An Outside-Inside Evolution in Gender and Professional Work

by Lakshmi Ramarajan, Kathleen McGinn & Deborah Kolb

Overview — How do organizations adapt to social transformation? In the US, one of the most visible changes in employment since the 1980s—the growing representation of highly educated women—has challenged widely held understandings about gender and professional work. Although much is known about social institutions and social issues at the institutional and organizational levels, researchers still know very little about how individual organizations experience and internalize gradual shifts in deeply held social understandings. To bridge the gap, this study analyzes nearly 20 years of data to explore the adaptation of one professional service firm to an increase in women in the professional workforce and the shifting discourse around gender and work. Findings show that the firm internalized shifts in the social institution of gender through iterated cycles of analysis and action, integrating external pressures from the changing social institution of gender into its beliefs, structure, policies, programs, and practices. Overall, the study reveals how the interplay between activities and beliefs directs the pace and course of organizational change over time. Key concepts include:

  • This paper examines how a social institution like gender plays out across multiple levels of analysis-organization and environment-over time.
  • The authors' model sheds light on the ways in which internal and external forces are paired to propel the internalization of social discourse over time.
  • At the firm level, analysis and action are separate but linked activity phases with transitions between them triggered by changes in beliefs and a growing awareness of discrepancies between beliefs and outcomes.
  • Outside scrutiny and recognition drive accountability, while real changes in the firms' activities and outcomes drive internal buy-in.
  • Sustainable change at the organizational level may require periodic monitoring of the fit between outcomes and assumptions, and intermittent periods of analysis relatively free of new activities.

Author Abstract

We study the process by which a professional service firm reshaped its activities and beliefs over nearly two decades as it adapted to shifts in the social discourse regarding gender and work. Analyzing archival data from the firm over eighteen years and representations of gender and work from the business press over the corresponding two decades, we find that the firm internalized the broader social discourse through iterated cycles of analysis and action, punctuated by evolving beliefs about gender and work. Outside experts and shifting social understandings played pivotal roles in changing beliefs and activities inside the firm. We conclude with an internalization model depicting organizational adaptation to evolving social institutions.

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