Does university organisational culture alienate women staff?

Men shaking hands while a woman is taking notesTo tie-in with April’s “Demystifying Finance” workshop, John Arnold, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Loughborough University, examines reports from women university staff on how they experience engaging (or not) with their organisation’s systems and cultures.

My colleagues Sarah Barnard, Fehmidah Munir, Sara Bosley and I are conducting the five-year “Onwards and Upwards” project on the leadership and career experiences of women in academic and professional services roles in UK and Republic of Ireland higher education. This work is funded by the Leadership Foundation, which is now part of Advance HE. Drawing on data from 2,240 women over the first two years of the project (most but not all of whom have participated in the Aurora leadership programme), we have noticed, as others have, that many women find engaging with their workplace systems and culture problematic.

For example, just one fifth of our respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they enjoyed the cut and thrust of organisational politics. Over half reported that they felt they had to behave in ways that did not come naturally to them if they wanted to “get on”. Two in five felt that they conformed to the organisational culture more than they would like to, whilst just 30% reported that they made a point of challenging organisational culture.

On the other hand, there were some signs of greater comfort and engagement too. Nearly two thirds said that when they had power they were comfortable using it. More than half reported that they knew a lot about how their employing organisation runs. This increased from 55% to 66% between years 1 and 2 of our project, but there is a large difference between professional services staff and academics. The former are much more likely to agree. What greater incentive could there be for academic women to learn how to demystify finance!

The Aurora programme seems to make a difference. About one third of Aurora “graduates” report that participating in the programme has helped them be more adept at turning organisational systems to their advantage. The same applies to openly challenging the systems or culture. (In both cases, almost no respondents said that Aurora reduced this). Nearly 60% of Aurorans said that the programme had helped them feel more comfortable in positions of authority.

Despite these impacts of Aurora, we believe it is vital not to place the main responsibility for change on individual women, nor to ”blame the victim” for feeling uncomfortable about engaging with organisational systems and culture. Some of our respondents attributed it to women’s lack of confidence, though many of these pointed out that this confidence issue was itself an outcome of the work environment, not an inherent property of women.

More generally though, our respondents pointed to challenges of gendered organisations (and society more generally), poor access to and/or poorly-run career development practices, and gaps between organisations’ policies and practices regarding equality.

We make 17 recommendations in our Year 2 report (follow this link for a summary). No fewer than 13 of these are aimed at institutions rather than individuals. They include: developing definitions and norms of leadership that allow for a range of styles and skills, closer attention to who gets what opportunities to develop into leadership and other desired roles, and an audit of the distribution of men and women engaging in high and low-prestige managerial and leadership roles within their jobs. And yes, training and perhaps short secondments or work shadowing to see how the organisation really runs (including the finance) with encouragement to academic women to participate would be another good step forward.

The Onwards and Upwards project will run until March 2020.

John Arnold is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the School of Business and Economics, Loughborough University, UK. He is a Fellow and Chartered Occupational Psychologist of the British Psychological Society. John’s research, teaching and consultancy involve all areas of careers and their management from both individual and organisational perspectives.  

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