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Gendered Organizations and Working Lives: continuities, change and policy engagement

Susan Halford et Pauline Leonard
p. 25-36


How can post-foundational research on gender, work and organization inform our understanding of policy? Much of our research has taken a particular focus on questions of change and continuity. Of particular interest have been the key concepts of space, place and time and how these, in multiple and complex ways, shape gendered organizations and gendered working lives. Different spatial and temporal features can combine to produce very different organizational contexts, working lives and identities in the face of ongoing policy change and consequent organizational restructuring. Our more recent research has extended the ways in which space and place can be understood to intersect with gender, as well as other aspects of identity such as race, ethnicity and nationality, regionality, age and social class. In each case, the outcomes are not necessarily those expected, and change is often found to coexist with continuity. Three projects, which show the value of this kind of work, will be discussed before returning to questions of policy.

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1In the early years of second wave feminist research on gender and work, the agenda was strongly underpinned by concerns to ‘make a difference’ to the everyday inequalities of women’s working lives. Endeavours directed towards describing and analysing the realities of gender difference and experience in paid work were – whether explicitly or more implicitly – linked to an expectation that this research could be used to improve women’s opportunities and increase gender equality. In this context ‘policy’ was a central concern and, as such, much feminist writing attempted to influence policy makers in state institutions and private corporations. However, it was clear from the start that change was never going to be easy. This was not least because the complex and deeply embedded gender dynamics of work organizations produced powerful forms of resistance, which limited the effectiveness of policies for change inspired by feminist research (Halford 1992). More broadly, theoretical critique showed that a certain, limited range of enlightenment and masculinist understandings of ‘men’ and ‘women’ had come to dominate the conceptualisation of organizational policies on gender and that, in turn, these policies may as much constrain as liberate women’s working lives (Leonard 2002).

2 From these early studies, we both began, sometimes separately and sometimes together, many years of research into the multiple and diverse ways in which gendered working lives are shaped by gendered organizational forms, cultures and processes; as well as how gendered working lives, often with career histories interweaving distinctively with domestic commitments, come to shape the nature of workplace organizations. In this research, policy would appear every now and again but only, we readily acknowledge, as one actor amongst many, and rarely as the main focus of our work. We were certainly not alone in this decentring of policy. The last twenty years has seen the emergence of a significant gulf between those who are concerned on the one hand with questions of policy intervention, for example in relation to pay inequalities or work-life balance; and organizational sociologists interested in gender, who have become increasingly concerned with deconstructing the processes that shape the production and reproduction of gender in the organization of everyday working lives and, indeed, with deconstructing gender itself as a category. Strongly shaped by the turn to more discursive accounts of gender and by poststructuralism in particular, theoretical approaches to gender, work and organization have become increasingly sophisticated, challenging many of our older established orthodoxies: it has become clear that some of the things we thought we knew about ‘gender’ are perhaps more complicated that we had originally thought. At the heart of this, lies attention to difference within the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. For example, following Judith Butler, there is the acknowledgement of performativity; that gender is not something that we ‘have’, but something that we ‘do’, and it is our repetitive citation of gender in everyday practice that produces gender categories. At the same time, there has been increased acknowledgement of intersectionality –how gender is co-constituted with other social categories, for instance race, nationality, sexuality, age, class and so on, and in particular contexts, nations, places, spaces and times – historically, in terms of epochal events, over lifetimes, and so on.

3 There is no doubt that this has been an immensely productive period for feminist theorizing about gender and organization, offering new ways of seeing gender and broadening our appreciation of the diversity and complexity of gendered working lives and organizations. And this is an endeavour that has been made all the more interesting in the context of recent empirical changes to the world of work and organization, for instance digitization, globalization, new migration flows, increasingly diverse workforces in many countries and so on. But the question is: what – if anything – does all this mean for policy? In what follows, we draw upon some of our research on gendered organizations and working lives which has been influenced by the concerns and perspectives discussed above to explore both the significance and challenges of this question. How/ can post-foundational research on gender, work and organization inform our understanding of policy?

