The construction of management. Competence and gender issues at work

Mary Mallon (Department of Human Resource Management, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand)

Women in Management Review

ISSN: 0964-9425

Article publication date: 1 September 2004




Mallon, M. (2004), "The construction of management. Competence and gender issues at work", Women in Management Review, Vol. 19 No. 6, pp. 333-335.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This scholarly yet, personal work from Bronwen Rees brings together two huge debates – competence and gender, which have been largely silent about each other. Rees identifies what she calls as her persistent observation “that women through their actions, appear to be colluding in their own subordination” (p.173). This book explores that observation in the context of the growing use of competence frameworks in organizations and within what she calls as an unashamedly emancipatory agenda. Despite their espoused neutrality and objectivity, she shows that these frameworks generally work to reinforce gendered substructures. However, the book has a central message of hope (reinforced by the findings from one critical case); the conditions of possibility for learning and change that can emerge from organizational and self‐reflexivity.

The book is informed by what she describes as “critical modern position” but one which also draws eclectically on and welcomes the insights of post‐modernism and feminism. In this, she attempts to develop a notion of the “embodied” subject – both biologically and socially gendered, “subject to historical discourses, yet, also capable of raising awareness of his or her own conditioning and therefore of self‐transcendence” (p. 37). As the researcher and author, she is distinctly present throughout the book. Besides being an academic quest, this research process, which took nearly ten years to complete, has clearly been a personal journey. For these decisions, and the book's emancipatory intent, she expects criticism from several quarters.

I would not criticise this book on these grounds. Rees is to be commended for showing us the struggle of research journeys. Her attempt to find relationships between bodies of literature has the courage of her conviction that it is ultimately necessary to move beyond critique to find lessons useful for the pragmatic agenda of management. However, the book is not without its flaws. The key problem is in identifying its principal focus – apparent from the title. In the introduction, she explains the central issue to be explored as “how competence approaches represent and construct “good management” and the impact this is likely to have on women managers”. Yet, as the chapters unfold, competence fades and there is little on the wider debate about the construction of management.

The book carries heavy loads of two major debates; the perceived need to explain the author's eclectic theoretical and methodological choices; the development of her view of the embodied subject; the researcher's own journey and of course, the data. The focus is often lost and the book sags at time beneath the weight of all the questions it poses and tries to answer. It is clearly based on a PhD; it is a necessarily abridged version and hence some depth, no doubt, has been lost. However, it retains some of the conventions of the PhD in its desire to explain and justify all research choices.

Chapter 1 maps the contours of Rees' theoretical journey “taken in attempt to overcome the problem of gender ‘difference’” (p. 22). This is a difficult chapter as the terrain covered is wide and complex. She grapples with a very brief overview of the “difference” debate; a potted overview of critical theory and its critics (including that it is gender blind); a discussion of how these critiques have been addressed with a very brief statement on the competing and conflictual positions of the many strands of feminism. Then a critical history of gender at work follows, concluding with Acker on the hidden gendered substructure of work. The chapter ends with an introduction to the author's own journey. The heart of this chapter is Rees' defense of two key decisions: first to take an eclectic view within critical theory and second to engage with the debate on “difference” by developing her notion of the embodied subjects.

Chapter 2 “A gendered sense of self” is a highly selective literature review that explicates Rees' view of the embodied subject, incorporating ideas from both radical feminism and psycho‐analytical feminism. She wants to bring back into the debate on gender, the sense of our relationship to our bodies. Inevitably, this leads to a consideration of women as mothers, heavily influenced by Chodorow's work on women's need to mother and Gilligan's writing on conceptions of the self. While Rees concludes this section with an acknowledgment that not all women do want to be mother and that women have no necessary monopoly on nurturing, nonetheless, this embodied woman/mother with a need to care pervades the rest of the book.

She later uses the notion of a nurturing/directive continuum. She argues that for many women, the need to relate at work may outweigh the need to jockey for hierarchical positions. Already you can hear a chorus of voices in disagreement, but there is a little engagement with contrary views (although acknowledgement of them). Those seeking a thorough engagement with the many strands of this debate (see for example the recent review of Weatherall (2002) in Vol. 19 No. 201, this journal) may be disappointed.

Chapter 3 moves on to interpreting organizational life and by now, the reader may legitimately ask what happened to competence. Here, the focus is on language as the producer of identity. Rees briefly examines discourse and discursive practices, power and the (influential for her) later work of Foucault. The broad outline of the study is then introduced.

Finally, chapter 4 brings us the “birth of the competent manager” – giving a brief history of the development of various ideas relating to management often using dot point lists. While Rees goes on to outline, various approaches to competence, in particular the generic and organization‐specific models, she sees little to distinguish them. Her question remains whether in their claimed objectivity, they are really benign and helpful or playing their part in constructing new taken‐for‐granted realties of organizational life?

