Degendering organizational resilience – the Oak and Willow against the wind

Hope Witmer (Department of Urban Studies, Malmö University, Malmö, Sweden)

Gender in Management

ISSN: 1754-2413

Article publication date: 3 September 2019

Issue publication date: 12 September 2019




The purpose of this paper is to present a degendered organizational resilience model challenging current and dominant conceptualizations of organizational resilience by exploring how gendered organizational power structures, language and practices of everyday organizational life interplay and limit inclusive constructions of organizational resilience.


The degendered organizational resilience model was developed using Acker’s (1990) model of gendered organizations, Martin’s (2003) gendering practices, Lorber’s (2000) degendering and other feminist research on gendered organizations. The purpose of the model is to explore power structures, practices and language within the organizational context during conditions requiring organizational resilience.


A conceptual model for analyzing the theoretical development of organizational resilience is presented. The model analyzes the following three different aspects of organizations: power structure, to identify which resilient practices receive status based on established gendered organizational hierarchies and roles; actions, to identify how resilience is enacted through practices and practicing of gender; and language, to identify how and what people speak reinforces collective practices of gendering that become embedded in the organization’s story and culture.

Practical implications

The degendered organizational resilience model offers a process for researchers, managers and organizational leaders to analyze and reveal power imbalances that hinder inclusive theoretical development and practices of organizational resilience.

Social implications

The degendered organizational resilience model can be used to reveal power structures, gendered practices and language favoring normative masculine organizational practices, which restrict the systemic implementation of inclusive democratic practices that incorporate and benefit women, men and other groups subject to organizational subordination.


This paper offers an original perspective on the theoretical development of organizational resilience by proposing a degendering model for analysis. A feminist perspective is used to reveal the gendered power structures, practices and language suppressing the full range of resilient qualities by restricting what is valued and who gives voice to resilient processes that lead to resilient organizations.



Witmer, H. (2019), "Degendering organizational resilience – the Oak and Willow against the wind", Gender in Management, Vol. 34 No. 6, pp. 510-528.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Hope Witmer.


Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at

In a storm the Willow bent and survived but the Oak could not and was felled. Despite this, the Oak thought he won with an honorable death (The parable of the willow and the oak, Aesop’s fables).

Like the oak and the willow in the parable, many organizations must adapt to the winds of the unexpected. As winds of societal change increase in intensity, organizations require both the flexibility of the “willow” and the strength of the “oak” to survive and thrive. Unlike the fable, this paper is not about winning and losing but about dismantling gendered assumptions that influence organizational power structures and organizations’ capacity to survive and thrive. In its place what is offered is a process for degendering practices of resilience and unifying qualities of both, the flexible “willow” and the stable “oak”, toward inclusive practices, processes, and theory of organizational resilience.

Introduction: gender, resilience and organizations

Organizations are pressured to respond quickly and strategically to technological, political, and social changes including turbulent markets, widespread ecological problems, and high levels of uncertainty and disruption on a global scale (Burnard et al., 2018; Uhl-Bien and Arena, 2016). These factors require increased agility at both the individual and organizational level to adapt and transform to rapidly shifting external and internal conditions (Branicki et al., 2016; Linnenluecke, 2015; Witmer and Mellinger, 2016). Concurrently there is tension between command and control, top-down leadership, and collaborative democratic processes that provide space for oppressed and marginalized voices (Alvesson and Billing, 2009). All this is occurring in the context of the neoliberalization of feminism that has become more individualistic and is losing touch with its wider social change objectives (Grosser and McCarthy, 2018; Lewis et al., 2017). This raises the challenge to develop inclusive organizational forms, systemic processes, and leadership models for understanding how to adapt and at times transform in response to these conditions (Crevani, 2015; Crevani et al., 2010; Liu et al., 2015; Van Breda, 2016.) Resilience is one of the terms that are increasingly used in organizational scholarship to address these tensions and challenges. Resilience is defined as the agile capacity to rebound, learn, and transform when impacted by severe disruption (Bhamra et al., 2011; Linnenluecke, 2015; Muhonen and Witmer, 2016; Zolli and Healy, 2013).

The theoretical development of resilience within organizational and management studies has continued to expand with the exponential increase of publications since 2000 (Linnenluecke, 2015). However, there is an absence in the theoretical development of organizational resilience and how a feminist perspective might inform its conceptualization. Current definitions often associate resilience with stereo-typical male practices such as a tough-minded approach to decision making and heroic expressions of leadership that entail conquering challenges and individual acts of heroism. Less emphasis is given to resilient actions associated with normative feminine practices such as cooperation, inclusivity and collective transformation, and values providing conditions that benefit women, minority men, and other marginalized groups (Calas and Smircich, 2006; Duchek et al., 2019; Hamel and Välikangas, 2003; Martin, 1993; Witmer and Mellinger, 2016). A resilient organization depends on the innovative use of resources and on problem solving that is rooted in feminist values of cooperation and inclusivity, as well as collective transformation; these elements help organizations to adapt and prepare for future conditions (Martin, 1993; Witmer and Mellinger, 2016).

Resilience as positioned within organizational scholarship is vulnerable in its construction to gendered organizational power structures that favor normative masculine practices as the “ideal” organizational form. Constructing the theory of organizational resilience in the context of normative perceptions of masculinity and femininity, positions what is identified as masculine as the good and acceptable aspects included in theory while subordinating, and at times excluding, what is perceived as feminine and “other” than the “ideal” male (Connell, 2002; Bendl, 2008; Calas and Smircich, 2009; West and Zimmerman, 1987).

