Celebrating 'The Men and Women of the Corporation' 40 Years Later

Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s Men and Women of the Corporation inspired and informed a generation of scholars studying gender, status, and power. Robin J. Ely interviews Kanter about her groundbreaking research and why it remains relevant today.
  • 10 Sep 2018
  • By Robin J. Ely

Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s Men and Women of the Corporation, published 41 years ago this year, has inspired and informed a generation of scholars studying gender, status, and power. The book is full of insights and concepts that have become cornerstones in our understanding of what drives gender inequality in the workplace. In particular, the book makes clear how organizational roles and structures shape unequal access to opportunities, resources, and advancement.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Robin Ely, the Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and faculty chair of the HBS Gender Initiative, discusses with Kanter the genesis, key insights, and influence of the book—as well as its relevance in the #MeToo era. Kanter holds the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at HBS. —Zeenat Potia

Robin Ely: Why did you decide to pursue an academic career?

Rosabeth Moss Kanter: Because ideas move the world, and I wanted to move the world. I have a PhD in sociology, with a focus on social psychology and organizational behavior. Being a thought leader is a form of leadership, and I'm fortunate to have had many opportunities to influence the thinking of people who directly impact the world, and not just by teaching MBA students and executives here at HBS. It's through consulting. It's through activism. I've always been interested in that.

Ely: You published Men and Women of the Corporation in 1977. I remember when I read it, just a couple of years after it was published. In graduate school, it convinced me to go into organizational behavior instead of social psychology. It’s a very influential book, and certainly personally important to me. What is the back story of Men and Women of the Corporation? What led you to do the research that produced the book? How did your writing of the book unfold?

Kanter: There were a couple of things that led to Men and Women of the Corporation. First of all, almost as soon as I began working in a faculty position in the late 1960s, I wanted to learn about consulting, and to find out how things worked inside companies. I wanted to learn how to have an impact and shape decisions. I had an opportunity to start doing some projects in a large corporation that became the one I wrote about for the book. Simultaneously, the question of women in the workplace was rising at that time in academia and society. I was uncomfortable with many of the assumptions being made, because they had a blame-the-victim quality that I didn't like and I didn't identify with. I was trying to speak out about that, and as a sociologist I saw lots of structural issues that weren’t being acknowledged.

I edited a special journal issue with a colleague in which we looked at feminist perspectives on a lot of topics, and I took on organizations. I had some early insights, though they were very hard to articulate, and they all entered into this project that became Men and Women of the Corporation. I watched women and the interplay between men and women in a number of different organizations, and I tried to write something that would derive examples from all those organizations, as I've managed to do in subsequent big projects. But in talking with a good editor, it became clear to me that there was really only one organization that was worth examining, and I should do that in more depth.

I kept going back to the field and trying to understand the nature of this organization. I felt like an anthropologist; I had learned fieldwork, and I think fieldwork is incredibly important in understanding a context. I would develop insights and understandings and then go ask people questions. I was also aware of the kinds of topics that many scholars were writing about at that time, and I wanted to incorporate that work and maybe improve on it. It was very much going back and forth between theory, research findings, and field observations—and the interaction among them all.

Ely: Were you a consultant to the organization initially? Was that how you got your foot in the door?

Kanter: I was a consultant. What I could bring to bear as a young academic was survey methodology, because I had worked at the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan. I could help the company with their surveys, and at the same time they wanted to understand the experiences of the first women that were entering the salesforce. I got to talk to a lot of people, doing data projects for them. I also had opportunities to do some work in other companies around the same time, which ultimately made it easier to keep the identity of the company in Men and Women confidential. I've never revealed it.

Ely: Earlier you said that the book partly came out of a reaction to what you were seeing at the time in the academic literature on women and gender. I'm curious to know what you wanted to address.

“I heard about women's ambitions, and what they felt held them back, and it was not the same as the narrative that was out there”

Kanter: There were certain findings that became famous, because they seemed inflammatory or explanatory—either one. That's what the media likes. One was “Women fear success.” That notion became very famous, and I disagreed. I reacted negatively to that based on observations and personal experience. Another was “Nobody wants a woman boss.” And “Women don't get along with other women.” None of these claims seemed right—so what did hold women back?

One of the things I was good at was taking fragments of what I found and creating a framework. Well, I had an opportunity to work on a program for women in medicine. I also worked on a program for women in management. And I heard about women's ambitions, and what they felt held them back, and it was not the same as the narrative that was out there. I felt something had to be said. I wrote several papers, and I did a presentation on women and hierarchy at the 1975 American Sociological Association meeting. What I was finding was that the key variables were not women themselves—it was in the nature of hierarchies in companies and society.

Ely: What you're saying is that the discourse on gender partly motivated you to write the book and to think about things differently. The research on gender today is very “micro,” often conducted in the lab, or even if it's in the field, it's not truly field-dependent. What do you think about scholarship in this area today?

