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Annals of the International Communication Association
ISSN: 2380-8985 (Print) 2380-8977 (Online) Journal homepage:
Viewing Organizational Communication From
a Feminist Perspective: A Critique and Some
Judi Marshall
To cite this article: Judi Marshall (1993) Viewing Organizational Communication From a
Feminist Perspective: A Critique and Some Offerings, Annals of the International Communication
Association, 16:1, 122-143, DOI: 10.1080/23808985.1993.11678848
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Published online: 18 May 2016.
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Viewing Organizational
Communication From a
Feminist Perspective:
A Critique and Some Offerings
University of Bath
This chapter views organizational communication from a feminist perspective.
Illustrations are drawn from literature on women in management and from academic
settings. Organizational cultures are depicted as dominated by male values. The
processes by which such values are maintained are explored by using an adaptation
of E. T. Ha1l's (1976) theory of high- and low-context cultures, together with an
analysis of social power. A model of the consequences for women of communicating
in high-context, male-defined organizational cultures is presented. Potential themes
in a gendered appreciation of communication are proposed. Steps toward re-visioning organizational communication theory are suggested.
HIS chapter offers a feminist view on organizational communication.
It is of necessity selective. The notions of context and form in communication provide recurring sense-making themes. As the frameworks presented below developed, I came across examples from my immediate academic experience. I have used some of these as illustrations. What
I have to say is as relevant to communication in academic institutions as in
other organizations, and has profound implications for women and men
involved in the construction of knowledge.
There are four elements to the chapter: notes on my sort of feminism, a
critique of organizational communication from a feminist perspective, a
presentation of selected themes from feminist research, and steps toward
re-visioning theories of communication. In the limited space available I shall
concentrate on the critique.
Correspondence and requests for reprints: Judi Marshall, School of Management. University of
Bath. Claverton Down, Bath BA2 7AY, United Kingdom.
Communication Yearbook 16. pp. 122-143
Organi';olUll Communication From a Feminist Perspective
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There is a rich variety of people willing to call themselves feminist. My
interest, growing from a basis in psychology, is in psychodynamics. I build
from there to understand how social systems and institutional power work.
My interests span, and seek to integrate, politically oriented work such as that
of postmodernists (e.g., Calas & Smircich, 1989; Weedon, 1987) and more
individually oriented approaches (e.g., Gilligan, 1982; Miller, 1976). In topic
terms, I have focused on women in management and their relationships to
organizational cultures (e.g., Marshall, 1984, 1989, 1991).
I am devoutly postpositivist in intent. I adopt what I would now call an
experiential, collaborative paradigm of inquiry. Two key aspects of this
paradigm are relevant here. First, I view all research as personal process
(Reason & Marshall, 1987). Theory making is seeing and speaking from a
perspective I own and am rigorously reflective about. Developing my critical
consciousness is therefore a major aspect of my research practice. Second, I
value grounded knowledge, and do not get on well with abstract ideas
divorced from experience. I think this impatience is shared by many feminists, which is why many do not bother with so-called academic writing. I
see knowing as at least having propositional, experiential, and practical
aspects (Heron, 1981), and am not happy when propositional knowledge is
disconnected from other forms. For me, inquiry is practice.
This is all fundamental to what kind of feminist I am. Many feminists have
been willing to accept the canons of traditional social science, perhaps to gain
legitimacy and credibility. But positivist science and patriarchy are so closely
identified that, for me, challenging patriarchy and finding ways to live
beyond it are essentially postpositivist endeavors (Kitzinger, 1987; Marshall,
All meaning is in context. In these initial comments, I am trying to invoke
a context from which you can hear me. Notions of contexting are central to
this chapter.
My job as a feminist is twofold. First, it is to critique and question
fundamental assumptions and social structures, being alert to implicit patterns of gender and power relations, and being aware when they devalue
women, or what I call female values. I am sensitive to the male positive/female negative pattern that has been a main framing value base for patriarchy.
For example, this involves noticing if the assumed norm is rationality, and if
emotional tone or intuitive knowing is excluded or suppressed. I also want to
explore how such value systems are maintained.
Second, I engage in re-vision of female characteristics (Callaway, 1981;
Rich, 1972). For me, this especially means not rejecting the heritage we
have-as some feminists have done, for example, in giving employment
primacy over home life as a base for identity-but looking for the functions
and creative potential of female, and male, patterns of being.
Through these processes I hope also to engage in dialogue with men, but
that is not always possible. As a group, men do not share women's imperative
need to question established values and power structures, and so the process
of inquiry is inherently asymmetrical.
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In this section I shall draw most of my examples from work on women in
management and from my own academic experience, but the themes developed are more general.
Male and Female Values
Into any critique I take some basic notions about male and female values.
This is my working model, which does not mean that it is true or fixed, but
that it helps me make sense of the world I live in. I find the model useful as
long as I hold it lightly and do not treat it as the truth.
Various theoretical frameworks distinguish between male and female values as two potentially complementary viewpoints on the world, reflecting an
archetypal polarity. This is clearly expressed in the Chinese concepts of yang
and yin (Colegrave, 1979, 1985; Singer. 1976). Bakan (1966) offers a related
analysis in his distinction between agency and communion. Capra (1982) sees
the rise of female values as one of three trends in an emerging new paradigm
of Western social values.