Gendered Organizations and Working Lives

4Much of our research has taken a particular focus on questions of change and continuity in the world of work. When, where and why do things change? Or stay the same? Of particular interest have been the key concepts of space, place and time and how these, in multiple and complex ways, shape gendered organizations and gendered working lives. For example, in Negotiating gendered identities at work: place, space and time (Halford and Leonard 2006), these questions are worked through empirical research undertaken with doctors and nurses working in two very different hospitals in the UK, revealing how different spatial and temporal features can combine to produce very different organizational contexts, working lives and identities in the face of ongoing policy change and consequent organizational restructuring.

5 Our more recent research has extended the ways in which space and place can be understood to intersect with gender, as well as other aspects of identity such as race, ethnicity and nationality, regionality, age and social class. In each case, the outcomes are not necessarily those expected, and change is often found to coexist with continuity. Three of these projects, which show the value of this kind of work, will now be discussed before we return to questions of policy.

Collapsing the Boundaries? Refining work-space, reshaping fatherhood

6 Firstly, we shall look at space – how gendered working lives and organizations are constituted distinctively in and through space. In Negotiating gendered identities at work: place, space and time, we looked at differentiation in the construction and performance of gendered working identities between organizational spaces, but also in the different metaphorical spaces across organizational hierarchies. In a more recent project, Susan followed the introduction of a programme of ‘workplace transformation’, which aimed to re-configure the workspaces in the regional office of a large multi-national insurance company, based in the UK (Halford 2004; 2005; 2006). The whole team of 48 staff was moved out of its established office, all staff were set up with equipment for home-working, and a new office was opened with fewer desk-spaces available only on a hot-desking basis. All staff were expected to work from home 2-3 days/week. The organizational motivation for this change was largely cost-cutting – the new office space was much cheaper than the original office – but there was also an element of cultural symbolism, wanting to be (and be seen to be) a cutting-edge, modern type of employer. But the intervention also posed a fundamental challenge to one of the well-established principles of the bureaucratic organization: namely the conventional separation of paid work from the domestic sphere, of public from private, which has underpinned modern discourses of fatherhood, particularly in ‘breadwinner’ regimes of which the UK is a prime example (Lewis 2001). Despite the emergence of new ‘engaged’ discourses of fatherhood in recent years, the persistence of fathers’ role as primary wage earner – combined with the spatial separation of work from home – places strong limits on the transformation of fathering practices. The Workplace Transformation programme offered a chance to see what happened when these spatial boundaries were undermined.

7 The majority of the staff did choose to take up home-working. Indeed, the fathers embraced the opportunities for changing practices of fatherhood that home-working offered, specifically in terms of: time recovered from commuting – more time in the mornings and evenings to be with children; flexibility within the working day, to spend with children allowing closer relationships, the opportunity to be there for their children even if only in short bursts, to fix a toy or to comfort after a fall. Crucially, however, the fathers were rarely responsible for their children during working hours and if at all then only for very brief periods of time. In all cases, mothers or other sources of care remained primary, with the increase in fathers’ involvement as an ‘extra’ on top of this.

8 Here we see the contingency of alternative fathering identities. First of all, these new fathering practices derived from home working depended on a traditional gender division of labour. Second, there was little resistance to the idea that home-working might be taken away again. The new possibilities for fatherhood were largely regarded as an unearned and unexpected: a ‘perk’ that they would regret losing, but did not expect to keep. The deeper discourse and identity of father as breadwinner was not disrupted by the change and nor were gender roles and responsibilities significantly challenged by these new opportunities.

Gendered Work in Place  

9 It is also important to consider how gendered working lives and organizations are constituted in particular places. As discussed above, in earlier work (Halford and Leonard 2006a), we studied doctors and nurses working in two NHS hospitals in different parts of the UK and found very different careers, working identities, organizational cultures, etc. In more recent work, we have extended this interest into a variety of international contexts to explore further the relationships between place, organization and gender. For example, Susan’s study with a Norwegian colleague, Kari Dyb, followed the work of some midwives, based on the Lofoten Islands, located just above the Arctic Circle, in the Norwegian Sea, West of the Norwegian mainland. On the island of Vestvagoy there is a local hospital, complete with a midwife led maternity unit, which delivers around 200 babies/year. The midwives have little professional support – no obstetricians or paediatricians, and work shifts on their own – just a single midwife – through long nights, where in the winter night lasts for 6 weeks. Into this setting, the Norwegian health service introduced a ‘telemedicine’ initiative, offering the midwives a dedicated broadband link to mainland specialists in foetal and obstetric medicine (Dyb and Halford 2009). ‘Broadband Born’, as it was called, was designed to take the pressure off these midwives by integrating them into a rationalised model of specialism and hierarchy, where midwives could seek remote medical advice as appropriate. In fact, the Health Service would really have liked to move birth off Lofoten all together, to a larger acute hospital on the mainland, but the four hour journey time over the sea if a helicopter was available and flight was possible given the winter weather made this unviable.

