Disappearing Acts: Gender, Power, and Relational Practice at Work

Deborah Jones (School of Business and Public Management, Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand)

Women in Management Review

ISSN: 0964-9425

Article publication date: 1 August 2000




Jones, D. (2000), "Disappearing Acts: Gender, Power, and Relational Practice at Work", Women in Management Review, Vol. 15 No. 5/6, pp. 303-307. https://doi.org/10.1108/wimr.2000.15.5_6.303.1



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

This is an important book. The central idea – that of “relational practice” – is highly generative. It creates new ways of thinking about familiar topics. It brings women’s experience and feminist ideas into the core of organisational studies in subtle yet powerful ways. I think practitioners as well as academics will enjoy this book (and women academics will enjoy reading it too as “practitioners” in organisational life).

While Fletcher generously offers ways that readers can miss out the “theory” bits, I think you will miss out on much of the value of the book if you do. She gets “results” that are different from most of what we read in the women‐and‐management literature, and it is very useful to understand how she creates them. Fletcher has been more successful than any other writer I know of bringing feminist/post‐structuralist ideas into the management literature mainstream, and doing this effectively is an important part of her project (for examples see Fletcher, 1995; Fletcher and Meyerson, 2000). She sets out to not only talk about women’s experiences at work, but to create a “feminist reconstruction of work” more generally (Fletcher, 1998).

Here is her definition of relational practice:

Relational practice is a way of working that reflects a relational logic of effectiveness and requires a number of relational skills such as empathy, mutuality, reciprocity, and a sensitivity to emotional contexts (p. 84).

Fletcher talks about “giving voice” to this way of working, and she does so in several ways. First, she literally presents the voices of women – in this case, women working in an engineering company. It is a continuing challenge for researchers to go beyond simplistic and measurable “sex difference” comparisons and to tease out the complexities of the ways that gender runs through every aspect of organisational life. Fletcher does this convincingly: her specific description and categorisation of what “relational work” involves is a gift to every woman who wonders how to put her finger on that x‐factor, that thing she does that no‐one seems to value, but she keeps on doing anyway because somehow it is important to her. As Fletcher points out, she is indebted to the feminist sociologists of work who have repeatedly pointed to the kinds of invisible and unpaid work that women do both “at home” and “at work”. For me, Fletcher’s work presents a more subtle account by drawing on women’s accounts to argue that “relational practice” is not just about extra tasks you do but about the ways you do those tasks.

One of Fletcher’s key arguments is that accounts of relational practice are typically “disappeared” in organisations, that relational practice is both invisible and unvalued. She provides excellent examples of how gender is being “done” in organisations even when sex or gender differences are not overtly discussed or framed in these terms. So she is deliberately setting out to put on centre stage a “voice”, an account of a way of working, that is normally submerged in organisational discourse.

Fletcher and her colleagues (and she makes it clear that she has been working closely with others in developing this concept for a number of years) have also set out to create in the management literature a “new language” of relational competence. She argues that relational practice can in effect – if recognised – be a resource for organisations, and she links relational competence to the kinds of skills required in new “knowledge‐based” organisations.

One of the central ways that Fletcher positions her work as “post‐structuralist” is in its emphasis on language. In her research strategies she seeks to make the voices of women heard, to enable them though her writing to name their experiences in ways that are marginalised or “disappeared” in their workplaces. In her final chapter she writes about the practical implications of “getting beyond disappearing”. Again, naming relational practice is a central strategy. Here is the nitty‐gritty political issue: in spite of the new rhetoric of empowerment and relationship creation in the new knowledge‐based organisations blah blah blah, there is little change. Fletcher argues that there will not be change until it is recognised that “outmoded” assumptions about gender are getting in the way (p. 116). But here is another dilemma – Fletcher reminds us that “relational practice is not about sex differences” (p. 117). Here she distinguishes between the “masculine logic” of organisational practices as opposed to the actual behaviours of individual men and women. She reminds us her case covers only women, so it is hard to say how men might stack up for relational competencies. By this stage my head is aching in a familiar way – how hard it is to talk about “sex/gender” differences without implied generalisation or biological assumptions about “men” and “women”.