Drawing on these various sources, male values or the male principle can
be characterized as self-assertion, separation, independence, control, competition, focused perception, rationality, analysis, clarity, discrimination, and
activity. Underlying themes are a self-assertive tendency, control of the
environment, and focus on personal and interpersonal processes. Female
values or the female principle can be characterized as interdependence,
cooperation, receptivity, merging, acceptance, awareness of patterns, wholes
and contexts, emotional tone, personalistic perception, being, intuition, and
synthesizing. Underlying themes are openness to the environment, interconnection, and mutual development. (Please note that none of the lists offered
in this chapter is meant to be comprehensive or fixed; rather, each provides
a suggestive base for further development.)
Drawing on the above distinction, we can find associated ideas of form that
have potential relevance to any consideration of communication. Male form
appears as classifications, boundaries, organized time, separate entities, lines; it
is external, hierarchical, and formal. Distance and detachment are common
themes; the arrow is often used as a symbol. Female form appears as spaces,
networks, fusion, community; it is flowing, internal, and personalized. Inter..
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Organizational Communication From a Feminist Perspective
connection and engagement offer linking threads; the circle and web are
common symbols.
It is worth questioning whether it is appropriate to think in such polarized
terms. We risk essentialism if we then go on to apply such categories
deterministically to people (Kahn & Yoder, 1989; Weedon, 1987). I believe
that such distinctions do have value, especially if we can recognize the
contextualized, historically located processes through which they translate
into individuals' lives. I rather doubt, however, that it is appropriate to depict
female and male as similar in presentational form, and have not tidied the
material above to achieve such symmetry. Although it has its question areas,
this framework has been a valuable vehicle through which notions of the
socially muted female principle have recently taken shape.
I see male and female values as qualities to which both sexes have access,
rather than the exclusive properties of men and women, respectively. I believe
that through biological and physical makeup, socialization, and social role,
contemporary women are more often grounded in the female pole and men
in the male pole. This patterning may well be contradicted or unclear for
women with a strong patriarchal education (Hennig & Jardim, 1978). Individual development involves integrating or balancing the capabilities of
one's grounding with appropriate aspects of the other perspective. This often
happens in mid-life.
So, women and men as broad social groups are both the same and different.
Until recently, many researchers have emphasized women's similarities to
men to win the former's acceptance. But this rhetoric of equality for similarity has distorted many women's lives and left organizational cultures largely
unchanged by their inclusion (Hewlett, 1986). Differences now also need
recognizing (Bernard, 1981; Rosener, 1990; Schwartz, 1989).
The female and male principles can be seen as potential complements (as
in androgyny theory; see, e.g., Sargent, 1981), but this is currently an
idealized picture. Through patriarchy and the maintenance of patriarchal
value systems, Western society has emphasized male values, and these have
shaped its organizations, cultural norms, language, and so on. Female forms
are relatively devalued, underdeveloped, and muted. This dominance affects
all organizations, including the academic. It affects, for example, norms of
behavior, management styles, definitions of career and success, notions of
truth, and acceptable research methods (e.g., Kanter, 1977; Kitzinger, 1987;
Loden, 1985; Marshall, 1984, 1989; Sheppard, 1989). I shall not prove this
dominance, but assume it as my base. Organizational cultures are therefore
(white, heterosexual) male dominated (Hearn, Sheppard, Tancred-Sheriff, &
Burrell, 1989). This dominance is partly manifest in academia in the primacy
given conceptual, rationalized intelligence, and is apparent in positivism and
its long, lingering shadow. It is shown in the widespread control of emotions
and sexuality in organizations, and in the separation of role from person. The
fundamental pattern of male dominance persists despite some surface changes,
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such as equal-opportunity policies and the inclusion of more women in senior
Unmasking and contradicting the male positive/female negative values of
this world has been a major feminist endeavor. At times, the values have
become reversed: Female becomes all positive and male all negative-see,
for example, Loden's (1985) work on feminine management style. I cannot
live with this reversal, either, although at times the acclaim for women's ways
is reassuring. In my modeling, both male and female principles have both
high or adaptive and low or degenerative forms. Control can be appropriate
structure or reductive overcontrol; open responsiveness can be creative or the
cause of flooding and losing one's own ground.
Using the male-female values model offers a view of what is dominant and
valued in organizations and in our theory making about them, and of what is
excluded, suppressed, and marginalized. Looking at organizational communication, I shall now explore how women experience, and survive in, maledominated cultures, and the implications of this in communication terms. The
notions of context and form continue as recurring themes.
Male-Dominated Cultures
All communication is in context, and this shapes its meanings. The prevailing context within which women and men communicate is dominated by male
values and forms. Male forms are the norm to which organization members
adapt. Women copy these in order to gain acceptance and succeed in their
careers. The literature on women's adaptation to male norms of behavior and
how they are also judged against stereotypes of female behavior-the double
standard-is now well established in some circles (Bayes & Newton, 1978;
Kanter, 1977; Marshall, 1984; Sheppard, 1989). As managers, women also
draw, to varying degrees and in individualistic ways, on a base of values that
distinguish them from men, but that are denied legitimacy and are covertly
or actively suppressed. As social groups, men and women experience cultures
differently (Bernard, 1981; Gilligan, 1982; Kanter, 1977; Miller, 1976, 1988).
