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The deadly elasticity of heteronormative assumptions in South African organisations

Nceba Ndzwayiba (Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa)
Melissa Steyn (Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa)

International Journal of Social Economics

ISSN: 0306-8293

Article publication date: 6 December 2018

Issue publication date: 19 February 2019



The purpose of this paper is to critically analyse the discourses of gender empowerment in South African organisations to determine the extent to which they reify or resist the entrenched oppressive gender binaries.


Multiple case studies design and critical discourse analysis were employed to collect and analyse the data. Research entailed critical analysis of 36 published documents containing information on gender and gender empowerment. Semi-structured interviews were also conducted with six transformation managers as change agents who are tasked with the responsibility of driving gender empowerment in the selected organisations.


The authors found that gender in studied organisations was insularly defined within the confines of the male–female gender binaries. Consequently, designed gender empowerment strategies and ensuing initiatives mainly focussed on promoting the inclusion of heterosexual women in and on protecting these women from heterosexual men. Thus, gender empowerment systematised heteropatriachy in organisational culture and processes while invisibilising and annihilating the possibility of existence of alternative genders outside these naturalised binaries. Transformation managers, as change agents, fell short of acknowledging, challenging and changing these entrenched ideologies of patriotic heterosexuality.

Research limitations/implications

The paper uses Galting’s (1960) and Paul Farmer’s (2009) concept of structural violence and Rich’s (1980) notion of “deadly elasticity of heterosexual assumptions”, to theorise these gender empowerment discourses as constituting and perpetuating violence against queer bodies and subjectivities.

Practical implications

The paper recommends that corporates need to broaden their conceptions of gender and to design and entrench gender discourses that promote gender justice and equality.

Social implications

This inquiry proves Joan Acker’s (2006) and Baker’s (2012) views that inequality and injustice are produced and entrenched in a reciprocal relationship between society and the workplace.


This paper focusses on constructions of gender in organisations. By doing so, it links the observed violence against women and gender binary non-conforming people in society with organisational discourses of gender that perpetuate such violence instead of challenging and changing it so that democracy can be realised for all.



The authors of this paper have not made their research data set openly available. Any enquiries regarding the data set can be directed to the corresponding author.


Ndzwayiba, N. and Steyn, M. (2019), "The deadly elasticity of heteronormative assumptions in South African organisations", International Journal of Social Economics, Vol. 46 No. 3, pp. 393-409.



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