10 The midwives are all women, in a strongly feminised profession, and indeed they thought it unimaginable that there would ever be a male midwife in this hospital, but their ages ranged from 24-62; they came from all over Norway (and indeed beyond); some had just arrived whilst others had been there for nearly 30 years; some were single, others not, some had children, others not; and so on. The one thing that united them, however, was a deep ambivalence about the value of this technological intervention. First, they were sceptical about the value of sending digitised images to a specialist, when their professional experience led them to appreciate other sources of information e.g. not only sound, smell and touch, but also local information – having been responsible for ante-natal care as well as birth; second, they were sceptical about the expertise of the obstetricians on the mainland, many of whom were trainees, spending a short period in obstetrics as a routine part of their medical education; and third, the midwives were strongly committed to maintaining their kind of professional practice, which they described as ‘the midwife feeling’ – a practice that had a kind of autonomy and specialism and which they had come to believe could only exist ‘these days’ in a remote hospital like Lofoten. Certainly, they would use the broadband link on occasion, to seek a second opinion, but only on their terms and not in the rationalised bureaucratic terms envisaged by the architects of the intervention.

11 We do not offer this case as support for an essentialised account of gender or midwifery. Rather it is to say that the identities of these midwives, and the working lives that they strive to maintain, are strongly tied to Lofoten, to this place. Indeed, the younger midwives had chosen to leave Oslo to come here because of this – as somewhere they could perform the working identities they sought. To be sure, this may be an extreme illustration, but the point is that working lives are done in place – not imposed in a deterministic way by place, but made through the economic, social and cultural relations that intersect to produce particular kinds of places. What might seem like a constructive intervention, linking specialisms across healthcare and offering support to the midwives might – in fact – be seen as intrusive and unwanted or just irrelevant. What might seem like very difficult working conditions, offering very little work life balance, might in fact be sought out as a professional identity.  

Gendered and Raced Work in Place and Time

12The brief descriptions so far have shown some of the ways in which place and space might mediate the gendering of working lives and organizations and contribute to contingent outcomes of organizational intervention. The last example illustrates the ways in which place and space intersect with a further dimension, time. Time intersects with organization and working lives in a variety of ways and at different scales, from the difference that days and nights make to gendered working cultures, careers and identities in contexts such as the NHS hospitals we discussed above (Halford and Leonard 2006a) to the ways in which changing political and social events over the lifecourse may impact on people’s careers and working lives. It is this latter aspect which formed the focus of the third case study to be discussed here.  Of further interest here, and in tune with the broader developments taking place in gender studies which we referred to above, is the ways in which gender intersects with other key aspects of identity, such as race and nationality, to produce distinctive organisational experiences and outcomes.

13 Pauline Leonard’s research in Hong Kong explored how whiteness, gender and British nationality acted as valuable resources in the building of careers in many of the organizations formed to administer and profit from the region’s role as a British colony (Leonard 2010a).  However, on the ‘handing back’ of Hong Kong to the Chinese Government in July 1997, localization policies were instituted across the labour market, with the result that the once predictable career prospects of British expatriates were severely challenged as local (Chinese) candidates were now prioritised for recruitment and promotion. Many of the longer term expatriates who, on their migration to Hong Kong, had been able to capitalise on their whiteness and Britishness to enjoy considerable economic reward and social status, were thus required to either negotiate and construct new work identities and career biographies or leave their jobs and return to Britain. Whilst those who chose to stay fared in different ways, revealing that whiteness, gender and nationality are unstable concepts, at the same time these were also shown to remain as important resources by which to construct new identities in the rapidly changing social, political and organizational contexts.

