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Discussions: Since the 1960’s we have seen a steady stream of more women entering the workplace. The 2000’s brought more women to senior leadership positions. This shift in the workforce has created challenges and opportunities for all. Increased sexual harassment cases, balancing life and family, and equal wages and job opportunities are just a few of the challenges. Organizations, and federal and state governments, are finding ways to address these issues.

Based on your readings this week (see Content – Week 8 – Reading and Resources), what should organizations do to ensure that the disparity between compensation and job opportunities among men and women in the workplace is mitigated and ultimately eliminated? Be creative in your answer!

You may find appropriate articles at the end of each chapter, and/or identify articles through the APUS online Library. Finally, be sure that all discussions are answered in full, in order to ensure the best possible grade based on the work submitted.

Towards a Topology of ‘Doing Gender’:
An Analysis of Empirical Research and
Its Challenges

Julia C. Nentwich* and Elisabeth K. Kelan

‘Doing gender’ is a much used term in research on gender, work and organizations. However,
translating theoretical insight into empirical research is often a challenging endeavour. A lack of
clarity with regard to the conceptualization and operationalization of key terms in turn often
limits the theoretical and empirical purchase of a concept. The aim of this article is therefore to
provide a systematization of empirical approaches to ‘doing gender’. This systematization leads to
a topology of five themes that is derived from empirical research in the field. The five themes
identified are structures, hierarchies, identity, flexibility and context specificity, and gradual
relevance/subversion. Each theme explores a different facet of ‘doing gender’. This topology helps
empirical researchers to be more specific about which aspects of ‘doing gender’ they are referring
to. This in turn can help to unfold the theoretical potential of the concept of ‘doing gender’.

Keywords: (un)doing gender, identity, ethnomethodology, performativity, empirical studies


‘Doing gender’ is now a widely used concept for theorizing and researching gender in organiza-
tional studies. By looking at ‘doing gender’, the focus shifts away from treating men and women

as self-evident categories in academic research towards seeing gender as a social practice. Going way
back to West and Zimmerman’s seminal article published in 1987, their ‘original idea has taken on a
life of its own’ (West and Zimmerman, 2009, p. 113), also in research on gender, work and organi-
zation. Besides the early ethnomethodological take on ‘doing gender’, more recent studies have
started to elaborate on Butler’s notion of performativity and theorize gender as something that is ‘said
and done’ (Martin, 2003), a situated social practice (Butler, 1990, 1993, 2004). Many articles today
discuss both West and Zimmerman as well as Butler in relation to ‘doing gender’ (Mavin and Grandy,
2011), indicating that both theories have gained prominence (McDonald, 2012).

However, despite these theoretical developments and obvious heterogeneity in theoretical refer-
encing, most empirical studies seem to define the term quite similarly, thereby echoing Simone de
Beauvoir’s famous quote ‘one is not born, but becomes a woman’. This fairly general interpretation of
‘doing gender’ is what Wickes and Emmison (2007) have called ‘ceremonial’ referencing. In their
analysis of 149 publications on ‘doing gender’ in the ethnomethodological tradition, they found that
almost 73 per cent of the publications only quote the concept for matters of positioning the authors or
the text as gender researcher(s), but do not necessarily take up the concept in either the conceptual
discussion or the research methodology. ‘Doing gender’ is here appropriated ‘as a way of grounding,
legitimating or validating their own research findings’ (Wickes and Emmison, 2007, p. 322) without
engaging and developing the theoretical underpinning of the concept.

Address for correspondence: *Julia C. Nentwich, Research Institute for Organizational Psychology, University of St. Gallen,
Switzerland; e-mail: [email protected]


Gender, Work and Organization. Vol. 21 No. 2 March 2014

© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

Although we would agree with Wickes and Emmison that doing gender as a concept is often cited
for purposes of positioning and legitimating and hence used in ceremonial ways, we suggest a
different interpretation of this finding. Concepts travel (Czarniawska and Sevón, 2005); they are
translated and appropriated in different contexts and are thereby changed, if they meet the needs of
a community at a certain point in time. Talking about doing gender, the concept serves as a wildcard
for the linguistic and practice turn in gender studies that had evolved throughout the 1990s. Hence,
although quoting the concept of doing gender might be a ceremonial act in many papers intended to
flag the author’s position within a specific community of researching gender, it still develops some
theoretical understanding of what doing gender means and how it is translated into an empirical
research design. Our perspective is hence not about theoretical orthodoxy, but investigating the many
uses and empirical questions to which research citing the concept of ‘doing gender’ is contributing.

In this article, we analyse how empirical studies investigate the doing of gender in the context of
work and organization studies. This empirical take on the question, how doing gender has been
conceptualized and operationalized in empirical studies, allows us to depict in what ways the concept
has contributed to our knowledge of gender at work and in organizations, as well as the specific
challenges faced by empirical research on doing gender.

The article starts with a short review of the theoretical debate on doing gender, highlighting the
crucial changes in how gender has been theorized in both the work of West and Zimmerman and
Butler. Second, we outline how we analysed the empirical articles in order to develop a ‘topology’ of
crucial themes for doing gender research. Third, we discuss the empirical contributions according to
this topology, thereby contributing a systematization of how researchers in the field of gender, work
and organization have empirically analysed doing gender as well as the challenges their studies are
facing. Fourth, we offer a short conclusion discussing the major challenges of this endeavour as well
as possible ways forward. Our analysis will enable researchers to conceptualize their studies in a more
precise way, thereby also enhancing the theoretical development of the concept.

Conceptualizing gender as a doing

The expression ‘doing gender’ goes back to Garfinkel’s work on the intersexual Agnes in 1967, and
this expression has been refined and developed over the years. While a first conceptualization of the
social construction of gender identity was put forward in West and Zimmerman’s ethnomethodo-
logical foundation in 1987, Butler’s work on the performativity and materiality of gender developed
a poststructuralist notion of gendered subjectivity. With that, gender identity became a more fluid
and flexible concept, and the analysis of ‘doing gender’ an analysis of the gendered practices that
shows how both stability and instability of how gender identity is ‘done’ as well as ‘undone’.

One central point of ethnomethodological analysis that West and Zimmerman (1987) put forward
is to show how gender is created in the situation rather than existing a priori. They thereby emphasize
the importance of interaction for an understanding of gender identity as well as inequality. Doing
gender is conceptualized as a routine accomplishment in social interactions. In order to be catego-
rized as a man or a woman, interactional work has to be done. This work is under constant risk of
gender assessment as one is accountable for ‘doing gender’. According to West and Zimmerman, one
can never not do gender, because it is such an integral part of individual identity as well as societal
structures. West and Zimmerman thereby stress the importance of the ethnomethodological concept
of omnirelevance: gender is relevant in every social situation. Furthermore, gender is seen as an
important part of societal structures and informing societal hierarchies and power systems. Hence,
societal structures and hierarchies as well as inequalities are important to explain how gender identity
can be done in a certain interaction.

A second theoretical influence of gender as a doing derives from the work of Judith Butler (1990,
1993, 2004), drawing mainly on poststructuralist theories. In her critique of the feminist construction
of the stable subject ‘woman’, Butler develops a critical genealogy of gender categories in which she
explores why gender identity is perceived as something stable even though it is enacted in the


Volume 21 Number 2 March 2014 © 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

situation. She ‘introduces a concept of decentred subjectivity in which the subject is open-ended and
indeterminate except when it is fixed in place by culturally constituted gendered practices’ (Gherardi,
2005, p. 222). Hence, the fluidity and flexibility of identity constructions as well as its context specificity
have gained importance.

A central concept in Butler’s work is performativity. There is much debate about what performa-
tivity means (Brickell, 2005; Lloyd, 1999; McIlvenny, 2002), but one may summarize it as the process
through which gendered subjects are constituted by regulatory notions within a heterosexual matrix.
For Butler, subjects are constructed by the positions the discourse allows. Following speech act
theory, some of these positions speak to or ‘interpellate’ persons, and in orienting towards these
discourses subjects are reinstated. For instance, Butler refers to ‘girling the girl’ as a gendering
moment. When a baby is born, the label ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ is assigned to the baby and this calls into being
the baby as a gendered being. Thus the baby girl is interpellated; later in life, and in responding to
this term, the person creates herself as a woman. In citing these subject positions people render
themselves legible but at the same time what is legible as a human being is defined within fairly
narrow limits. Which subjects can be formed depends on gender norms, which are restrictive and

Both perspectives of theorizing gender as a social practice conceptualize gender identity as an
ongoing activity or a ‘doing’ within everyday life. However, ethnomethodologically grounded
studies tend to treat gender as omnirelevant and reproduced in any situation. Hence, they are rather
focusing on the persistence of inequalities (Deutsch, 2007), while studies focusing on the performa-
tive construction of gendered identity tend to focus on its situated and fluid character and hence
questions of change (Butler, 2004; Poggio, 2006). While West and Zimmerman analyse fine-grained
naturally occurring interactions, Butler’s conception of ‘doing gender’ focuses more on how gender
is performed to real and imagined audiences. In fact, although both traditions developed notions of
‘undoing gender’, again, those concepts tackle different issues (Kelan, 2010). ‘Undoing gender’ in an
ethnomethodological understanding challenges the general assumption that gender is ‘omnirel-
evant’, meaning that it is relevant in every situation and that we ‘cannot escape gender’ (Hirschauer,
1994, 2001). It points to situations where gender might be not as relevant or even irrelevant for the
sense-making process. These latter interactions might become sites of resistance where gender can be
undone (Deutsch, 2007).

The ethnomethodological understanding defines ‘undoing as a reduction of gender differences
and is hence interested in the gradual relevance of ‘doing gender’. Butler’s understanding of doing
gender is slightly different. It focuses on the question of how alternative performances might make it
possible ‘to change the dominant gender order and the binary understanding of masculinity and
femininity’ (Poggio, 2006, p. 227). Therefore, studies relying on Butler’s theorizing tend to tackle
possibilities of undoing gender from a perspective of subverting subject positions (Gherardi and
Poggio, 2007). Aspects of gradual relevance and subversion have gained importance when researching
the social practices of doing gender (Linstead and Brewis, 2004; Martin, 2003, 2006; Nentwich, 2008;
Poggio, 2006).

This brief review of the theoretical and partly historical debates around the notion of ‘doing
gender’ highlights that there have been important changes in how gender identity is theorized. While
gender identity has been theorized as something that is done in a specific situation and no longer an
attribute of the individual, recent developments highlighted the performative character of becoming
a gendered subject. In fact, gender identity seems to be a much more flexible concept as the meaning
of masculinity and femininity seems to shift between contexts, might be irrelevant or downplayed in
a situation, or subverted in another.

Theorizing gender identity as something that is said and done resulted in major challenges for
empirical studies: If gender is not seen as a fixed category that can be defined prior to the research
conducted, the actual practices of constructing or performing that identity have to be analysed.
Instead of taking women and men at face value, researchers have to be careful not to reify everyday
taken-for-granted assumptions about gender, but to critically investigate how they actually came into


© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Volume 21 Number 2 March 2014

Theoretically, being a man or a woman should be the outcome of a process rather than the starting
point. This is, however, easier said than done. For instance, Fournier and Smith (2006) criticize
Metcalfe and Linstead (2003) for claiming to undertake a ‘post-structuralist feminist reading’ stress-
ing ‘plurality rather than unity’ (Fournier and Smith, 2006, p. 144, cf. Metcalfe and Linstead, 2003,
p. 98), while at the same time linking ‘soft managerial practices’ to the ‘feminine’ and teamwork,
theorized as privileging control and performance, to the ‘masculine’. Fournier and Smith (2006,
p. 144) state that at this point ‘essentialism seems to relentlessly creep back’. The result is a form of
‘clichéd constructivism’ (Brubaker and Cooper, 2000) ‘relying on standard signifiers and theoretical
gestures towards the fluidity of gendered identity’ (Fournier and Smith, 2006, p. 142), which seem to
be difficult to realize in empirical projects.

These questions are not new and other scholars have tried to explore such issues in the context of
masculinity (MacInnes, 1998). Our aim in this article is hence to provide a systematization of how
researchers in the field of gender, work and organization have empirically analysed doing gender,
how this resulted in different conceptualizations of gender identity and to discuss the possible
challenges and pitfalls of empirical studies.

‘Doing gender’ in empirical studies: a critical analysis

After briefly reviewing some theoretical debates and developments of the concept of ‘doing gender’,
we now focus on the question of how researchers in the field of gender, work and organization have
empirically analysed ‘doing gender’. In order to shed light on the question, how ‘doing gender’ was
analysed in empirical studies, we first collected literature on ‘doing gender’ in an organizational and
work context through overviews (Ashcraft, 2006; Bruni et al., 2005; Gherardi, 1995; Gildemeister and
Wetterer, 1992), conceptual texts (Martin, 2003), and highly relevant and often-cited texts (Gherardi,
1995; Hall, 1993; Kondo, 1990; Leidner, 1991; Williams, 1995). We also searched databases using the
search term ‘doing gender’. Our objective was not to provide an exhaustive overview of the available
literature such as can be found in Wickes and Emmison’s analysis (2007), but to discuss theoretically
driven aspects of employing the concept(s) of doing gender in empirical research in the field of
gender, work and organization.

For this reason we deliberately restricted our analysis to articles that first of all are based on
empirical research; second, explicitly draw on the notion of ‘doing gender’; and third, apply this
concept to a work and/or organizational context. We selected articles published in international
journals rather than books, as journal articles tend to present underlying theories and applications
concisely. All articles are written in English and appeared in North American or British academic
journals, covering the period between 1991 and 2009. This selection resulted in a core body of 17 texts,
which were analysed by both authors independently, exploring four questions: (1) What are the
article’s aims and how are these aims addressed? (2) How is ‘doing gender’ conceptualized? (3) How
is ‘doing gender’ and, as a consequence, ‘gender identity’, operationalized in empirical studies? (4) To
what results do these questions lead? During a series of discussions between the two authors, we
structured the empirical findings according to the five central themes highly relevant for the under-
standing of ‘doing gender’ (see Table 1): (1) structures, (2) hierarchies, (3) identity, (4) flexibility and
context specificity, and (5) gradual relevance and subversion. However, this topology is not meant to
suggest that studies fit easily into one of the themes. Depending on their research focus, one study
might tackle more than one theme. Therefore, we will discuss different aspects of one study under
several themes to highlight some of the different angles used.

Doing gender as ‘doing structures’

A first theme in the research on ‘doing gender’ is gendered structures. Gendered structures are
embedded in jobs and enable the construction of gender identity. Furthermore, the gender of the job


Volume 21 Number 2 March 2014 © 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

‘rubs off on the people who do them’ (Cockburn, 1985, p. 169). In order to fulfil the expectations
attached to a job, or in other words to do the job properly, the employee often has to enact a certain
gender identity according to these structures. Gendered structures (re)inforce gendered interactions.
An example is flight attendants, a job which requires a ‘doing of femininity’ (Brewis and Linstead,
2000; Hochschild, 1983; Tyler and Abbott, 1998). This involves being friendly to passengers and caring
for them, engaging in behaviour that is closely linked with femininity in society. Thus a job requires
a performance which is often cross-referenced with gender and which entails doing gender identity
in a certain way.

A study focusing on structures and doing gender was conducted by Hall (1993) on restaurant
employees. Adopting ethnographic and quantitative methods, she looked at how the differentiation
between ‘waitressing’ and ‘waitering’ is created. Whereas ‘waitering’ is defined as something men
do, ‘waitressing’ is seen as ‘typical women’s work’ because women perform it and because the
work activities are considered ‘feminine’ (Hall, 1993, p. 329). Although serving tables is the job

Table 1: ‘Doing gender’ in empirical studies

Relevant themes for
‘doing gender’
research How studies have addressed these aspects

Structures • Hall (1993): construction of differences between ‘waitering’ and
‘waitressing’ through formal elements.

• Leidner (1991): interactive service work — similar activities are
gendered differently through reference of the job’s gender.

• Murray (1996): men in childcare, show difficulties of constructing
masculinity resulting from the femininity of the job.

Hierarchies • Hall (1993): waitering is valued more highly than waitressing.
• Korvajärvi (1998): men’s style of doing work is more in line with the

efficiency goals and valued more highly than women’s styles.

Identity • Murray (1996) and Hall (1993): interactional strategies.
• Cross and Bagilhole (2002): discursive strategies through which men

are constructing a masculine identity in female-dominated professions.
• Katila and Meriläinen (1999): conflicts arising when women have to

construct professional identities in male-dominated academia.
• Pierce (1996): women having to engage in male-connotated behaviour

in order to be ‘good’.
• Powell et al. (2009): ‘coping strategies’ for handling female identity in


Flexible and
context specific

• Leidner: similar activities are gendered differently depending on who
does it.

• Pierce (1996): how emotional labour can also be constructed as
something masculine in the context of litigation.

• Martin (2001): looking at women’s interpretations of men’s behaviour
showing that there are many ways of doing masculinity.

• Pilgeram (2007): different norms in different spaces.

Gradually relevant
and subverted

• Gherardi (1994, 1996), Gherardi and Poggio (2001) and Bruni et al.
(2004): how the symbolic gender order is enacted in one situation and
denied in another.

• Johansson (1998): different interpretations of gender in a specific
situation lead to vague and not so clear-cut lines between women and

• Hall et al. (2007): gender, here masculinity, can be enacted differently.
They emphasize the subject’s agency within normative constraints.

• Pullen and Simpson (2009): masculinity can be undone by drawing on
aspects of the job usually seen as female-connotated (caring).


© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Volume 21 Number 2 March 2014

requirement for both professions, people doing this work are often distinguished through formal
elements like uniforms. Through uniforms, table servers become ‘waiters’ and ‘waitresses’, and this
is a way through which gender ‘rubs off’ and difference is interactively constructed. Here, struc-
tures lead to doing gender through the display of the job’s gender, containing scripts for the
interactional doing of gender identity such as wearing a certain uniform.

In a study on scripts in interactive service work, Leidner (1991) found that similar interactions are
gendered completely differently in different jobs. People working in fast food restaurants and selling
insurance follow similar scripts of service work. For instance, in both types of work, Leidner found
that employees commonly had to learn pre-formulated phrases to use when interacting with cus-
tomers. Although the actual customer interaction was similar, in this case fast food work was defined
as feminine and selling insurance was constructed as masculine. Here, the gender of the task enabled
a specific doing of gender identity: masculinity or femininity. In their studies, both Leidner and Hall
show how individuals doing a job are doing gender at the same time. Interestingly, the gender of the
job often has less to do with the tasks themselves and more to do with the gender ascribed to the job
and performed by workers. Both Leidner and Hall assume that women working in a job perceived as
‘feminine’ and men working in a job seen as ‘masculine’ are enacting femininity and masculinity,

Here, gender identity is done through engaging in a job that is either ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.
However, what happens if women work in male-dominated fields or men in female-dominated
fields? Studies on men and women in non-traditional occupations have explored this question
(Bagilhole and Cross, 2006; Cameron, 2001; Cross and Bagilhole, 2002; Powell et al., 2009; Williams,
1989, 1993, 1995). For example, Murray (1996) shows that a mismatch between the gender
identity of the person and the job’s gender is no challenge to the stereotypical gender assignment
of the job but raises difficulties for the individuals at work. She looks at men working in a job
not associated with men: childcare. Her focus is on how childcare is gendered as feminine
regardless of whether a woman or a man is performing the job. She points out that the association
of this work with ‘femininity’ means that men can never meet the standards that are expected.
Often, men can only engage in certain tasks and are recommitted to them by ‘boundary work’.
At the same time they are often praised for doing their job, as men are not expected to
do a feminine-connoted task well. Through engaging in tasks requiring them to do what is
constructed as ‘femininity’, men are perceived as violating the normative expectations of
masculinity. It is thus difficult for men working in childcare to pass as ‘real men’. This is because
they are in danger of being gender inauthentic when engaging in a ‘female job’. This example
shows clearly how gendered assumptions about jobs lead to a specific form of ‘doing femininity’
or ‘masculinity’.

All these studies explore practices of ‘doing gender’ in order to explain how occupations become
gendered. Gender is part of the occupational or organizational structures and forces certain kinds of
gendered interactions, either a ‘doing of masculinity’ or a ‘doing of femininity’. In some cases, the
gender of the job is inscribed in the definition of the occupation. In other cases, almost any aspect of
the job might be constructed as gendered. The practice might come in the form of a gendered uniform
(Hall, 1993) or engaging in a task ascribed stereotypically to being either masculine or feminine.
However, what often remains unclear is how a job became gendered in the first place or how the tasks
performed are said to be ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ (cf. Fournier and Smith, 2006). The gender of the
job is in some instances ascribed because of the number of men or women working in it; in other cases
minority and majority relations are not even mentioned. In general, it is assumed that a job ‘has’ a
certain gender as do the persons performing it. Here, one ‘does’ gender when doing the job and the
gender of both the individual and the job are constructed while doing the job. However, what is
described as a practice of ‘doing structure’ becomes a static and well-established structure when
translated to the research design. Some critical reflection on the dualisms applied by the research
itself might be necessary. Future research should at least reflect why the occupation or field
researched is seen as a ‘female’ or a ‘masculine’ dominated field and focus on the consequences for
the doing of gender, respectively.


Volume 21 Number 2 March 2014 © 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

Doing gender as ‘doing hierarchies’

The second theme we want to emphasize is gendered hierarchies. Although it is rather similar to the
first theme of structures, we included hierarchies as a separate focus because it helps to see the
asymmetry of gender hierarchies and also sheds light on some different effects of doing gender as
well as empirical challenges. ‘Doing gender’ here means ‘doing of hierarchies’ which eventually leads
to inequality. Research focusing on hierarchies looks at the symbolism attached to certain activities in
which the ‘masculine’ is seen as superior to the ‘feminine’. Whatever is gendered ‘feminine’ tends to
be devalued; whatever is gendered ‘masculine’ receives higher status, and is perceived as more
professional and as representing competence (Heilman, 2001; Ridgeway, 1997). Hence, due to the
hierarchy, ‘doing masculinity’ and ‘doing femininity’ are different practices with different results.

In comparing ‘waitering’ with ‘waitressing’, Hall (1993) showed that the term ‘waiter’ and the task
of ‘waitering’ are valued more highly than ‘waitress’ and ‘waitressing’. Even women engaging in the
task of ‘waitering’ can obtain a higher status compared to their female colleagues who are doing
‘waitressing.’ In a study on an employment office, Korvajärvi (1998) highlighted similar practices.
Here women and men used different styles to get their work done. While women focused on helping
clients and interacting with them, men focused on a quick turnover of people. At the same time,
men’s style of doing work was more in line with the efficiency goals of the organization and as such
valued more highly than the women’s style. ‘Doing gender’ is linked to activating symbolic hierar-
chies and in these symbolic hierarchies the ‘masculine’ is valued over the ‘feminine’.

In these studies, the doing of gender is analysed as practices of subordination and domination.
Again, the logic of the hierarchy is associated with masculinity and femininity. Gender is done
through drawing on the symbolic hierarchies and re-establishing them when ‘doing masculinity’ or
‘femininity.’ Whereas the subordinate position in this logic is ‘femininity’, ‘masculinity’ becomes the
dominant. As Hall’s research shows, the sex category seems less important compared to the gendered
job enacted in the doing of hierarchies: individual women can obtain a higher status when practising
‘waitering’ instead of ‘waitressing’.