Challenging current and dominant conceptualizations of resilience through a feminist lens can identify which resilient properties receive status based on established gendered organizational hierarchies, gendered social structures, and the discourse of dominance and submission (Acker, 1990; Butler, 1999; Nentwich and Kelan, 2014). If conceptualizations and practices of organizational resilience are not challenged, gendered constructs that reinforce what is good and acceptable will continue to influence which resilient practices receive status and thereby control organizational discourse and processes that influence who has power and which voices are valued in the space where resilient actions are co-created (Acker, 1990; Crevani, 2015). These non-reflexive practices, where people act without being aware of how gendered assumptions influence their actions, if unchallenged, could subjugate and marginalize organizational practices that are valuable aspects of organizational resilience but are eliminated due to being categorized as feminine practices (Martin, 2006, p. 356).

As organizations adapt to increasingly complex global conditions, like forced migration and climate change, they are pressured to practice resilience by responding, adapting, and quickly innovating. These global conditions place competitive pressure on organizations, emphasizing the values of efficiency and effectiveness in organizational processes. The pressure to be competitive can reinforce bureaucratic, patriarchal forms of organization and marginalize democratic and inclusive processes (Martin, 1993, 2006, 2013). For organizations to be resilient, operate in these conditions, and remain relevant, there is a need for diversity and inclusive spaces where feminist practices such as collective transformation should occur (Martin, 1993). If intentional processes of inclusivity are not incorporated into the practices of organizational resilience, the urgency to adapt can marginalize and further entrench resilience factors related to gender and diversity, factors that are getting entangled in the roots of a new type of global authoritarianism (Connell, 2018; Crevani, 2015; Duchek et al., 2019). It is thereby important early in the theoretical development process of organizational resilience to analyze gendered constructions through a feminist lens and incorporate values such as equality, mutuality, inclusion and personal and collective transformation (Martin, 1993). The result will be the development of a theory that degenders the construct of organizational resilience. Degendering organizational resilience acknowledges the power of gender as an organizing principle of social practices while being careful to not polarize resilient practices according to these gendered distinctions (Lorber, 2005). Degendering seeks to dismantle the effects of gender by not gendering in the first place, thereby taking the best of masculine coded and feminine coded practices without the socially constructed gendered distinctions (Lorber, 2005). Degendering organizational resilience incorporates the best of “oak” like qualities such as certitude and “willow” like qualities such as flexibility to benefit organizational members as well as the wider societal change-objective of the organization.

The three basic assumptions about gender in this article are as follows:

  1. gender is socially constructed;

  2. what is historically, socially, and culturally constructed as masculine is viewed as superior to what is constructed as feminine; and

  3. the gender system in organizations reproduces power structures that subordinate what is considered “other than” normative practices of masculinity (Acker, 1990; Alvesson and Billing, 2009; Billing, 2011; Collinson and Hearn, 2005; Connell, 2002; Walby,1989; West and Zimmerman, 1987)

Organizations, as referenced in this paper, are dynamic, socially constructed collectives embodied in a social context and mirror society’s gendered constructs which are continually reinforced through an on-going loop-back effect (Collinson and Hearn, 2005; Lorber, 2000). The feminist perspective will be used as an analytical lens to explore resilience theory as applied to organizations for the purpose of revealing how gendered organizational practices that favor normative masculine constructions limit inclusive theoretical development of organizational resilience (Calas and Smircich, 2006, 2009; Witmer and Mellinger, 2016). The model was developed using Martin’s (2003) model of gendering practices and processes in organizations, Acker’s (1990) model of gendered organizations, as well as other feminist research on gendered organizations (Billing, 2011; Calas and Smircich, 2006, 2009, 2014; Connell, 2002; Holgersson, 2013; Kelan, 2010; Lorber, 2000; West and Zimmerman, 1987).

After an introduction to the concept of organizational resilience in the context of organizational and management theory, feminist perspectives for analyzing the gendering of organizational systems will be presented. This will be followed by examples of the feminist perspective applied to the theoretical development of organizational resilience. A specific focus will be on how the organization’s power structures, gendered language, and practices of everyday organizational life interplay and privilege hegemonic masculine constructions of resilience, thereby limiting inclusive practice and theory development. Finally, a proposed model for degendering the theoretical development and practice of organizational resilience will be presented.

Literature overview – organizational resilience and gendered organizations

Organizational resilience: theoretical trajectory

The concept of resilience is viewed within a broad spectrum of research areas such as environmental sciences, psychology, urban planning, and organizations. The latter, organizational resilience, shifts the focus away from the individual to a systemic perspective. With this perspective, organizational resilience explores power structures, processes and collective social interactions within the organizational context during high stress conditions. Organizational resilience refers to the organization’s ability to respond productively to significant disruptive changes especially unexpected emergent events (Witmer and Mellinger, 2016). This systemic concept is based on a mutual and symbiotic relationship within the organizational system, and between the system and its environment (Bhamra et al., 2011; Kimberlin et al., 2011; Linnenluecke, 2015). When resilience was initially studied in the context of organizations, the focus was primarily on crisis and how organizations responded to a one-time catastrophic event from both a systemic perspective of the organization in the context of its environment and individual psychological responses of organizational members (Branicki et al., 2016; Limnios et al., 2014).