14 Postcolonial Hong Kong gave birth to the emergence of a new set of discourses by which to position oneself and others, for both the Chinese and the British. Pauline’s interviews with white British employees from a variety of organizational contexts, both public and private, revealed how the pre-established discourses constructed through the period of British colonialism and sovereignty were now interweaving with the new frameworks. Four broad discourses were particularly noticeable as being at play in their talk. The first was that of ‘the British expatriate’, long established but also subject to ongoing change and, in some instances, retreat. This was a predominantly masculinist discourse of whiteness, nationality and work, which was originally forged through the history of colonialism and empire but is now being reconfigured as traditional subjects positions are being continuously shifted by both policy and practice. This discourse is complemented by a feminine version: ‘the expatriate woman’. This is also a complex and diverse discourse in which the retreating legacies of femininities from the colonial past: wifely support, volunteering and ‘doing good’, as well as a luxurious life of servants, leisure and consumption, compete with new subject positions of work, careers and female independence. A third discourse was the Hong Kong discourse of ‘gweilo’ or British cultural incompetence. Literally meaning ‘foreign devils’, this is again a longstanding discourse: at first one by which the British were positioned as ‘other’ by the Chinese, it has been widely re-appropriated by the British themselves to assert their difference from the Chinese. Fourth is a more recent discourse of ‘the HongKonger’: the local. Whilst it is, in the main, the Chinese that position themselves in this way, it was also adopted in the talk of some of the white long term residents struggling to position themselves as belonging in the new Hong Kong.

15 These four discourses of race, gender and nationality were clearly evident in the narratives of British expatriates working in contemporary Hong Kong. However, also obvious was the co-existent relationship of these discourses: there was by no means a smooth transition from one set of (powerful) subject positions to new, less powerful ones. Expatriates may hold simultaneous positions that may also be contradictory - one minute challenging established notions of whiteness, Britishness and privilege as outmoded and irrelevant, the next comfortably making statements underpinned by these ideas. However, differences were revealed between men and women. For the men, colonialism had represented an opportunity for social and economic mobility on scale unachievable at home. Many had been looking forward to substantial career success and those that chose to stay on in their reconfigured postcolonial organizations with new localization policies in place had to accept that now they were more likely to be working for Chinese bosses and their chances for some of the very top management positions were severely challenged. However, for some of the women, new opportunities were felt to be emerging. With the decline of the meanings of ‘the British expatriate’, so too were the constraints mapped on to ‘the expatriate wife’ also rendered meaningless. In the transformations which were gradually happening to inequalities at work, spaces were opening up for women, marked by an exciting ‘can do’ attitude by which new careers and working identities could be forged (Leonard 2010b).

Engaging with policy

16 Exploring the intricacies of people’s everyday working lives reveals both familiar and much more unexpected findings that, taken together, continue to challenge our conceptual repertoires in a variety of ways. Here we return to the question we posed at the outset: what does all this mean for policy debate and practice? To be sure, both gender and policy become difficult to see clearly. For some in the field of research on gender and organization this has meant abandoning interest in policy, whether explicitly or by default, as an enlightenment project that –  at best –  will ride roughshod over the complexities of gendered lives and – at worst – can only serve to reproduce the categories of gender difference that most feminists have sought to challenge. However, for us this is a limited response – it is more that we don’t know how to think about the connection to policy than a rejection of engagement per se – as well as a limiting response, specifically in underselling and under-imagining, how research of this type, and the theoretical trajectory that underlies it, might engage with policy research and debate.

17 Rather than being able to deliver clear answers to this, we would like to make some suggestions about possible ways forward:

18 To begin with, we might usefully draw on Michael Burawoy’s work on public sociology and his more general observations about the distinctive types of sociological activity (which may also apply to many of the other social sciences) (Burawoy 2005). Specifically, Burawoy describes a range of possibilities for sociological activity: professional sociology (which organizes the methods and approaches of a disciplinary body of knowledge), critical sociology (which scrutinises the epistemological and ontological foundations of professional sociology), public sociology (which aims to strike up a dialogue between sociologists and public) and policy sociology (which works for particular clients to pursue certain outcomes). What is interesting about this classification is not that it accurately describes a discrete set of activities that real life sociologists are involved in – its value in that respect is quite limited – but that it draws our attention to the differences between and interdependence of these different emphases within a wider disciplinary endeavour. To put it more simply, it allows us to find a way of thinking about how different approaches sit in relation to each other but also – potentially – to explore the borders without privileging one over the other. All of these sociologies exist and feed off each other to some extent – the challenge is to make this feeding process constructive, rather than competitive.