Kanter: It seems to me narrow. One of the reasons a business school has been such a great setting for my work is that Harvard Business School is an institution that moves the world. I’ve had the opportunity to lead training programs, conferences, and other activities in a lot of different fields. I’ve had the opportunity to hang out with people who were attempting to create change and had big platforms. That encourages you to think really big and very broadly. It was intrinsic to learning and to shaping how I thought. And I was always very influenced by C. Wright Mills, who wrote The Sociological Imagination. I still believe it's an important imagination. My belief about changing the world was that you need a big scope. It's why in Men and Women I wanted to talk about the whole context.

Ely: In Men and Women of the Corporation, you dig into roles and structures, and you weave it all together into cycles of advantage and disadvantage. I’m curious to know how you think about actually intervening in those cycles and the extent to which your subsequent work, especially The Change Masters and Confidence, speaks to this issue.

Kanter: First of all, the main idea in Men and Women of the Corporation is about institutions and self-perpetuating cycles. It's about the interplay of structure and behavior. If you observe behavior—like a woman seems to be less ambitious in a particular situation—do you conclude “Women don’t go for success,” or do you conclude there's something about that situation that's evoking a certain kind of behavior. I looked inside the company, and I looked at the evidence about gender roles outside the company, in society. There was always an interplay. There were women in management, but they tended to be concentrated in the more routinized functions. And if you're in the more routinized functions, it's hard to break out, because you're not being rewarded for independent judgment, and we still have that today, with the notion that women lack “vision” compared to men. Meanwhile, the secretaries, as they were then called, were a support system, and I saw that those support functions were self-perpetuating. For instance, one thing I noticed was praise addiction. As a secretary, you were in a role where you were told “thank you” all the time, because the time horizon is in minutes. Whereas in managerial roles, you have to think in longer time horizons, and you're not always thanked for your work.

Ely: What about the structures, as opposed to roles?

Kanter: What would account for ambition or a lack of ambition? Opportunity. That's pretty simple. If the door is open, you can aspire to go through it. If it doesn't seem to be open, you can't. In the company I wrote about in Men and Women, a lot of it had to do with the placement mechanisms. If the expectation was that you were in one of the support roles, it was harder to be given the opportunity for other roles. And there were more factors on the opportunity side that had to do with what kinds of networks you had access to and whether you bonded over socio-emotional issues or task issues, each of which had a gendered component.

Ely: I'd love to know what you think about #MeToo. Why is it happening now? Is it important? Is it a blip or do you think this is a moment for change, or at least an opportunity? And if it's an opportunity, what do we need to do to seize it?

Kanter: I definitely think it's an opportunity. I talk about hope and about action in much of my work. I'm much more outraged about sexual harassment than I am about just loss of opportunity. My thing is empowerment, and that’s why I love the millennial generation. We're going to take leaders and make them even better. A lot of the awful things we are hearing about are not fixed by having a policy in writing in an HR department. What addresses the issue is having numbers of men and women that are more equal—more gender balance. In Men and Women of the Corporation, I recommended working together and depending on one another and not having cronies at the top who are all alike and can't empathize with the situation anybody else is in. For instance, Deloitte made major steps in the 1990s to address gender disadvantage—I actually wrote a series of cases and a Harvard Business Review article about it. The CEO saw they were losing many more women than men. He was a pretty values-oriented, fair guy. So he wanted to address it. But it wasn't until one of the very few senior women partners said in an executive committee meeting, "It's really true; there are obstacles for women here." Her male colleagues protested, "That didn't happen to you. You don't feel gender discrimination." She said, "I sure do." It was only at that moment that the other leaders had a breakthrough in understanding.

Ely: And she needed to be in that room for it to happen.

Kanter: She had to be in the room, to have the reaction, to say it for them to hear it, and to have the transformational moment. Today, we have many more women in the room and at the table who are getting their voices heard. And we have to listen to them. Right now, what I think is positive is that there are women who support one another. There could be three women on stage at the Oscars, not one. You're not alone. You have the support of peers. Being a victim of harassment doesn't diminish you. You don't fear for your own career. It helps to have some power. It helps to be at the table, and we must hear those voices. Because if we don't hear those voices and empathize with those experiences, then we can't change our own behavior. I say this for myself, too, to make sure I'm totally acknowledging the people who have been hurt by our social structures. Because there is always an emotional component to change, not just a structural component. I tell my students there's a structure and a soul to the change process. We need the formal policies and structures and opportunities, but clearly they’re not enough.

Ely: You have always been focused on research insights that are relevant to practitioners and tackle big problems. In addition to your books and consulting work, you were the editor of Harvard Business Review and launched the Advanced Leadership Initiative, which equips late-career leaders to be “change agents for society.” Today, how would you advise young scholars who want to make a difference in the world—whether related to issues of structural inequality or other challenges for society and business?

Kanter: The three career steps that matter, for scholars and practitioners alike, are inclusion, influence, and impact. Inclusion by getting in the door, influence at the table, and the impact you have in your own life and in the community at large. We need every single one of that small number of women CEOs to succeed. You have to have a conviction and vision to change the world. And I believe we can do that together.

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