Organizational resilience has expanded from the original crisis response model that highlights heroic, rational responses to incorporating a proactive stance of responsiveness based in a position of strength and constant preparedness for the unexpected (Burnard et al., 2018; Limnios, 2014; Witmer and Mellinger, 2016). Resilient organizations have the capacity to learn, respond, and adapt to both internal and external disturbances (e.g. the rapid pace of change in the environment) while maintaining its integrity as a system (e.g. fulfilling its mission) (Coutu, 2002; Hamel and Välikangas, 2003; Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007; Witmer and Mellinger, 2016). Weick and Sutcliffe (2007), through the concept of high reliability organizations, create a link between individual responsiveness, and the organization’s ability to be resilient in a volatile and competitive environment. This perspective positions the relationship between the organization and individuals in a shared collaboration in which a person uses personal agency and chooses to connect their individual value system with the organization’s purpose and mission (Branicki et al., 2016; Lengnick-Hall et al., 2011).

More recent theoretical frames combine these different aspects and describe organizational resilience as a complex phenomenon that includes structural, relational, and contextual components including both relational, collaborative processes, and rational heroic processes in response to volatile and often competitive external conditions (Branicki et al., 2016; Burnard et al., 2018; Mallak and Yildiz, 2016; Witmer and Mellinger, 2016). Resilience is viewed as a positive state that every organization seeks to achieve in order to be relevant and responsive to current conditions (Limnios et al., 2014; Youssef and Luthans, 2007).

Organizational resilience – a multifaceted concept

The combination of structural, relational, and psychological aspects comprises organizational resilience. Structural aspects point to flexible organizational structures with shared power and team based, or networked, configurations of organizing (Kimberlin et al., 2011; Van Breda, 2016; Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007). The relational and psychological aspects include empowerment and positive mind sets that help employees see potential opportunities and frames resilience as a positive strength-based lens for identifying actions and conditions of healthy adaptive functioning (Gittell, 2008; Lengnick-Hall et al., 2011; Van Breda, 2016). Together these provide a psychologically safe organizational context with mutually respectful relationships, conditions conducive to innovative problem solving, and the incorporation of diverse perspectives (Duchek et al., 2019; Kimberlin et al., 2011; Lengnick-Hall et al., 2011).

A key aspect of organizational resilience is the concept of bricolage, the utilization of available resources for creative problem solving that brings together both structural and relational aspects to increase inventiveness and the capacity to improvise (Coutu, 2002; Mallak and Yildiz, 2016; Witmer and Mellinger, 2016). Additionally, in some contexts organizational resilience points to the value of space for exploration and reflection (mindfulness). This space aids in both the learning aspect of resilience and the reflection needed to reveal embedded norms and values that could hinder resilient responses to change (Crevani, 2015; Vogus and Sutcliffe, 2012; Vanlikangas, 2007).

In a resilient organization the attributes of flexibility and agility are fundamental characteristics of the organization imbuing it with a constant state of readiness to go through cycles of learning, innovation, and transformation (Mallak and Yildiz, 2016; Westley, 2013; Zolli and Healy, 2013). This distinguishes resilience from solely oak-like constructs of adaptive responses during adversity, which in one heroic act aim to return an organization back to its original rigid state and may be limited to a one-time event (Limnios et al., 2014; Vanlikangas, 2007; Witmer and Mellinger, 2016). A resilient organization reorganizes itself and increases its capacity by using challenges as opportunities for learning, innovation, and transformation (Duchek, et al., 2019; Hamel and Välikangas, 2003; Westley, 2013). The organization tends to have fluid flexible boundaries and symbiotic relationship between organizational members and between the organization and its environment, enabling space for multiple voices and diverse perspectives (Linnenluecke, 2015; Van Breda, 2016; Witmer and Mellinger, 2016).

The model presented in this paper uses the feminist lens to challenge and degender present conceptualizations of organizational resilience by focusing on the processes and practices of gendering within masculine constructed institutions (Calas and Smircich, 2006; Lorber, 2000). The aim is to expose and dismantle gendered organizational power structures by challenging dominant discourses, practices and processes that suppress multiple voices and diverse perspectives, thereby restricting inclusive resilient practices and the inclusive theoretical development of organizational resilience.

Gendered organizations

Historically, leadership and organizational studies were based on primarily male, hierarchical, top down organizational structure with command and control styles of leadership (Calas and Smircich, 2006, 2009, 2014). These were patriarchal structures in which men occupied most influential positions of power, thereby associating normative masculine practices and characteristics as the more valuable, powerful, and influential aspects of workplace practice (Acker, 1990; Calas and Smircich, 2006, 2009, 2014; Kanter, 1977; Walby, 1989). Through on-going actions of dominance and deference, men and women, continue to reinforce and legitimize these patriarchal organizational arrangements that suppress practices not in accordance with hegemonic patterns of masculinity that have been identified as the gendered character of the organization (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005; Martin, 1993, 2003, 2006; Walby, 1989). This frame of organizations, where gender is a primary means of signifying relationships of power, perpetuates oppression and power dominance that is detrimental to women, men and the organization.