The male domination of cultures goes largely unrecognized in organizationallife and in mainstream organizational theory. It is taken for granted,
uncontentious (Pringle, 1989; Sheppard, 1989). Sheppard (1989) argues that
the traditional "notion of organizational structure as an objective, empirical
and genderless reality is itself a gendered notion" (p. 142). Taking male
dominance for granted, and rendering issues of gender invisible, is in itself
an ideological position. This position "masks the extent to which organizational politics are premised on the dominance of one set of definitions and
assumptions that are essentially gender based" (p. 142).
Cultures are persistent and resilient, partly because their workings are
largely unconscious. Also, stability is facilitated by the amazing redundancy
in cultural symbolism and messages. Expressions of cultural norms are
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Organizational Communication From a Feminist Perspective
overdetermined, to encourage stable interpretations of meaning in a potentially polysemic world. Language and imagery, for example, persistently
mirror back to women a male-dominated, male-positive, female-excluding
world. Academic sources often purvey the image of managers, especially
senior executives, as male. A recent edition of Best ofBusiness International
(1988-1989, Vol. 1), which offers "a quarterly selection of the world's best
business articles," is a not atypical illustration. It carries mainly pictures of
men and uses language that implies that all businesspeople are men. For
example, an article titled HSacking the CEO" suggests, HA dissatisfied board
has to ask, 'What did we expect of this guy? Where did he fall short?' " (p. 26)
Faced with such repetitive imagery, I cannot identify, as a woman, with the
text. As an academic, I have learned to "read past" this presentation and may
well be encouraged to shape my view of the world to give priority to men and
their definitions of reality.
Living in High-Context Cultures
E. T. Hall (1976), the anthropologist, offers a framework for exploring both
the profound significance of culture as a backdrop of meaning and why
Western, male-dominated cultures may be so resistant to change. He distinguishes between high-context and low-context cultures: "He (high-context) transactions feature preprogrammed information that is in the receiver
and in the setting, with only minimal information in the transmitted message"
(p. 101). Simple messages with deep meaning flow freely. Communicators
have to know a lot about what is going on at a covert level to function.
Low-context transactions are the reverse: "Most of the information must be
in the transmitted message in order to make up for what is missing in the
context" (p. 101). Hall identifies Western cultures, such as the United States,
as largely low context, in contrast to cultures such as Japan (although here
he identifies dual tendencies).
I would like to transpose this theory. Hall views the world from his own
gendered cultural assumptions; he sees Western cultures as restricted in ways
that many would now identify as male dominated (e.g., rational, disconnected, relying on linear notions of time). He takes these features for granted.
I suggest that women experience organizational cultures as high context,
preprogrammed with male values. They do not share much of the contexting
that makes communication understandable. Nor do they have equal rights to
engage in defining meaning within the patterns of communication that are
experienced by men as low context because of their (women's) subordinate
social position. This right is subverted by preprogrammed high-context features and undermined by institutional patterns of power. (See Marshall, 1991,
for more discussion of the double bind in which women are therefore placed.)
In her history of women of ideas, Spender (1982) details how women's
attempts to contribute their definitions of reality to the pool of socially
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accepted knowledge have been repeatedly undermined: "All human beings
are constantly engaged in the process of describing and explaining, and
ordering the social world, but only a few have been, or are, in a position to
have their version treated as serious, and accepted" (p. 9). In male-dominated
society these few are mainly men. Women have not been, and are still
generally not, accepted as legitimate meaning makers if their interpretations
of reality differ significantly from established, male-based notions of truth.
Their values are unlikely to gain general validation and so are unlikely to
transform the context of meaning in which they communicate. Women's
abilities to interpret the world and have those interpretations validated by
others-that is, their abilities to make publicly accepted meanings-are
severely restricted by living in high-context, male-dominated cultures. They
are therefore cut off from a fundamental source of social power, one much
used by those who shape organizational cultures.
There is always tension, especially if we are trying to address issues of
sexism, or issues on which a male view of the world is accepted and female
equivalents devalued or repressed. Conversations become covert dialogues
of power. To speak to men, women must approach such topics through
low-context language, with the meaning mainly in the transmitted message.
They are heard by most men from implicit value frameworks and so do not
share a language for discussion or understanding. Awareness of this helps me
to appreciate how impenetrable these issues often are.
E. T. Hall (1976) sees high-context cultures as providing stability and
handling information overload. They act as a unifying, cohesive force, rooted
in the past, and are long-lived and slow to change. In general, high-context
cultures "have greater mass and are therefore more predictable. if, and only
if, one is familiar with the system" (p. 53).
Women have a long history of having to read the dominant culture in order
to survive as members of the subordinate group (Miller, 1976; Spender,
1980). However, if they are trying to operate as members of the dominant
group, they can never be sure of knowing fully the culture in which they must
function. Research shows that many women managers feel precarious, as if
they are impostors, concerned that they may suddenly discover there are vital
things they do not know (Clance & Imes, 1978; Sheppard, 1989). Women
often translate these feelings into lack of self-confidence, as if they are an
individual phenomenon.