However, the analogy between femininity and masculinity and subordination and domination
seems all too often taken for granted in research about ‘doing gender’. Again, the research rarely
explores how the hierarchical order is established or interpreted by the men and women researched
(see also Fournier and Smith, 2006; Linstead and Brewis, 2004). Investigating whether this hierarchy
is always re-established or if other forms of hierarchical gender relations are possible in some contexts
might be a worthwhile research question. Are non-hierarchical gender relations possible at all?

Furthermore, as the masculine is valued more highly than the feminine, ‘doing masculinity’ and
‘doing femininity’ should be analysed as rather different practices. For instance, in a context associ-
ated with ‘masculinity’, ‘femininity’ might always be at risk of being marginalized and undervalued.
However, the same is not true for masculinity in a feminine context. Hence, ‘doing masculinity’ and
‘doing femininity’ cannot easily be subsumed under a generic heading of ‘doing gender’ but should
rather be analysed as different ‘doings’ (Martin, 2001, 2003).

Doing gender as ‘doing identity’

Gender identity is, as discussed earlier, central for ‘doing gender’. We have already touched on
gender identities in the first two categories. We discussed how the job one does is integrally linked to
one’s gender identity. It is commonly assumed that there is a link between ‘doing gender at work’ and
‘doing gender identity’. In other words, a feminine gender identity is constructed through working
in a feminine-connoted job or engaging in a feminine-connoted task. However, the relationship is
more complicated than this, and the studies we described earlier are very explicit about this. For
instance, Murray (1996), Williams (1989) and also Hall (1993) have shown how men construct their
work as masculine to deal with a possible conflict in a so-called gender-atypical profession. For
instance, men in nursing more often engage in physical tasks such as lifting and moving patients
(Williams, 1989, p. 142). Men working in childcare were shown to develop routines in which men


© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Volume 21 Number 2 March 2014

avoided ‘napping’ the children or having them on their laps. This was interpreted as belonging to the
‘nurturing responsibility’ associated with women. Also, the parents regarded these men engaging in
nurturing as highly suspicious (Murray, 1996, p. 377ff). Similarly, Cross and Bagilhole (2002) con-
ducted an interview study with men working in several atypical professions. They highlight strate-
gies through which men are able to construct masculine identities despite ‘doing femininity’ while at
work. These men do ‘boundary work’ and distance themselves from the ways that women do the job.
This distancing enables them to construct masculine gender identities.

As gender is constructed hierarchically, the consequences for identity construction in gender-
atypical contexts are different for women and men. Powell et al. (2009) show how women in engi-
neering use several ‘coping strategies’ to handle their identity in a male-dominated field. These
women engineers, however, did not distance themselves from what could be labelled as ‘male
engineering’; instead, they denied their femininity. Also Katila and Meriläinen (1999) explored how
women create their professional identities in the male-dominated world of academia. They show
how, in the professional discourse at a university, the ‘masculine’ is taken as the norm or ideal. While
men are described as successful and professional researchers, women are called ‘girls’, ‘seducers’ or
simply ‘beautiful’ (Katila and Meriläinen, 1999, p. 171). In a context of such strong gender-segregating
discourses that describe women as lacking exactly the criteria they need to be professional research-
ers, it becomes difficult for women to construct a professional identity. Women constructing a
feminine gender identity would have to engage in behaviour that shows them as being more private,
invisible and submissive. Yet what is required is ‘doing masculinity’ by being aggressive. Construct-
ing oneself as a professional researcher and as a woman appears to be a contradiction in terms. In a
similar way, the female litigators investigated by Pierce (1996) experienced a conflict when they had
to engage in emotional labour — which is here associated with masculinity — in order to be
perceived as ‘good litigators’.

Focusing on the construction of gender identity while doing the job makes ‘doing gender’ even
more complicated. The issue is not only that structures require the individual to ‘do gender’, but also
that ‘doing gender’ does not necessarily lead to a certain gender identity. Gender identities can be
constructed through stressing or downplaying specific aspects of the job.

While the concept of ‘doing gender’ assumes that people achieve a certain identity through ‘doing
gender’, the studies analysed here, however, rarely focus on the process of identity construction
within a specific situation. Very often the construction of gender is analysed separately from the
process of ‘doing identity’, or, in Hall’s words, it is assumed that ‘workers “bring” gender to their
jobs’ and not that they ‘ “do gender”, performing their jobs in certain ways because their jobs are
structured to demand gender displays’ (Hall, 1993, p. 331). Other studies assume that gender identity
is something developed in early childhood (Pierce, 1995) and is a stable and unchangeable category
(Leidner, 1991). For instance, in research on men in non-traditional occupations, these men are
already men and only bolster their masculine identity through rejecting certain feminine-connoted
aspects of their work. Through this analysis, essentialist understandings of gender are reified
(Fournier and Smith, 2006).

Future studies should rather aim at investigating how ‘being a man’ or ‘being a woman’ is
achieved as a social practice and not as a given fact that existed prior to the research. Exploring the
consequences of fluid identity constructions further, the following two themes shed some light on
how research has tackled this.

Doing gender as flexible and context specific

The concept and application of ‘doing gender’ showed so far that the asymmetry of gender relations
is repeated and reproduced through referencing a fairly stable binary of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculin-
ity’. However, it also makes apparent that what is defined as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ is flexible
across time and space (Borgerson and Rehn, 2004; Linstead and Brewis, 2004). In the study quoted
previously, Leidner (1991) shows how similar activities are gendered differently depending on who
performs them. Another example is the study on litigators by Pierce (1996), who shows that emotional


Volume 21 Number 2 March 2014 © 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

labour, which is often described as something feminine in nurses or flight attendants (Hochschild,
1983), is seen in litigation as something masculine. Being a good litigator means performing specific
forms of emotional labour such as ‘strategic friendliness’ and ‘intimidation’ that are associated with

In another study, Pilgeram (2007) shows how female farmers do gender differently in different
spaces of a livestock auction. While the stock auction in general is historically and structurally a
male-dominated field, different norms are in place in the more private spaces of the corrals compared
to the public space of the auction house. While ‘women in the public space were expected to be
nurturing and clerical, for the women in the corrals there is an expectation of toughness from both
their male and female colleagues’ (Pilgeram, 2007, p. 589). These examples highlight the importance
of exploring in detail how something is gendered in a specific profession, space or context, rather than
assuming that certain interactions are a ‘doing masculinity’ or ‘femininity’. The concepts of ‘doing
gender’ applied here highlights the flexibility through which gender identity can be done. This theme
urges us to look at local definitions of gender and different masculinities and femininities.

The relevance of who interprets ‘doing gender’ is explored by Martin (2001). Her interest is in how
‘doing masculinity’ happens in organizations. Instead of observing and interpreting herself, she
interviewed women on their experiences of men at work and their interpretations of masculine
behaviour at work. She adopts a feminist standpoint perspective (Hartsock, 1983) in which women
provide a clearer account of hegemonic practices as they are said not to be immersed in these
practices. Thus, Martin is able to show some of the different ways that masculinity is enacted in a
work context. This challenges the idea that there is only one way in which masculinity can be done (cf.
Frenkel, 2008). We thus see the importance of an audience evaluating ‘doing gender’ and what counts
as ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity’ in a given situation.

Because what is defined as masculine and feminine shifts with the respective context, studies
developing this theme have highlighted ways to show the flexibility that is possible in defining
gender. One cannot assume, however, that certain characteristics which are defined as feminine in the
wider society will also be defined as feminine in a managerial context (Kelan, 2008). It has, for
instance, been shown that the ‘ideal worker’ in technical work needs to display social and technical
competence. While social competence is gendered as feminine in the wider society and technical
workers draw on these discourses to argue why more women should be in technical work, the
general ideal technical worker is presented as strictly gender neutral. In fact, this assumed gender
neutrality often means a disguised masculinity (Acker, 1990; Benschop and Doorewaard, 1998). What
is defined as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ in which context might be different and might also shift
between contexts. If ‘doing gender’ is seen as flexible, the respective context and its empirical analysis
gains importance.

Gender as gradually relevant and subverted

Drawing on the recent discussion on the possibilities on ‘undoing gender’, the fifth and final theme
in ‘doing gender’ research stresses that gender identity is neither made relevant in each and every
situation and can even be enacted as challenging and hence subvert the gender binary. Hence,
research on gender should not only show where gender constructions are relevant; it should also
reveal situations where gender is made less relevant (Deutsch, 2007; Hirschauer, 2001) or gender is
enacted in challenging ways. In order to understand this point it is useful to turn to research by
Gherardi (1994, 1996) and Gherardi and Poggio (2001). They analyse the organizational dynamics
leading to the maintenance of the gender asymmetry in organizations. They do that through analys-
ing women’s narratives in male-dominated employment areas (IT, engineering and banking). Their
focus is on how a gender asymmetry is created and how ‘doing gender’ is understood as a way in
which gender identity is accentuated and ignored. For instance, gender identity is accentuated when
men hold a door open for women; through that behaviour the woman is constructed as woman. On
the other hand, gender identity is ignored in other situations when women are given a collegial slap
on the back — a practice more common among men. The woman is thus treated like ‘one of the men’


© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Volume 21 Number 2 March 2014

and gender is neglected or one could say enacted in a new way. In a similar vein, Bruni et al. (2004,
p. 423) show that the boundary between gender and entrepreneurship ‘is constantly blurred, tra-
versed and denied, but then jointly reconstructed a posteriori’. The process of citing a symbolic
gender order when positioning oneself as an entrepreneur is not as clear and stable as the gender
binary would suggest.

An example of how gender is done in subversive ways is provided by Johansson (1998). She
studied how meaning is made around gender and was able to show how paradoxical this meaning-
making process is in an ethnographic study involving interviews and observations in a restructuring
housing company. Like Bruni et al. (2004) and Gherardi and Poggio (2001), she argues that ‘doing
gender’ is understood as referring to dualistic gender stereotypes. For instance, some men in her
study complained about having to clean staircases after the reorganization; that was seen as a
woman’s task. However, some men reacted more neutrally towards the work extension and accepted
the new task as something they would do once in a while. Analysing her empirical material from the
perspective of multiple possibilities, she illustrates that gender identities are not clear-cut but that
different interpretations of masculinity and femininity are used in different situations. Gender iden-
tity is here cited in different and partly contradictory ways, which theoretically might open the
opportunity to ‘doing gender’ differently.

That gender identity can be done in normative as well as alternative ways is taken up in a
study by Hall et al. (2007) on ‘doing masculinity’. They differentiate occupational status, age
and also social class in analysing different masculinities relevant in fire fighting, hairdressing
and real estate agents. They show that, depending on situational constraints and job-related
objectives, men not only engage in practising different kinds of ‘masculinity’, but also what is
commonly framed as ‘femininity’. The study thereby highlights the subject’s agency in ‘doing
gender’ identity and opens up for further research the possibilities and also boundaries of agency
for ‘doing gender’.

Pullen and Simpson (2009) investigate how ‘masculinity’ is done and ‘femininity’ appropriated in
interviews with men. In contrast to Hall et al.’s study, they chose to investigate men working in
feminized occupations, as they were mainly interested in analysing how men negotiated being
different from women and positioned as ‘the Other’. They find that masculinity is both partially
subverted and constructed by men doing femininity when, for instance, emphasizing the caring
aspects of their jobs.

From these studies, it becomes apparent that there is no easy way to understand gender but that
one must pay attention to how the relevance of the gender binary changes from one situation to
another. It is thus important to explore not only how gender identity is done, but also how it is
‘undone’. Gender might be a relevant matrix in one situation, but not be taken up or done differently
in another. Being a woman or being a man may be enacted quite differently in different contexts and
might even be irrelevant in others. Furthermore, there is some flexibility in the normative assump-
tions on how gender should be done in a certain situation. Gender identity became a ‘practice of
improvisation within a scene of constraint’ (Butler, 2004, p. 1). As men can do ‘femininity’ and women
‘masculinity’, respectively, dominant or stereotypical understandings of ‘masculinity’ and ‘feminin-
ity’ might be subverted.

Conceptual and operational challenges of ‘doing gender’

Research on ‘doing gender’ in a work context has elaborated on the social construction of gender.
While the definitions of ‘doing gender’ provided in the studies sounded rather similar at first, our
analysis showed that there are major differences in how ‘doing gender’ is conceptualized and
operationalized. As Wickes and Emmison (2007) have shown, research is nowhere near as coherent
and monolithic as the common notion of ‘doing gender’ might suggest. ‘Doing gender’ is not only a
heterogeneous concept, used within different theoretical traditions, but also a far more complex
concept than often recognized.


Volume 21 Number 2 March 2014 © 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

On the basis of our analysis, we have shown that research on ‘doing gender’ can be systematized
based on five themes. First, ‘doing gender’ is linked to structures. Structures are seen as influencing
how gender is done. Second, it is important to note that ‘doing gender’ also involves ‘doing hierar-
chies’, which normally means that the masculine is privileged over the feminine. Third, ‘doing
gender’ means to explore how identities are constructed in a specific situation. While the earliest
empirical studies we discussed focused mainly on interaction practices and the role of structures and
hierarchy for constructing identity, more recent studies increasingly adopt perspectives of decentred
subjectivity as put forward by Butler’s work. They focus on the ways people adopt and create subject
positions and hence explore the context-specificity of ‘doing gender’ and gender identity. Finally,
gender is not always made relevant in the same way and can even be done in a subverting way.

The analysis of ‘doing gender’ based on these five themes helped us to systematize relevant issues
and point out important challenges for empirical studies analysing ‘doing gender’. For instance,
research on the relevance of occupational and organizational structures showed that structures are
available as resources for ‘doing’ or ‘undoing gender’, but never ultimately define what can be done
in a specific situation. Future research should be more specific about what is depicted as a feminized
or a masculinized structure and rather focus on how they are made relevant in the situation analysed
instead of taking for granted its importance for the doing of gender. Hence, research on doing gender
analysing the relevance of gendered structures should move from this rather static conceptualization
of structures to a perspective of ‘doing structure’ as well as, with regard to the next theme, issues of
‘hierarchization’. Furthermore, the theme of hierarchies highlights the importance of differences
between ‘doing masculinity’ and ‘doing femininity’ and hence masculine and feminine identities due
to inequalities. Future research could explore these as different practices instead of subsuming them
under the umbrella of ‘doing gender’.

From the perspective of identity, it was important to see that it is not necessarily men that do
masculinity and women femininity, respectively, but that both ‘doings’ are highly context specific.
Research should focus on the identity practices within the situation analysed rather than assuming
that somebody or something has a specific gender identity per se. Especially the themes of flexibility
and context specificity as well as gradual relevance/subversion have shown that it is precisely these
conflicting ways of ‘doing gender’ that would provide insight into how gender identity is done and
how gender as an external reality is created while doing a job. As gender seems to be highly
dependent on the context and gender identity rather flexible, what is gendered as feminine in one
context could be gendered masculine in another context.

Gender identity also marks the major conceptual turning point in the analysis of ‘doing gender’.
While studies relying on an ethnomethodological framework assume some stability in how gender
identity is done or undone, Butler’s notion of performativity highlights issues of fluidity and
paradox. However, studies are not as clear-cut as could be assumed from a theoretical perspective. In
both ‘camps’, empirical studies seem to struggle with how to analyse the actual ‘doing’ instead of only
assuming or defining something as gendered, masculine or feminine, respectively. It is in this sense
that we would see the notion of ‘doing gender’ as having only ceremonial consequences (Wickes and
Emmison, 2007).

This does not mean, however, that researchers have to select a ‘pure’ epistemological orientation
such as either ethnomethodological interactionism or poststructural discourse approaches. In fact,
research by Gherardi and co-authors (Gherardi and Poggio, 2007; Bruni et al., 2005) as well as Kelan
(2009) has shown that empirical studies on ‘doing gender’ can draw on a wealth of perspectives to
explore how gender is done.

Disentangling these five different aspects of what ‘doing gender’ can be about strikes us as highly
relevant for the future sophistication and theoretical development of the concept. The topology can
provide some guidance and systematization. Starting with the relevant questions that we have put
together in Table 2, researchers designing a study on ‘doing gender’ can systematize their research
questions, methodology and kind of knowledge they are gaining. Furthermore, being more precise
about different themes that ‘doing gender’ research can investigate, this systematization also enables
researchers to analyse possible interplays between the respective themes.


© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Volume 21 Number 2 March 2014

Using the topology for research design and developing analytic strategies will help to open the
black box of what one can focus on when studying gender in the workplace from a ‘doing gender’
perspective. The topology should also not be seen as a finished project and one might well expect that
new themes can emerge over time as the research in this area develops.


Our analysis has shown that theoretical debates on ‘doing gender’ seem to be very advanced and
nuanced, yet using these theoretical insights in empirical research remains a complex endeavour.
While gender identity is theorized as flexible and context specific, gradually relevant and also
subversive, all too often it is analysed as a static construct, an attribute of individuals as women and
men or of structures, such as masculine or feminine occupations or tasks. Our systematization of five
central themes sheds light on the challenging aspects of ‘doing gender’ research. If it is unclear what
‘doing gender’ means for different researchers and what they are focusing on, it is difficult to advance
the field through increased theoretical sophistication. One of the key limitations of ‘doing gender’ as
a theoretical and empirical concept is that it is often used in a ‘ceremonial’ way and not analysed in
accordance with its conceptual foundation. Being more specific about which aspects of ‘doing gender’
are focused on can hence help to develop theoretical sophistication. Our aim in the article was
therefore to develop a topology that can guide future research in focusing and targeting their research
on advancing the concept. Future research could benefit using this topology as a structure for
operationalization and the construction of research designs. The resulting empirical research would
help to further develop ‘doing gender’ as an approach.


The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editor for their useful comments
on an earlier version of this article and everyone who commented on the article in its previous forms.

Table 2: Relevant questions for research design and analysis

Relevant themes for ‘doing
gender’ research Relevant questions for research design and analysis

Structures • Why is it that we define the occupation or organization as

• What kinds of social structures can we identify in our field of
research as well as in our data to legitimize our account of
something being gendered/masculine/feminine? (historical,
economic, organizational, etc.)

Hierarchies • How are masculinity and femininity respectively made relevant?
• How are differences between masculinity and femininity

created in a hierarchical way?

Identity • How is the gender identity of individuals, but also tasks,
professions or occupations, made relevant in the material?

Flexible and context specific • What is the specific understanding of gender/masculinity/
femininity in this context?

• How does it differ across contexts in your research field?

Gradually relevant and subverted • How are gender differences emphasized, downplayed or


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Copyright of Gender, Work & Organization is the property of Wiley-Blackwell and its
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copyright holder’s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email
articles for individual use.

Body Beautiful? Gender, Identity
and the Body in Professional
Services Firmsgwao_583 489..507

Kathryn Haynes*

This article explores the professional identity formation of professionals
and its relationship with their embodied physical image, with a particular
focus on women in accounting and law. It examines the role of the profes-
sional services firm in defining a professional body image, socialization
processes that contribute to the definition of the professional body, the role
of the client in defining professionalism, the legitimation of certain types
of embodied identities and the importance of the body in defining gen-
dered perceptions of the self. The article draws on Bourdieu’s concepts of
capital to explore how physical capital is implicated in processes of social-
ization, subordination and control. By examining the development of pro-
fessional embodiment of women in accounting and law, and drawing on
interviews with contemporary practitioners, the article argues that notions
of physical capital remain highly gendered in professional services firms,
with implications for equality and diversity in the professions.

Keywords: body, professional services, identity, Bourdieu, physical capital


The two professions of accounting and law are the most established and
oldest of those encompassed in the professional services sector. Their

identification as a profession, with the attendant notions of public service,
client service, technical competence and professional characterization, make
them particularly relevant for study in the context of professional identity. The
nature of professional identity (Alvesson and Willmott, 2002), together with
career advancement for professional women in industrialized countries
(Davidson and Cooper, 1992), has long been recognized as problematic.

Address for correspondence: *Professor of Accounting, Newcastle University Business School,
Newcastle University, 5 Barrack Road, Newcastle, NE1 4SE, UK; e-mail: kathryn.haynes@


Gender, Work and Organization. Vol. 19 No. 5 September 2012

© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Previous research has identified the professions of accounting and law as
historically gendered (Sommerlad and Sanderson, 1998) and has acknowl-
edged problems for women in progressing in these professions (Kumra and
Vinnicombe, 2008). However, although there have been studies on gender
and identity in each of the relevant disciplines of accounting and law, very
few studies have drawn insights from both these professions simultaneously.

More significantly, despite interest in the role of the physical body in
popular culture (Shilling, 1993), little is known about the combined relation-
ship of gender, identity and the body in professions and professional service
firms. Yet, the physical body is an important facet of professionalism because
it is symbolic of aspects of identity and the self, an embodied representation
of a perceived identity (Haynes, 2008). Attitudes towards the body may also
be gendered suggesting that ‘the ways in which women’s and men’s bodies
are perceived, categorized and valued are undoubtedly important in legiti-
mizing and reproducing social inequalities in the [accounting] profession’
(Haynes, 2008, p. 345).

This article examines how professional identity is embodied and gendered
in professional services firms. Drawing from an international study of profes-
sionals in accounting and law firms in both the UK and the USA, it explores
the perceptions, experiences and professional identities of women practitio-
ners; examines how the identity of the professional is inscribed on the physi-
cal body; and considers the role of the professional services firm in defining,
controlling and legitimizing professional body image. The article also evalu-
ates the way women manage or utilise their physical body and the interaction
of professional work with the body in a number of ways, including dress,
body image, weight and demeanour.

In addressing these issues, the article draws from the theories of Pierre
Bourdieu, whose concept of physical capital is useful in understanding pro-
cesses of domination and subordination. Although Bourdieu does not
provide a detailed account of gendered orientations to the body, I extend his
insights to encompass gender and a form of gendered physical capital. In
doing so, the article fulfils a need for further research into relationships
between the body and the self, the impact of embodied practices at work,
and cultural issues affecting the embodied identities and working lives of
women practitioners in accounting and law. It draws implications for the
legitimation of certain cultural elements of embodied identities, which may
have the effect of marginalizing groups or individuals who may not
conform to acceptable bodily norms in a profession. In particular, these
bodily norms include gender, which the article addresses in some detail,
but may also derive from other embodied identities, encompassing race,
class, disability, age, or sexuality.

The article is structured as follows. Firstly, it provides a review of the
nature of gendered identities in professional services firms and secondly, it
introduces the concepts of embodiment, physical and cultural capital with


Volume 19 Number 5 September 2012 © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

reference to Bourdieu. After a methodology section, it discusses how women
professionals experience various aspects of professional embodiment, includ-
ing professional appearance, professional demeanour, interaction with the
client relationship, embodied expectations and control. Finally, the article
discusses the nature of embodied gendered physical capital and its implica-
tions for professional services firms.