The number of women in the workforce and in leadership and management positions continues to increase. However, when they fill these positions, they often continue to operate in a manner more similar to accommodation of dominant masculine norms versus challenging the power imbalances. By not challenging these non-inclusive practices women who have also risen to power-positions continue to reproduce gender divisions and inequalities, perpetuating the organizational power imbalances (Adamson, 2017; Billing, 2011; Calas and Smircich, 2006; Scholten and Witmer, 2017). Feminist perspectives on gender, work and organization highlight that organizations continue to reproduce gender divisions, inequalities, and unequal power distributions that maintain and favor hegemonic masculine organizational practices (Acker, 1990; Bendl, 2008; Calas and Smircich, 2014). Collectively these embedded power structures continue to subordinate qualities and practices not aligned with dominant normative culture beliefs about “being male”, rewarding a hegemonic definition of manhood and behaviors emulating a certain type of maleness while marginalizing other expressions of being male (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005; Ely and Meyerson, 2010). One example is the practice of inflating “ideal” masculine practices (strength, decisiveness, rationality, emotional detachment) and ascribing them to more powerful roles within the organization, positions practices associated with stereotypical masculine practices as the ideal way to perform within an organization (Acker, 1990; Martin, 2003, 2006, 2013).

These gender divisions are exacerbated by how work is divided in the labor market between caring, considered feminine, and providing solutions, considered masculine. These distinctions are continually recreated in the activities, actions, and language of organizations, reinforcing and perpetuating certain practices as gender bound. In these gender-based practices men do the important tasks, rewarded with high wages and opportunities for advancement, while women fill less skilled, less valued roles (Adamson, 2017; Billing, 2011; Hakansson, 2017; Wood, 2009). The devaluing of the feminine is also reflective in financial compensation and areas of influence. For example, women continue to earn less than men, women’s pensions are less than men, and women’s interests are considered as less important or of less significance (Stojmenovska, 2018; Scholten and Witmer, 2017; Tienari et al., 2013). These gendered divisions reinforce organizational arrangements of dominance and subordination.

Men and women socially construct each other through gendering practices that occur in their interactions at work (Deutsch, 2007; Martin, 1993, 2003, 2006; Mavin and Grandy, 2012; West and Zimmerman, 1987). These enactments of gender become institutionally embedded and bind people to the gendered assumptions the organization makes available to them. These gendered practices become unintentionally and repeatedly practiced, further entrenching gendered dynamics of power and submission (Calas and Smircich, 2006). These beliefs and assumptions are reinforced in organizational discourse and unreflexive practice, perpetuating a sameness of ideas and expressions that lead to gender-binary, non-inclusive practice, and theory development (Butler, 1999; Holgersson, 2013; Lipman-Blumen, 1976; Martin, 2003, 2006). Therefore, it is important to look not only at intentional practices of doing gender but also unintentional practices of gender, including the collective practicing of masculinities and femininities in relation to which practices receive higher value in the context of organizational resilience (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005; Collinson and Hearn, 2005; Lorber, 2000; Martin, 1993, 2003, 2006). Although it is beyond the scope of this paper to address gender-binary distinctions in the larger social system in which the organization is embedded, it is within the purview of this paper to degender the processes and practicing of gendering within the organization. The aim of analyzing these actions is to avoid resilient practices being restricted by power imbalances encased in organizational gendering processes.

In addition, organizational theory has predominantly been written by men and about men, in a domain where men continue to control the discourse. This creates a double layering effect whereby men have to write about systems that historically have benefited their gendered position within society. The layering effect may be why men, writing from a feminist perspective, lean toward issues of equity that reinforce binary gender distinctions rather than removing gender distinctions (Calas and Smirchis, 1989). Inclusive theory development will require reflexivity for the purpose of exposing the influence of embedded binary assumptions for both men and women who are engaged in organizational theory development (Calas and Smircich, 2006; Martin, 2006; Vogus and Sutcliffe, 2012). The urgency for more reflexive practice is further heightened by the changing global political context in the public arena that has led to new types of authoritarianism, strong misogynist gender politics and primarily transnational male managers as the most powerful influencers (Connell, 2018). Without intentionally exposing gendering processes, attention to practices that perpetuate divisions based on gendered constructs and inequality will continue to dominate the theoretical development of organizational resilience theory. If gendered constructs are not addressed, limited practices and confined space for resilient actions will provide only a partial solution when resilience is needed, thereby creating restricted responses due to the absence of critical components which profile resilient organizations. Like the mighty oak in the parable, the normative masculine qualities could dominate the theoretical construction of organizational resilience, giving the impression they have won while the normative feminine qualities of resilience that are crucial to its survival are ignored, marginalized or destroyed. The degendered organizational resilience (DOR) model proposed in this paper is at the nexus of feminist theory and organizational resilience theory. Feminist theory intersects with organizational resilience by challenging socially constructed ways of thinking and acting that perpetuate inequities and limit inclusive dialogue, processes and practices. If organizational ways of thinking and acting are not viewed through a feminist lens it can hinder an organization’s ability to incorporate multiple perspectives that equip it to innovate, respond, adapt, and thrive, qualities that are requisites of organizational resilience.

A degendered organizational resilience model

Organizational resilience is enacted during times of high stress when organizations typically turn to normative masculine practices of rationality and reason to address “tough” problems (Hamel and Välikangas, 2003; Kantur and Iseri-Say, 2012, 2015; Mallak, 1998), thereby marginalizing normative feminine practices of collaboration, learning, and creating a safe emotional environment which are equally crucial to organizational resilience (Ely and Meyerson, 2010; Gittell, 2008; Van Breda, 2016). Resilience thrives best in contexts of shared power, decentralized decision-making, and with team based or network structures (Lengnick-Hall et al., 2011; Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007). In contrast, patriarchal structures with hegemonic masculine management practices support an unequal gendered order, which define and limit who has access to resources and to the broader space where innovative decisions are made that could lead to resilience. (Billing, 2011; Walby, 1989; West and Zimmerman, 1987). This is illustrated in the following example from a study on organizational resilience in which a community-based healthcare organization adapted to restrictions in funding due to pressure from large healthcare conglomerates. The organizations’ responded, adapted, and continued their service to the community despite disruptions in the healthcare industry and fiscal restrictions. In this study, two healthcare managers described organizational resilience as an inclusive space where people can be creative within the context of a safe organizational climate. It is a space where power is shared, and people are empowered to pursue and act on opportunities (Witmer, 2006).

