing creativity – and therefore achieve better productivity – they on the other hand do little to enforce these measures. Furthermore, she shows with the help of mathematical examples that a task distribution based on the assumed qualities and skills of a certain gender does not lead to higher productivity.

The third and last chapter entitled “Myth and Man” questions the assumption that “Men are inherently predisposed to be managers” and rather shows that the current concept of being a successful manager is based on masculinity constructions. Hanappi-Egger shows that the qualities assigned to “successful managers” are borrowed from the world of warfare and mostly relate to qualities traditionally assigned to men, like self-confidence and competitiveness. With managers not so much recruited based on qualifications, but rather on personal characteristics, women have to adapt to these “male” qualities. These rather rigid conceptions of masculinity also exclude some men, Hanappi-Egger points out, especially those who come from a different culture or have chose a different concept of what it means to be a man. However, it is considered more “authentic” for them to succumb.

All this is not new, especially for a person with a background in humanities or social sciences. However, it surely does not hurt to measure it, nor to raise awareness once again of issues involving gender and the marginalization of women or other societal groups in the business world, and especially in the education of future managers and CEOs. Although this was conceived as a textbook, it can be recommended for the current business elite – Hanappi-Egger’s writing style is clear and concise, and the case studies illustrate the theoretical points. And while she uses different theories from the social sciences – especially Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu and Nancy Fraser – the book does not get too theoretical.

In the end, Hanappi-Egger points to the difficulty of de-masking the myths she has presented within society, as they are a form of intentional story-telling and reinforcing of the political interests of elite groups involved. Drawing on the social theories of Bourdieu and Fraser, a feminist researcher who has worked a lot on the exclusion of certain groups in society, Hanappi-Egger suggests different approaches for a solution to the problem, which involve, among other things, the elimination of the gender pay gap and greater awareness for marginalized groups.

All in all, as organizations do not function in a vacuum, the “killing” of myths needs to start within the society. Hanappi-Egger sees the current financial crisis as a good starting point – not only to question current economic practices, but also the gendered codes of the business world.

 

Dr. Hanappi-Egger, Edeltraud:
The Triple M of Organizations:
Man, Management and Myth
Springer-Verlag, Vienna, 2011

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