Fletcher argues that the relational practice issue creates problems for women (and not men) specifically because of three forces:

  1. (1)

    the expectations that women will act relationally;

  2. (2)

    the skills that women have to act relationally; and

  3. (3)

    the belief that women have in a relational model of effectiveness.

At this point I start to feel a bit restless. First, I think Fletcher does not have the “data”, as she acknowledges, to argue in a positive way that men do or do not have certain relational skills. She has switched from presenting women’s accounts and asking how they bring new perspectives to conceptualising work, to making some eye‐of‐God‐type generalisations about women and men that I do not think are warranted by the kind of research she has set out to do.

I also find that a number of critical questions about organisations and power are left unaddressed in the discussion of relational practice. Two of the questions that arise for me are:

  1. (1)

    What is the relationship between “relational effectiveness” and power issues in organisations (other than those that are specifically gendered)? For instance, are there implications for the labour process and the employment relationship, or is relational effectiveness “business as usual”?

  2. (2)

    Do relational skills necessarily provide a kind of equality in work practices among colleagues or can they be used to manipulate and gain power over others (by either men or women)?

There is also the pervasive issue of how the term “women” is used. While Fletcher does warn against “essentialism”, she draws on models of psychological growth which set out to explain differences between women and men in regard to relational practice. OK, sometimes we want as feminists to be able to discuss differences in a general way, in the framework of cultural patterns, and Fletcher uses terms like “the masculine ideal” to emphasise her avoidance of biological distinctions.

But – and here is where her “post‐structuralism” parts company with mine – I would like to see a much more central questioning of the problems of generalizing about women. Fletcher seems to put to one side the practical impossibility and theoretical indefensibility of regarding “women” as alike in their concerns, interests and politics. As Judith Butler puts the point, “the premature insistence on a stable subject of feminism, understood as a seamless category of women, inevitably generates multiple refusals to accept the category” (Butler, 1990, p. 4). These refusals come from all directions – and I would expect a number of women managers to reject inclusion in a category with special “relational skills”, just as I would expect there to be women who would be pretty vehement about how differently some of these differences might play out in their different cultural contexts. In fact, I could find in the book no discussion of the ethnic or cultural context for the research.

All of this does not mean we cannot talk about masculine/feminine patterns, but I do argue that the specific organisational (historical, cultural) context is critical in both interpreting women’s accounts and in making decisions about how to make change. Australian feminist sociologists Game and Pringle, in their ground‐breaking study Gender at Work (1983), present a number of accounts of gender differences in different industries, framed within the proposition that “there is nothing inherent in jobs that makes them either appropriately female or male. If anything remains fixed, it is the distinction between men’s work and women’s work” (Game and Pringle, 1983, p. 15). There are some real difficulties in arguing, as Fletcher does, that relational practice as a way of working is seen as “appropriately female” in all work sites.

When we write about women in workplaces it is hard not to feel we must provide practical strategies for our readers. Perhaps the temptation to do this is a relic of the “organisation science” paradigm where “theory” must be “applied” to “practice”. To me it is more valuable to create new perspectives and understandings in their contexts, and leave readers to use these to question their own fields of action. The concept of “relational practice” creates a new framework for such strategic experiments.


Butler, J. (1990), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, London.

Fletcher, J.K. (1995), “Radically transforming work for the twenty‐first century: a feminist reconstruction of ‘real’ work”, Academy of Management Journal, pp. 448‐52.

Fletcher, J.K. (1998), “Relational practice: a feminist reconstruction of work”, Journal of Management Inquiry, Vol. 7 No. 2, pp. 163‐86.

Fletcher, J.K. and Meyerson, D.E. (2000), “A modest manifesto for shattering the glass ceiling”, Harvard Business Review, Vol. 78 No. 1, pp. 126‐36.

Game, A. and Pringle, R. (1983), Gender at Work, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

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