19 But that is simply to frame the problem differently. More directly, we might develop this, and build on the research described in this short paper in a number of more practical ways. First, we might ask how policy shapes gendered working lives and organizations across space, place and time. How do particular policy interventions affect who and how? Where and when? Policy is never policy on its own. Beyond the statute books or guidelines, it is always in interaction with other processes and in particular contexts. We need to understand more about how policy intersects with these processes (for one recent example see Abendroth and den Dulk (2011) whose study of work-life balance in Europe, shows how it is the combination of state, workplace and family that produces particular outcomes).

20 Second, and to pick up a previous point in a more practical way, we might use Burawoy’s classification as a starting point for trying to think across the interest in and expertise on gendered work and organization that are currently siloed – to try and find platforms for dialogue. This is never easy – academic concepts can be elusive and highly specialised whilst policy makers and organizational managers have more pragmatic concerns. But surely this is an endeavour worth persevering with.

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Abendroth, A.-K.,  den Dulk, L. ‘Support for the work-life balance in Europe: the impact of state, workplace and family support on work-life balance satisfaction’, Work Employment & Society, June 2011, 25 (2): 234-256.

Burawoy, M. ‘For Public Sociology’, British Journal of Sociology, 56 (2) 2005: 259–94.

Dyb, K., Halford, S., ‘Placing globalizing technologies: telemedicine and the making of difference’,  Sociology, 2009, 43 (2): 232-249.  

Halford, S.,  'Feminist change in a patriarchal organisation: How local government organisations diffuse feminist policies' in Savage, M. and Witz, A. (Eds) Gender and Bureaucracy  Sociological Review Monograph, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992 : 155-186.

Halford, S., ‘Towards a Sociology of Organizational Space’ Sociological Research Online, 2004, 9 (1).

Halford, S., ‘Hybrid workspace: re-spatialisations of work, organisation and management’, New Technology, Work and Employment, 2005, 20 (1):19-33.

Halford, S., ‘Collapsing the boundaries? Fatherhood, organization and home-working’, Gender, Work and Organization, 2006, 13 (4): 383-402.

Halford, S., Leonard, P., Negotiating gendered identities at work: place, space and time, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2006a, 208pp.

Halford, S., Leonard, P., ‘Place, Space and Time: The fragmentation of workplace subjectivities’, Organizational Studies, 2006b, 27 (5) : 657-676.

Halford, S., Lotherington, A. T., Dyb, K., Obstfelder, A., ‘Un/doing gender with ICT?NORA: Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Studies, 2010, 18(1): 20-37.

Halford, S., Obstfelder, A., Lotherington A. T., Dyb, K., ‘Getting the Whole Picture? New information and communication technologies in healthcare work and organization’, Information, Communication and Society, 2010, 13 (3) : 442-465.

Halford, S., Obstfelder, A., Lotherington, A.-T., ‘Changing the record: the inter-professional, subjective and embodied effects of electronic patient records’, New Technology, Work and Employment, 2010, 25 (3) : 210-222.

Leonard, P., ‘Organizing gender? Looking at metaphors as frames of meaning in gender/organizational texts’. Gender, Work and Organization, 2002, 9 (1) : 60-80.

Leonard, P., ‘Organizing Whiteness: Gender, Nationality and Subjectivity in Postcolonial Hong Kong’ Gender, Work and Organization, 2010a, 17 (3) : 340-358

Leonard, P., Expatriate Identities in Postcolonial Organizations: Working Whiteness, Aldershot, Ashgate,  2010b.

Lewis, J., ‘The decline of the male breadwinner model: Implications for Work and Care’, Social Politics, 2001, 8 (2): 152-169.

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Susan Halford et Pauline Leonard, « Gendered Organizations and Working Lives: continuities, change and policy engagement », Observatoire de la société britannique, 14 | 2013, 25-36.

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Susan Halford et Pauline Leonard, « Gendered Organizations and Working Lives: continuities, change and policy engagement », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 14 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 février 2014, consulté le 28 janvier 2020. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1499

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Susan Halford

Professeur de sociologie à l'Université de Southampton

Pauline Leonard

Professeur de sociologie à l'Université de Southampton

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