In their individual patterns of communication, women therefore encounter
deep-rooted aspects of culture that devalue them and the characteristics that
they have come either to symbolize or to carry. Living in this potentially
hostile world, women often describe themselves as struggling to survive
rather than thriving. It is often through use of form that they show their
entrapment. Hall (1976) sees the control of form as a defining characteristic
of high-context cultures: "In all He ... systems, the forms that are used are
important. To misuse them is a communication in itself' (p. 113). Women
Organizational Communication From a Feminist Perspective
women communicate:
potential disruption
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tensions about status:
status levelling
manmade language
exclusion from
different styles of
thinking and
Figure 1. Core issues for women as communication.
closely monitor and try to manage their own communication, for example, in
the images they present (Marshall, 1984; Sheppard, 1989). An ex-manager
from the United States described to me the trappings of suits, silk dresses,
and earrings that the image of manager had meant to her, and that she has
now escaped. Sheppard (1989) argues that most women feel some tension
between the designations "competent" and "woman," and try to minimize
recognition of gender and sexuality in their dealings with others. They are
also alert to any messages from others about how they are being perceived.
This makes women often vulnerable, and thus on guard. Their competence,
credibility, and membership are continually precarious.
Women as Communication
Within this context, I shall now select core issues for women as communication. This focus on women means that other dimensions are missing, for example,
the communication between men to maintain cultures, to signal solidarity, and
to handle concerns about homosexuality (M. Hall, 1989; D. H. J. Morgan, 1981).
I shall present some nodal issues in map form and review them briefly (see
Figure 1). Each stands for a body of supportive literature, but I shall not go
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into any in detail. Rather, I am looking for themes that link them and therefore
underpin the kinds of issues about communication that I, as a feminist, want
to raise. There are some exceptions, some cultures where women and female
values do thrive, but I shall concentrate here on the dominant view.
Communication of difference, risk, marginality, and potential disruption.
In Bateson's (1972) terms, being a women is "information," it is "a difference
which makes a difference" (p. 286). Women's difference may be perceived
partly unconsciously, as physical or nonverbal lack of resonance of form.
(See, for example, E. T. Hall, 1976, on the significance of physical synchrony
in communication.)
Kanter (1977) provides valuable case material on the dynamics of difference, and on organizational strategies of uncertainty management that lead
to the exclusion of women from senior jobs and from structures of opportunity and power. Women communicate potential marginality, especially as
they near senior corporate positions (Morrison, White, & van Velsor, 1987;
Symons, 1988). They try to manage difference in their self-presentation,
dress, and language, trying to minimize others' perceptions of them as women
(M. Hall, 1989; Sheppard, 1989). They thus take on personally and individually what are cultural and value issues, and often take the blame if the
performance does not work.
Tensions about status. Women are expected to be low status. The processes
of status leveling operate to minimize disturbance in perceptions (Kanter,
1977). Male nurses are seen as doctors, female managers as secretaries, and
so on. By their very being, women in nontraditional jobs disturb patterns of
established perception and communication. They challenge people to innovate and to remodel old routines of behavior.
Public employment/private home distinctions. Men are largely identified with
the public world and women with the private (Garmanikow, Morgan, Purvis, &
Taylorson, 1983). (There are potential complexities to the use of this distinction
that I do not have space to consider here.) Some linguistic theorists argue that a
woman speaking in public is a contradiction in terms (Spender, 1980).
Man-made language. Much has been done to expose how language identifies male as positive and excludes or devalues the female, for example, in the
use of male pronouns as so-called standard usage and in the devaluing of
female forms such as queen and mistress (Spender, 1980). Many terms
associated with male values have positive tone-for example, rationalitywhile potentially complementary female forms are negative or suspect (Mumby
& Putnam, 1990). Women are often excluded, marginalized, or made invisible
through the use of labels. In my institution, I was asked three years ago to
chair a university committee. At the time, I was one of only six women who
had then reached senior lecturer level or above. I am still and repeatedly
having to argue a case to be called something other than chairman. I have
opted for the title chair. and at a recent meeting was told very forcefully by
a senior member of the university that "chairs don't speak." This comment
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Organizational Communication From a Feminist Perspective
seemed full of symbolic meaning. Through processes of language women are
often stereotyped (Kanter, 1977) and "put in their place."
Gender-differentiated discourse. In my review of established communications literature, I found the material I knew would be there about women and
communication, particularly women's potential differences from men in patterns
of speaking. There is some agreement that women and men are different,
although contexts and other factors can moderate this conclusion. Aries (1987),
for example, summarizes material that shows men as more task oriented and
women as more socioemotional; in women-only groups, speaking is divided
more equally between members. However, "female" speech features and women
speakers are seen as less intelligent, credible, and knowledgeable, while possibly
warmer and more polite (Aries, 1987). I welcomed the work of researchers who
question how to make sense of such findings, and what value systems to apply.
It seems difficult to honor women's alternative forms. Interpreting speaking
longest and with more dominant features as powerful speech is so finnly
established as an assumption that women's strategies for maintaining affiliation
and encouraging others to contribute are often devalued, even by the best
intentioned of theorists. Aries describes competent women as "playing down"
their power by inviting other people to speak. She could have depicted this as a
development of power with others (Marshall, 1984).