One of the key aspects of resilience is bricolage, which requires access to material and human resources to facilitate inventiveness and innovation (Kantur and Iseri-Say, 2012, 2015; Kossek and Perrigino, 2016; Mallak and Yildiz, 2016). To easily access these resources means that they must be available and accessible within the organizational “space” where problem solving and decision making occurs. If voice and the valued space for practice are limited by unequal power distribution encased in gendered relationship of power and further entrenched in unreflexive practices/practicing of masculinities and femininities, then the organization’s ability to practice resilience through collaborative reflection, learning, and transformation can be restricted (Martin, 2003, 2006; West and Zimmerman, 1987; Vogus and Sutcliffe, 2012). Degendering the physical space where resilience is practiced can remove these binary gendered distinctions and open the way to incorporate all aspects of organizational resilience such as strategic adaptation and innovation (Duchek et al., 2019; Lorber, 2000).

Job roles, access to power and resources are often bound by gendered organizational constructions and practices, creating power imbalances by excluding non-hegemonic male actions thereby determining what is valued and which voices are heard in the workplace (Liu et al., 2015; Martin, 2003; Mavin and Grandy, 2012; West and Zimmerman, 1987). These gendered boundaries structure the daily work life in organizations and can include or exclude practices of organizational resilience depending on their association with the less valued gendered role. This association is exacerbated when roles are imbued with power within the organization’s structured hierarchies, reinforcing precedence to a specific type of gendered voices (Nentwich and Kelan, 2014).

The process of acknowledging embedded gendered practices through reflexive practices can reveal how institutionally embedded inequalities are enacted and hinder theory development of organizational resilience that is inclusive (Martin, 2003, 2006). This acknowledgement process includes an integration of resilient practices that incorporates normative conceptions of both masculinity and femininity such as mutuality, participation, empowerment, rational-logic, decisive action and transformation. It is the conflation of masculine and feminine coded practices that makes the construct of resilience valuable to the development of resilient organizations, thereby degendering the concept and practices of organizational resilience and enhancing the conditions required for organizations to embrace constant change and diversity (Duchek et al., 2019; Lorber, 2000).

At present there is an absence of a gendered discussion in the organizational resilience literature, where gender is not acknowledged, thus presenting a faux ungendered perspective on organizational resilience, giving the impression that institutions are rational neutral places where everyone has an equal opportunity. By acknowledging gender and its contribution to the theoretical development of organizational resilience one can challenge current and dominant conceptualizations of organizational resilience by exploring through a feminist lens the power structures, actions/practices, and narratives that simultaneously interact to create a resilient organization (Nentwich and Kelan, 2014; Nkomo and Rodriguez, 2018). The process of degendering organizational resilience leads to the purpose of this paper, the presentation of a conceptual model for the inclusive theoretical development of organizational resilience.

The degendered organizational resilience model

The purpose of the DOR model is to introduce gender into the analysis and theoretical development of organizational resilience, challenging current and dominant conceptualizations of organizational resilience, and introduce a degendered inclusive model that embraces diverse practices. As illustrated in Figure 1 resilience factors would be analyzed using the three aspects of the DOR:

  1. power structure, to identify if equal voice and access to resources is given to people with differing levels of power according to organizational role and position;

  2. gendering practices and the practicing of gender, to identify how resilience is enacted through actions and interactions; and

  3. language, to identify how narratives reinforce collective practicing of masculinities and femininities that become embedded in the organization’s story and culture.

The outcome being the identification of degendered resilience factors that would be used toward the development of inclusive organizational resilience theory and practice. This section provides a description and a summary comparative table of each aspect of the DOR model. Table I provides examples of power structure, actions/practices and language in traditional masculine organizations, resilient organizations and inclusive resilient organizations.

Power structures – creating space for resilience

The importance of resources is consistently highlighted in the organizational resilience literature as the primary link to the achievement of resilient organizational outcomes (Bhamra et al., 2011; Mallak and Yildiz, 2016), as the way to develop organizational competence and growth necessary for resilient actions (Kossek and Perrigino, 2016; Mallak and Yildiz, 2016; Sutcliff and Vogus, 2003), and as an important aspect of bricolage (Mallak and Yildiz, 2016; Witmer and Mellinger, 2016). Access to resources is directly linked to power structures within the organization. In this model power structures, and roles would be analyzed based on how resources are used and the variety of voices included in collaborative and innovative problem solving contributing to a gender equal, inclusive construction of organizational resilience. This has interesting further implications in industries such as healthcare and education, which are gender coded as female work. Two resilience studies, conducted by this author in the aforementioned industries, illustrate this point. In both cases the men were disproportionately represented in leadership positions, and rated their perception of access to resources as higher than the women. This potentially highlights the embedding of gender differences in the actual practicing of gender and the importance of undoing gender in social interactions to remove gender differences in positions where there is equal organizational power but unequal expression in practice (Billing, 2011; Deutsch, 2007; Lorber, 2000 West and Zimmerman,1987). Although both of the industries in this example are categorized as gender-coded female industries, there were differences in relation to national and organizational cultural context that could have implications for further analysis using the DOR model. The healthcare organization was located in the United States and was a not-for-profit community-based medium sized organization. The educational system studied was in a public sector organization in the Scandinavian context. Further analysis using the DOR model would need to consider the national and organizational cultural context in relation to the influence of these factors on organizational resilience and gendering processes in organizations.