Gendered identities in professional services firms

Both accounting and law have previously been considered masculine territo-
ries from which women have been excluded through barriers to entry. His-
torically the opportunity for women to become accountants was problematic,
as they were seen by some as both physically and intellectually unfit for such
a role (Lehman, 1992). Women’s oppression in accountancy interacted with
the development of power and influence in the profession itself and the
constitution of its knowledge base in terms of gender (Kirkham, 1992). Until
the latter half of the 20th century the professional echelons of accounting were
a male preserve in the UK, as the masculine qualities required of accounting
professionals ‘contrasted markedly with the image of the weak, dependent,
emotional “married” woman of mid-Victorian Britain’ (Kirkham and Loft,
1993, p. 516). Similarly, in the legal profession women were historically sub-
jected to significant barriers to entry. In many western countries women’s
admission to law occurred at the turn of the 19th to 20th century or during the
first decades of the 20th century as the progress of professionalization grew
apace, but entry to the judiciary occurred much more slowly (Schultz, 2003).
For example, in England and Wales women struggled to achieve equality
with men and were often subordinated into the least prestigious sections of
the profession (Sommerlad and Sanderson, 1998) and in Canada monopolies
on legal services gave law societies significant power to exclude women from
the profession (Brockman, 2001). Despite professions such as accounting and
law appearing to have accepted the close tying of educational credentials to
meritocratic access as an ‘ideological necessity’, their role in supporting
access to status required restricted entry (Larson, 1977, p. 51). Hence, profes-
sional practices, such as restricting access to work experience requirements,
have contributed to historical and continued professional closure for those
seen as ‘other’, as a result of their gender, race, or class (Francis and
Sommerlad, 2009; Hammond, 2002; Sommerlad, 2007).

Recent decades have seen significant increases each year in the numbers
of women attracted to these professions and the professional service firms in
them. In the case of law, the percentage of female students enrolling with the
Law Society in the UK consistently reached around 62 per cent in the years
from 2001 to 2009 (Law Society, 2010), whereas in accounting, worldwide
numbers of female student members of the six major UK accounting bodies


© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume 19 Number 5 September 2012

between 2002 to 2009 were consistent at 48 per cent (Professional Oversight
Board for Accountancy, 2010). However, women attempting to progress to
the higher echelons of professional services firms, particularly in the critical
promotion to partnership, may find their progress inhibited due to a number
of issues, including gender discrimination (Nicolson, 2005), the combination
of professional and family commitments (Johnson et al., 2008), stereotypical
assumptions about parenting (Hagan and Kay, 1995), the need to fit a pre-
vailing masculine model of performance or success (Jonnergård et al., 2010;
Kumra and Vinnicombe, 2008, 2010) and ‘marked segmentation between
largely feminine, community orientated and relatively underpaid special-
isms on the one side and male-dominated, corporate oriented and remu-
nerative practice areas on the other’ (Bolton and Muzio, 2007, p. 58). This
stratification of law into different types of firms, legal specialisms and orga-
nizations fractures women’s experiences of law (Sommerlad, 2003). The
hegemonic masculinity of mainstream laws is accentuated as a result of the
feminization of the profession occurring in niches of legal practice that are
‘naturalized’ as female and where women play a ‘maternal’ caring role
(Sommerlad, 2003). As a result, many women exit professional services firms
at an early stage (Accountancy, 2008) and those women who do stay in
practice often find there is a ceiling on their status and monetary compen-
sation (Hagan and Kay, 1995).

Professional identities may also be gendered due to stereotypes associated
with masculine and feminine social and cultural norms in professional ser-
vices firms. Organizational decision-makers in hiring decisions perceive can-
didates through the lens of gender stereotypes (Gorman, 2005) and as women
attempt to pass through organizational hierarchies in corporate law firms, the
traditional male domination of upper level positions intensify these decision-
maker biases (Gorman and Kmec, 2009). Moreover, women are subjected to
stricter performance standards than men when undertaking the same job
(Gorman and Kmec, 2007) and are likely to be rewarded less than their male
counterparts (Kay and Gorman, 2008). Hence, the professional and organiza-
tional discourses forming the socialization processes in accounting and law
exercise a significant degree of institutional power in the shaping of the
individual (Anderson-Gough et al., 1998; Sommerlad, 1998), which may have
significant gendered effects.

Professional identity formation in the physical form of the professional
has also been argued to be embodied as inherently masculine (Thornton,
2007). The norm of bodily presence is an integral dimension of the culture
of legal practice (Thornton and Bagust, 2007). Haynes’ (2008) study of
women accounting professionals demonstrated the significance of the
physical body in the formation of the personal and professional self, where
the body becomes a vehicle for displaying conformity, or indeed non-
conformity, to gendered social norms. For example, forms of organizational
and professional embodiment may clash with other forms of gendered


Volume 19 Number 5 September 2012 © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

embodied self, such as that experienced during pregnancy and in early
motherhood, affecting embodied practices, emotions and identities and
leading to disillusion and disengagement by women accountants, with
serious implications for the future of the profession (Haynes, 2008). It is to
the significance of the body in professional work which I now turn.

Concepts of embodiment, physical and cultural capital

The concept of embodiment emphasizes the lived body of a subject who
knows the world through bodily perception. Thus, the body is a phenom-
enologically lived entity through which we experience our everyday lives,
as well as a socially constructed phenomenon influenced by social and cul-
tural forces. As Hall et al. (2007, p. 535) suggest: ‘Embodiment concerns
the body we are [my emphasis] and, as such, enables an understanding of
the dialectical processes of identification as they unfold in particular social

The constraints and context of professional services firms therefore
form an important part of understanding gendered embodiment, in which
Bourdieu’s (1977, 1984, 1986) theories of practice and capital provide some
useful theoretical explanation. Bourdieu is concerned with how various forms
of capital support symbolic power and dominance. He outlines a form of
cultural capital which is accumulated in part from educational credentials
and institutionalized in social systems and practices, supported by social
capital arising from powerful social networks (Bourdieu, 1986). Cultural
capital encapsulates cultivated dispositions that are internalized by the indi-
vidual through socialization processes that constitute schemes of meaning
and understanding so that all forms of cultural capital are said to be embod-
ied (Swartz, 1997). For Bourdieu, the body is a bearer of symbolic value and
a form of physical capital: a possessor of power, status, and distinctive sym-
bolic forms, which is integral to the accumulation of various resources linked
to the acquisition of status and distinction (Shilling, 1993).

Bourdieu (1984) suggests that any given embodied practice can only be
understood diacritically, that is, in relation to other practices in the same
context. His concept of habitus represents the socially constituted system
which inculcates a world based on, and reconciled to, these practices
(Bourdieu, 1977). The concept of field is the social arena in which struggles
for, or access to, resources occur, which is interdependent with the notion
of capital, as ‘capital does not exist and function except in relation to a field’
(Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992, p. 101). Agents are positioned in fields
according to the overall volume and relative combinations of capital avail-
able to them, hence capital is a key constraint or stake in the development
and range of possible strategies and actions available to agents in the
struggle to gain ascendancy (Malsch et al., 2011). Habitus contributes to the


© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume 19 Number 5 September 2012

reproduction of field as individuals are habituated towards interpretive
schemes interposed with power relations, such as in the social and cultural
context of the professions.

Furthermore, Bourdieu’s (1996) analysis of the state nobility, the dominant
social groups whose legitimacy is supported by their accredited education
qualifications, may be said to relate to professions such as accounting and law.
In these contexts the acquisition of knowledge and technical expertise is part
of what constitutes the ‘social magic’ of the state nobility (Bourdieu, 1996, p.
118), or the dominance of an elite. This is reminiscent of the recent so-called
Milburn Report on fair access to the professions in the UK that noted the
propensity of professional services firms to recruit from a narrowing range of
elite universities and ‘the frequent practice of professions recruiting from
existing cultural circles and thus exclud[ing] many potential candidates who
are regarded as being from “outside” the circle’ (Panel of Fair Access to the
Professions, 2009, p. 50). Moreover, the state nobility is imbued with ‘bodily
hexis, clothing, ways of speaking’ and a ‘distinguished’ appearance, demon-
strating its cultural and physical capital (Bourdieu, 1996, pp. 35 and 180).
These concepts will be analysed below, once the methodology to the study
has been outlined.


The data in this article derive from a 2-year funded research project involving
professional services firms in the USA and the UK. These geographical areas
are where most of the largest and, therefore, arguably the most influential
professional services firms originate, although it is acknowledged that cul-
tural contexts may differ in and between these contexts and with other parts
of the world. The article draws from semi-structured interviews carried out
with 15 female practitioners in the USA and 15 in the UK. The interviewees
were initially sourced through personal contacts in the two professions and
through contacting professional women’s networking groups, followed by
snowballing techniques whereby additional interviewees were referred to me
through contacts, an invaluable source when the potential participants are
few in number or difficult to ascertain, or where some degree of trust is
required to initiate contact (Atkinson and Flint, 2001). In this case, the fact that
I am a former accountant enabled me to utilise personal contacts from aca-
demia, accounting and law, and develop some degree of trust with partici-
pants through a shared experience of the sector.

The interviews ranged in length from 1 to 3 hours and took place either in
the firm’s offices, in a public place or in the participant’s home. All were
recorded with the permission of the participant and were then transcribed. I
listened to the tapes while scrutinizing the transcript, the first time to correct
for any errors, and the second time to annotate them with significant


Volume 19 Number 5 September 2012 © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

examples of emotion, changes of tone and emphasis. Further interpretive
narrative analysis took place in subsequent readings by drawing out any
references or inferences to the body or embodiment.

All the participants in the study were drawn from large professional ser-
vices firms: the lawyers from international corporate law firms; about half of
the accountants from Big 4 firms and the remainder from large second-tier
firms, located either in west coast states of the USA or in sizable cities in the
UK. Participants ranged in their experience from second-year associate
lawyers and accountants with 3 year’s post-qualification experience to equity
partners with up to 25 years’ experience. All the participants were white,
except two in the USA who originated from Asian backgrounds. As might be
expected from professionally qualified practitioners, all the participants had
high educational qualifications.

However, it is important to stress that the participants were not intended to
form a large representative sample of practitioners from professional services
firms in accounting and law, or to provide a geographical comparison. Both
professions encompass a wide range of organizational sites, and while in this
case the participants were drawn from large firms, the research was designed
to explore and interpret the experiences of professionals rather than sample a
specific population. The in-depth interviews intended to ascertain how they
perceived the importance or otherwise of the physical presentation of the self,
the body and its interaction with their identity as lawyer or accountant and to
examine the circumstances and effects of the presentation of their professional
physical body. Due to the nature of the two professions of accounting and law
and their requisite professional identity, participants may have had embodied
experiences that were potentially or to some extent similar, but how they dealt
with them and felt about them may be different. While the sample of partici-
pants is not intended to be generalizable, the analysis provides some insight
into the relationship that professionals in large professional services firms have
with their bodies and the interaction of professional work and identity with the
body, which allows for the drawing of some implications for the embodiment
of the professions. I now turn to the analysis of the interviews.

‘What is professional?’ A professional appearance

The participants in the study expressed awareness that the nature of profes-
sionalism incorporates aspects of presentation, embodied in the form of
required attire or dress:

We won’t let our junior associates, you know, go to Court without a jacket.
They know they have to have a jacket at the office, even if it is a simple 2
second, you know, put an uncontested motion on the record in front of the
Judge. (Partner A, law firm)


© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume 19 Number 5 September 2012

It is common for professional services firms to inculcate and reinforce pro-
fessional identity and the required embodied behaviour and appearance
through socialization mechanisms such as in-house courses and training

The whole group of first level people will go up to our headquarters and
there will be two or three days’ training. Now 90 per cent of it will be
technical, you know: how to audit, how to do that, but they often throw in
something light, like business etiquette or how to present yourself, and
appropriate dress and appropriate behaviour and how to eat properly.
(Partner A, accounting firm)

In addition, individual practitioners learn acceptable appropriate behaviour
and appearance by mimicking the behaviour of others:

You got it just from being in the office environment, a lot of it, you just saw
people. (Audit manager A)

Cultural codes in firms are disseminated through informal discourse and
networks of common understanding that act to reinforce informal rules and

People were pulled up about things … for example they would never say
‘boys can’t wear ear rings’, but if one of the lads went in with an ear ring
he’d be told and everybody would know about it and it was like, ‘Oh well,
you don’t do that type of thing’. (Audit manager, B)

The exact nature of required professional self–presentation, through dress
and appearance, however, is difficult to define and is not always explicit. For
women, in particular, this form of professional embodied identity may be
difficult to negotiate because the informal rules governing women’s attire and
appearance are not as explicit or traditional as the archetypal professional
male suit:

We have had a series of ongoing discussions in the firm where we have
some younger female associates who, you know … some of them either
dress too casually and some of them dress too trendily so in both cases it is
not quite professional enough, but then it sparked this whole conversation
of what is professional? (Partnership-track lawyer)

Women have to present themselves in a way that exudes their status and
ability as professionals, and adds credibility to their competence:

I certainly find that with women they have got to understand the conse-
quences of the way that they are dressing and if they dress in a way that is
not traditionally professional, or too casual, or too sort of trendy that veers
away from the business look, I think it affects their credibility. (Partner B,
law firm)


Volume 19 Number 5 September 2012 © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Moreover, non-conformity or some kind of faux pas in terms of appearance
can affect acceptability as a bona fide professional, as this comment from a
partner describing a recruitment situation demonstrates:

The two men were dressed in suits and the two women had a kind of a pant
suit and a skirt type suit on but then one of them had gigantic shoes on and
it was kind of like, ‘Okay, you were almost there honey, I almost would
have taken you seriously’…. I never saw her again. (Partner A, law firm)

To some degree this struggle to be taken seriously may relate to youthfulness
and inexperience, hence applying to both men and women, but what the
quotes show is that being taken seriously for women is interrelated with their
display of professional embodiment.

‘Professional demeanour’ and the client relationship

Relationships with clients have been identified as an important influence on
service provision (Oerton, 2004), particularly in what McDowell (2009) terms
interactive service work where both the consumer and the provider of the
service are present and the service generally ends at the time of the exchange.
In professional services, the relationship with the client is likely to be of a
longer term nature and more relational than in low-skilled service work,
allowing the client to act as a regulating force in defining service provision
(Anderson-Gough et al., 2000; Kornberger et al., 2010). The role of the client in
professional services firms is therefore central to defining the nature of pro-
fessionalism and how this is embodied. The expectations of the client impact
on the requirement of a professional image:

There is a reputation issue and an image issue, and everyone is so freaked
out about what is the client going to think? If I question someone’s cred-
ibility because of their appearance or anything like that then you know the
client is going to question it even more. (Partner B, accounting firm)

Professional presentation is related to the credibility of a professional in the
eyes of the client, as this senior manager involved in recruitment explained:

How they present themselves, their dress, demeanour and so on, is in the
mix as well because we have to consider, you know, you are going to be
going out to a client, would you be presentable to a client? So if they do not
carry themselves very well or they are not very dressed up, … it’s kind of
like, ‘OK, do they not understand’ or, you know, ‘Do they not care?’ (Senior
manager A, accounting)

Here the service ethic from a professional to their client is related to embodied
conduct, or ‘carrying oneself’, as if the degree of expertise and professional-
ism is encapsulated in the physical body. However, the exact nature of


© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume 19 Number 5 September 2012

professional embodiment and professionalism is elusive and ephemeral,
relating to self-presentation and demeanour:

The other thing that we certainly look at is professional presence. Is this
person someone we feel comfortable we could send him [sic] out to the
client and they would be able to articulate things clearly, present them-
selves in a professional way, you know, show that sort of professional
demeanour. (Senior manager B, accounting)

Professional embodiment therefore involves meeting the expectations of
clients and fellow professionals by looking the part to maintain credibility,
and conducting oneself with gravitas and appropriate body language.

Women negotiating ‘professional demeanour’

For women professionals, however, not only do they have to negotiate their
attire and dress, but also how they perform this elusive ‘professional
demeanour’, which encapsulates speech and manner. While promotion com-
mittees and recruiters are looking for ‘speaking with some kind of impact’,
women’s experiences of speaking authoritatively are met negatively as over-
bearing. In this quote, the participant recalls a promotion committee discuss-
ing a female candidate for promotion to partner status:

We disagreed with the hiring partner on a candidate … his reaction … to the
way that she was speaking, because she does have this very authoritative
manner of speaking, is that she was strident and he couldn’t get past that
and listen to what she was saying because she was so strident and he felt
attacked. (Associate lawyer A)

Women found that to assert their authority in professional services firms in
the traditionally male-dominated environments of the law and accounting
professions, they had to tread ‘a very fine line between assertive and shrill
and you can’t go over the shrill line’ (Partner C, law firm). They were aware
of the need to be assertive but not to be perceived as overly aggressive even
though the nature of the job requires a degree of physical presence, perfor-
mativity and authority. For the lawyers, particularly when advocating
in court, the role is ‘performative in the sense that the essence or identity
that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and
sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means’ (Butler,
1990, p. 185). Nevertheless, acceptable performativity is gendered as

Some people talked to me about my manner of speaking: ‘Maybe you need
to tone it down a little bit you know’ — it is ridiculous because I had to do
it to kind of give me authority in Court, to have authority to be among the


Volume 19 Number 5 September 2012 © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

men, and then I did it and the men are like, ‘We’re feeling defensive and
scared’. (Associate lawyer C)

Society’s cultural expectations are that women embody softer, feminine
attributes, whereas in law, the nature of the work sometimes involves pow-
erful advocacy which requires more assertive behaviour. Women who
are deemed to be acting contrary to femininity and embodying the more
masculine attributes required by the law profession are subject to negative

If a man had made the same arguments, in the same manner, in the same
way as a woman, you know they were just protecting their clients’ interests
or whatever, but if a woman does it, she is a bitch. That is one of the things
for women, at least in litigation, it is more of a problem for women to be
taking strong positions and arguing forcefully and striking that balance. If
you do it too much you are a bitch, that is how you would be characterized
and you know, with some people, if you do it at all you are a bitch. (Partner
A, law firm)

The elusive and ephemeral professional demeanour that encapsulates body
language, manner and speech may have differential sets of performative
criteria for men and women, so that what is regarded as professional for a
man may be regarded as too masculine for a woman.

Gendered embodied expectations and control

The women in the study were conscious of how they utilised, maintained or
developed their bodies in order to fit more successfully into the masculine
culture of professional services firms. Sometimes this involved the use of
natural attributes which enabled them to fit more easily into the symbolic
order of professionalism:

You may have noticed I am extraordinarily tall and I think it has actually
served me very well in law and in a male dominated profession because I
think that I do get accorded a lot more credibility because of that … people
think that I am older or more experienced or more confident or sure of
myself or whatever…. I think that does work to your advantage in law.
(Associate lawyer A)

At other times they were conscious of compensating for their apparent lack of
fit and professional demeanour by altering their self-presentation through the
management of their body. This includes simply out-dressing others, using
clothes as a cloak of professionalism:

I sort of think that if you go to a meeting and you are the only women in the
room you better be the best dressed one there, and if you go to a meeting


© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume 19 Number 5 September 2012

with clients and you are the accountant you better be dressed one notch
above the client. (Senior Manager D, accounting)

Some aspects of physical appearance, such as size, race, age or physical
disability, cannot be disguised. Individuals may feel marginalized on a
number of fronts due to their physical appearance, which cause them, as in
the case of the lawyer being described here, to feel the need to compensate, by
wearing ‘these fantastic suits and dresses and, you know, high heels and
things to overcome her petite size and the fact that she looks so young’ in
order to adopt some of the characteristics of professionalism.

While obesity and size are issues for both men and women in modern
capitalist societies, the need to control body weight is an issue that pervades
popular culture in terms of women’s embodiment. Being overweight sug-
gests an apparent lack control of one’s body, which this participant, aware of
her own large size, was conscious of:

I think there is still the misconception as far as body image goes that if you
are fat it is your fault, you are fat because you choose to eat too much … so
I have always been aware of it. (Partner A, law firm)

Control of the body and its outward display, through being physically fit,
healthy and an appropriate weight, can be said to be indicative of being in
control of one’s rationality and corporeal presence, central to the embodiment
of the professional in accounting and law:

They want you to appear fit and healthy and you know you cannot be
overweight, they encourage you to be healthy … they do encourage that.
(Associate lawyer B)

Those who do not conform to this norm struggle to attain the professional
demeanour and professional embodiment so prized in professional services

A colleague, she looks young, and she is also very heavy, and … I have seen
her struggle throughout her career with being taken seriously, and unfor-
tunately I think some of it has to do with her weight, and … she had all her
own issues about it already and then I think on top of it she was being
judged for it, which is unfortunate, but I think law firms in a lot of ways are
kind of shallow. (Associate lawyer A)

Even those who have ostensibly achieved success by achieving partnership
status may have done so at a personal cost of significant strain on the body:

The worst part is the stress, I mean I don’t look like that anymore, in terms
of the photograph they took after I [was made partner], you know, so on the
whole, you lose some part of yourself. (Partner D, law firm)


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This comment from a partner was striking in its veracity as I had visited her
web pages to glean some background information prior to our meeting and
almost did not recognize the woman I met from the photograph on the
website. Long hours, associated tiredness, a sedentary working life and an
inability to plan weekend physical activities with friends due to work com-
mitments had led to her sense of physical deterioration.

Discussion: gendered physical capital

The preceding sections have identified that concepts of professionalism in
accounting and law are ephemeral, encapsulating dress and self-presentation,
speech and manner, which might be termed professional demeanour, and
which relate directly to the body. This relates to Bourdieu’s (1984) argument
that the body has become commodified in modern societies and is central to
the acquisition of status and distinction. The body is a bearer of symbolic
power, through its form of physical capital, and in its ‘embodied states, as
modes of speech, accent, style, beauty and so forth’ (Bourdieu, 1984, p. 243).
There is also an interrelationship between the development of the body and
the habitus, such that the context in which the commodification of embodi-
ment takes place will clearly influence the outcome. Bourdieu’s concept of
habitus suggests that understanding the socially constituted system of a
profession such as accounting and law is central to understanding the culture
and socialization of professional embodiment. Habitus encapsulates

the general dispositions, inclinations, attitudes, and value of any particular
field that are embodied in the field’s inhabitants and are durably incorpo-
rated in their bodies … in short, habitus is the logic or code for the social
behaviour of a field. (Macintosh, 2009, p. 3, cited in Malsch et al., 2011)

As Bourdieu (1977, p. 94) puts it, values are ‘given body’ and culture is ‘made
body’ within a field. Moreover, institutions seek to produce

a new man [sic] through the process of ‘deculturation’ and ‘reculturation’
… set[ting] such store on the seemingly most insignificant details of dress,
bearing, physical and verbal manners … treating the body as a memory, they
entrust to it in abbreviated and practical form the fundamental principles
of the arbitrary content of the culture. (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 94, italics in

Hence, while organizations as a context have long been termed masculine
enterprises (Acker, 1990; Kanter, 1977) in which the woman’s body is expe-
rienced as marginal (Brewis and Sinclair, 2000; Gatrell, 2011a, 2011b;
Trethewey, 1999), professional embodiment, in the context of professional
services firms in accounting and law, has a particular form of commodifica-
tion and physical capital arising from the very nature of these professions.


© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume 19 Number 5 September 2012

Though not homogenous, accounting and law firms, as professional services
organizations, are dominated by the concept of the client and the client
interest, with a long history of male domination and masculine cultures.
Despite there being no intention to compare firms geographically in this
study, participants from both the UK and the USA faced similar embodied
norms, suggesting that, despite the potential for national differences, profes-
sional norms may override cultural differences in terms of doing gendered
identity. The socialization processes of mimicking behaviour, approbation or
disapprobation in professional services firms in accounting and law form
what Bourdieu refers to as a ‘structural apprenticeship, which leads to the
embodying of the structures of the world, that is, appropriating by the world
of a body thus enabled to appropriate the world’ (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 89). In
other words,

there is a dialectical relationship between the body and the context in
which it operates, each informing the other, such that the rules, hierarchies
and metaphysical commitments of professional culture are inscribed on the
body, and the body reflects this back. (Haynes, 2008, p. 343)

The concept of physical capital is persuasive in understanding how embodied
forms acquire status and distinction. Where Bourdieu’s work is less compre-
hensive is in applying this to gendered constructs,1 particularly outside the
domestic context. Where a culture has been historically highly masculine, as
in accounting and law, the socialized embodied forms become synonymous
with masculine attributes that even Bourdieu recognizes as ‘typically mascu-
line and bourgeois virtues … character, manliness, leadership’ (Bourdieu,
1996, p. 118). Of course, men are also subject to this embodied characteriza-
tion and socialization. I have shown in this study, however, how women find
it difficult to identify and negotiate the ephemeral nature of professional
demeanour, dress appearance, and self-presentation and I argue that this is
because the pervasive culture and embodied identity of professional services
firms in accounting and law remains inherently masculine. Through a process
of commodification and socialization, women feel compelled to compensate
for a lack of ‘natural’ masculine characteristics but are equally criticized for
asserting themselves too much. Moreover, their bodies are subjected to a
controlling masculine rationality in maintaining their embodied characteris-
tics in relation to voice, weight and self-presentation such that, as Grosz (1994,
p. 13) points out:

A convenient self-justification for women’s secondary social position … [is
to] contain them within bodies that are represented, even constructed, as
frail, imperfect, unruly, and unreliable, subject to various intrusions that are
not under conscious control.

These symbolic distinctions associating social attributes with gendered
bodies become crucial in constructing and legitimating hierarchical and
inegalitarian evaluations of worth in professional services firms.


Volume 19 Number 5 September 2012 © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Bourdieu (1977, p. 184) argues that it is the degree of objectification asso-
ciated with physical capital, by which he means the interactions between
people and institutionalized hierarchical mechanisms, that is the basis of
modes of domination. To relate this idea to professional services firms, we
could say that the symbolic value of (masculine) professional embodiment is
embedded in the culture of the profession to such a degree that it is regarded
as natural and rewards those who more closely relate to its forms, thus
reinforcing the culture and reproducing the inegalitarian forms of worth in a
type of vicious circle. This is what Bourdieu characterizes as symbolic vio-
lence, which develops not only when subordinate agents internalize the dis-
courses of dominant agents as natural, but also when dominant agents come
to perceive their own domination as natural (Neu et al., 2003). Moreover, state
nobility confers what Bourdieu (1996, p. 104) calls a ‘dialectic of consecration
and recognition’ which enables elite institutions ‘to attract individuals who
most closely conform to its explicit and implicit demands and who are the
least likely to alter it’. This is what enables professional services firms to
reproduce themselves in their own image, recruiting from a relatively narrow
pool of institutions, and makes it very difficult and slow to change the culture
of embodied identities.

While much of the performance of gender in organizations may appear
routinized, the practice of ‘doing gender’ may at the same time involve
individuals in attempting to resist the production or reproduction of gen-
dered identities (Pullen and Knights, 2007), an issue which Bourdieu fails to
address in detail. Nor does he give any degree of attention to the phenom-
enological nature of the body, the ‘lived’ body, with all its frailties. However,
as Ross-Smith and Huppatz (2010) point out, Bourdieu’s concepts of capital
transcend dichotomies of dominance and subordination to facilitate under-
standing of the complex nature of gender power, and the way it is contested,
in organizations. In such a way, the women in this study, rather than naively
accepting the professional embodied identities imposed in their profession,
showed a clear reflexive awareness of the ‘illusio’ (belief in the game)
(Bourdieu, 1984, p. 54), playing the game in order to succeed, which meant
that they sometimes had to endorse the very masculine norms and values that
they might otherwise wish to reject. They consciously utilised and worked
their bodies to support their credibility and authority, through dress, voice
and self-presentation, yet were aware of the sacrifice they had made of
their bodies, working through tiredness and pain, in order to develop and
maintain their professional identities.


The professions have come under scrutiny in relation to opportunities for
entry and career development for professionals for many decades. While


© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume 19 Number 5 September 2012

barriers to entry have largely been overcome for women in accounting and
law, progression through the hierarchy remains problematic and women are
not being retained in professional services firms in the numbers that might be
expected (Law Society, 2010; Professional Oversight Board for Accountancy,
2010), an issue which has concerned governments and the professions alike
(Panel of Fair Access to the Professions, 2009).

Drawing from interviews with women professionals in accounting and law
firms, this article has examined an aspect of working life which remains
problematic — the relationship between the body and identity in professional
services firms. I suggest that concepts of professional identity and gendered
embodiment are closely interlinked. The physical body is an important facet
of professionalism because it is symbolic of aspects of identity and the self, an
embodied representation of a perceived identity. The findings suggest that, in
terms of gender, the historical challenges of gendered body image and fitness
to practice remain an issue in contemporary firms. Bourdieu’s theories of
capital, particularly physical capital, are used to argue that professional
embodiment remains resolutely masculine.

While women are conscious of managing their embodied identities in this
context and may use some degree of agency to resist these cultural norms,
they are still subjected to marginalization as certain forms of physical capital
are associated with legitimate professional identity. Moreover, physical
capital and a particular masculine form of professional embodiment become
associated with hierarchical and inegalitarian notions of worth. Women have
to tread a fine line between hiding negatively constructed aspects of feminin-
ity while displaying positively construed masculine forms of embodiment in
order to be taken seriously. These issues may have severe implications for the
women themselves as they subsume facets of their identity and sacrifice
aspects of their bodies. They also have potentially serious implications for the
professions. While the women in this study have all remained in the profes-
sion and some have achieved partnership status, the findings might help to
explain if and how women continue to feel marginalized in accounting and

Future research might usefully research the impact of such gendered
embodiment on women who have left professional services firms to pursue
other options. It might also consider the impact on men of embodied identi-
ties in the professional context. Importantly, the concept of professional
embodied identity might be applied to other groups known to be marginal-
ized in the professions on grounds of race, disability, and social background,
which remain tangible issues in allowing equality of opportunity in profes-
sions (Panel of Fair Access to the Professions, 2009). If only certain forms of
embodied identities are regarded as legitimate, there are serious implications
for cultural, social and physical capital and for the careers and identities of
individuals, if they are to secure equal access to status, career progression and


Volume 19 Number 5 September 2012 © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd


This research was funded by an Advanced Institute of Management Fellow-
ship, RES-331-27-0022A, funded by the Economic and Social Research
Council, to whom grateful thanks are extended. The author would also like to
thank the Center for Professional Integrity and Accountability at Portland
State University, USA, and Jesse and Nancy Dillard, for their hospitality and
support in undertaking the USA interviews. Thanks also to Alan Murray for
support, to the three anonymous reviewers for constructive comments and to
all the women who took part in the study.


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Trait Self-Esteem Moderates the Effect of Initiator

Status on Emotional and Cognitive Responses to

Romantic Relationship Dissolution

Katherine L. Waller and Tara K. MacDonald

Queen’s University

ABSTRACT We hypothesized that the effect of initiator status on
post breakup distress would vary as a function of trait self-esteem, such
that individuals with low self-esteem would experience more distress after
being rejected by their partners, whereas, among individuals with high
self-esteem, initiator status would not predict distress. We used a pro-
spective design in which university students (N5 66) were assessed for
emotional responses following the dissolution of their real-life romantic
relationships, as well as a laboratory design in which students (N5 190)
imagined breaking up with their partners. As predicted, participants with
lower trait self-esteem exhibited greater distress after experiencing or
imagining a romantic rejection than after ending or imagining themselves
ending their relationships. Conversely, distress experienced by those with
high trait self-esteem did not differ as a function of who ended the rela-
tionship. Implications for understanding self-esteem processes and the
effects of romantic rejection are discussed.

Why do some individuals ‘‘bounce back’’ relatively quickly after the
dissolution of a relationship, whereas others experience a greater

This research is based on a doctoral dissertation submitted by Katherine Waller, and

we gratefully acknowledge the contributions of committee members Lee Fabrigar and

Uzma Rehman.

This project was supported by a Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR)

operating grant and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

(SSHRC) Standard Research Grant awarded to Tara K. MacDonald, as well as an

Ontario Graduate Studies and an SSHRC doctoral fellowship awarded to Katherine


Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Tara K. MacDon-

ald, Department of Psychology, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada K7L

3N6. Email: [email protected].

Journal of Personality 78:4, August 2010
r 2010, Copyright the Authors
Journal compilation r 2010, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2010.00650.x

amount, and more prolonged duration, of psychological distress?

Although perceptions and behavior in romantic relationships is one
of the most widely researched areas in social psychology, compar-

atively little research has investigated the effect of the end of ro-
mantic relationships on the well-being of the members of the couple.

It is known that divorce and marital separation are associated with
an increased prevalence of negative outcomes, such as psychiatric

illness, automobile accidents, addictions, homicide, and suicide (for
reviews, see Bloom, Asher, & White, 1978; Kitson & Morgan, 1990).

Most of these data are nonexperimental, raising the possibility that
the negative outcomes observed in divorced individuals are not
caused by, but rather co-occur with, the dissolution of the marital

relationship. However, more recent investigations of adolescents and
young adults have shown that romantic breakups predicted the onset

of major depressive disorder (Monroe, Rohde, Seeley, & Lewinsohn,
1999) and major depressive episodes (Overbeek, Vollebergh, Engels,

& Meeus, 2003), suggesting that romantic breakups can contribute
to the development of psychiatric illness, at least for young people.

The severity of these negative outcomes makes research into factors
that contribute to post-breakup distress and maladjustment an im-
portant endeavor.

Interestingly, while the empirical literature supports the notion
that the dissolution of a romantic relationship almost always in-

volves some degree of distress, the magnitude and nature of the dis-
tress vary. Indeed, a handful of investigations has shown that the end

of a romantic relationship can sometimes lead to perceptions of
personal growth and positive life change, even when the breakup has

occurred recently (Buehler, 1987; Helgeson, 1994; Tashiro & Frazier,
2003). Clearly, the characteristics of the relationship, the breakup,

and the individual must influence the emotional consequences of the
termination of a romantic relationship.

Pertinent to the present research, one factor that has received

some attention in the research literature on the termination of ro-
mantic relationships is initiator status, or whose decision it was to

end the relationship. Findings related to the effect of initiator status
on distress and adjustment are mixed and difficult to interpret.

Among divorcées, there is some evidence that female (but not male)
noninitiators are initially more distressed after a divorce than are

female initiators (Goode, 1956; Pettit & Bloom, 1984). How-
ever, other investigations have found no postdivorce/separation

1272 Waller & MacDonald

differences between initiators and noninitiators in terms of emotional

distress, depressive symptoms, or self-esteem for men or for women
(Kincaid & Caldwell, 1991; Newman & Langer, 1981). Moreover,

another investigation showed that initiators actually experienced more
emotional distress than did noninitiators (Buehler, 1987).

Investigations with dating populations are similarly inconsistent.
In four different samples, both men and women reported more emo-

tional and/or physical distress when they did not make the decision
to end their relationship than when they did (Davis, Shaver, & Ver-

non, 2003; Hill, Rubin, & Peplau, 1976; Sprecher, 1994; Sprecher,
Felmlee, Metts, Fehr, & Vanni, 1998), although initiators reported
more guilt and self-blame. In contrast, other researchers have found

no differences in emotional distress and/or perception of personal
growth as a function of initiator status (Sbarra, 2006; Simpson, 1990;

Tashiro & Frazier, 2003). Yet another investigation suggested that
noninitiating men exhibited poorer emotional adjustment than did

initiating men, whereas there was no relationship between initiator
status and adjustment for women (Helgeson, 1994).

These mixed findings are perplexing, especially given that the con-
flicting studies do not differ systematically in terms of the types of
dependent measures used, the amount of time elapsed since the

breakup, or whether the participants came from a divorced/sepa-
rated population or from a dating population. In addition, the find-

ing that initiator status does not always predict intensity of emotional
distress after a breakup is somewhat counterintuitive. A large body of

research indicates that interpersonal rejection, romantic or otherwise,
is a distressing experience, resulting in a wide variety of negative

emotional responses (see Leary, Koch, & Hechenbleikner, 2001, for a
review). Baumeister, Wotman, and Stillwell (1993) showed that being

rejected by the object of one’s affection in situations of unrequited
love results in intense distress and a loss of self-esteem. Furthermore,
in laboratory settings, people are quite sensitive even to mild inter-

personal rejection manipulations (e.g., imagining rejection, being re-
jected by a stranger), responding with sadness, hurt feelings, anxiety,

anger, loneliness, shame, and decreased state self-esteem (e.g., Bour-
geois & Leary, 2001; Buckley, Winkel, & Leary, 2004; Leary, Cottrell,

& Phillips, 2001; Leary, Haupt, Strausser, & Chokel, 1998), although
other studies have found that rejection does not consistently have an

effect on mood (e.g., Baumeister, DeWall, Ciarocco, & Twenge, 2005;
Twenge, Catenese, & Baumeister, 2002).

Self-Esteem and Initiator Status 1273

That people are exquisitely sensitive to social exclusion makes

sense when considered in the context of sociometer theory (Leary,
Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995), which posits that interpersonal

relationships are an especially important source of how one feels
about oneself. People tend to keep track of the opinions that they

perceive others to hold of them, maintaining a running tally of their
degree of social acceptance or rejection. When one is rejected or

socially excluded, that person should experience a corresponding
dip in state self-esteem, accompanied by aversive feelings. These

feelings may serve the adaptive function of teaching the individ-
ual which behaviors tend to elicit acceptance or rejection. In
addition to providing an adaptive advantage, however, this type of

system may also have potential costs. Specifically, the distress arising
from a particularly meaningful rejection, such as having a romantic

partner end a relationship, might sometimes prove to be overwhelm-
ing to an individual’s emotional system, resulting in the negative

consequences that have been documented in people who have di-
vorced or broken up, such as psychiatric illness, suicide, and sub-

stance abuse.
On the other hand, rejecting another person is not without its

emotional consequences, resulting in feelings of guilt and a need to

justify the morality of one’s behavior in dealing with the rejected
party (Baumeister et al., 1993). It is possible that the preoccupations

and emotions associated with rejecting another individual can be as
distressing as the concerns and feelings of those who are rejected,

which could explain why initiator status has not consistently pre-
dicted the severity of distress reactions to relationship dissolution.

An additional possibility is that individual differences play a role
in determining the impact that initiator status has on post-breakup

distress. For example, specific types of people may find being rejected
especially troubling, whereas others may find it more aversive to re-
ject another person. In this way, individual differences might interact

with initiator status to predict distress. By ignoring these potential
sources of variance in distress after a breakup, prior research designs

may have washed out the impact of initiator status on adjustment to
the dissolution of a romantic relationship.

An intuitive candidate for a variable that might be expected to
interact with initiator status to predict distress after a romantic

breakup is trait self-esteem, which refers to the degree to which
an individual chronically evaluates him- or herself positively

1274 Waller & MacDonald

(Rosenberg, 1965). Given that romantic rejection is an experience

that can decrease self-esteem (Baumeister et al., 1993), it seems likely
that individuals who are low in trait self-esteem to begin with would

be particularly ill-equipped to cope with having a romantic partner
end a relationship.

This contention is partially supported by the limited research that
has investigated the relationship between trait self-esteem and ro-

mantic breakups. To date, three studies have found an association
between trait self-esteem and distress reactions at the end of a ro-

mantic relationship. Barron (1987) assessed women who had either
divorced or were in the process of divorcing their spouses. She found
that women who scored lower on trait self-esteem experienced more

emotional distress than did those high in trait self-esteem. Similarly,
investigations of male and female undergraduates have demon-

strated that, relative to their high self-esteem counterparts, those
who were low in trait self-esteem reported higher general distress and

poorer current adjustment (Frazier & Cook, 1993) as well as greater
traumatic distress (Chung et al., 2002) following the dissolution of a

romantic relationship. These studies suggest that people with low
trait self-esteem might find it especially distressing to be rejected by a
romantic partner. However, the possibility of an interaction between

trait self-esteem and initiator status was not assessed, leaving it un-
clear whether the association between self-esteem and distress was

moderated by who ended the relationship. Furthermore, these stud-
ies were not prospective; self-esteem level was assessed after the

breakup and at the same time as the distress measures, so it could be
that participants who were simply more distressed reported lower

trait self-esteem.
More direct evidence for the causal effect of low trait self-esteem

on distress following rejection comes from the experimental litera-
ture. Nezlek, Kowalski, Leary, Blevins, and Holgate (1997) showed
that undergraduate women who were low in trait self-esteem re-

sponded to exclusion from a group performing a task in the labo-
ratory with negative self-evaluation, whereas those who were high in

trait self-esteem were not affected by the manipulation. Similarly,
Sommer and Baumeister (2002) found that after undergraduate men

and women were primed with words related to rejection, those with
low trait self-esteem evaluated themselves more negatively than they

did after being primed with words related to acceptance or other
aversive events. In contrast, after being primed with rejection, those

Self-Esteem and Initiator Status 1275

with high trait self-esteem evaluated themselves more positively than

after they were primed with acceptance or other aversive events.

Overview of Current Research

We assessed whether trait self-esteem moderates the association be-
tween initiator status and distress following the termination of a ro-

mantic relationship. We employed both a prospective, naturalistic
design and an experimental design to investigate the relationships

among trait self-esteem, initiator status, and distress following the
end of a romantic relationship. Because prior investigations on ro-

mantic relationship dissolution assessed both self-esteem and distress
after the breakup, the relationship between trait self-esteem and dis-
tress that was demonstrated in these investigations could be an ar-

tifact created by the especially distressed participants reporting lower
self-esteem. A longitudinal and an experimental design wherein we

measured trait self-esteem before the occurrence of a breakup
allowed us to rule out this alternative explanation.

Furthermore, we aimed to replicate the interaction between trait
self-esteem and rejection that has been obtained in experimental

manipulations (Nezlek et al., 1997; Sommer & Baumeister, 2002)
within a new interpersonal context (romantic relationships), as well
as in a real-world setting to establish external validity. Moreover, in

contrast with prior research on this topic, which compared a rejec-
tion condition with a neutral or acceptance condition (Baldwin,

Granzberg, Pippus, & Pritchard, 2003; Leary et al., 1998; Nezlek
et al., 1997) or a noninterpersonal condition (Sommer & Baumeister,

2002), our research compared individuals’ responses to two distress-
ing interpersonal situations: having one’s partner end the relation-

ship versus breaking up with one’s partner. Thus, our design allowed
us to establish whether the interaction between trait self-esteem and

rejection that has been obtained experimentally reflects the effect of
rejection per se, as opposed to a nonspecific distressing interpersonal
event. Based on the literature reviewed above, we hypothesized that

there would be a main effect for initiator status such that partici-
pants who held less responsibility for the decision to end the rela-

tionship would experience greater distress and more negative mood
than would those who held more responsibility. Furthermore, we

expected a main effect for trait self-esteem such that participants
with lower trait self-esteem would experience greater distress and

1276 Waller & MacDonald

more negative mood than would those with higher trait self-esteem.

Importantly, we also expected that trait self-esteem and initiator
status would interact to predict distress and mood such that in-

dividuals who were lower in trait self-esteem would report greater
breakup-specific distress and more negative mood when they did not

initiate the breakup than when they were responsible for the decision
to end the relationship. Conversely, individuals with high trait self-

esteem were not expected to differ in breakup-specific distress or
mood as a function of initiator status.




Two-hundred sixty-six introductory psychology students (42 men, 224
women; mean age5 18.78 years, SD5 1.17) were recruited based on their
responses to a prescreening questionnaire administered at the beginning
of the academic year. We selected participants who were between the ages
of 18 and 22 and had been in a dating relationship for at least 1 month.
None of them were married. Participants were compensated with course
credit and $20.

Of the 266 original participants, 23 subsequently dropped out before
the end of the school year (i.e., stopped responding to the weekly emails
but did not report a breakup). Seventy-four participants reported a
breakup sometime over the course of the study and completed the crite-
rion measures used to assess their short-term reactions to the termination
of their relationship. However, eight participants who completed post-
breakup measures did so more than 25 days after the end of their rela-
tionships. Because this time lapse was greater than one standard deviation
above the mean time lapse for the sample, and because we were concerned
that these participants would have difficulty remembering (and thus ac-
curately reporting) their emotions and behaviors immediately following
the breakup, they were excluded from all further analyses. Thus, our final
sample consisted of 66 participants (mean age5 18.55, SD5 0.63; 11 men
and 55 women).1

1. Binary logistic regression analyses demonstrated that those who had low trait

self-esteem were more likely to experience a breakup than were those who had

high trait self-esteem (Wald5 4.66, p5 .03). Participants who dropped out part-

way through the study did not differ from those who completed with respect to

trait self-esteem (t(263)5 .57, ns).

Self-Esteem and Initiator Status 1277

Materials and Procedure

The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1965) was used to assess
participants’ global level of self-esteem at the outset of the study. It con-
tains 10 items (e.g., ‘‘I feel that I have a number of good qualities’’). In-
stead of using the original 4-point scale, we made a modification such that
each item was rated on a scale from 1 (very strongly disagree) to 9 (very
strongly agree). Five items are reverse-coded before calculating the mean
response, which yields a total self-esteem score. The scale demonstrated
high interitem reliability (Cronbach’s a5 .89).

Phase 1. The first data collection session took place in the laboratory,
lasting approximately half an hour. Participants were assessed in groups
of five to eight. The study was introduced as an investigation of person-
ality and behavior in romantic relationships. Participants were informed
that the study would last from October to March, that they might be
asked to come back to the laboratory for another session at some time
during the school year, and that they would receive $20 and course credit
for completing the study. Next, participants completed the Rosenberg
Self-Esteem Scale among a series of personality questionnaires in coun-
terbalanced order.2 Finally, each participant was asked whether he or she
would be willing to provide us with contact information for his or her
partner so we could also recruit him or her for the study. For participants
who consented, partners were sent the information about the study and
the personality questionnaires by mail and were asked to return the con-
sent form and measures by mail if they were interested in participating.
Eighteen partners agreed to participate and went through the same pro-
cedures as the original participants for Phases 2 and 3. To maintain as-
sumptions of independence, partners’ data were not included in any
analyses presented in this article other than the estimate of agreement for
initiator status (see below).