Exclusion from informal networks and communication. Women are often
excluded from the places and times of informal communication (AlbanMetcalfe & West, 1991; Richbell, 1976). Those in more senior positions are
particularly likely to be isolated in this way. This has significant impacts on
their contributions to decision making and their abilities both to understand
and to influence organizational cultures, the contexts within which communication takes place.
Different patterns ofthinking and valuing. There is a growing literature on
women's potential differences from men in styles of thinking and valuing
(Gilligan, 1982; Goldberger, Clinchy, Belenky, & Tarule, 1987; Loden, 1985;
Miller, 1976). These sources suggest that women have a more relational
worldview than men, may adopt more contextualized decision-making strategies, and are more likely to personalize issues. Such possibilities have major
implications for styles of communication and potential contents.
The issues discussed above form an interactive web within which women
and men communicate. From this analysis, I have drawn some key themes
and processes that are steps toward a gendered appreciation of organizational
communication. These are summarized in Table 1.
Steps Toward a Gendered Appreciation
of Organizational Communication
The themes identified here are current rather than necessarily enduring.
They are, however, grounded in the resilient patterns of male-dominated
Themes in a Gendered Appreciation of Organizational Communication
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engaging in covert dialogues of power
working on other people's ground
translating and screening out
silencing and hesitancy
relating to orthodox form
seeing cultural innovations revert
seeking legitimacy
gaining a voice
culture identified above. The surface appearances of many organizations are
now changing, but transformation in gendered communication patterns will
require more fundamental revision of deep structures.
Engaging in Covert Dialogues of Power
In male-dominated cultures, men have a far stronger base than women from
which to define reality-as do men in mainstream science to define knowledge (Spender, 1985; Weedon, 1987). They invoke the weight of the male
culture to exert this power and to draw boundaries that reflect their psychology. For example, it is widely agreed that organizations are not emotional,
but anger and its covert expressions are part of everyday functioning. Women
more often than men have definitional strategies of power used against them.
The context legitimates this and leaves women less room to maneuver. To
understand these processes fully, we can look at the micropolitics of interaction. Exchanges are powerful, however, only because they invoke dominant
social discourses. They are underwritten by characteristics of the high-context, male-dominated culture. For example, we find that men often set or
change the frame of interpretation in ways that trivialize women's contributions. Sexual innuendo or the noting of physical characteristics is often used
as a form of control (Hearn et aI., 1989), and may undermine women's
perceived competence (Kanter, 1977). For example: "I would like to thank
Dr. Marshall for her talk on stress. She is certainly the most attractive speaker
we have had this session" (from a U.K. Institute of Personnel Management
Public control of what potential meanings are realized tends to be exercised
by men (women provide a more covert self-monitoring), demonstrating
women s marginality, and keeping them on guard. This is sometimes done to
signal male bonding. It involves metacommunication about who is allowed
to define or change the subject, and how overtly this can be done. Usually
such processes are subtle, high context in Hall's terms; open challenge is not
approved and is likely to be rebuffed and trivialized-"My goodness, you are
taking this all so seriously!"
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Organiz.ational Communication From a Feminist Perspective
Covert patterns of power and sanctions are exercised against women who
transgress unwritten rules. Miller (1988) talks about the low~profile, recursive
denials of women's other voice that are part of everyday interaction. These create
a persistent, and iteratively encoded, context of male dominance. Women know
that they are vulnerable to others' definitions, that at any time they can be put in
their place and told that they have gone too far. To survive in this context, many
women limit certain areas of communication, especially those that will make
visible gender, sexuality, or the personal. These strategies may be largely
unconscious (Crosby, 1984; Marshall, 1984; Sheppard, 1989).
In situations of covert conflict women may resist and may argue assertively
for their meanings, and for their right to make meanings. But the latter is
always in doubt. Resistance seems largely futile as women are caught in a
double bind. They are challenging and being resisted by the context, a process
enacted as much in terms of form as in the contents of communication. The
processes involved have the appearance of coordinated action, and are probably largely unconscious, as dominant social discourses affirm habitual
gender-power relations (Weedon, 1987). They represent, however, a sustained
cultural initiative to contain and suppress women's meanings (Spender, 1982).
I offer a story that illustrates these themes, showing how the male-dominated
culture is reinstated.
I was invited to talk about women in management at the annual conference
of a personnel administrators' association in the United Kingdom. Often
when I address this topic, the process of the session seems quite bizarre, as
if deep-seated aspects of individual psyches and culture have been disturbed
and answer back. I suppose that they have.
The day started with my presentation about male-dominated cultures and
the consequences for women. Then I met the themes of my talk in action.
First reactions seemed positive. Several women spoke, some openly agreeing
with my analysis of women's difference, marginality, and exclusion. Some
men commented; one warned that I should not be misled by the equal numbers
of women and men at the session, the men were in more senior organizational
positions. The discussion felt generally supportive and exploratory. Then
came a coffee break. Was this a time for people to check each other out?
Certainly the tone seemed to change.
