Women in management : barriers to career progress

Geddes, Jean (2002) Women in management : barriers to career progress. Doctoral thesis, London Guildhall University.


This study of women in management was initiated to explore, through women managers themselves, the barriers they thought were hindering their progress up the management hierarchies in BT. To facilitate this study the first former utility organisation to be privatised was approached to be the case study. At the time the organisation, which was undergoing a major organisational change programme aimed at taking it from the utility provider it had been to the dynamic private company it wanted to be, was gaining a reputation for enlightened equal opportunity policies. It had a vigorous gender champion and an equal opportunities department that had ensured circulation of the organisation's equal opportunities policies to all members of staff. BT employed a large number of women managers in different functions, working in different locations throughout the UK and in a number of positions in the management hierarchy short of the most senior management or director levels. It therefore presented a unique opportunity to study women in the management pipeline from across a broad spectrum of jobs and backgrounds, women who were not being promoted in the same proportions as their male counterparts.

To examine their circumstances a mixed methodology was used drawing on aspects of feminist, positivist and pragmatic models because each offered an essential element of the mix needed to satisfy the requirements for undertaking the study. As the researcher was both a manager employed by the case study organisation and a woman there were elements of feminist methodology that guided involvement and personal interest in the study. The culture of the case study organisation was such that it was driven by the quantitative measures offered by positivism. An implicit element of the agreement between researcher and case study organisation was therefore that elements of the findings should reflect this requirement. Finally, a pragmatic approach to undertaking the study underpinned the dialogue between researcher and case study organisation as ways were explored for carrying out the investigation.

While it cannot be assumed that the same barriers to progress for women managers found in the case study organisation exist for women managers in other organisations, the findings of this study have nevertheless highlighted issues beyond the borders of the organisation. Firstly, they confirm the conclusions of previous research that women have been both horizontally and vertically segregated in areas of organisations from which progress into top management positions is more difficult to achieve. Secondly, the study casts new light on the pressures that women face when trying to reconcile the needs of work and caring responsibilities. Women's ambitions are still tempered by their place in the home as carer and partner and many are prepared to subordinate their career opportunities to the needs of their family. Most crucially, the study highlights the extent to which women's aspirations are bounded by their work experiences.

It has been assumed that organisational cultures have been becoming more sympathetic towards the inclusion of women managers and more prepared to encourage women to progress but the evidence of this study is that this operates at the level of rhetoric instead of action. The organisational structures and management styles presented barriers that flattened the ambition of women and exposed them to bullying, intimidation and harassment. Nurtured by an uncompromisingly macho company culture underpinned by an old boys' network, the barriers that women encountered served to suppress initiative and detain them at lower levels of management. Many women felt that because of this they were stifled, inhibited from improving their own or the organisation's performance. Furthermore, this study demonstrates that the nebulous nature of these insidious discriminatory practices renders them almost impenetrable. Just as BT shares a history and culture similar to several other former utility organisations so it is probable that these practices are mirrored in other organisations.

Finally, the assumptive base of some recent analysts question the ways in which women are likely to progress in management. It has been assumed that the excellent educational achievements of women in recent years will automatically translate into increased opportunities for high office in organisations. However the findings of this study show that the organisational climate in which women find themselves has a larger impact on their progress. In this study the women with the highest qualifications were clustered in the lowest ranks in the division of the organisation that showed most resistance to gender diversity. Therefore while education may enhance a woman's opportunities, it does not automatically position her for higher office.

The other assumption that women are increasingly limiting their own career opportunities by making positive decisions to remain at the lowest positions in the management pipeline, through positive lifestyle choices, are challenged by the findings here. It was only when women found themselves hampered and unlikely to progress or thought that the harmony of their home lives was threatened that they decided to limit their options. Otherwise, many of them stated, they would have relished the challenge of higher office. As this study shows, it would clearly be a disservice to these women managers to confuse their forfeiture of ambition because of the prevailing hostile organisational climate or for family reasons, with their positively deciding to limit their careers.

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