Phase 2. The second phase of the study consisted of weekly emails de-
signed to assess relationship status. From mid-October to mid-April,
participants were sent a relationship assessment questionnaire each week
and were asked to fill it out and return it as soon as possible. Participants
were asked whether they were still in the romantic relationship in which

2. Although space constraints preclude us from presenting each of these analyses,

we did collect information from each participant on a number of other potential

personality covariates, none of which emerged as more important predictors than

trait self-esteem. For more information on these analyses, please write to the


1278 Waller & MacDonald

they had been at the beginning of the study and, if not, when the rela-
tionship had ended. Participants who continued to indicate that they were
together with their partners up until the end of the school year did not
proceed to the third phase.

Phase 3. Participants who indicated in a weekly email response that
their romantic relationship had been terminated were asked to complete
another set of measures, which were completed either in the laboratory
(Year 1) or over email (Year 2). The mean time elapsed between breakup
and completion of these measures was 11.5 days (SD5 4.4). The mea-
sures consisted of a general mood assessment questionnaire, a breakup-
specific distress questionnaire, and an initiator status report. The mood
assessment questionnaire consisted of 12 items rated on a 10-point scale,
with endpoints representing one of a pair of opposite mood/feeling
descriptors (e.g., sad–happy). Five of the items were reverse-coded such
that a low score reflected a negative mood and a high score reflected a
positive mood. These items were highly correlated (Cronbach’s a5 .91)
and were combined into one mood score by calculating the mean item

The breakup distress questionnaire was derived from a questionnaire
created by Thompson and Spanier (1983) for their investigation into the
acceptance of marital termination. Nine items were taken from this ques-
tionnaire and 18 new items were created. Participants rated each state-
ment on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Our aim
was to create a questionnaire assessing a wide range of potential distress
reactions following the termination of a romantic relationship, including
emotional, behavioral, and cognitive symptoms. Eight items were reverse-
coded such that a high score indicated greater distress. The overall scale
had high interitem reliability (Cronbach’s a5 .87). No distinct factors
emerged from confirmatory or exploratory factor analyses (i.e., a single-
factor model was the best fit). Thus, the mean of all 27 items of the scale
was used in our analyses as a measure of general distress.

The initiator status report assessed the extent to which participants
perceived themselves, relative to their partners, as having been responsi-
ble for the decision to end the relationship. They were asked to estimate
both their responsibility and their partner’s responsibility as a percentage
of total responsibility for the decision, to add up to a total of 100% (e.g.,
me: 30%, partner: 70%). Participants’ percent estimate of their own re-
sponsibility was used to measure the degree to which they were respon-
sible for ending the relationship. For the subset of participants whose
partners also completed the post-breakup measures (n5 18), there was
good agreement in reports of the degree to which the original participant
(vs. the partner) was responsible for deciding to end the relationship

Self-Esteem and Initiator Status 1279

(r(16)5 � .84). This finding is consistent with other studies, which have
found moderate to good agreement between partners who were asked to
identify who had left the relationship (Hill et al., 1976; Sprecher, 1994).
Thus, we can consider our measure of initiator status to be a reasonably
valid measure of actual responsibility for the decision to end the rela-


Recall that our final sample consisted of 66 participants who had
experienced a breakup during the duration of the study, and that this

sample did not include both members of any couples. (Please see
Table 1 for descriptive statistics and intercorrelations among mea-
sured variables.) Data were analyzed using a simultaneous multiple

regression with trait self-esteem and initiator status (i.e., percent re-
sponsibility for the decision) entered as predictor variables and dis-

tress entered as the criterion variable. Trait self-esteem and initiator
status were centered prior to the regression analyses (see Aiken &

West, 1991), and the cross-product of these predictors was entered as
an interaction term. This analysis was then repeated, with mood

acting as the criterion variable. Although both analyses originally
included gender (� 15men, 15women) as a predictor variable, it
did not emerge as a significant predictor of either criterion variable,

nor did it interact with the other predictor variables. Thus, for sim-
plicity of presentation, the results presented below do not include

gender as a variable.

Table 1
Descriptives and Pearson Correlations Between Measured Variables

in Study 1 (N 5 74)



BUD � .38n

Mood .35n � .52n

PR .04 � .45n .37n

M .72 3.27 5.80 59.53

SD .18 .95 1.54 31.16

Note. RSE(S)5Rosenberg Self-Esteem (Scaled); BUD5Breakup Distress;

PR5Percent Responsibility.

1280 Waller & MacDonald

Breakup Distress

As predicted, there was a negative relationship between initiator

status and distress (b5 � 0.01, B5 � 0.32; t(63)5 3.12, p5 .003).
Participants who reported less responsibility for ending the relation-
ship experienced greater distress than did those who reported greater

responsibility. Additionally, there was a negative relationship
between trait self-esteem and distress (b5 � 2.08, B5 � 0.43;

t(63)5 4.11, po.001). Participants with lower trait self-esteem re-
ported greater distress following a breakup than did those with

higher trait self-esteem. Finally, as predicted, there was an inter-
action between trait self-esteem and initiator status (b5 � 0.04,

B5 0.24; t(63)5 2.25, p5 .028).
The meaning of this interaction was assessed further by regressing

initiator status on distress at medium (mean self-esteem score of the

sample), low (mean self-esteem minus 1 SD), and high (mean self-
esteem plus 1 SD) levels of self-esteem. Percent responsibility was

negatively related to level of distress for people who were low
(b5 � .02, B5 � 0.58; t(62)5 3.98, po.001) or moderate

(b5 � .01, B5 � 0.36; t(62)5 3.51, po.001) in self-esteem. The re-
lationship between initiator status and distress was not significant for

those who were high in trait self-esteem (b5 � .004, B5 � 0.14;
t(62)5 1.05, p5 .30). This interaction suggests that perceiving that

one had less responsibility for ending a romantic relationship is re-
lated to greater distress for people who are low to moderate in trait
self-esteem. On the other hand, initiator status does not seem to

contribute to post-breakup distress for people who are high in trait
self-esteem. See Figure 1 for a graphical representation of distress as

a function of trait self-esteem level and initiator status.


As predicted, percent responsibility for ending the relationship was
positively related to mood (b5 0.02, B5 0.37; t(63)5 3.51, po.001).

Additionally, trait self-esteem was positively related to mood
(b5 3.28, B5 0.40; t(63)5 3.81, po.001). However, there was no

interaction between trait self-esteem and initiator status for mood
(b5 0.03, B5 � 0.13; t(63)5 1.20, p5 .24). Thus, people who had

recently ended their relationship were in a better mood than
were those whose partners had recently ended their relationship.

Self-Esteem and Initiator Status 1281

Additionally, people who were high in trait self-esteem tended to be

in a better mood than did those who were low in trait self-esteem.
This pattern did not vary, however, as a function of initiator status.

Study 1 Discussion

This study makes several novel contributions to the literature on the

emotional aftermath of the termination of romantic relationships.
This investigation is the first prospective study to show that people

with low trait self-esteem are more distressed after romantic break-
ups than are people with high trait self-esteem. Our findings repli-

cated the interaction between trait self-esteem and rejection that has
been demonstrated in the laboratory (Nezlek et al., 1997; Sommer
& Baumeister, 2002) using a real-life situation and a rejection of

marked interpersonal significance, the loss of a romantic partner.
Nonetheless, there are a few limitations that warrant discussion.

First, because we had very few male participants who completed the
study, we were unable to assess whether responses differed for men

and women. A more significant limitation of this study is a lack of
experimental control. Although the naturalistic, prospective design

Trait Self-Esteem Level



y = –0.02x + 3.68

y = –0.01x + 3.29
y = –0.004x + 2.914









0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100
Percent Responsibility




Figure 1
Study 1: Relationship between breakup distress and responsibility for

decision to break up as a function of trait self-esteem level.

1282 Waller & MacDonald

that was used confers some important benefits, it also precludes us

from making causal claims about initiator status. Because partici-
pants could not be randomly assigned to reject their partners or to be

rejected, results could be explained by any number of uncontrolled
variables that are associated with initiator status and that also pre-

dict coping responses to romantic breakups and rejection. Further-
more, there may be differences between people with low and high

trait self-esteem with respect to relationship-specific variables, such
as the level of acrimony associated with the breakup, that interact

with initiator status to predict distress following the termination of a
romantic relationship. In Study 2, we addressed this limitation by
using an experimental design. We were also successful in recruiting a

greater number of male participants for Study 2, which allowed us to
consider gender in our analyses.




Participants were 190 introductory psychology students (139 women and
51 men; mean age5 18.53 years, SD5 1.21). They completed a demo-
graphic and relationship status questionnaire in a prescreening session.
We recruited participants who were between the ages of 18 and 22 and
who had been in a romantic relationship for at least 1 month. Exploratory
analyses of a preliminary subsample revealed that the duration of par-
ticipants’ relationships interacted with the other independent variables
such that trait self-esteem interacted with rejection condition only for
participants whose romantic relationships had been of shorter duration.
A possible explanation is that participants who were in longer term rela-
tionships found it more difficult to imagine themselves in the scenario pre-
sented to them (i.e., had more knowledge of their partner and thus found
the specific dialogue and behavior in the scenario to be less believable).
Therefore, only participants who were in relationships of less than the me-
dian length for the preliminary sample (16 months) were included in the
analyses. Participants were compensated with course credit or $5.

Materials and Procedure

Prescreening. Participants completed the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale
(Rosenberg, 1965) during a prescreening session at the beginning of the

Self-Esteem and Initiator Status 1283

term (i.e., a number of months before participating in the experiment) so
we could obtain a baseline measure of their chronic self-esteem. Each item
was rated on a scale from 1 (very strongly disagree) to 7 (very strongly
agree).2 The scale demonstrated high interitem reliability (Cronbach’s
a5 .87).

Rejection manipulation. The experiment took place in the laboratory.
Participants completed the experiment in groups of one to four at a time
at individual computer stations. They were told that we were investigating
the effect of emotion on task performance and were randomly assigned to
receive one of two scenarios, which were presented in four blocks on the
computer screen. They were asked to imagine themselves in one of the
following situations: breaking up with their romantic partner (rejecter) or
having their romantic partner break up with them (rejected). See Appen-
dix A for the complete scenarios. The scenarios were tailored to each
participant such that his or her partner’s actual name was inserted into
the script (pronouns were changed so that gender was also reflected). Af-
ter they finished reading the scenario, participants were prompted:
‘‘Please take some time to think about how you would feel if you were
in the situation that was presented to you.’’ They were given a full minute
to think about the situation before the next task, which consisted of either
a lexical decision task (Sample 1) or a self-affirmation manipulation
(Sample 2). These tasks were related to research questions that are beyond
the scope of this article and are not considered further here.

The scenarios were pretested with 32 undergraduate students, each of
whom was randomly assigned to read either the rejected or the rejecter
version. They then answered some questions about the scenario and
about their reactions to it using a series of 7-point scales. Participants
indicated that the rejecter and the rejected conditions were equally real-
istic (M5 4.50, SD5 1.76; M5 3.86, SD5 2.25; t(30)5 0.91, p5 .37)
and equally engaging (M5 4.44, SD5 1.65; M5 5.21, SD5 1.48;
t(30)5 1.37, p5 .18). Importantly, they also reported that they felt
more rejected in the rejected (M5 5.00, SD5 2.18) than in the rejecter
(M5 2.78, SD5 1.44) condition (t(30)5 3.47, po.005), but that their
mood, as measured using the PANAS (a self-report mood questionnaire
described below), was as negative in the rejecter (M5 3.20, SD5 0.80) as
in the rejected (M5 3.61, SD5 1.06) condition (t(30)5 1.26, p5 .22).

Self-report questionnaires. Participants completed a self-evaluation
questionnaire derived from Nezlek et al. (1997) on the computer. Partic-
ipants rated themselves on 12 bipolar adjectives, such as good–bad and
competent–incompetent, using a 7-point scale. Five items were reverse-

1284 Waller & MacDonald

coded and the mean response to all items was calculated such that a low
score indicated a negative self-evaluation and a high score indicated a
positive self-evaluation. The scale demonstrated high interitem reliability
(Cronbach’s a5 .96). A 12th single item, a success–a failure, was also
added so we could assess the effect of the experimental manipulation on
failure perception specifically.

Next, participants completed the Positive and Negative Affect Scales
(PANAS; Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988), a questionnaire designed to
assess mood state. Participants were asked to rate the extent to which they
were feeling 10 positive (e.g., excited) and 10 negative (e.g., sad) adjec-
tives, using a 7-point scale. The negative items were reverse-coded and the
mean response was calculated such that a higher score indicated a more
positive mood. The scale demonstrated high interitem reliability (Cron-
bach’s a5 .93).

The final measure administered was the State Self-Esteem Scale
(Heatherton & Polivy, 1991), a 20-item self-report questionnaire that as-
sesses how participants feel about themselves in the present moment.
(e.g., ‘‘I feel confident about my abilities.’’) Items are rated on a scale of 1
(not at all) to 5 (extremely). The mean response on all of the items is used
as an index of state self-esteem. Interitem reliability was high (Cronbach’s
a5 .94).


Please see Table 2 for descriptive statistics and intercorrelations

among measured variables. Each of the self-report measures (self-
evaluation, single failure item, mood, and state self-esteem) acted as

the criterion variable in a series of simultaneous multiple regression,
with trait self-esteem, rejection condition (rejected or rejecter), and

sample (Sample 1 or Sample 2) entered as predictor variables (recall
that participants consisted of two different samples, one of which

completed a lexical decision task and one of which completed a self-
affirmation task during the experiment). The cross-products of trait

self-esteem and rejection condition, of trait self-esteem and sample,
and of rejection condition and sample were also entered as interac-
tion terms, along with the three-way cross-product of the predictor

variables. Effect coding was used for rejection condition (� 15 re-
jecter, 115 rejected) and sample (� 15 Sample 1, 115Sample 2),

and trait self-esteem was centered prior to the regression analysis (see
Aiken & West, 1991). For all criterion measures, sample did not in-

teract with the other predictor variables, which suggests that these
tasks did not influence the current results.

Self-Esteem and Initiator Status 1285

The analyses just described were also run entering gender

(� 15men, 115women) and its interactions with the other pre-
dictor variables. Despite the larger number of men in this study

(n5 51) than in Study 1, women still outnumbered men nearly three-
fold. Perhaps as a result, the effect of gender and its interaction with

other variables was not statistically significant for most criterion
variables. Thus, for simplicity of presentation, the regression ana-

lyses reported below do not include gender as a variable unless it
emerged as a statistically significant predictor or interacted signifi-
cantly with another predictor variable. See Table 3 for the regression


Self-evaluation. Trait self-esteem was positively related to self-eval-

uation, indicating that people who were lower in trait self-esteem
evaluated themselves more negatively following the imagined

breakup than did those with higher trait self-esteem. Rejection con-
dition was not related to self-evaluation. Importantly, as predicted,
there was an interaction between trait self-esteem and rejection

The meaning of this interaction was assessed further by regressing

rejection condition on self-evaluation at medium (mean self-esteem
score of the sample), low (mean self-esteem minus one standard de-

viation), and high (mean self-esteem plus one standard deviation)
levels of trait self-esteem. As shown in Figure 2, being in the rejection

Table 2
Descriptives and Pearson Correlations Between Measured Variables

in Study 2 (N 5190)

RSE SE Failure Mood SSE


SE .54n

Failure � .55n � .64n

Mood .28n .40n � .22n

SSE .61n .56n � .41n .52n

M 5.57 5.54 2.41 4.24 3.55

SD 1.01 0.93 1.02 1.12 0.64

Note. RSE5Rosenberg Self-Esteem; SE5Self-Evaluation; SSE5State Self-


1286 Waller & MacDonald

Table 3
Regression Statistics for Study 2 (N 5190)

b B t df p


TSE 0.47 0.51 8.21 183 o.001

R � 0.01 � 0.02 0.25 183 .80

TSE � R 0.15 0.16 2.67 183 .008

R @ Low TSE � 0.17 � 0.18 2.04 182 .04

R @ Mod TSE � 0.02 � 0.03 0.42 182 .67

R @ High TSE 0.12 0.13 1.51 182 .13


TSE � 0.51 � 0.51 3.95 175 o.001

R � 0.11 � 0.10 0.78 175 .43

TSE � R � 0.03 � 0.03 0.21 175 .83

TSE � R � G � 0.26 � 0.25 1.97 175 .05

Failure (Men Only)

TSE 0.47 0.51 8.21 47 o.001

R � 0.01 � 0.02 0.25 47 .22

TSE � R 0.17 0.18 1.41 47 .16

Failure (Women Only)

TSE � 0.51 � 0.50 6.92 135 o.001

R � 0.03 � 0.03 0.46 135 .64

TSE � R � 0.23 � 0.22 3.06 135 o.005

R @ Low TSE 0.19 0.19 1.91 135 .06

R @ Mod TSE � 0.03 � 0.03 0.46 135 .64

R @ High TSE � 0.26 � 0.25 2.43 135 .02


TSE 0.28 0.25 3.48 182 o.001

R � 0.14 � 0.12 1.76 182 .08

TSE � R 0.13 0.11 1.58 182 .12

State Self-Esteem

TSE 0.36 0.57 9.62 183 o.001

R � 0.06 � 0.10 1.99 183 .10

TSE � R 0.09 0.15 2.49 183 .01

R @ Low TSE � 0.16 � 0.25 3.02 182 .003

R @ Mod TSE � 0.07 � 0.10 1.78 182 .08

R @ High TSE 0.03 0.05 0.58 182 .58

Note. TSE5Trait Self-Esteem; R5Rejection Condition; G5Gender.

Self-Esteem and Initiator Status 1287

condition was associated with more negative self-evaluation, relative
to the rejecter condition, for people who were low in trait self-esteem.

Conversely, the relationship between rejection condition and self-
evaluation was not significant for those who were moderate or high

in trait self-esteem. This interaction suggests that for people with low
trait self-esteem, imagining a partner ending a romantic relationship

leads to a less positive self-evaluation than does imagining the self
ending the relationship. On the other hand, romantic rejection does

not seem to influence post-breakup self-evaluation for people who
are moderate to high in trait self-esteem.

Failure. Trait self-esteem was negatively related to self-reports of
feeling like a failure, indicating that people who were lower in trait

self-esteem evaluated themselves as greater failures following the
imagined breakup than did those with higher trait self-esteem. Re-

jection condition was not related to failure evaluation. Moreover,
the interaction between trait self-esteem and rejection condition was

not statistically significant. However, there was a significant three-
way interaction between trait self-esteem, rejection condition, and

Trait Self-Esteem Level


y = –0.024x + 5.56

y = 0.012x + 6.03

y = –0.17x + 5.09









Rejecter Condition Rejected Condition







Figure 2
Study 2: Relationship between self-evaluation and rejection condi-

tion as a function of trait self-esteem level.

1288 Waller & MacDonald

gender. The meaning of this interaction was assessed further by run-

ning the analyses separately for men and women.
For women, there was an interaction between trait self-esteem and

rejection condition. For men, however, the interaction between trait
self-esteem and rejection condition was not statistically significant.

Thus, rejection condition was regressed on failure at medium (mean
self-esteem score of the sample), low (mean self-esteem minus 1 SD),

and high (mean self-esteem plus 1 SD) levels of trait self-esteem for
women only. As predicted, rejection condition was positively related

to failure rating for women who were low in trait self-esteem. On the
other hand, for women who were high in trait self-esteem, rejection
condition was negatively related to failure rating. For women who

were moderate in trait self-esteem, there was no relationship between
rejection condition and failure rating. This interaction suggests that

for women with low trait self-esteem, imagining a partner ending
a relationship leads to an increase in the perception of the self as

a failure. Conversely, women who were high in trait self-esteem
showed the opposite effect: imagining a partner ending a romantic

relationship led to a decrease in their tendency to evaluate themselves
as failures.

Mood. Trait self-esteem was positively related to mood. Thus, peo-
ple who were lower in trait self-esteem reported more negative mood

following the imagined breakup than did those with higher trait self-
esteem. Rejection condition was not significantly related to mood,

but there was a marginal trend toward lower mood after imagining
the rejection scenario than after imagining the rejecter scenario.

Moreover, despite emerging in the predicted pattern, the interaction
between trait self-esteem and rejection condition also was not sta-

tistically significant for mood.

State self-esteem. Trait self-esteem was positively related to state

self-esteem. People who were lower in trait self-esteem reported
lower state self-esteem following the imagined breakup than did

those with higher trait self-esteem. Rejection condition was not sig-
nificantly related to state self-esteem. However, as predicted, there

was an interaction between trait self-esteem and rejection condition.
The meaning of this interaction was assessed further by regressing

rejection condition on state self-esteem at medium (mean self-esteem
score of the sample), low (mean self-esteem minus 1 SD), and high

Self-Esteem and Initiator Status 1289

(mean self-esteem plus 1 SD) levels of trait self-esteem. As shown in
Figure 3, rejection condition was negatively related to state self-es-

teem for people who were low in trait self-esteem and negatively but
marginally related to state self-esteem for those who were moderate

in trait self-esteem. The relationship between rejection condition and
state self-esteem was not significant for those who were high in trait

self-esteem. This interaction suggests that for people with low trait
self-esteem, imagining a partner ending a romantic relationship leads

to lower state self-esteem than does imagining the self ending the
relationship. On the other hand, romantic rejection does not seem to
influence post-breakup state self-esteem for people who are moder-

ate to high in trait self-esteem.

Study 2 Discussion

As predicted, the effect of rejection condition differed as a function
of trait self-esteem. Participants with low trait self-esteem evaluated

themselves more negatively and reported lower state self-esteem
after imagining their partner ending their relationship than after

Trait Self-Esteem Level

y = –0.07x + 3.58

y = 0.03x + 3.94

y = –0.16x + 3.21







Rejecter Condition Rejected Condition







Figure 3
Study 2: Relationship between state self-esteem and rejection condi-

tion as a function of trait self-esteem level.

1290 Waller & MacDonald

imagining themselves ending it. For women with low trait self-

esteem, rejection condition also had an effect on failure perception;
those who imagined being rejected evaluated themselves as greater

failures than did those who imagined themselves rejecting their part-
ner. Participants with high trait self-esteem, on the other hand, did

not differ in broad self-evaluation or state self-esteem as a function
of rejection condition. Interestingly, women with high trait self-es-

teem actually rated themselves as lower on failure after imagining
their partners ending the relationship than after imaging themselves

initiating the breakup. These results support the notion that roman-
tic rejection has a markedly negative effect on individuals with low
trait self-esteem, whereas individuals with high trait self-esteem are

rather immune to these negative effects.
In contrast with our predictions, the effect of rejection condition

on mood was not statistically significant in Study 2 (despite trending
in the expected direction). This finding, although unexpected, is con-

sistent with some prior research that has found limited effects of re-
jection manipulations on mood, despite clear evidence of negative

effects on a variety of cognitive processes and behaviors (e.g.,
Baumeister et al., 2005). It is possible that the effect of rejection
on mood is less immediate than the other responses that were mea-

sured, making it less sensitive to detection in a laboratory setting.