The next speaker used many more statistical data on women's exclusion
from power than I had done, for example, showing that only 4% of U.K.
university professors are women. She was forcefully attacked, her analysis
challenged. This was done mainly by men; very few women spoke. The force
of discussion surprised the session chair. I saw it as a dynamic I know, the
reassertion, worked at the level of analogic pattern, of male dominance. The
general tone by the end of this session was that there was nothing wrong, no
case to answer. At the conference dinner that evening, some speakers openly
used sexist jokes and innuendo; these appeared to be well received. Women
were being told their place.
Faced with instances such as this, and many women report that they are,
women debate whether voicing their "truths" in public is appropriate, because
it may reinforce the dominant culture. It is ironic that so much feminist
writing is shaped with men in mind, as they hold significant power in relation
to women's communication.
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Working on Other People's Ground
Using a language that excludes or devalues female values, and public forms
of expression that are based more in male values, women tend to be working
on other people's ground. How issues are defined also often reflects male
cultural preoccupations, rather than women's potential meanings. This happens to women academics, too (Rakow, 1986). At one time, for example, I
found myself trying to establish the case that women are the same as men,
even though when I first encountered this recurring question in the literature
I had found it inauthentic, surprisingly simplistic (Marshall, 1984).
Translating Into Male Form and
Screening Out Potentially Unacceptable Material
Women have both to read themselves into material that has male as its
dominant image and to translate from their, sometimes different, perspectives
into male forms and contents of speech. These needs arise partly as women
operate in the low-context areas of an alien, high-context culture. Acceptable
forms tend toward "I think" (or, in academic writing, "it is thought that"), not
"I feel"; formal, not informal. Women keep the boundaries to the private
closed or tightly patrolled (M. Hall, 1989). As women translate and screen
out certain parts of their identity, this can contribute further to other people
defining them as cold and unknowable (Marshall, 1985b), although stereotypical expectations also playa part here. And so women remain different
and separate.
Silencing and Hesitancy
The various processes identified so far contribute to women's silence. Their
uncertainty about context and their alienation from many of the forms-and the
language-of the dominant culture mean that they often find it difficult to
express their meanings, and are uncertain about whether these are understood
by others. Spender (1980) argues that words for women's experience are not
always available in our patriarchal language. She uses the example of "starting by being in the wrong," which many women know as experience, but
which does not have a ready label. Women often therefore feel unheard.
Silence is also one public form of women's resistance. It is a strategy of the
muted for keeping out of trouble (Goldberger et aI., 1987). Sadly, it may also
be a woman's silence to herself and to other women.
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Organizational Communication From a Feminist Perspective
In this section t I have a story I cannot fully tell. It is about a woman doing a
research degree who t because of pressure from various sources t chose silence.
She found her department hostile to her meanings; they challenged her from a
male-dominated base. Also t she was not prepared to expose the more problematic
aspects of her research participants' lives to wider public scrutiny. She did not
expect them to be understood and did not want to make them vulnerable. She
therefore could not write the content of her knowing about the women managers
she had studied. This is a major dilemma for many feminist researchers. In our
efforts to speak our truth t do we betray women to a hostile environment? Spender
(1982) claims that she will not make women vulnerable through her work:
"Because women have no control over the knowledge we produce t I think it
unwise, if not plain destructive t to produce knowledge that can be used against
ustt (p. 18). How she can tell and the irony that men t not women t are her
formative audience are interesting issues.
In this masked account, I too must be protective. In fact t this story has a
"happytt ending t especially in its contribution to creative possibilities for
women. The author revised her work (and it was accepted), writing about
women's needs for silence and including a conceptually grounded scenario
playing out the dilemmas of whether or not to speak. In this alternative form,
she "namedt' the more fundamental power game of which she had previously
seemed victim.
It is interesting that much feminist theory uses the imagery of finding a voice.
Marge Piercy (1973), the poet and novelist, uses the evocative phrase "unlearning to not speak" (p. 38) to describe a core task for women. Goldberger et al.
(1987) identify woments individual development as "gaining a voice."
We thus see some of the processes of muting through which women's meanings remain potential and dormant. Women's right to create meaning is continually in doubt. These boundaries are not simply women's fantasies; men patrol
them. Sensitivity to context is imperative to allow women to survive in an alien
world, and yet it marginalizes and disempowers them. They are often trying to
anticipate difficulties and to screen out unacceptable aspects of their heritage of
female values t or trying to manage the disturbance they create.
Relating to Orthodoxy of Form
It is at the level of form that conformity tends to be demanded of those who
seek membership of a cultural community. It is often therefore in their use of
the forms of communication that women signal their attempts at membership
or their difference. By adapting, they often hope to introduce new contentfor example, expressions of women's experience. But the payoff is seldom
that simple. The medium is the message, and the content is continually
subverted and contradicted at this level.
For example, in a chapter I wrote about career theory (Marshall, 1989), I
encountered dilemmas about form. From my viewpoint t I was asked to write
a major contradiction: to offer an alternative perspective, which in this case
involved exploring nonlinear possibilities, but to conform to a pattern of
argument that contradicted these in its linearity and writing prescription. In
the end, I could not accommodate further and signaled my dilemma to the
reader, as a means both of resistance and of consciousness-raising.