The relevance of organizational resilience to power structure is that structure and roles often conscript the space where collective voices can be heard and where power and access to resources is shared based on what is needed to innovate and adapt (Hamel and Välikangas, 2003; Kossek and Perrigino, 2016; Nentwich and Kelan, 2014; Vanlikangas, 2007). For example, organizational structures that provide conditions for shared power, communication with fewer boundaries and agile organizational processes, permit an expedited change process. These conditions are conducive environments for resilient organizations to respond, problem solve, and adapt quickly while looking for innovative ways to operate under high pressure conditions (Ferdig, 2007; Linnenluecke, 2015; Witmer and Mellinger, 2016). Analyzing organizational power structures from a resilience and gender perspective can expose where power structures hinder or promote communication, agile processes, and access to resources based on position within the organization.

Organizational roles are also gendered and imbued with power based on their position within the structure and the practices of gender within society. For example, historically men were assigned to jobs/positions associated with influence, creativity and power while women were assigned to supportive roles/positions defined by collaboration and care taking (Britton, 2000; Hakansson, 2017; Stojmenovska, 2018). Furthermore, the hierarchical gender segregation in many organizations continues to position male managers as routinely having power over female subordinates, thus further legitimating men’s power over women and masculine coded jobs as more powerful than feminine coded jobs (Calas and Smircich, 2006, 2009, 2014; Martin, 1993, 2013; Nentwich and Kelan, 2014).

These socially prescribed gender embedded norms that gender label certain jobs also create boundaries around which voices are heard in the workplace, potentially limiting their contribution to an organization’s resilience (Calas and Smircich, 2006; Mavin and Grandy, 2012). This is further reinforced by gendered practices within the organization. For example, a hierarchical organization in which positions of power are held mainly by men will find (possibly without conscious realization) that collective masculine practices continue to legitimize patriarchal structures that limit democratic inclusive processes and work against collaborative, innovative practices of resilience.

Implementing the model – power structures

The DOR model provides a way to explore how power structure controls who has a voice to influence organizational processes and decisions in relation to resilience. This would be done by analyzing the organizational structure and systems of stratification from both a gender and resilience perspective. Organizational power-structures would be mapped as defined by job roles, construction of jobs as either masculine or feminine, the gender of the person occupying the role, and where they are positioned within the organizational structure. Viewing these aspects through the feminist lens would reveal distribution of power and influence and access to resources. The analysis must be conducted by degendering the practices in relation to the role and the role’s position within the organizational hierarchy. This would be done for the purpose of challenging established organizational power imbalances and to allow equal weight of expression at all levels of the organization in relation to documented accounts of organizational resilience (see Table I for examples).

Actions: Gendering practicing

This model incorporates a procedural view of “doing” gender and “doing” resilience. The aim of focusing on practices of “doing” gender is to encourage the undoing of gender towards a degendered construction of organizational resilience. Doing gender is a social process that is socially constructed at work, enacted every day in working life, and mirrors societal constructs (Alvesson and Billing, 2009; Holgersson, 2013; Nentwich and Kelan, 2014). In this model, doing gender is extended to what is said and done in individual and collective practices of femininities and masculinities. Focusing on what one says and does as they practice doing gender, will produce insight into power imbalances that work against inclusion in the context of organizational resilience (Calas and Smircich, 2009; Collinson and Hearn, 2005; Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005; Crevani, 2015; Martin, 2003).

Relationships of power are often manifested through gendering practices, revealing embedded power imbalances that subordinate qualities and practices not aligned with dominant hegemonic patterns of masculinity. A common example often exercised in the workplace is the woman who occupies the same role as her male counterpart yet is expected to do supportive tasks, e.g. taking minutes at a meeting, thereby fulfilling the helper role while the man is expected to solve difficult challenges as a form of valor, assuming the male role of protector (Martin, 2006). In these cases, colleagues practice gender by acting out gendered societal norms rather than operating as colleagues of equal value within an inclusive organization (Martin, 2003; Mavin and Grandy, 2012). As demonstrated in the previous illustration, when both men and women occupy the same job position, it can give the illusion of inclusion while the unreflective practices reinforce patriarchal structures, collective masculinities and power imbalances that restrict spaces for organizational resilient practices. Relational and emotional aspects are as important to organizational resilience as rational, strategic practices. This is especially relevant in the area of communication and coordinating collective responses to unexpected events (Coutu, 2002; Gittell, 2008; Sutcliffe and Vogus, 2003). These interactions also point to the development of conditions for a safe organizational climate in which people are comfortable taking risks in order to innovate, transform, and learn from failure (Lengnick-Hall et al., 2011). These resilient, organizational practices cultivated through the daily interactions of inclusive social relationships within the organization facilitate democratic processes that incorporate diverse voices (Duchek et al., 2019; Gittell, 2008; Lengnick-Hall et al., 2011). Practices and practicing of resilience will be explored from a feminist perspective concurrently with practices and practicing of gender to reveal how gender influences practices and practicing of learning, innovation and adaptability that contribute to a resilient organization.