Our findings suggest that initiator status and trait self-esteem are

important predictors of emotional distress, self-evaluation, and feel-
ings of self-esteem in the aftermath of a romantic breakup among

university students, especially when considered simultaneously. Hav-
ing one’s partner end the relationship may be somewhat more dis-

tressing overall than is ending the relationship oneself, as is suggested
by the main effect of rejection on mood in Study 1 and the trend to-
ward the same effect in Study 2. We propose that being the rejected

party indeed leads to marginally greater distress than does being the
rejecter but that the difference in distress is actually quite small when

considered in the absence of moderator variables. Trait self-esteem is
undoubtedly a moderator variable that should be considered in any

future research on the effects of rejection, romantic or otherwise, on
well-being. Our results show that people with low trait self-esteem are

Self-Esteem and Initiator Status 1291

especially vulnerable to emotional distress, self-denigration, and de-

creased state self-esteem after being rejected by a partner.
One limitation to these findings relates to external validity. All of

our participants were unmarried undergraduates, and in Study 2 we
also restricted our sample to those who had been in shorter rela-

tionships of 16 months or fewer. Thus, our findings may not gen-
eralize to different populations or to longer-term relationships.

Other limitations of this research were that we were unable to ma-
nipulate trait self-esteem experimentally and that women outnum-

bered men significantly in both studies.
Our findings are consistent with sociometer theory (Leary et al.,

1995), which provides a broad theoretical framework for under-

standing self-esteem effects. Sociometer theory would predict that
because people with low trait self-esteem have a preexisting history

of rejection and exclusion, the decrement in relational value implied
by a romantic rejection would produce an internal alarm response in

the form of distress in these individuals. This alarm response is hy-
pothesized to serve a useful function, in that it alerts the rejected

individual to his or her decrement in relational value, which could
theoretically motivate corrective action. People with high trait self-
esteem, on the other hand, are generally believed to have had a

wealth of experiences that imply high social value. As a result, the
decrement in relational value implied by one romantic rejection

might not be sufficient to provoke an alarm response in these indi-
viduals (see Leary & MacDonald, 2003, for a comprehensive dis-

cussion of trait self-esteem and sociometer theory).
There are also a number of specific cognitive processes that are

related to trait self-esteem and could be systematically assessed in
future research. First, people with low (but not high) trait self-esteem

seem to have cognitive networks that include contingencies of inter-
personal acceptance, associating the concepts of failure and rejection
(Baldwin et al., 2003; Baldwin & Sinclair, 1996). As a result, it is

possible that experiencing a romantic rejection triggers a sense of
personal failure in these individuals. In the current research, women

with low trait self-esteem indeed rated themselves higher on failure in
the rejected condition than in the rejecter condition. Furthermore,

people with low trait self-esteem have a chronic tendency to respond
to personal failures with internal, global attributions (i.e., blaming

themselves for the event and evaluating themselves negatively in
a global sense; e.g., Brown & Smart, 1991; Kernis, Brockner, &

1292 Waller & MacDonald

Frankel, 1989; Tennen & Herzberger, 1987). The current research

provides indirect support for this process, in that individuals with
low trait self-esteem evaluated themselves more negatively in a broad

sense after imagining the rejected scenario than after imagining the
rejecter scenario.

In contrast, people with high trait self-esteem respond to personal
failure with external attributions and disbelief of negative self-

relevant information, tending instead to blame situational factors
and to deny negative implications for their personal worth (e.g.,

Baumeister, Tice, & Hutton, 1989; Kuiper, 1978). They also make
use of self-affirmation strategies when faced with clear evidence of
failure, focusing on other valued aspects of the self to maintain a

sense of competency and self-worth (Dodgson & Wood, 1998; Hol-
land, Meertens, & Van Vugt, 2002; Nail, Misak, & Davis, 2003;

Steele, Spencer, & Lynch, 1993). Given these tendencies, it is not
surprising that in the current research, individuals with high trait

self-esteem did not evaluate themselves more negatively in a broad
sense or rate themselves higher in failure after imagining being re-

jected by their romantic partners than after imagining being the
rejecter. In future research, it may be worthwhile to assess whether
individuals with low trait self-esteem could be trained to employ

some of the strategies used by those high in trait self-esteem to cope
better with romantic rejection. For example, if people with low trait

self-esteem could be trained to employ different cognitive strategies
following rejection (i.e., adjust their attribution style to be less self-

blaming or engage in self-affirmation), they might be able to respond
to rejection with less self-denigration.

In addition to attribution style and self-affirmation, there are
other promising strategies for restoring self-worth that might benefit

individuals with low trait self-esteem. Dandeneau and Baldwin
(2004) developed tasks aimed to increase self-worth (e.g., scanning
images of multiple frowning faces to find the single smiling face).

Using an experimental design, they showed that individuals with low
trait self-esteem exhibited less sensitivity to rejection-related words

after engaging in this task. Regular training in this task was also
successful in inhibiting stress, especially among those with low trait

self-esteem (Dandeneau, Baldwin, Baccus, Sakellaropoulo, &
Pruessner, 2007). It is possible that such strategies might be helpful

in either preventing or attenuating the self-denigration and distress
of individuals with low trait self-esteem after a romantic rejection.

Self-Esteem and Initiator Status 1293


In a naturalistic study and an experiment, we have demonstrated
that the effects of initiator status vary as a function of trait self-

esteem. For people with low trait self-esteem, distress is greater when
they are rejected by their partners than when they end their rela-

tionships. They also evaluate themselves more negatively, consider
themselves to be greater failures, and experience lower feelings of
state self-esteem after imagining themselves being rejected by their

partners than after imagining rejecting their partners. In contrast,
people with high trait self-esteem experience an equivalent amount

of distress after experiencing a romantic rejection as after initiating a
romantic rejection. Their self-evaluation, failure perception, and

state self-esteem are not affected by imagining being rejected by
their partners as compared to imagining ending the relationship



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Please read through the following passage slowly, allowing each
sentence to ‘‘sink in.’’ You will be imagining yourself and your cur-

rent romantic partner, NAME. Right now, please try to get an image
of NAME in your mind. Now, take a few minutes to think about

your relationship and what it means to you.

Rejected Scenario

Imagine that it is a Tuesday evening and that you are in your room

doing some reading for a course. You pause for a minute as you
think about the last time you saw NAME. Although things aren’t

always perfect between the two of you, your relationship is impor-
tant to you and you care about NAME very much.

The telephone rings, interrupting your train of thought. It’s
NAME. He/she sounds serious and says that he/she has something

Self-Esteem and Initiator Status 1297

important to discuss with you—can he/she come over? You—feeling

curious and somewhat anxious—ask what it is about. He/she says
that he/she would rather talk about it in person. You agree, and

NAME says he/she will be over soon.
As you wait, you find it difficult to concentrate on your reading or

anything else. Your mind is racing with thoughts about what NAME
could be wanting to talk about. After what seems like ages, you hear

a knock on your door. You open the door and find NAME standing
there, looking very serious and a bit agitated. You greet each other

somewhat awkwardly and decide to go sit down somewhere you can
have some privacy. His/her expression tells you that something is
definitely wrong and you start to feel sick to your stomach. NAME

takes your hand gently and, before you know what is happening, he/
she starts telling you that he/she cares about you and thinks you are

a great person. You notice that NAME’s eyes are moist and his/her
voice cracks as he/she explains that he/she no longer wants to be in a

romantic relationship with you. It’s not that you did anything
wrong, he/she says, this just isn’t the right relationship for him/her.

Rejecter Scenario

Imagine that it is a Tuesday evening and that you are at home/in
your room doing some reading for a course. You pause for a minute

as you think about the last time you saw NAME. Something in your
relationship has felt off to you for a while. Although you know that

you still care about NAME very much, you have recently realized
he/she is not the right partner for you. You have been waiting for the

right time to break the news to NAME, but haven’t found it yet. You
don’t think you can stand to keep this from him/her any longer, and

decide that tonight will be the night.
You pick up the phone and dial NAME’s number. He/she an-

swers, sounding cheerful. You say that you have something impor-
tant to discuss with him/her—can you go over to his/her place?
He/she—sounding curious and somewhat anxious—asks what it is

about. Feeling nervous, you say that you would rather talk about it
in person. He/she agrees, and you say you will be over soon.

On your way over, your mind is racing with thoughts about how
you are going to tell NAME that you want to break up. What is the

right way to say it? You feel awful about knowing that you will be
hurting someone who has been so important to you. After what

1298 Waller & MacDonald

seems like ages, you reach NAME’s place and knock on the door.

NAME opens the door and finds you standing there. He/she looks
concerned and you are starting to feel very agitated. You greet each

other somewhat awkwardly and decide to go sit down somewhere
you can have some privacy. You notice that you are feeling sick to

your stomach and are not sure what to do. You take NAME’s hand
gently and tell him/her that you care about him/her and that you

think he/she is a great person. You notice that NAME’s eyes are
moist and your voice cracks as you explain that you no longer want

to be in a romantic relationship with him/her. It’s not that you did
anything wrong, you say, this just isn’t the right relationship for you.

Self-Esteem and Initiator Status 1299


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Users should refer to the original published version of the material.

29Wright and Yaeger

Women and Work:
A Call to Transform Corporate Culture to Include More Flexibility

Meghan C. Wright, PhD
Texas Wesleyan University

Therese F. Yaeger, PhD
Benedictine University

Meghan Wright is currently an
Assistant Professor of Management
at Texas Wesleyan University, Fort
Worth, Texas. She teaches courses in
International Business, Organizational

Behavior, Business Statistics and Management Theory.
Much of her research projects focus on the path of female
middle managers after exiting corporate progression
tracks, women in leadership, work life competencies, the
impact of entrepreneurship education to entrepreneurial
activity, and organizational effectiveness. During her two
academic years at Texas Wesleyan, she has developed
a Women in Leadership Forum that bridges classroom
theory and application of concepts in the workforce.
Additionally, she is advisor to the newly formed
Entrepreneurship Club on campus and coaches the
Enactus team on a project developed to impact the local
community around the university. Meghan holds a BS from
Monmouth College, an MS in Education, and a PHD in
Organization Development from Benedictine University.

Therese Yaeger, PhD is Professor
in Benedictine University’s OD
programs. She has served in numerous
managerial roles during her 25-
year professional career. She has

authored over 100 articles including 12 books. Recent
publications include “Global Organization Development:
Managing Unprecedented Change” with Sorensen
and Head. Yaeger is a Past Chair of the Management
Consulting Division of the Academy of Management, and
Past President of the Midwest Academy of Management.
Therese received her PhD from Benedictine University.


This study explores women in the workforce and

workplace culture through qualitative interviews

in an effort to illuminate how job fl exibility plays

a role in attracting, retaining, and developing

talented women. With the fi ndings of how job

fl exibility plays a role in integrating the four

domains of work, home/family, community,

and self we provide opportunities for the fi eld of

Organization Development (OD) to position itself

as the vehicle for organizational change to include

more fl exibility in workplace culture. Women want

to live their espoused values which happens when

work and life domains integrate and there is also

time for community and self domains. This paper

has implications for OD consultants regarding ways

to bring about change to introduce more fl exibility

to the workplace culture to facilitate this desire.

Keywords: women and work, workplace

fl exibility, corporate culture, opt-in, organization


Meghan Wright
Assistant Professor of Management
at Texas Wesleyan University, Fort
Worth, Texas. She teaches courses in
International Business, Organizational

Behavior, Business Statistics and Management Theory.

Therese Yaeger, PhD
in Benedictine University’s OD
programs. She has served in numerous
managerial roles during her 25-
year professional career. She has

authored over 100 articles including 12 books. Recent

“It [the future] should create the opportunity for individuals to make meaningful choices about
how to integrate the two (work and life), and as a result create a better overall quality of life.”

Edward E. Lawler III, 2014

30 Organization Development Journal l Winter 2016

In the Summer 2005 issue of the

Organization Development Journal, author Laura

Bierema stated “there are many pleas for research

on women in the work context, but few published

studies” (p. 8). A better understanding of women

in the work context would surely lead to an

organization’s ability to adjust corporate culture in

a way that attracts, retains, and develops talented

women. This research begins to illuminate what

has occurred since Bierema’s 2005 statement

regarding women in the work context. An interest

in the phenomenon of women in entrepreneurial

organizations who left a corporate career track in

middle management was the starting point of this

study as conversations with corporate executives

and entrepreneurs revealed there was a drain on

female talent within the corporate landscape.

The corporate executives expressed concern for

a drain on talent and entrepreneurs spoke of the

exit from this corporate culture. At this point, it

became apparent that talking to women who exited

the corporate culture to start their own businesses

might reveal more about what was happening in

the workforce. These conversations, an interest in

learning more about female entrepreneurs who left

the corporate culture, coupled with an interest in

revisiting the findings of a 2013 study in order to

contribute to this request by Bierema, and offer an

invitation to the field of Organization Development

Contact Information:

Meghan C. Wright, PhD
Phone: 717.531.7592

Texas Wesleyan University
1201 Wesleyan Street
Fort Worth, TX 76105

Email: [email protected]

Therese F. Yaeger, PhD
Phone: 630.829.6207

Benedictine University
5700 College Road
Lisle, IL 60532

Email: [email protected]

31Wright and Yaeger

(OD) consulting is the objective of this article.

The paper begins with developments in

corporate culture that instigate a desire for women

to leave the corporate culture, hence the “opt-out”

era (Belkin, 2003; Graff 2007; Cannon, 2009). We

conclude with defining opportunities for the field of

OD to assist with changes to workplace culture to

incorporate more flexibility.

Literature on workforce history

Extant literature on the history of women in

the workforce begins to shed some light on how the

corporate culture often stems from a white, male

perspective with minimal integration of a female

perspective. It also depicts barriers women have

faced for decades when “climbing the proverbial

corporate ladder” to management positions within

the organization.

Three streams of literature are provided here

for this study: women in the workplace; the plight of

women in management; and the workplace culture.

Starting with a history of work in the United States

seemed a logical step in order to understand what

the US has endured over the past five decades and

how the nature of work has evolved. With a clear

understanding of the nature of work, the next phase

was to understand women in the workforce as well

as their impact at the management level within the

organizations. Since this study is also intended

to learn more about women and work, the final

stream explored workplace culture, specifically

within corporations, and the lack of sensitivity to

conflicting work and life domains.

History and Nature of Workforce. During

the 1970s, prosperity from previous decades began

to erode and an increased number of women joined

the workforce with poor pay and recognition from

the job. Legislation was introduced to “redress the

balance” through creation of the Equal Pay Act of

1974, the government’s way of ensuring the same

pay for the same level of work (Woodd, 1999;

Mattis, 1999). Alternatives to work arrangements

and schedules were offered with the introduction of

the notion of “telework” and telecommuting which

were a result of the technological advancements

made in the early 1970s. The management of the

responsibilities at home related to family, as well

as those from the workplace, were often exhausting

for women, in part because of the anxiety and stress,

as well as other emotions that went along with both

domains (Beatty, 1996). Thus, telecommuting

helped (or was intended to help) reduce the stress

from handling both environments and opened the

door to promotions into management positions;

however, as technology continued to advance,

it became more difficult to define boundaries

of the work and life domains since they were

geographically situated in the same location. At

this point, telecommuting began to be a difficult

32 Organization Development Journal l Winter 2016

work arrangement to manage due to work and life

domains being so connected.

According to the U.S. Department of

Labor, the number of women in some type of

managerial field nearly doubled during the 1980s.

This situation contributed to a heightened interest

in organizational culture as women introduced a

leadership style different from the male-dominated

norm known for previous decades (see Parker and

Fagenson, 1994, p. 12). As Lund (2003) notes,

“Managers became increasingly aware of the ways

that an organizational culture can affect employees

and organizations” (p. 219) with scholars and

practitioners alike conducting research and writing

articles to contribute to this knowledge base

(Lawler, 2014).

History and plight of women in

management. Radical changes were evident in

the 1990s as women felt even more pressure to

work hard to break through the proverbial “glass

ceiling” while also meeting the needs of home and

family. The challenges of “moving up the ladder”

while balancing children and spouses and often also

taking care of parents or other older family members

were enormous (Ilies, Schwind, Wagner, Johnson,

DeRue, & Ilgen, 2007; Valcour, 2007; Mescher,

Benschop, & Doorewaard, 2010). Being able to

work smarter rather than longer and harder had its

privileges and is a major focus today for Catalyst

(a non-profit organization founded in the 1960s by

Felice Schwartz to advance women in the workplace)

in assisting talented women with remaining

competitive in the workplace. As a result of the long

work hours and work ethic, the playing field began

to level, and more women were promoted to middle

and upper management positions. Many women felt

radical change was taking place, with corporations

buying “sponsorships” in women’s groups to show

support for women and target them as consumers

(see U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, 2010).

This was a significant improvement from what

had been reported by Bierema when working with

a 2005 women’s networking group at a Fortune

500 consumer products company. Women in this

networking group cited failure of the group to bring

about change in the culture of the organization due

to the “maleness” of the organization and perceived

challenging of the status quo (p. 10). Measured

against the way things once were, progress during

this decade was commendable; however, much

remained to be accomplished.

With the radical changes in the 1990s came

more shifts in corporate culture at the turn of the

century. Continued advancements in technology

(Woodd, 1999) allowed employees to be constantly

connected to work through personal digital

assistants, smartphones, iPads, and other handheld

devices (Sullivan & Mainiero, 2007). With this

33Wright and Yaeger

constant connectedness to work as well as the

overwhelming demands to perform as women in

hopes of getting noticed and promoted to the “next

best thing” in the company, came an increased

conflict between work and life domains. Women

were feeling the need to make a choice between

work and life. Arguably, two other domains desiring

attention had not been addressed yet, namely self

(mind, body, and spirit) and community (friends,

social groups, and relationships in general). Thus,

a catchy news editorial written by Lisa Belkin,

regarding the “opt-out” revolution, was the front-

page story of the New York Times (2003). Belkin

awakened the country to the phenomenon of highly

talented females leaving jobs, specifically corporate

jobs, at record rates but was unable to contribute to

corporate cultures understanding the implications

for this issue and how to bring about change to

combat it. Belkin attributed the reason to a desire to

be stay-at-home moms. Unfortunately, only a very

small number of women were interviewed, with a

significant presence of convenience sampling (only

Princeton graduates), making Belkin’s conclusion

merely an editorial version of interviews rather

than empirical research. Belkin’s study did not

involve other women who may have left to seek

better opportunities or a work culture more aligned

with their espoused values. This study was not

in contradiction to Belkin but rather a way to

add scientific evidence through interviews with

females from all regions of the US to understand

the corporate exit. Implications from this mass

exodus of women leaving corporations to seek

better opportunities and more flexibility began to

affect the corporate-suite pool, as women did not

seek that end-goal which significantly decreased

the talent pool of women in large corporations (U.S.

Women’s Chamber of Commerce, 2010).

Workplace culture (corporations). The

choice women faced because of continued conflict

between work and life domains was not the result

of negligence on the part of corporations or large

organizations. Attempts had been made to mediate

this conflict through introducing policies and

procedures to change the culture of organizations.

Many organizations began to recognize the

dissatisfaction felt by women and introduced

telework, telecommuting, alternative work

schedules, flexible hours, and other opportunities

(Woodd, 1999; Ellison, 2004; Galinsky, 2011;

Grant-Vallone & Ensher, 2011; Wilburn, 2011;

Sullivan & Mainiero, 2007; Golden, Veiga, &

Simsek, 2006; Bailyn, Rayman, Bengtsen, Carré, &

Tierney, 2001). These were valiant attempts, but

not enough to make a significant change.

Possibly the efforts fell short due to an

inability to fully understand the root problem, and

implement policies and procedures that solved the

34 Organization Development Journal l Winter 2016

problem. Greenhaus and Beutell (1985) reviewed

earlier literature about the sources of conflict,

which they said (as defined by Kahn et al, 1964, p.

19) was the “simultaneous occurrence of two (or

more) sets of pressures such that compliance with

one would make more difficult compliance with the

other” (p. 77). This conflict makes participation

in the life (work) domain more difficult because

of participation in work (life). In sum, these two

domains are interrelated and one domain can

interfere with the other at any given time in either

direction. For example, as the primary caregiver

of children, the mother is the one typically faced

with this conflict as she is called to leave work

and return home to care for a sick child (Eagly &

Carli, 2007). This example of conflict between

work and life (family) is just one of many and is

commonly associated with women rather than men

and attributed to the so-called maternal instinct.

However, only addressing this issue of women

working through work and life domain conflicts does

not take into consideration the growing number of

men considering a “lean out” (Irvine, 2015, p. 40)

in an effort to share more of the parenting burden

and mediate the domain conflicts.

Despite some organizations’ willingness

and readiness to change in an effort to meet the

demands associated with the work and life domains

of women, such changes were not enough to retain

many highly-talented women. Women continued

to “opt-out” for a myriad of reasons (Cannon,

2009; Gambrell, 2005; Acholonu, 2011; Herbreard,

2010; Belkin, 2003; Kuperberg & Stone, 2008;

Hill, Mead, Dean, Hafen, Gadd, Palmer, & Ferris,

2006; Graff, 2007; Mainiero & Sullivan, 2005).

The culture was still not one in which work and life

domains could be integrated to the point of meeting

the values espoused by these women. Moreover,

organizations were still not making significant

strides in breaking the “glass ceiling” (Mattis, 2004;

Winn, 2004; Jones, 2009; Eagly and Carli, 2007).

The hurdles discussed thus far that women

face as they aspire to management jobs can be so

arduous that they choose to abandon efforts to make

it to the top (Mainiero & Sullivan, 2005) because

the lack of integration with the four domains is

unobtainable. For these women, the time spent

trying to get noticed and promoted was also spent

balancing the life and work domains and being

satisfied with this process. Women have been

looking for satisfaction at work, which comes from

job satisfaction, rewards, and work-life balance

(Gersick & Kram, 2002) rather than conflict

(Woodd, 1999). Additionally, they wish to feel

satisfied with life in general as these two domains

compete for attention.

Shift in workplace culture. At this point,

it is time to break the cycle (Zaleski, 2015) of

35Wright and Yaeger

schedule and are considering the notion of “leaning

out” (Irvine, 2015, p. 40). This discussion of men

and flexibility goes beyond the scope of this paper;

however, it warrants mentioning since we now

have some interest from the male perspective in the

organization which may give this culture change

more traction. Authors agree that further research

on this is warranted and could be a logical extension

to this study.


The participants in this study were women

who had exited a middle management position

(or higher) within a corporate career path that

was generally described. The study occurred in

2012-2013 with 15 women interviewed either

face-to-face or in a virtual setting. A preliminary

research call was distributed to members of the

Women’s Small Business Development Center

in a monthly newsletter, provided at a Women in

Leadership conference in Chicago, and also through

professional networks and academic conferences.

Interviews of participants were recorded and then

transcribed with a manual coding process using

Atlas.ti. Finally, an interrater was used to verify

themes and add a layer of reliability to the research



One of the core challenges for women in

the workforce, as discovered in this study, is the

women unable to integrate the four life domains at

satisfactory levels to achieve fulfillment. Notable

women such as Sheryl Sandberg and Anne Marie

Slaughter caution that it is not possible to have it

all at one time (Zaleski, 2015; Sandberg, 2013;

Slaughter, 2012), but rather it is possible to figure out

a way to make these four domains coexist at some

satisfactory level. In order to do this, as suggested

by these research findings, women are exiting the

corporate arena which poses to be a barrier to them

being able to come close to integrating the domains

of life, work, self, and community. It is time to

break the cycle of corporate careers demanding

so much time and devise a way to shift from what

is commonly known as the white, male corporate

culture (Bierema, 1996) into one that integrates all

domains. This shift involves the inclusion of more

flexibility in the workplace.