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Seeing Cultural Innovations Revert
Some women and men have achieved organizational culture changes that
give life to female values, but these are difficult to sustain. This is partly
because of the resilience of high-context cultures, their lack of readiness to
accommodate new forms. It seems that culture change is highly reliant on the
repetition of new messages that eventually reshape the context of meaning
(Siehl, 1985). Much of the change to which some women, and some men, are
now devoting energy is easily undone. Departments that have worked on
more collaborative lines are reorganized out of existence, or a person leaves
and soon there is no trace of the difference she or he once made.
Processes of no change are also apparent in academic research. Two women
academics in the United Kingdom secured a grant to look at the distribution of
women in a certain employment sector. When I saw their research plan, I was
impressed, and somewhat amazed, at its boldness. The study would certainly be
revealing. After the first year of the planned three-year study, they submitted an
interim report. It was decided at that point to withdraw their grant. A senior man
from their department had taken over and reshaped the study.
Again, I find a ready example from the academic world. I think that women
in "science" are especially a threat because that is where knowledge making
is institutionalized. The forms of inquiry and knowledge presentation are
highly controlled; for example frowning on the use of I and so denying, in
Gareth Morgan's (1983) ringing phrase, that research is "a distinctively
human process through which researchers make knowledge" (p. 7). Spender
(1985) argues that feminists cannot be members of staff in traditional academic institutions, because the contradictions and tensions are too great.
Seeking Legitimacy
Generally, women have to establish their credibility, while men have theirs
conferred through their gender. Much of women's communication work is
therefore also about gaining legitimacy. As a woman manager I interviewed
recently expressed it, "In that job I was having to define myself as a senior
manager in every interaction." In this way, women implicitly and continually
make choices about whether to adapt to dominant forms and mask any
alternative perspectives or to seek to innovate. Women's rights to create
meaning hinge on their perceived legitimacy, which is often in doubt. Such
rights are attributed only to those who are perceived as powerful enough to
maintain order. Meaning making is an inherently unstable and risky business.
Organizational Communication From a Feminist Perspective
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Gaining a Voice
Women do sometimes take the right to define knowing and to communicate
in ways consonant with their perspectives and meanings. Sometimes they will
choose to do so whether they are heard or not. At other times, the costs of
separation and disjunction will seem too great, and they will make choices to
safeguard their membership and status power. Awareness of feminist themes is
giving more women a framework for understanding the translation processes
they may well have to engage in, and for developing their skills. Women are also
increasingly voicing their perspectives to other women, especially through
networking. As they become less oriented to male-dominated cultures, they have
more opportunities to explore distinctively feminine aspects of their experience.
These networks are not necessarily made up only of women.
The key themes above are and imply patterns of communication. Many are
current distortions, based on women's positions in patriarchal contexts. Many
suggest competition and win/lose battles because of women's socially muted
position, rather than the voicing, listening, and dialogue to which many
women aspire (Goldberger et aI., 1987). This list of themes is certainly open
to further development. As women's meanings and female values become
more established in dominant cultures, their nature and tone will also shift.
Looking for Gender Awareness
in Established Communication Literature
In my research for this chapter, I wanted to see what the established
organizational communication literature had to say. I must stress that this was
a limited reading. First, I wanted to know what awareness of gender themes
infused the mainstream literature, so I would know what to take as my base.
In fact, I found two largely distinct literatures. There is work on women and
sex differences in communication (e.g., Pearson, 1985) and more radical
feminist work (Rakow, 1986), but this seems not to be taken into account in
apparently mainstream literature-for example, the recent handbook edited
by Jablin, Putnam, Roberts, and Porter (1987) and an earlier review volume
by McPhee and Tompkins (1985). The latter occasionally mention sex differences, but these are treated as individual variables, not as aspects of culture
or values. This is especially interesting as some authors come so close in the
issues they deal with to the themes I am developing here. For example,
chapters look at how social power is replicated by those in the media, or treat
politics as deep structure power in action. But these discussions did not
introduce themes of gender. Nor did authors who talk about gender issues in
other contexts bring them into the organization communication mainstream.
I have done this screening out myself at times, in my work on organizational
culture (e.g., Marshall & McLean, 1985). It was a relief to have another arena
of activity in which I was not always starkly aware of gender issues. I have,
however, now found the tension of this academic separation too difficult.
Women Speaking From Their Own Ground:
Dimensions in Women's Psychology
Adopting a relational orientation
valuing connection and affiliation
defining identity through relationships
exercising power with
adopting task strategies that maintain relationships
facilitating others development
emphasizing equality and participation
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Using a context-aware perceptual style
seeing issues in context
contextualizing moral judgments
knowing from the inside. through immersion and engagement
using emotional and intellectual intelligence
Seeking dialogue
personalizing communication
twinning speaking and listening as an epistemology
In this section I have painted the picture of women as marginal, and
communicating in the face of deep structure organizational and social power.
There is also work that seeks to elaborate aspects of the female principle from
which some women are seeking to operate to gain a voice. We can see these
as potential dimensions of difference that could broaden the scope of the
practice and theory of organizational communication. In the following section, I shall briefly offer some of this material.
