#Article (Archive)

After Gender Bias, Women Face Gender Fatigue

Nov 6, 2009, 12:41 PM

Women have come a long way in the workplace, helped by legislation and the recognition by many companies that diversity and gender is something they should "get." But diversity's move into the mainstream corporate world has its disadvantages. It can make more subtle discrimination harder to spot and tougher to deal with.

And news about gender often tells a different story to the happy corporate spin about progress for women at work.

News outlets reported on Monday for example that two guardians of Britain's historic Tower of London have been suspended after the first woman warden or "Beefeater" in the Tower's 524-year history accused them of harassment. "If you talk today to people in the workplace they construct the workplace as gender neutral," said Elisabeth Kelan, author of a new book, "Performing Gender at Work."

"They assume that gender no longer matters in 2009 because the issue has long been solved."

Kelan calls this phenomenon "gender fatigue," which she says will make it more challenging to tackle the discrimination that still happens in the workplace but in more subtle ways.

"Gender fatigue actually refers to the phenomenon that people lack the energy to construct the workplace again and again as gender neutral despite the fact that discrimination continues to exist."

Kelan, who is a lecturer in Work and Organizations in the Department of Management at King's College in London, interviewed staff at two information communication technology companies in Switzerland.

The results of her interviews, which form part of her book, revealed that employees from both companies felt their organizations were gender neutral, with staff evaluated on merit.

She said they acknowledged that discrimination could take place but saw this as likely to be a one-off event that had usually happened in the past. They also put the onus on women to overcome any discrimination.

Companies have made big efforts to counter gender bias, appointing diversity officers and running diversity programs that are seen by many people in the workplace as helping to ensure equality and diversity.

"In fact, gender discrimination still happens, but it happens underneath the surface - it's much more subtle," said Kelan, who has also worked at the London Business School.

For example, women are often excluded from networking that goes on in the workplace and also from client work.

Kelan said subtle discrimination was more difficult to spot because women were likely to blame themselves and say: "it's just me," rather than look for more systematic reasons.

She said it was very much a tip-of-the-iceberg situation.

"There is a lot of stuff below the surface that we are not really aware of and can?t really respond to and that creates a challenge I think for many organizations."

Kelan's book, "Performing Gender At Work," is published by Palgrave Macmillan.