Male work context and workplace

culture. As suggested by Jessica Irvine (2015)

upon review of the 2012 Diversity Council of

Australia study, one-fifth of men surveyed had

seriously considered exiting the organization citing

issues of workplace flexibility. Men are faced with

even more challenges as Irvine describes because

of the lack of masculinity that accompanies such

desires to have flexibility in work. With fathers

sharing more of the childrearing responsibilities,

men have a desire to engage in a more flexible

36 Organization Development Journal l Winter 2016

I could have continued to grow within

Company X, no problem moving, getting

promoted, but again as I looked at that… it

did nothing to fulfill me personally and that

is what I missed. (P8)

There are some things that were

dramatically different for me when I was

able to call my own shots, set my own

schedule, be more authentic in who I was

and really start to focus my things like faith,

family and community service. All the

things that had taken a back seat including

family [when in a corporate position]. (P6)

I have that choice to leave to pick up my

kids from school and it doesn’t mean that

I am necessarily finished working at two

o’clock when my kids get out of school but

it is just that I adjust my schedule around

school and I have the flexibility to do

that. And I think that to me has been the

definition of success or what I’m looking for

and what gives me the flexibility as being an

entrepreneur. (P2)

Participants also address the corporate culture and

obvious misalignment of values where some level

of integration between two domains of work and

life is realized.

That flexibility piece is huge. And that

was the piece I hated the most in corporate.

need for flexibility. The definition is similar to

having control over tasks and scheduling but more

specifically involves more freedom in general. It

was a sense of having control over the four domains

and being able to integrate them at levels that aligned

with their espoused values. Thirteen women (87%)

desired this flexibility to integrate values into the

daily life in order to have fulfillment. Excerpts from

the interviews related to this category are below.

Excerpts from participants interviewed

discussed what flexibility looked like once they

opted-in to a new workplace culture independently


I have the ability to manage my time and

I didn’t have that freedom under corporate

America because it was always project or

preparing for presentation and working 10

to 12 hours a day was pretty standard in the

companies I worked in. (P1)

I love the fact that I can take my work

anywhere and I can work anytime of the

day I know what needs to be done and not

everyone can do that (P9)

I really wanted to have more balance,

more flexibility and those things that go

along with quality-of-life. (P8)

My business life and my personal life

are really just basically a lifestyle for me [as

entrepreneur]. (P13)

37Wright and Yaeger

with all 15 women. They expressed a strong desire

to have this flexibility, not just in their schedules

but also in general work. Although in many

ways organizations have tried to incorporate such

flexibility as presented earlier in the paper, the

efforts still fall short. Flexibility remains something

women are seeking as they search for an appropriate

career that fosters the ability to integrate not only

the work and life domains but also domains of self

and community.

For these women, when flexibility existed,

as the above excerpts indicated through independent

creation of workplace culture, they enjoyed more

time for what they considered to be important;

namely, developing relationships and being able

to spend time in those relationships. Within the

constructs of the relationships were most often

a reference to family, which included spouse and

children but also extended to parents, friends, and

colleagues (home, family, community, and arguably

the self domains).


It comes as no surprise that not having this

flexibility in the corporate culture led to an exit

from said culture by the 15 women interviewed for

this study. Arguably, not all cultures are guilty of

not offering this attribute to employees; however, it

seems naïve to believe the participants in this study

are unique. Once flexibility became a component

It didn’t seem like they had yet adopted that

type of thinking in a more flexible way on

how work gets done. (P14)

No one in corporate [is] looking for

face time from me and no one is telling me

I cannot go. It also results in the flexibility

for my team, and not all CEOs have this

approach, but I believe that I want that

for myself and I also want it for my team

because I know that people on my team really

want it. So I actually tend to hire a lot of

women who have young children and work

incredibly hard and incredibly well and then

have flexible hours. For me it’s just about

balancing my family and not balancing…

the just trying to keep them afloat kind of

balancing…but really enjoying my time

with my family and my time at work. (P2)

Entrepreneurship can allow you to

have that relationship with your family

and still help your children and maybe

even grandchildren that I feel you can get

that more as an entrepreneur. We need to

teach women how to do it. We need to give

them skills to use their talents while also

integrating their life into their work. (P9)

Mentioning flexibility as a key component

of being able to integrate values into the work and

life domains was pervasive in the conversations

38 Organization Development Journal l Winter 2016

The findings of this study are specifically

presented to inform women desiring more flexibility

which may ultimately result in fulfillment in the four

domains. This discussion provides opportunities

for the field of OD to be the group to bring about

change to corporate culture for better alignment with

humanistic values. It brings the “pink elephant” in

the room to the table for discussion with empirical

research to support it. Women are hesitant to enter

a discussion about workplace flexibility at the risk

of leaving an impression that considering one’s self

and one’s three other domains is more important

than company vision and purpose. However, men

as well are interested in more flexible arrangements,

but are not yet willing to talk about it in a male-

dominated workforce due to the stigma and

“masculinity harassment” from colleagues (Irvine,

2015, p. 40).

Changing workplace culture

Changing the culture of corporations has

been discussed by Lawler and Worley (2011) in

Management Reset: Organizing for Sustainable

Effectiveness book and again by Lawler (2014) in

his reflection on progress and possibilities since the

1970s. These authors posit that organizations need

to “attract the right individuals” (p. 240) by having

an employer brand that indicates the culture of the

organization both implicitly and explicitly. This

is a way to make the organizational effectiveness

of the lives of those interviewed, the integration of

domains became more possible and apparent.

Women who left a large organization or

corporation have been said to had “opted-out”

(Belkin, 2003; Kuperberg & Stone, 2008) — a

phrase often associated with a return home to tend

to motherly aspects of life. However, the issue is

far more complex and involves more than a mere

exit from the workplace. As stated before, at a

minimum, these women can put a talent drain on

an organization which ultimately impacts diversity

in the workplace (a known driver of innovation).

When looking at the exit from this perspective,

it then becomes apparent the field of OD is in a

position to bring about workplace culture change.

The reasons cited by the 15 surveyed for this study

indicated that the two domains of work and life are

not intersecting at all or at a minimal level. For them,

fulfillment means living their values and enjoying

alignment of their values in their everyday life.

Specifically, being able to enjoy the presence of the

four domains (two presented in the initial research

and two more during the revisiting process) at some

level: 1) Work; 2) Home/family; 3) Community

(friends, social groups, etc.; 4) Self (time to take

care of one’s mind, body and spirit) as if they were

drawn as a Venn diagram with overlapping of these

four circles (domains) different for every person

(Friedman, 2014).

39Wright and Yaeger

control of flexibility the integration was improved

in line with espoused values. As Mainiero and

Sullivan (2005) stated, the integration of the four

domains while in the corporate culture was not

possible and this study has revealed that women

were more successful at integration when outside

the corporate culture.


The call for opportunities for OD is at the

heart of this study as these women expressed desires

that parallel OD’s humanistic roots. We should

consider using the many instruments available to

assess the culture of an organization, and the desires

of the employee as a foundation to better understand

how to consult and work with corporate women.

OD has proven successful in improving the culture

of organizations, as evidenced in scholarly and

practitioner journals and at academic conferences

for decades.

A call for OD women. An opportunity

exists to build on early OD pioneers such as Edie

Seashore, Billie Alban, Barbara Bunker, Elsie

Cross, and Jane Mouton (Brown & Orr, 2010) to

bring about dramatic change which would enrich

the field of OD. These thought leaders worked to

“alter the awareness of men” and ultimately bring

about change in an effort to help the field evolve.

Now is a critical time to once again help the field

evolve into one that may improve corporate culture

more sustainable through retention of employees

and more engaged employees. Lawler (2014) also

states, “it simply is not possible for organizations to

retain skilled knowledge workers and at the same

time have rigid rules about when and how individuals

manage the balance between their work lives and

personal lives” (p. 162). In the case of these female

participants, it may have been easier for them to

know whether this would be a fit; however, as these

participants began their career, the life and work

domains may have not been a significant priority,

or this may have been the only option available

to gain experience and have some type of income

after college. Understandably, the change in the

life domain evolved, which may run parallel to the

timing of the misalignment progression. Therefore,

the misalignment may have occurred over time

rather than being identifiable before beginning

work in a given corporation. As stated by Bierema

(2005) nearly one decade ago, “organizations

need to critically evaluate their cultures and take

conscious steps to address inhospitable environs

for women and other marginalized groups” (p.

17). Considering the existing culture and the level

sensitivity to life domains, specifically for those

women seeking flexibility so that integrating work

and life is easier, and value fulfillment is possible. It

is worth noting, these women may not have gained

total integration of the four domains but by being in

40 Organization Development Journal l Winter 2016

and life satisfaction is a logical first step (Wright,

2013). The idea that talented women are “opting-

in” to alternative work options should be of concern

to them as they struggle with retention of this group.

Elevating this concern is the notion that workplace

diversity correlates to higher productivity, increased

levels of innovation, and finally a more profitable

company. Upon reflection of literature and the

findings of this study, it is evident that both men

and women would benefit from culture change

that would add more flexibility to the workplace

and integrate humanistic values to the workplace

culture. At the heart of this issue is the need for

OD consultants to answer this call by mitigating the

continued conflict unaddressed by organizations,

through the inclusion of more workplace flexibility

to facilitate the ability to integrate domains.


to integrate more flexibility in the workplace and

assist with creation of more “work-life policies

and programs” (Chalofsky, 2008). Working

with corporations to understand the perspective

of talented women exiting, and “opting-out”,

(Kuperberg & Stone, 2008) of corporate careers

to have more work flexibility and leveraging a

path to change corporate culture seems risky yet

worthwhile. Women in OD have been influential in

practice for many years (Kaplan, 2015) and the time

has come to stand up to organizations and suggest a

change to the corporate culture.

How flexibility specifically looks is not

something that can be prescribed but needs to be

developed in a way that does not “undermine

corporate culture.” Rather, flexibility becomes the

new culture (Kossek, Thompson & Lautsch, 2015,

p. 6). Considering all users and non-users will be

important to ascertain that relationships are not

strained, users of flexibility policies are not isolated,

and fairness exists (Kossek, Thompson & Lautsch,



The biggest challenge facing female OD

consultants interested in taking on this task will be

getting organizations to see this as a critical issue.

By providing evidence to corporate executives

that women are “opting-in” to a workplace outside

corporate careers for more workplace flexibility

41Wright and Yaeger

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Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without


Nordic journal of working life studies Volume 5 ❚ Number 4 ❚ December 2015

Sick Leave—A Signal of Unequal Work Organizations?

Gender perspectives on work environment and work organizations
in the health care sector: a knowledge review

❚❚ Annika Vänje1

Researcher/PhD, Ergonomics, School for Technology and Health, Royal Institute of Technology
(KTH), Sweden


The background to this article review is governmental interest in finding reasons why a majority
of the employees in Sweden who are on sick leave are women. In order to find answers to these
questions three issues will be discussed from a meso-level: (i) recent changes in the Swedish
health care sector’s working organization and their effects on gender, (ii) what research says
about work health and gender in the health care sector, and (iii) the meaning of gender at work.
The aim is to first discuss these three issues to give a picture of what gender research says con-
cerning work organization and work health, and second to examine the theories behind the issue.
In this article the female-dominated health care sector is in focus. This sector strives for efficiency
relating to invisible job tasks and emotional work performed by women. In contemporary work
organizations gender segregation has a tendency to take on new and subtler forms. One reason
for this is today’s de-hierarchized and flexible organizations. A burning question connected to this
is whether new constructions of masculinities and femininities really are ways of relating to the
prevailing norm in a profession or are ways of deconstructing the gender order. To gain a deeper
understanding of working life we need multidisciplinary research projects where gender-critical
knowledge is interwoven into research not only on organizations, but also into research concern-
ing the physical work environment, in order to be able to develop good and sustainable work
environments, in this case in the health care sector.


Development processes / doing gender / gender / interdisciplinary research / work health / sustainable
working life / work environment / work organization



1 Ergonomics, Health and Systems Engineering, School for Technology and Health, Royal Institute of
Technology, Sweden, E-mail: [email protected]

86 Sick leave—A Signal of Unequal Work Organizations? Annika Vänje


the winds of change affect the structures of working life in the swedish
health care sector

The background to this article is governmental interest in finding reasons why a major-
ity of the employees in Sweden who are on sick leave are women. A sector dominated
by women that is interesting to look closer at in relation to this question is health

care. From an overall perspective there has been a privatization trend in Swedish health
care, with instability and changes to the ownership structures as a consequence, which
has erased the borderlines between public and private sectors and affected the work
conditions (Kamp et al. 2013). On top of this economic recession and the associated
demand for efficient, streamlined organizations have led to a constantly increasing pace
of working, and in its pursuit of efficiency, the sector has turned to the manufacturing
industry’s established management concepts such as Lean production (Brännmark and
Holden 2012, McCann et al. 2015, Sederblad 2013). Health care is also a professional
sector with clear hierarchies and a significant gender order (Lindgren 1999). Well known
is that groups on the work market that have low-status positions, as many women in
health care have, are more often than those who have high-status positions negatively
affected by organizational changes (Härenstam et al. 2004). Consequently many women
in the Swedish health care industry are exposed to negative changes in their working
conditions due to privatization and/or new public management (NPM) strategies such as
Lean thinking (Kamp et al. 2013). In the late 1990s Landsbergis et al. (1999) published
an article on what impact Lean has on workers’ health, and have also presented health
issues such as stress and musculoskeletal diseases (MSDs). Health problems that we
know come with demands on more effective work at the same time as the individual’s
control over the job is unchanged and the interactions with the management remain the
same or even decreased (Ganster and Rosen 2013, Koukoulaki 2014).

The main employment sector for women in the EU is health care and social work
(EU-OSHA 2013). When it comes to work health the most common diagnoses in Europe
for sick leave are just MSDs and stress-related diseases (EU-OSHA 2013). Health care
and social work are also the fourth most exposed work group when it comes to serious
accidents at work in the EU member states (Eurostat 2013). At the same time health
care and social work are the jobs that have the highest sickness absence in Europe (EU-
OSHA 2013). In Sweden women employed in the health care sector and who are on sick
leave (for 14 days or more) have the same kind of diagnosis, that is, MSD and mental
illnesses (Försäkringskassan 2011).

The overall question to answer with the help of this review article on work envi-
ronment and/or work organization is consequently why a majority of the workers who
are on sick leave in Sweden are women and to be found in health care and social work
(Försäkringskassan 2011). The review was originally a commission from the Swedish
Work Environment Agency and a special project initiated since the sick absence in Swe-
den is dominated by women, in all diagnoses except accidents at work and heart-related
diseases (Försäkringskassan 2011). Three issues will be discussed in the following sec-
tions from a meso-level: (i) recent changes in the Swedish health care sector’s working
organizations and their effects on gender, (ii) what research says about work health and
gender in the health care sector, and (iii) the meaning of gender at work in the health

Nordic journal of working life studies Volume 5 ❚ Number 4 ❚ December 2015 87

care sector. The aim is to first discuss these three issues to give a picture of what gender
research says concerning work organization and work health, and second to examine
the theories behind the issues. The main focus is on the Swedish health care sector.


The article is based on literature found using the Royal Institute of Technology’s
(KTH’s) library search engine KTHB Primo, which provides access to the universi-
ty’s online subscriptions and includes scholarly journal articles, print journals and
ejournals, print books and ebooks, conference proceedings, doctoral theses and dis-
sertations, as well as bibliographic databases. Further searches were conducted using
EndNote and the Social Sciences Citation Index at Web of Science (ISI), as well as
the Swedish search engines LIBRIS (http://libris.kb.se/) and KVINNSAM (http://www.
ub.gu.se/kvinn/kvinnsam/). The included literature is from the mid-1980s until 2014,
with a timeline emphasizing the end of 1990s until today. The searches in LIBRIS
and KVINNSAM resulted primarily in the research that is presented here, and that
are from the 1980s and the 1990s. Later research is mainly from the scientific search
engines presented above.

In order to narrow down the focus in this article, intersections such as class and
ethnicity have been excluded. For the same reason the literature covers to a great extent
Swedish organizations and its contexts. However, above all, British and North American
research is also included. This means that the Anglosphere traditions and organizational
cultures are represented and reflected in the article.

The most frequently used search terms were work organization, organization, work,
sex, gender, women, men, femininities, masculinities, health, work health, sick leave,
work environment, psychosocial work environment, and their Swedish equivalents. The
terms were searched for separately as well as in different combinations. In some cases
the journals have recommended similar articles on their web sites; these are included if
they are in the scope of the theme presented in this article. The searches were mainly
applied during 2011–2012, and supplemented to a certain degree during 2014.

Represented journals are among others Gender, Work and Organization, Women’s
Studies, The American Journal of Psychiatry, Journal of Organizational Change Man-
agement, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Human Relations, Journal of Sociol-
ogy, and Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. There are also some Swedish
government commissioned investigations concerning gender equality and power, as well
as books by publishers specializing in science and academia. The latter is a result of the
fact that the tradition of publishing varies between the scientific areas and also over time.

In addition to the report for the Swedish Work Environment Agency a bibliometric
study was conducted by Sandström (2013). The aim was to find patterns when it comes
to research on working life and work health, and to what extent this research includes
gender differences and gender-critical perspectives. The bibliometric is divided into two
parts: (i) work health and work environment in medicine, natural sciences, and techni-
cal sciences and (ii) work and gender in social sciences (Sandström 2013). A threefold
strategy was used by Sandström (2013) in order to grasp relevant scientific journals: a)
the starting point was well-known journals in the scope of this study, b) thereafter rel-
evant scientific journals cited in the previously chosen journals were identified, c) finally

88 Sick leave—A Signal of Unequal Work Organizations? Annika Vänje

all indexed journals from steps (a) and (b) were checked according to citing context and
additional journals not identified in (a) and (b) were included.


Changes to the Swedish model (when it comes to the relations between labor market
parties (Magnusson 2006)) and the ongoing trend during the first two decades of 2000
toward privatization of the public sector have a strong, multifaceted impact on the orga-
nizations within health care. In this section the three main areas that are in the scope of
this article will be presented.

recent changes in the swedish health care sector’s working organizations
and their effects on gender

The Swedish labor market model has its roots in the 1930s and an agreement on work
life regulations between The Swedish Trade Union Confederation and The Swedish
Employer’s Confederation (Magnusson 2006). The model can be characterized by con-
cepts such as participation, learning organizations, and close collaboration between
employers and employee organizations (Ekman 2011). However, today’s trend toward
greater efficiency, with its focus on results, means that work organizations increasingly
rely on the emotional and invisible work of the individual in order to function satisfac-
torily (Hochschild 2001), and by this parts of the Swedish model are sidelined. These
trends are manifested in the health care sector, with the concept Lean health care (Bran-
dao de Souza 2009) as a leading star, and in practice the characteristics of the Swedish
model (as learning and participation) have to give way to other priorities.

Canadian researchers have argued that organizational changes that aim to improve
efficiency, which is a topical issue in the Swedish health care context, involve an increase
in the invisible work performed by women (Kosny and MacEachen 2010, Messing
1998). Invisible work is often taken for granted and, due to its very nature, not formal-
ized as a value when it comes to job qualifications, with the result that wages are not set
accordingly. In addition to the question of formalizing work tasks, invisible care work
brings with it work environment risks that are not necessarily visible to the naked eye
(Kosny and MacEachen 2010, Messing and de Grosbois 2001). One criticism expressed
in research is that the invisible work, which is usually carried out by women, has histori-
cally been considered safe and without risk because these tasks fall within the realm of
the nonvisual (Kosny and MacEachen 2010).

The study carried out by Kosny and MacEachen (2010) is based on empirical data
from three different aid organizations (who operate with the help of employed workers).
The results presented from these cases indicate different forms of invisible work: back-
ground work, empathy work, and emotional labor. Background work can according
to this case (Kosny and MacEachen 2010) be described in terms of practical hands-on
work that is neither included in a formal nor an informal job description. Empathy work
is described as various forms of relationship-building activities. On top of these two
aspects of invisible work comes the workers’ ability to deal with their own emotions, in
this case in relation to the care recipients/patients, that is the emotional work.

Nordic journal of working life studies Volume 5 ❚ Number 4 ❚ December 2015 89

The latter is described by Hochschild (2003) as emotional management, which
involves workers striving for keeping emotions under control in order to perform work
in the manner that it is expected. The norm of care-related work, and thus emotional
management, is affected by intersectionalities such as gender norms, social class, posi-
tion within the organization, cultural aspects, as well as contextual prerequisites (Whar-
ton 2012). This management metaphor visualizes that employees commit themselves
using personal emotional individual capital outside the box of formalized paid work
(Hochschild 2003, Husso and Hirvonen 2012). This praxis leads according to Hoch-
schild and Machung (2012) to a certain lack of boundaries between paid and unpaid
work, as well as between the individual’s public and private identities.

The professionalization of care led in its turn to the fact that the female body
became a tool for physical contact with caretakers, the very core of this work, both
when using the body for example lifting patients and for tactile touch. Accordingly,
these occupations possess what can be described as an inherent vulnerability (Fine
2005) consisting partly of an emotional commitment (Hochschild 2003), and partly
of heavy physical labor. We also need to remember that these occupations involve
physical contact with patients in intimate areas associated with certain taboos, that
is, outside of what is appropriate according to social norms (Fine 2005, Husso and
Hirvonen 2012).

In sum, health and social care work can thus be described as physically and men-
tally demanding. These kinds of demanding tasks are in turn primarily carried out by the
low-status profession of nurse assistants, who most often are women. When it comes to
a gender-critical perspective on the medical profession, research has pinpointed the fact
that psychosocial strain is particularly high for women; this shows in one of the highest
suicide rates in the labor market (Schernhammer 2004). What Schernhammer (2004)
means is that women working as physicians have to relate to informal requirements,
such as working more than the men to get appropriate appreciation from colleagues
and employers, this also includes difficulties in getting support from the nursing staff
(Lindgren 1999). However, research conducted in Canada shows that women enter-
ing the profession have led to new ways of working which include more flexibility and
a more balanced work life (Jovic et al. 2006). Still 21 percentage (52 interviewed; 26
women and 26 men) of the women in this study and 3 percentage of the men felt that
their family life was negatively affected by their jobs (Jovic et al. 2006). This particular
case also highlights the generation differences where the interviewed women and men
(who belonged to Generation X and the baby boomers) gave a picture of younger physi-
cians as not working so hard and not putting their profession in front of their private
life. A conclusion here is that even if the health care sector is female dominated the
traditional gender structures and images still exist, and they affect the working lives in
different ways. The gender structures show themselves in the form of clear professional
hierarchies where physicians in the male-dominated field of surgery have the highest
status, and where female-dominated professions such as nursery, nursing assistants, and
occupational therapists have expectations to support and be the organizational lubri-
cants (Lindgren 1999). The values of performed work tasks are in other words highly
connected to a social order that includes gender, as the female-dominated professions
are subordinated when it comes to hierarchal order, a holding apart of medical treat-
ment and care as well as the professions’ social status in our society (Hirdman 1988,
Lindgren 1999, Riska 2001).