Implementing the model – actions through gendering practices

The DOR model would analyze practices of doing resilience from a feminist perspective to capture what is actually enacted in situations requiring communication, collaborative responses, and innovation. Resilient actions would be analyzed to evaluate how/if practices of masculinity and femininity influence the expression of resilient practices during innovation and problem solving while planning for, or in response to, unexpected events. This process would include revealing the tension between command and control power structures and collaborative, democratic processes.

An analysis based on practices of “doing” gender and practices of “doing” resilience would also reveal if diverse perspectives representative of different “power” stratifications are included within communication and collaborative responses, e.g. innovation and problem solving while planning for, or responding to, unexpected events. The analysis would reveal if stereotypical masculine actions such as stoicism and toughness are rewarded and praised to the exclusion of normative feminine actions such as collaboration and empathy. Using this process would reveal if aspects of resilience are being marginalized as a result of gender labeling and thereby limiting inclusion of aspects crucial to the theoretical development of resilience (see Table I for examples).

Gendering language for resilience

This aspect of the model is designed to reveal gendered narratives and sub-text that reinforce exclusionary practices and perpetuate a binary gender perspective of organizational resilience (Bendl, 2008). The aim would be to expose and deconstruct narratives that lead to further entrenchment of gendered norms and limit theorization of organizational resilience to special forms of hegemonic masculinity (Connell, 2002, Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005). The purpose of analyzing narratives would be to reveal gender embedded institutionalized patterns of thinking that create gendered boundaries and power inequities in the theoretical development of organizational resilience (Bendl, 2008; Foucault, 1998). By exposing narratives that reflect these embedded norms they would be challenged and destabilized, creating space to introduce new inclusive discourse for organizational resilience (Bendl, 2008; Butler, 1999). Adding the complimentary feminist perspective would also destabilize the power relations between what is considered masculine and feminine and what becomes defined as important, interesting, and relevant to the theoretical development of organizational resilience. To reveal these embedded substructures entails questioning the gendered ideals of the organization as revealed through narratives and organizational storytelling perpetuating binary and exclusionary gendered practices in organizations (Bendl, 2008; Scholten and Witmer, 2017).

One of the hallmarks of resilience is that the capacities of learning, adapting, and innovating are values imbedded in the organizations’ culture. To maintain this level of adaptation, both overt and covert messages would be analyzed to reveal gendered norms and values that could work against the organization innovating and responding in a way that reflects resilience. These gendered constructs, once made visible, would be evaluated and ungendered in relation to inclusive practices and their contribution to, or hindrance of the full scope of resilient factors (Bendl, 2008; Holgersson, 2013). This would include the exclusion or minimization of text that could limit the space for multiple perspectives and inclusivity, qualities crucial for resilient actions of quick adaptation, learning, and innovation (Bendl, 2008; Westley, 2013; Witmer and Mellinger, 2016).

Implementing the model - Language

For this aspect of the DOR model, critical discourse analysis is recommended for evaluating organizational narratives and exposing gendered subtext affecting the practice and theoretical understanding of organizational resilience. The analysis would be conducted using stories, interviews, observations, focus groups, and written organizational text that describe actions, practices, and processes related to organizational resilience. Examining resilient narratives through a feminist lens would expose gendered resilient behavior that emulates normative constructions of masculinity and subjugates other aspects of equal importance. This pseudo-resilience reinforces patriarchal beliefs and assumptions in organizational discourse, perpetuating a sameness of ideas and expressions that lead to gender biased theory development. For example, if organizational language favors logic, aggression, and rationality (normative masculine language) over compassion, creativity, and learning (normative feminine language), this could lead to an imbalance in the inclusive construction of organizational resilience. If not challenged, the theoretical development would be weighted towards masculine gendered constructions thereby excluding many aspects that contribute to effective organizational resilience. Exploring resilience text from a feminist perspective would highlight qualities crucial to resilience that would otherwise be eliminated from the discourse due to being embedded in patriarchal constructions of power and thereby from the on-going theoretical development of organizational resilience (see Table I for examples).

In summary, the DOR model analyzes three different aspects of organizational resilience, power structure, action/practices and language:

  1. Power structures are analyzed to identify which resilient properties receive status based on established gendered organizational structures, roles, and hierarchies (Nentwich and Kelan, 2014).

  2. Actions are analyzed to identify how resilience is enacted through individual and collective practices, and practicing of gender towards reflexive practice (Acker, 1990; Martin, 2003, 2006).

  3. Language is analyzed to identify how and what people speak reinforces individual and collective practices of masculinities and femininities that become embedded in the organization’s story and culture (Bendl, 2008; Butler, 1999; Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005).

At the beginning of this section, Table I illustrates how the DOR model can be used to reveal gendered constructs that limit or represent inclusive resilient organizations. Categories of the conceptual frame are listed with examples of power structures, actions and language representative of traditional masculine organizations, resilient organizations and inclusive resilient organizations.

Conclusion: degendered organizational resilience

Through the lens of feminist theory, it is revealed that organizations remain embedded in normative masculine gendered constructions that influence organizational resilience theory development. Despite the best of intentions and institutionalized regulatory practices such as gender mainstreaming, there continues to be gendered exclusionary practices embedded in organizational norms, values, and power structures which have become accepted as common practice (Daly, 2005; Walby, 2005). This paper asserts that the theoretical construction and practice of organizational resilience stands the risk of becoming subject to eliminating or marginalizing practices leading to resilience, not because these aspects are ineffective but because they are gender coded as feminine in a context where masculine constructions dominate the discourse.