Chapter 5 entitled “Competent organizations” introduces the data from five of the six research sites. For each, Rees gives a brief overview of the organization, the process for identifying competences; use of competence at the time of the interviews; use of national standards and timing and levels of implementation. Four common understandings and expectations of competences are identified in the research sites and explored and used in analysis throughout the book.

  • The approach would and could bring about culture change.

  • The process was objective.

  • Change would bring about the creation of enterprising and empowered managers.

  • The approach was under‐pinned by a common “shared” language that needed to be learnt before it could be used.

Readers looking for “typical” case study evidence may be disappointed. Interviews were held with implementers, typically HR managers and some senior managers, not necessarily with those line managers whose competence may have been the target of the frameworks. So, while she talks of resistance, for example, it is not by reference to those who did resist. Indeed, she is clear that she was less interested in individual experiences and meaning that with the “social and linguistic processes producing the kind of subjectivity “behind” or at least constructing an integral part of these experiences and meaning” (p. 46). Hence, while the subjects may be “embodied” we do not get to hear much of their individual voices.

Chapter 6, “Competence as discipline”, attempts to go beyond the responses to ask a series of questions about what lies behind. In this chapter, Rees explores the relations between the exercise of power and linguistic representations of reality – thus, the chapter focuses on discourse of competence as discursive practice and text. Using the above four headings, she probes and shows that practice was not always in line with expectations. Here, she finds that far from competence frameworks being objective and empowering, they continued to reflect the organization's past, they were used for “partitioning, ranking and enclosing” individuals and indeed could be interpreted as disciplinary practice. She found little evidence of people questioning the very value base of competence frameworks, rather focusing only on the “technical” issues of interpretation or problems of consistency or application.

In chapter 7, using this analytical framework and having questioned the objective nature of competences, she turns her attention to gender. Not surprisingly, she locates competence frameworks at the liberal end of equal opportunity practices and she shows that competence frameworks do nothing to address embodied women. Here, she uses the nurturing – directive continuum and examines some specific competence examples to show that directive behaviours are largely favoured and thus the structural disadvantage for women is inbuilt and compounded.

The next two chapters will probably be the most interesting for those readers attracted to Rees wish to address pragmatic needs of management, as the focus is on one critical case, a health and beauty goods retailer. Here, we see an organisation attempting to look at competence with a much more reflexive awareness of gender issues. She finds this organisation already alert to these problems of gendered substructure and sets out their competences letting us judge for ourselves that they tend towards the nurturing end of the continuum. She finds in this organisation the conditions of possibility: “This organisation has shown that an environment can be created where the home/work duality is broken down and preconditioned expectations eliminated and yet, still for the organization to survive in a competitive capitalist system” (p. 146). (I raise the possibility that she might have found such pockets of good practice in other organizations had she explored them in more depth.)

Chapter 9, “Finding a way forward: competence as organizational learning”, concentrates on her aim of drawing out lessons useful for the pragmatic agenda of management. She goes on to offer a model using the precepts of organizational learning, but it comes too late and with too little explanation to fully assess its underlying assumptions and its utility. She argues for the possibility of competence being used as a tool for reflexivity rather than control, briefly introducing Schon's views on reflection in action as a way for organizational members to gain more awareness of self and others. It seems that in an organization where there is more reflexivity, there is less chance of the competences becoming disciplinary and “the approach seemed valid as a tool of organizational growth” (p. 159).

Chapter 10 addresses“Embodying the subject: integrating separation and connection”.

The following three key issues which emerged are further explored.

  1. 1.

    The strong influence of language on creating “taken for granted” assumption (which she expected);

  2. 2.

    The use of the myth of culture change as a way of hiding processes of gender construction (not so expected); and

  3. 3.

    Break between paradigmatic and narrative cognition and the implications of this for women managers (Yet, there is really so little of this in the book).

Though, these issues are not clearly fore grounded in the book – especially the last one, which is given only brief coverage in previous chapters. She argues for a more narrative approach, more typical of women, to be used into the drawing up of competences. She ends with a plea for us all to develop self‐consciousness for ourselves and argues that organizations, with a commitment to reflexivity, can provide the conditions in which such self‐questioning can take place.

The book provides, at once, both too much and too little. There is too much perhaps of the theory and the introspection of the academic for some of the potential audiences identified (particularly the business managers and consultants). There is too little perhaps on the competence debate to satisfy those who are attracted to that aspect of the title. Perhaps again there is too little for those critics who would wish to engage her in debates about difference and embodiment, applicability and relationships between critical theory, feminism and post‐modernism.

However, I enjoyed the book for the sheer scope of ideas, and for the courage to combine them in a work that spans theory and practice and is both critical and pragmatic. Many will find challenging ideas here to engage with and others will find it a very useful entry point into a number of debates. For those actively engaged in research studies, it also provides helpful and fascinating insights into the research journey of a fellow traveller.


Weatherall, A. (2002), Gender Language and Discourse, Routledge, London.

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