90 Sick leave—A Signal of Unequal Work Organizations? Annika Vänje

Being a minority in a workplace involves a visibility based on being different to
the prevailing norm (Acker 1990, Gherardi 1994, Kanter 1993). The idea of difference
is also a breeding ground for discrimination and sexual harassment, mechanisms that
occur more frequently in predominately male environments than in mixed or predomi-
nately female ones (Wahl et al. 1998). Women are however not in a minority situation
in the health care sector, but they are more often to be found in professions that are sub-
ordinated, to the ones that are male dominated. Thus we can see that the gender order
(Hirdman 1988) is reproduced in this context and most likely a result of beliefs and
expectations of how women and men are supposed to act and behave at work, which in
turn is affected by the individual’s professional status.

When it comes to gender structures in the field of medicine, Wallace (2014) shows
that women working in female-dominated specialties get more formal and instrumental
support than those working in male-dominated specialties (Wallace 2014). This could
imply that when the group of women constitutes a critical mass the group is profes-
sionally recognized. Physicians are, however, a professional group that traditionally has
power in health care; this is much due to their status in the organization and society at
large, a high degree of autonomy, and higher wages than other medical and care work-
ers (Fine 2005, Lindgren 1999). There are also power structures which show in gender
segregation when it comes to different medical specialties. In the Nordic countries there
are few women in surgery (10 percent) and anesthesiology (26 percent), but 58 percent
in child and adolescent psychiatry as well as in geriatrics (Riska 2001). Riska (2001)
highlights that women are to a higher degree to be found in medical areas that are by
tradition female oriented such as child care and geriatrics, at the same time surgery is
characterized by masculinity from a social constructive point of view. This segregation
also affects women’s possibilities to have an impact on certain parts of medicine, and
further research on this topic is addressed (Riska 2001).

To this discussion also comes that physicians’ work is not as physically demanding
as that of the nursing staff. One conclusion is that physicians do not perform the heavy
and dirty aspects of care work as described above, which also means that they have a
lower level of physical contact and closeness with the patients.

What does research say about work health and gender in the
health care sector?

We need to discuss the term work health, and ask ourselves whether it should be mea-
sured in terms of attendances at work and statistics over sick leave, as these approaches
give no indication of how the organization’s coworkers really feel. The employers in
the health care sector must go beyond this instrumental view and include factors that
contribute to creating a good physical and psychosocial working environment. One
such factor that shouldn’t be underestimated is an atmosphere of open communica-
tion, which we know leads to good health (Jeding 1999). Furthermore, research into
the characteristics of unhealthy work indicates factors such as sickness presenteeism,
reduced efficiency, increased staff turnover, occupational injuries, and conflicts between
employees (Jeding 1999, Sandkull 2008). Outcomes in practice can be burnout and
physical stress, which is significant for health care staff (Piko 2006) in today’s modern

Nordic journal of working life studies Volume 5 ❚ Number 4 ❚ December 2015 91

Another factor that should be added to those mentioned above but is not considered
so often in praxis is gender equality. However, research indicates that gender inequality
and asymmetric regimes within an organization lead to psychosocial aspects, such as
less support, discrimination, and harassments (Kanter 1993, Konrad et al. 2010, Welsh
1999, West and Fenstermaker 1995). In health care we can see asymmetric regimes when
it comes to the professional hierarchies and the line managers, where the line manager
can be a nurse who is the head over a physician who in turn is higher up than the nurse
in the professional hierarchies. A gender-equal workplace with balanced power rela-
tions, on the other hand, leads to a creative environment, good work health (Alexan-
derson 2004), and increased productivity (Abrahamsson 2014). The latter is shown by
researchers Arundel et al. (2007), who point out that on a macro-level the EU countries
that have a more stable economy are characterized by democratic, learning organiza-
tions with an atmosphere of open communication and delegated responsibility.

When it comes to where work takes place, we are in today’s society moving toward
an increasing tempo in our work organizations, a tempo that to a certain degree is
based on boundless work and flexibilities (Hochschild 2001, Hochschild and Machung
2012, Stratigaki 2004). Research in this area shows that women tend to have more open
boundaries between paid and unpaid work than men (Hochschild and Machung 2012,
Kvande 2009).

There is a risk that this lack of boundaries, or diffused boundaries, makes it even
more difficult to set limits between what is private and what is public. This situation may
result in increased psychosocial demands and less autonomy, which in turn entails a risk
of stress-related reactions that could lead to a burnout in the long term (Karasek and
Theorell 1990). One aspect that we know affects health and individual stress levels is the
balance between the degree of demands and the degree of control a person has in their
work (Karasek and Theorell 1990). Access to informal networks and social support are
other factors that influence the well-being of an individual (Kanter 1993, Karasek and
Theorell 1990).

In order to explain sickness absence and develop methods to reduce women’s
work-related health issues, the physical work environment needs to be put into context.
Knowledge of how the physical work environment interacts with organizational struc-
tures and processes based on perspectives from gender theory must first be compiled, and
then developed (Sandkull 2008). Today we see that research on the work environment
negligibly contains a gender-critical perspective. Research on public health is according
to Sandström (2013) the area where most of the gender-critical perspectives are to be
found. On the other hand it is significantly weak interest in gender-critical research on
work environment when it comes to medical sciences, natural sciences, and the technical
sciences. In Figure 1 we can see a map over labeled clusters including perspectives such
as musculoskeletal pain, sickness absence, spine pain, burnout, etc. In this bibliometric
map the blue color represents gender-neutral articles and the red color includes a gender-
related perspective. The articles are identified by Sandström (2013) through the process
presented in this article’s method section.

In order to be able to reduce the rate of sick leave we need to achieve a deeper
knowledge based on gender-critical perspectives, of how organization, leadership, and
ergonomics interact and influence the health of women and men in their working lives.
When it comes to research into work and health, most studies up until the 1980s were
based on data consisting of men, and thereafter of women and men, only women, or only

92 Sick leave—A Signal of Unequal Work Organizations? Annika Vänje

men. Analyses of work-related factors and their effect on health based on gender theory
have been rare. The empirical focus of the two predominant research areas when it comes
to work health—safety at work and hygiene factors, has been on the working life of men.
Men are also the group that, based on a normative assessment, take more risks than
women, and therefore benefit more from the results of the first research area mentioned.

As globalization increases, structural changes based on women’s increased partici-
pation in the labor market and in more qualified work tasks, combined with men’s
increased household responsibilities, have led to a greater need for knowledge about
women’s work health, including ergonomic and psychosocial issues (Sandmark 2011).

Researchers argue that there are knowledge gaps when it comes to the ongoing
gender segregation in the labor market (Abrahamsson and Gonäs 2014), and its con-
sequences for work health, not least on the basis of analyses that, aside from health,
include intersections such as gender, class, and ethnicity (Artazcoz et al. 2007).

In contemporary work organizations gender segregation has a tendency to take
on new and subtler forms (Abrahamsson 2014). One reason for this is dehierarchized,
flexible organizations, another is a well-established political correctness in the Nordic
countries when it comes to issues concerning gender and discrimination (Muzio and
Tomlinson 2012), where the rhetoric is to work for gender equality. Even if this rhetoric
does not always turn into practice it has some effect on the workplace, as it is not cor-
rect to be openly unequal. In other words, gender and other intersections are everyday
practices influencing the processes that go on in our workplaces (Acker 1990, Gherardi
1994, Karlsson 2013).

Figur 1: A visualization taken from Sandström (2013, p. 56) of the bibliometric study on work
environment research (medical, natural, and technical sciences) published in identified peer-reviewed
journals. The red color represents gender-related research and blue color gender-neutral research in
this area.

Nordic journal of working life studies Volume 5 ❚ Number 4 ❚ December 2015 93

In relation to new subtler forms of discrimination, it is interesting that research
implies that the more gender integrated a workplace is, the healthier the workers
(Alexanderson 2004). Even if we know that gender should not matter, it does (Acker
2009, Gunnarsson et al. 2003, West and Fenstermaker 1995). This meaning takes
place in two ways: first when we, more or less unconsciously, use discriminatory prac-
tices concerning gender, and second when these practices have an impact on our health
at work.

The interdisciplinary research program ‘Modern work and living conditions for
women and men’ (the MOA study), which was conducted in Sweden in the late 1990s,
made an attempt to combine gender theory with work health (Härenstam 2000). The
aim was to develop methods for conducting exposure assessments and analysis strate-
gies suitable for population studies. These population studies could highlight the signifi-
cance of paid work to health development and the risks associated with ill-health at the
societal level, and make a contribution toward preventative health promotion (Härens-
tam 2004, Härenstam et al. 2003). In other words, this study had all the intentions that
were sought in the international arena around ten years later.

All in all, it became evident in the MOA study that women’s working situation had
more time constraints and consisted of more everyday obstacles than that of the men. In
addition, the women had longer commuting times and higher demands for attendance
in their work. Women also had a greater responsibility for taking care of the family and
home, and spent more time per week on unpaid work at home. In addition, the women
had less time for leisure activities and relaxation than the men. They did, however, have
a larger social network than the men, and more influence in terms of when the house-
hold work would be undertaken (Härenstam 2000, 2004).

When it came to the men in the MOA study, the results showed that they were
exposed to a higher degree of work-related circulatory problems, more often had an extra
job outside of their regular work, were primarily responsible for supporting their families,
and had a higher heart rate increase in their spare time (Härenstam 2000). It should be
pointed out that the above results are from a gender-matched selection, in which women
and men were working in the same industry, in the same position, and were objectively
assessed to have the same work tasks (at the same workplace in several cases).

Research that highlights these interdisciplinary aspects needs to be further devel-
oped in order to understand why these gender differences arise. Even in countries where
a higher proportion of those who attend university and higher education are women,
patterns arise to indicate that this group has a poorer psychosocial work environment
and career development than men, and are also more frequently subject to discrimina-
tion (Artazcoz et al. 2007).

the meaning of gender and work in the swedish health care sector

Research into what meaning gender has in our working lives and work organizations has
transferred from focusing on women to include the interfaces between intersectionalities
such as gender, class, and ethnicity (De los Reyes and Mulinari 2005). Research into gen-
der and sex in working life from a social constructionist perspective and research into
work environment, health, and gender from the scientific and medical perspectives have,
until now, been distinct and driven forward along two different paths.

94 Sick leave—A Signal of Unequal Work Organizations? Annika Vänje

Work organization research remained gender blind for many years, and to some
extent, it still is. The importance of gender in organizations and workplaces is not given,
even if research and government inquiries (in Sweden) have shown for many years that
it does play a role in our working lives (Acker 1990, Deutsch 2007, Korvajärvi 1998,
Kvande 2003, Rasmussen 1994, SOU 1998:6, SOU 2004:43, West and Zimmerman
1987), and the health care sector is not excluded from this.

From an international perspective, research into organization and gender became
visible on the academic agenda in connection with a sociology conference in the US
in the late 1980s that included the theme ‘A Feminist Critique of Bureaucracy’ (Acker
1999). In Sweden, research involving gender perspectives on work organizations came
at a relatively early stage, with research already being published at the beginning of
the 1980s (Gunnarsson et al. 1985, Ressner 1985). Health care research with gender-
critical perspectives on the international agenda has during the last years highlighted
issues such as gender, technology, and ageing in health care but also gender differences
in health care staff’s emotional work (Husso and Hirvonen 2012) as well as physical,
psychosocial stressors and burnout (Piko 2006). Halford et al. (2015) discuss middle
management in the health care sector and how this group tackles ageing staff and new
technologies at work. Conclusions here are that there are ongoing interactions between
dimensions such as gender, age, and technology, and that these consequently cannot
be seen as separate tracks (Halford et al. 2015). In practice this meant that the man-
agers did try to be flexible and adjust the older nurses’ work situation, for example,
when it came to scheduling work shifts (Halford et al. 2015). Another aspect of gender,
technology, and care work is the rapid development of technology and its role in care
giving. Gender plays a role here as technology can be said to be masculine connoted
(Mellström 1999), at the same time as it is in this context going to be used for care
in a female-dominated area. Nursing in today’s modern hospitals can from this point
of view be said to be in transformation from a work consisting of body work and
emotions to also include technical work and competence (Dahle and Isaksen 2002).
Emotional work is however still an essential part of health care workers’ jobs, formally
and informally. This is shown in Husso and Hirvonen’s (2012) study on care work in
the public sector, where they point out that women are exposed to higher expectations
of ‘delivering’ emotional work in relation to the expectations of men, at the same time
as the ideologies of NPM also require high efficiency. A vulnerable situation, where
women are exposed subjects, as the organizational demands on the individual are to
some extent contradictory. The valuation of technical work tasks and emotional and
bodily work tasks is in favor of the previous work, and it will affect future work in
this sector. In this technical discourse it is important to be aware of the values that
emotional work brings into health care (Dahle and Isaksen 2002), and give it space
in the work organization’s formal structures and job descriptions. The interactions in
praxis between different professions have been illuminated through the gender order
theory, especially in research conducted by Lindgren (1985, 1992, 1999). This means
that power relations concerning gender and professions have been in focus, but also in
intersection with social class.

Research on masculinities has been developed into a well-established form. A pio-
neer within this discourse, research area, is Robert Connell (1999), who interweaves
psychoanalytical and social science research in his book ‘Masculinities’ in an effort to
understand both the individual and gender relationships, as well as the meaning of social

Nordic journal of working life studies Volume 5 ❚ Number 4 ❚ December 2015 95

structures. These are perspectives that could help to gain a deeper understanding of
above all psychosocial work environment, and in this case in health care.

If we give a description of these patterns, we find that there are ongoing processes
in most workplaces in the form of hierarchization and segregation of women and men
into different positions and tasks (Acker 1990). In most cases, this hierarchization is
apparent in the fact that there are fewer and fewer women the higher up you look into
the organizational structure (Kanter 1993).

The phenomenon of fewer women higher up in the organization is usually referred
to as ‘the leaking pipeline’ (Soe 2008) or as an allocation of men. The former explana-
tion puts the focus on women as the group that leaves the career structure voluntarily.
The latter instead brings out the perspective that homosocial factors contribute to the
proportion of men growing as we look further up the hierarchy.

Reproduction is a recurring theme and concept in gender research, especially when
addressing the mechanisms and processes that contribute to the construction of barriers
to change and integration, primarily of women and men (Abrahamsson 2000, Abraha-
msson and Gonäs 2014, Bettio and Verashchagina 2009, Holt and Lewis 2011). How-
ever, Rothstein (2012) argues that explanations based on the gender order (Hirdman
1988) do not take into account the micro-activities that lead to reproduction of unequal
structures in organizations and society at large.

According to Rothstein (2012), economic rationality is an example of an activity
that affects the gender structures and has a role to play in the division of labor at home,
as for women’s and men’s establishment on the labor market and the time they spend
there. The latter is based on the fact that men are more likely to live with women who
are younger, and who have therefore entered the labor market at a later date (Rothstein
2012). This situation gives men an economic head start in relation to their female part-
ners, which keeps on growing over time, providing them with a stronger platform in
working life and better salary development (Rothstein 2012). According to Rothstein
(2012), the choice of which partner goes on parental leave, and takes greater responsi-
bility for the home, is based on this economic rationality, the woman. Some questions
that remain unanswered after Rothstein’s discussion on this rationality are however (i)
why the man is often older in a heterosexual relationship, and (ii) why the notion of
traditional motherhood is so strong in itself.

The American sociologist Hochschild (2002) has developed five different models
that show how families deal with this balancing act between public and private. One of
these is based on the traditional values and ideas of what is feminine and masculine in
our Western culture.

If we want to understand how these structures are created and how we can initi-
ate a change in prevailing values, practices and actions based on theories that high-
light gender-marked activities that take place in our workplaces are useful (Acker 1990,
Ahrenfelt 2001, Gherardi 1994).

Organizational researcher Joan Acker (1990, 1999) has clearly shown the mean-
ing various micro-activities have in an organization. Acker (1990, 1999) argues that
organizations cannot be understood as solid and complete systems as they are made up
of processes and the dynamics created through human interactions. One of these pro-
cesses is the construction of gender patterns within organizations. Concrete examples
of different practices that contribute to creating these patterns are the division of labor
and distribution of assignments, permitted behavior and expectations on employees, as

96 Sick leave—A Signal of Unequal Work Organizations? Annika Vänje

well as hierarchies within working groups and between departments. In the health care
sector we see a division of labor where a majority of the jobs that contain some form
of care are female dominated, examples are nurses, assistant nurses, and physiothera-
pists (Socialstyrelsen 2014). The construction of symbols and images that explain and
reinforce gender differences is also a process that contributes to the meaning sex/gender
has in a workplace (Acker 1990). This may involve general values relating to different
activities or individual notions about what can be expected from women and men. The
processes revolving around symbolism (Gherardi 1994) are reflected in, for example,
the valuation and expectations when it comes to women’s informal competences within
health care.

If we want to develop a sustainable work environment, we need to work with the
above-mentioned processes in parallel. It is not enough to simply increase the propor-
tion of women within a field through recruitment. This will not make the gender labeling
of work tasks within the other areas of the organization fade away, or change values
that relate to various tasks. Based on the processes highlighted by Acker (1990), we can
abstract dimensions such as structures, interaction, symbols, and professional identity,
which individually and together contribute to the gender-creating processes in a work-
place. This is most simply described in a model of these dimensions and their mutual
roles (see Figure 2).

Figur 2: Four dimensions consisting of processes that individually and together construct the im-
portance of gender in a workplace (Acker 1990, Kvande 2003, Vänje 2005).

Nordic journal of working life studies Volume 5 ❚ Number 4 ❚ December 2015 97

McDonald (2012) highlights an interesting perspective, namely that there have been few
studies conducted within predominately female professions and looking at how women
and men construct the meaning of gender and perform practices that aim not to follow
the prevailing gender order (McDonald 2012). A burning question connected to this is
whether new constructions of masculinities and femininities really are ways of relating
to the prevailing norm or are ways of escaping the gender order and deconstructing the
meaning of gender (McDonald 2012)?

In his article, McDonald (2012) presents what he refers to as principles that men in
predominately female professions use to reinforce their masculine identity, namely to:
– distance themselves from their female colleagues,
– embody masculine values,
– attempt to reconstruct the professional role, and
– renegotiate and redefine masculine concepts (McDonald 2012)

One concrete example of the above-mentioned practices is how a man relates to his pro-
fessional role as a nurse without losing his self-esteem and identity (Robertsson 2003).

One important aspect, based on this reasoning, is how easy it is to end up in a catch-
22 situation if we always base social constructs in the biological categories of women
and men. Detaching ourselves from the biological categorization of gender in analyses of
femininities and masculinities creates the opportunity to gain an understanding outside
of stereotypes and traditional perceptions (McDonald 2012).

New constructions and variations of femininities and masculinities may be a step
toward breaking down prevailing norms relating to gender (McDonald 2012). However,
expectations concerning how to act like a woman or a man make it easy to find a sense
of security in continuing with the sorting and categorization.

Discussion and conclusions

What meaning does then this theoretical knowledge have when it comes to managing
the health care sector? It certainly helps us to understand social processes in workplaces,
but above all it provides us with tools to work with projects that aim for sustainable
change. If we are able to understand the formal and informal power structures, activi-
ties, and the prevalent norms of a health care organization, we will indirectly know what
aspects are central to process in order to create an improved gender-aware physical and
psychosocial work environment.

Emotional work and emotional demanding work are factors considered as psycho-
social risks for women working in the health care sector (EU-OSHA 2013). This means
that these kinds of work practices that are not directly visible for observations have to
be included in not only this sector’s work environment policies and actions plans but
also as factors being aware of in practical work that aims for decreasing the number of
sick leaves. In this development work we also have to be aware of the fact that cowork-
ers’ emotional capital outside the formalized job descriptions (Hochschild 2003) causes
a boundlessness between the individual’s private and public identities (Hochschild and
Machung 2012).

An aggravating circumstance is that analyses on work-related factors and their
effects on the work health from gender-critical perspectives are rare. What we do

98 Sick leave—A Signal of Unequal Work Organizations? Annika Vänje

know however is that women’s and men’s bodies are not as different as we earlier
thought, instead these differences are surrounded by myths but also affected by how
we live and social constructions (Fausto-Sterling 1992). This means that development
of the work environment will be useful for both women and men. In this work it is
however of great importance to be conscious about the power structures in the orga-
nization and how they affect women’s and men’s interactions (Acker 1990, Gherardi

If the current gender inequality in the workplaces is not dealt with (Acker 1990,
Göransson 2007, Holt and Lewis 2011, Kanter 1993, Leonard 2003), we will not be
able to achieve a sustainable working life either (Forslin 2009). Here it means a working
life that is sustainable from the perspectives of crafting employees’ individual resources
as well as by collaboration between employees and their managers in order to create
organizational development (Rees et al. 2010).

There are several conclusions to be drawn from the research presented in this arti-
cle. A crucial one is that women’s higher degree of sick leave can be interpreted as a sig-
nal of unequal work organizations. A gender equal work environment paves the way for
creativity, good work health, and productivity. On the contrary current research shows
that with an unequal work organization and discrimination negative health aspects fol-
low (Pavalko et al. 2003) as conflicts, harassments, and employee turnover.

In order to run an organization smoothly today’s management trends such as Lean
Health Care relies on individuals’ emotional and private engagements in their job tasks.
This leads to a certain lack of boundaries between paid and unpaid work, as well as
between the individual’s public and private identities (Hochschild and Machung 2012).
With these kinds of work tasks that are neither formalized nor visible, work environ-
mental risks will appear and have an effect on the work health.

Rather few studies have been conducted within predominately female professions
that study how women and men perform practices that aim not to follow the prevailing
gender order, that is, to undo gender (McDonald 2012). Doing research on construc-
tions of masculinities and femininities that highlight deconstructing and reconstructing
the meaning of gender in health care is therefore called for (McDonald 2012). Empirical
knowledge from such studies would be valuable for the development of the work envi-
ronment in the health care sector.

To gain a deeper understanding of working life we need multidisciplinary research
projects on gender that include organizational as well as work environmental and medi-
cal perspectives. In other words we need to interweave gender-critical knowledge into
research not only on organizations, but also into research concerning the physical work
environment and work health. Also this would be valuable knowledge when develop-
ing good and sustainable work environments. The latter combines with innovations of
new methods for change that lie on a gender theoretical ground, and take contextual
preconditions into account.

A question to address for future research is if the gender order is reproduced in
the privately owned, formerly public sector organizations, or has the change created
an opening for new patterns and conditions when it comes to the working conditions
of women and men? There is here a lack of research and need to investigate how the
privatization of health care affects what the work involves, and what meaning the
restructuring has had on employees and managers from the perspectives of gender and

Nordic journal of working life studies Volume 5 ❚ Number 4 ❚ December 2015 99


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