If we take feminist literature and work on women's psychology seriously,
we find various repeated themes that enlarge the potential scope of understanding organizational communication. This section is concerned with
women speaking from their own ground. I have summarized its themes in
Table 2. Again, each theme speaks for a body of literature. Core sources are
Gilligan (1982), Goldberger et a1. (1987), Loden (1985), Marshall (1984),
Miller (1976, 1988), and Spender (1980). They explore ways in which women
may be different from men, seeking to recognize and value these characteristics. Many of them have traditionally been associated with women, but
"once these qualities are observed and acknowledged, we are more likely to
observe their unfolding in the lives of men as well" (Goldberger et aI., 1987,
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Organizational Communication From a Feminist Perspective
The themes listed in Table 2 suggest potential human qualities that have
been socially devalued in male-dominated cultures. At the moment, women
are more likely than men to be tapping them as influences on their patterns
and intents of communication. This material therefore reaffirms the earlier
contention that women may communicate from a base that is different from
what is valued in most organizations. We would, for example, expect them to
be more open, personalized, concerned about contexts, and interested in
establishing dialogue than are male colleagues. Research sources support
such suggestions (Aries, 1987; Loden, 1985; Rosener, 1990).
I shall now explore how this material and the frameworks developed earlier
in this chapter may contribute to a fe-visioning of organizational communication theory.
Affirming these muted forms of communication and exploring their potential realization in organizational terms is one route to expanding our appreciation of organizational communication and challenging its gendered base.
Mumby and Putnam (1990) do this, for example, in offering the notion of
bounded emotionality to stand alongside that of bounded rationality. A core
agenda in such developments will be to integrate high forms of female and
male values in communication within a framework that honors both. Equality
for difference will be its base, rather than the equality for sameness that has
aided women's development so far. This will expand the range of possibilities
and offer a more whole, multifaceted view of knowing and communicating,
which, I believe, will be better able to handle issues of values, morals, and
ethics. Differences will be portrayed in the format of "both ... and ... "
rather than "either ... or ...". The expansion of possibilities may come
about partly through deliberate compensation. Because they are currently
suppressed, muted, and at times protected by women, we may need to create
environments and fonns in which women's meanings, and female values, can be
expressed, voiced, and explored as part of an evolving process of discovery.
This approach to developing organizational communication is largely one
of "adding in" women's meanings to established theoretical frameworks. At
the same time, we must maintain and develop our understandings of the
workings of power in the construction of knowledge. Taking a feminist
perspective highlights how theory making is essentially an ideological process, an exercise of power that can privilege certain social groups, certain
points of view. In male-dominated cultures this exercise of power will
inevitably be gendered. We need to be explicitly aware of this.
In this chapter I have argued that contexts are maintained largely through
the selective use of form. Acceptance of dominant academic forms-such as
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those that shape writing styles and research methods-may limit our ability
to undo the gender patterning of theory making, as these forms too are
products of a male-dominated, patriarchal culture. Their characteristics of
excellence have much in common with the linear, focused, classificatory
notions of male form offered earlier in this chapter. For example, there are
limits on who can speak and what counts as valid knowing and how this
should be expressed. Much academic innovation takes place at the level of
content, but is subverted by being expressed in orthodox form. For example,
despite the valuable attention they draw to power relations in the generation
of dominant discourses, most postmodernist theorists analogically reaffirm
the rhetoric of intellectual rationality and objective science in their style of
writing and presentation.
How we construct and maintain the boundaries between "professional" and
"personal" and "rational" and "emotional" seem particularly important issues
to gender-power relations in theory making, given the portrayals of female
values and psychology in this chapter.
I have taken a few liberties with academic form in this chapter, and have
blurred the professional/personal distinction by using I and by drawing on
my own experience. But I have been careful not to go too far (I hope!), not
to jeopardize my membership in the academic community. There is a companion text that I have not written, which is about how I prepared myself as
a form of communication. For example, I chose to present what I might say
as a woman and feminist through academic references reputable in organizational theory. I also faced and worked on my own temptation to be silent in
a world I do not expect often to sympathize with my meanings. These
activities, and my self-reflections on them, were relevant to the theories I was
developing through the more traditional academic processes of reading and
intellectual analysis. But they do not feel as academically acceptable to
present as companion foundations for knowing in the dominant discourse of
science, and so I have largely excluded them from my chapter. Similarly,
women managers' other forms of experience and perception do not feel
legitimate in male-dominated organizational cultures and lead them to engage
in the constrained processes of communication outlined above.
We therefore need to pay attention to gendered power processes in how
contexts of academic sense-making become legitimated and in our use of
forms of communication. In assessing new contributions to theory, some
recurring questions will be these: How is this context, form, or content
gendered? By what processes of power is it maintained? What balance of
values does it assume? Who has access to communication in this form, and
who is potentially silenced or excluded?
Developing theory and practice along these lines will necessitate contextual awareness and questioning. To use E. T. Hall's (1976) labels, we shall
have to bring high-context processes into the scrutinizing light of low-context
communication. We must explore the ideological positions that act invisibly
Organizational Communication From a Feminist Perspective
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to underpin our theorizing. In personal and academic terms, such developments will require engaging with differences and issues of valuing. This will
be a demanding process. Hall suggests that we (people in general) control
"inputs" so that we do not encounter difference, and so avoid the appreciation
of our own culture that we need in order to live awarely, adaptively, and with
choice. Academics from a range of perspectives are now criticizing this
self-protective approach. We have to challenge this fundamental pattern and
find ways to do so creatively, lest we risk re-creating it in new forms.
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