Revealing and Concealing Gender: Issues of Visibility in Organizations

Susan Fountaine (School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand)

Gender in Management

ISSN: 1754-2413

Article publication date: 17 August 2012



Fountaine, S. (2012), "Revealing and Concealing Gender: Issues of Visibility in Organizations", Gender in Management, Vol. 27 No. 6, pp. 426-429.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This book arrived for reviewing just a few days after a conversation with a friend about her daughter's struggle to identify a personal example of a “gendered” experience, to write about for a university assignment on workplace communication. This discussion had prompted me to reflect on how the young female students I come across tend to be unwilling to engage with, or perhaps not fully alert to, a gender lens on their own life experience – as if “gendering” takes place only in books, or as if, in Lewis's (2006) phrasing (cited in this collection), the “problem” of “gender disadvantage” has been solved. A book whose back cover promised to explore “new terrain for understanding the ways in which gender is revealed and concealed in organizations” was therefore a particularly timely arrival onto my desk.

Patricia Lewis and Ruth Simpson's edited collection, Revealing and Concealing Gender: Issues of Visibility in Organizations, comprises an introduction and 12 chapters, primarily from academic researchers in the UK but also including Australian, New Zealand and Norwegian contributions. Given the subject, it is pertinent to note that one chapter is co‐written by a male (Carl Rhodes) but otherwise all the authors are women –perhaps reflecting the tendency, noted in Lewis and Simpson's introduction, for men to “routinely fail to see themselves as gendered and position gender […] as an issue that attaches to another” (p. 5).

The book canvases a variety of empirical and conceptual perspectives, exploring the ambivalent and contradictory ways in which men and women experience in/visibility, self‐inflicted or imposed, negative or positive. In their highly useful introduction, Lewis and Simpson summarise their wide‐ranging intent, asking:

[…] how do men and women experience visibility? What aspects of the gendered organization are concealed within taken for granted thinking and normative routines? How does (in)visibility link to power and how are these dynamics played out in day‐to‐day organizational life? (p. 4).

They also offer a new model, “The (in)visibility vortex”, as a way to capture the complex shifting grounds of the “norm” and its accompanying processes of revelation, exposure and disappearance which “imply a constant motion that relates to the maintenance of power and to the countervailing dynamics of alterity” (p. 13). Lewis and Simpson's introduction should be commended not only for its thoughtful overview of the chapters but for creating a theoretical framework around the vortex which they hope will form the basis of future research and which goes some way towards their goal “to make sense of the complexities and contradictions inherent in the way visibility and invisibility is experienced and managed in organizations” (p. 21). Achieving this sense‐making objective is important because edited collections such as this often canvas a wide territory, but fail to establish connections or move the debate forward. Gender studies as a field is perhaps particularly challenged by the need to synthesise rather than just erect a pile of findings. Nevertheless, the influence of the editors' scholarship and contribution towards sense‐making is apparent throughout the book, with many chapter authors making use of their earlier and continuing work.

The book is not organised into themed sections so, while there are clearly many and various connections between the ideas explored, the 12 chapters tend to stand alone, although there is a loose structure, and some contributions do sit particularly well alongside their neighbours. Melissa Tyler and Laurie Cohen begin the chapter line‐up with a fascinating analysis of gender and organizational space, inspired by Sofia Hulten's video installation, Grey Area. This is followed by Heather Höpfl's chapter linking organizational preoccupation with measurement to the male fear “of failing to have a big enough member” (p. 43) and castration anxiety. Chapters 3 (by Caroline Gatrell of Lancaster University) and 4 (by Oslo Sociologist, Selma Therese Lyng) are linked by an explicit concern with pregnancy and motherhood. Perhaps the book's most disturbing content comes from Gatrell's netnographic research exploring the erasure of the pregnant body from organizations and organizational theory, showing the ways in which pregnant women are not permitted to interrupt workplace routines. This sobering account of women who clearly lacked any form of organizational power was followed by Lyng's exploration of the experiences of high‐achieving women in Norwegian law firms; exploring how female members of organizations' legal “A teams” encounter their first gender roadblocks when they announce their pregnancies, reinforcing that the care of children continues to disadvantage women. This is also apparent in the next two chapters on entrepreneurship, which look at how women are marginalised, as in Deborah Kerfoot and Caroline Miller's chapter exploring the UK's Self‐Employment Agency programmes and literature or, as in Lewis' contribution, revealed as post‐feminist “mumpreneurs”.