Organizational resilience theory in its construction is a combination of organizational structure, interactions, practices, and language. This author contends that these processes are inextricably linked, and influenced by societal norms and contingent on context. The DOR model offers a critical feminist lens to analyze organizational resilience practices to reveal the embedded gendered constructions that limit the theoretical development and practices of organizational resilience. Existing studies of organizational resilience – whether they are focused on individuals, teams or strategic decision making – are conducted in organizational systems that have gendered norms embedded in their structures, actions/practices and language. This is further compounded by initial constructions of organizational resilience that framed resilience as a one-time heroic response to a catastrophic challenge. These gender-based assumptions and practices can restrict the discourse and eliminate key aspects of resilience.

It is the full scope of resilient practices that are required to adapt and innovate in the context of highly complex, technologically advanced, and globally connected organizations. For organizations to be resilient, there is a need for systemic processes that facilitate inclusion and diversity and lead to constructive, adaptive organizational responses when under high levels of stress and pressure. It is thereby important to incorporate these qualities that reflect and build robustness and sustainability on a systemic level.

Due to this level of complexity the model is not without some challenges that need to be addressed:

  • Contextual aspects can influence the analysis of organizational resilience and gendering processes in organizations. It will thereby be important to consider the influence of organizational culture, industry and national context and to use caution when making generalizations beyond the immediate case.

  • Using a feminist perspective without resorting to dialogue about men and women can be difficult semantically thereby, it will be important to remain focused on acknowledging but removing gendered distinctions towards the aim of degendering organizational resilience.

  • Additionally, it will be important to pay careful attention to distinguishing between gendering practices, practicing gender, and undoing gender in relation to degendering organizational resilience.

In summary the purpose of the DOR model is to expose patriarchal structures and power imbalances that perpetuate oppression and suppress resilient qualities that are not in accordance with hegemonic masculine forms of organizations. By exposing gendered practices, power imbalances and their reinforcing narratives, all aspects of organizational resilience can be incorporated without gendered distinctions weighting their value. It is a dual focus on resilience and inclusivity that benefit men, women and the organization, and it creates the space for innovation, learning and collective transformation. The final contribution will be a degendered inclusive construct of organizational resilience that equips organizations to stand firm and sustain the strong winds of complexity, uncertainty, and disruption by incorporating without distinction the agile, collaborative aspects of the willow and the rational, logical aspects of the oak.


Illustration of the 3-step process using the DOR model

Figure 1.

Illustration of the 3-step process using the DOR model

Degendered organizational resilience examples based on categories (power structures, action and language) from the degendered organizational resilience model

Degendering organizational resilience (units of analysis) Traditional masculine Organization Resilient organizational practices DOR model: inclusive resilient organization
Organizational Roles/positions Led by heroic leaders, homosocial networks and restricted power bases Mission vs person centered
Inclusive networks
Inclusive, diverse spaces for action, not bound by normative gendered roles and structures
Power STRUCTURE Hierarchical top down structures. Patriarchal model Shared power and leadership Incorporates diverse perspectives
Flexible adaptive systems and agile processes
Access to Resources Resources distributed based on power and position Bricolage -Utilization of multiple and diverse human and material resources Distribution of resources based on mission and organizational needs for adaptability and innovation
ACTIONS/ practices Align definitions of competence with gendered task requirements
Conflates definition of competence with stereotypical practices of masculinity
Actions – focused on innovation, collaboration, networks and teams adaptation to external context and learning Diversity in power and leadership that incorporates individual and collective practices of masculinity and femininity in degendered construction of organizational resilience
LANGUAGE Hegemonically defined masculinity controls the resilience discourse e.g. stoicism, heroic tales of conquering Stories of learning transformation and change embedded in the organization at all levels Overt discussions and reflexive practices revealing covert norms and values that influence the meaning making of inclusive organizational resilience

The table illustrates examples of how the DOR model can be used to degender the theoretical development of resilient organizations. Categories of the conceptual model are listed along the left column (i) Power structure comprised of space for practice and access to resources, (ii) action comprised of doing gender and doing resilience, and (iii) language comprising organizational discourse that reflects organizational norms and value. The first column provides examples of each of these categories in the context of traditional masculine organizations; the second column provides examples of resilient organizational practices; the final column provides examples of these categories in Inclusive resilient organizations


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Further reading

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Funding has been provided for by the Center for worklife evaluation research (CTA) at Malmö University.

The author would like to thank Marcela Mellinger, Christina Scholten and Daniel Nyberg for valuable comments on earlier drafts of this article. They would like to thank Sandra Jönsson and their colleagues at CTA for their insights and ideas that contributed to the conceptual development of this paper. Finally, a special thank you to the journal reviewers for their constructive and insightful comments.

Corresponding author

Hope Witmer can be contacted at:

About the author

Hope Witmer has her PhD in Applied Management and Decision Sciences with a focus on Leadership and Organizational Change. Her research areas include leadership and organization from a resilience, sustainability and gender perspective. Current research projects include a feminist perspective of organizational resilience, leadership and cross-sector collaborations. She is employed as an Assistant Professor in the Urban studies department at Malmö University, Director of the Leadership for Sustainability master program and a Researcher for the Center for Worklife and Evaluation Studies (CTA) at Malmö University.

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