15 Dec 2003  Research & Ideas

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.


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 Debra 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 Debra 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.

Excerpt from The Difference "Difference" Makes

by Debra E. Meyerson and Robin J. Ely

An example may help illustrate.39 Dewey & Levin is a public interest law firm in the northeast United States. The firm's primary practice is employment-related litigation aimed at protecting the rights of women. Although Dewey & Levin had a profitable practice by the mid-1980s, it's largely to white women. The firm's attorneys viewed this as a problem in light of their mandate to advocate on behalf of all women. So they hired a Latina attorney to help them expand their reach and visibility in Latino communities. But their recruitment efforts did not stop there—people of color now form a majority of the firm's staff. More important, however, this change in staff composition precipitated a change in their work far beyond the "reach and visibility" they initially sought.

How did this happen? Initially, there was little awareness that bringing more people of color would create an opportunity for organizational learning and development. The assumption was that attorneys of color would give the firm access to and credibility with their respective communities, thus helping expand the firm's client mix. But after much debate within the increasingly multicultural staff, Dewey & Levin came to the realization that if they viewed the employment issue of all women as an integral part of the firm's mission—and they did—then the work the firm defines as relevant to their mission needed to change. In time, changes in the composition of the staff increasingly fueled a reexamination process within the firm that, by virtually all accounts, has entirely reshaped the character and priorities of the firm's work in ways its founding attorneys say they never would have anticipated. The firm now pursues cases that its all-white legal staff would not previously have thought relevant or appropriate because the link between the firm's mission and these employment issues would not have been obvious to them. For example, the firm has pursued precedent-setting litigation that challenges "English-only" policies—an area that they would have previously ignored because it did not fall under the purview of traditional Title VII work. Yet they now see such policies as critically linked to employment issues for a large group of women—primarily recent immigrants—whom they had previously failed to serve adequately. As one of the white principals explained, the demographic of Dewey & Levin "has affected the work in terms of expanding notions of what are [relevant] issues and taking on issues and framing them in creative ways that would have never been done [with an all-white staff]. It's really changed the substance—and in that sense enhanced the quality of—our work."

Dewey & Levin's increased success has reinforced their commitment to diversity. In addition, attorneys of color at Dewey & Levin uniformly report feeling respected; not simply "brought along as window dressing." As one woman of color put it, "The assumption about you is that you are competent." Not surprisingly the firm has had little difficulty attracting and retaining a competent and diverse professional staff.

As this case illustrates, the goal of the approach we are advocating is to set in motion an ongoing process of incremental organizational change anchored on a vision of productive work and social interaction unconstrained by oppressive roles, images, and relations. The process relies heavily on learning as a primary motivation for people's interactions with each other. It is the mechanism by which people came to challenge old ideas and ways of doing things and generate new ones.

Excerpted with permission from The Difference "Difference" Makes, edited by Debra L. Rhode. Stanford University Press. Copyright 2003 by the American Bar Association.


39. This example appears in Thomas and Ely, "Making Differences Matter," and in Ely and Thomas, "Cultural Diversity at Work."

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Mallory Stark is a career information librarian at Baker Library.

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

Debra Meyerson is Associate Professor of Education and Organizatioal Behavior (by courtesy), Stanford University. She wrote Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work.