The issues around in/visibility in leadership are the subject of two chapters on this subject, written by New Zealander Irene Ryan, who looks at institutionalized sport (using field hockey as a case study), and Australia's Jennifer Binns who interviewed mid‐level managers and business owners. Both authors document masculine and organizational resistance to female leadership, accompanied by a struggle to make “gender visible” (Binns, p. 172).

The three chapters which follow look at the experiences of men and women within professions where they are a gender minority. Jacqueline Watts' contribution on women civil engineers, Susan Harwood's chapter drawing from a larger project on policing, and Simpson's consideration of how men experience visibility in nursing, primary school teaching, airline cabin crew and librarianship were compelling reading – and also provided some fascinating insights into the research process. The final chapter, by Alison Pullen and Carl Rhodes, argues that gender has no true meaning waiting to be revealed. Lewis and Simpson themselves acknowledge that this chapter throws into disarray their attempts to create an interpretative framework for the book – but simultaneously shows the slipperiness and insecurity of the area, and opens up space for new understandings and future research.

Clearly then, this is a wide‐ranging collection, which engages with the concept of organization in the broadest sense, and in a range of unexpected and interesting ways. I am confident that it will provide “new terrain” for many readers, exploring as it does a diversity of workplace settings, and including often neglected perspectives, such as the gendering of organizational space alongside the more fashionable topics of entrepreneurship and leadership. By turning attention to areas and occupations which have seldom been the site of research or gender analysis, such as online discussion groups, sporting and police organisations, the book is also true to its ambition to seek to reveal “the hidden gendered processes and practices in organizations” (p. 4). One quibble is the absence of any meaningful engagement with other aspects of identity, particularly ethnicity, which also impact on organizational experience. Lewis and Simpson's introduction does acknowledge race, and material and cultural privilege, in discussion of the invisible norm, but it is disappointing that there is little consideration elsewhere of the myriad ways in which ethnicity (and age, etc.) intersect with gender to also contribute to organisational in/visibility. While I understand that it is often a pragmatic consideration to focus primarily on gender, such qualitative collections may increasingly be expected to engage more widely with the concept of diversity.

I especially enjoyed and found engaging the chapters documenting applied organisational research and attempts to effect change, particularly because as a reader I struggle with some of the more absolute statements that also make an appearance in the book: that for example women “are never fully accepted as leaders, as managers or as members of the board” (p. 6) or that “they [women] do not possess real members so they cannot be real members” (p. 41). By contrast, in Chapter 10, Harwood approaches the invisibility of women in highly masculine workforces as a positive force for change, and describes how the women she worked with in the police force:

[…] were able to use their invisibility to engineer positive change, to reframe their deferential behaviour to subvert male authority, to mask their collective activity, and to advance their radical cause (p. 194).

Clearly, such an interpretation is not open to or relevant to all researchers and writers but neither is it helpful, especially in an edited collection purporting to explore complexity, to cast the debate around visibility/invisibility in simplistic terms.

These points aside, there is little to criticise in this book. Part of me would have welcomed some “hard” data in the introduction, to provide a concrete framework for the book's concern with in/visibility. Such data, documenting gender differences in workforce participation, the gender pay gap, etc. do exist – but I accept that this is not the approach or style of this collection. Indeed I am now aware that in making this point I am exhibiting what Höpfl might regard as a quasi‐male preoccupation with measurement! Refreshingly, there are few mistakes or typos; perhaps the most significant is in Gatrell's chapter where she writes that her data was collected between October 2008 and January 2008 (October 2007? Or January 2009?). Overall the book is well written and edited, although some of the chapters are more readable than others, limiting the attractiveness to a general audience. I think a selection of chapters would be a useful resource for the teaching of organisational and gender theory, and to a lesser extent, for research methods. There would certainly be helpful material here for readers like my friend's daughter, struggling to identify the often veiled ways in which gender impacts upon organizational and life experience. By raising at least as many important questions as it answers, this is a collection which lends itself to a sequel, and I would welcome a follow‐up book, perhaps in another five years, further exploring the shifting complexities of in/visibility as organizations journey towards equality.

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