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The case study presents a dilemma faced by Elizabeth (Liz) Ames. She is the Director of Consumer Marketing at Vision Software. Liz is a career oriented, positive, and success driven executive who believes in her work. However, her experience at Vision has made her believe that the company is tolerant of discrimination against women.
For this reason, she wrote a memo to the CEO of the company, describing her observations and experiences, and expressed her apprehensions. However, she was in a dilemma whether to hand it over to him, for she believed that if he did not see her point, he might perceive her to be a radical feminist, which may be harmful to her career.
Therefore, she expressed her concern to her most trusted friend at work and asked his opinion on the matter. Liz’s friend, the narrator of the case, was caught in a quandary, as he too believed that handing the memo over to the CEO, who otherwise was an open person, was egoistic, and might take it as a vilification of his current policies.
Their predicament brings forth a crucial problem related to invisible gender discrimination that many women face within organizations. The question that emerges is should women turn a blind eye towards a discriminating culture within an organization in order to have a progressive career?
Facts of the Case
This section provides a few facts about the case. The case study points out that Vision’s policy enshrines hiring and promoting women and acknowledging women’s contributions. However, the culture of Vision Software infused in women employees a sense of loss of their “worth and place” . A few of the factual observations Liz presented in her memo are as follows:
- Women executives who reached the top management level left the organization stating reasons like “spend more time with their families” or “explore new career direction” .
- The corporate meetings held at Vision make women executives feel unworthy and devalued. Liz describes an incident when a woman executive’s idea was turned down for being backdated and ineffective by a board of mostly male executives while she felt that it was a perfectly good presentation.
- The informal social networking among men in the office is a common phenomenon and most of the time; women are not welcome in such gatherings. Informal networking forms an important way through which information flows through the organization and because of their sex, women are excluded from it.
- The culture of the organization, though boasts of an open policy, actually makes women employees feel discriminated against. Absence of female executives at the top management level also gives wind to apprehensions.
- Susan French was promoted to the VP position; however, the decision-making powers of the position were withheld that were previously enjoyed by her male predecessors. This was a clear case of discrimination.
These three are the facts that Liz presented in her memo to the CEO. We then intuitively gather the issues that are implied in the case:
- Though the case sites the examples of Susan French and Mariam Blackwell but it is silent on their point of view regarding the issue of gender discrimination at Vision. Susan and Mariam were the most senior female leaders at Vision who decided to leave the organization. Did they leave because of discrimination against them? Did they too feel that their sex was hindering in their career ascent? This is what, as Liz says, we can only speculate.
- What does the CEO, John Clark think about the issue of gender discrimination? Does he support it or is he against it? Does he realize that female employees in his organization feel belittled due to the excessively masculine culture of the organization?
- Is Liz overreacting to a few unrelated incidents or was there a practice of couched gender discrimination in the organization?
- What does the other women in the organization feel? If they too feel as strongly as Liz does regarding gender discrimination issue at Vision why did not any of them speak out?
In order to understand the ethical issues related to gender discrimination we have to understand the latter term first. Gender refers to the culturally discoursed difference between men and women.
This therefore, manifests on the culturally specific behavior that may be associated with the either of the sexes. In other words, gender refers to the socially constructed assumptions related to the inherent characters of the sexes and manifests on a number of practices associated with them.
Organizations are an extension of the public domain and therefore favor prevalent cultural discourse of male female differences that is prevalent in public discourse. This typically is an asymmetrical difference between male and female roles. Usually females are associated with the “domestic” roles and male with “public” roles in the society.
Employees in any organization are not immune to such public discourse as the construct is not only that of the organization, but also that of the whole society.
Therefore, one can intuitively deduce that in a modern society public domain has a strong influence on organizational environment and culture. This influence of the public domain on the organization creates the culture and the ethical inclinations within the institute. Gender discrimination within an organization is found at three levels:
- the culture within the organizations favor the maleness in employees,
- certain environments indulge in sex specific groups and identities for instance in case of Vision Software, the informal networking among employees were mostly male dominated, and
- Usually the organizational systems such as recruitment and promotions are implicitly sex biased.
Therefore, it is believed that sexual discrimination is not explicitly practiced in organizations but is embedded within their cultural values.
A similar situation is observed in the case of Vision Software. Liz writes in her memo of incidences of discrimination in the organization that are not company policies but rather are unsaid norms or rules that are prevalent.
For instance, a woman executive is not asked to join her male colleagues at the bar in the club, which is usually an only male affair, nor are they asked to join in pre-meeting chitchats where a lot of business is discussed informally. It is believed that the discrimination based on gender enters the organizational culture or is generated within the organization .
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The culture of Visions Software was infused with an environment that was pro-masculine in nature. Visions was a primarily a male dominated company and a handful of its female employees felt suffocated due to constant pressure they felt from the overtly masculine culture of the organization. Usually females were not promoted to top levels, and even if they were, the decision-making powers were seceded from them.
From the utilitarian point of view, one could argue that this policy is the tried and tested method to keep all stakeholders, which includes the families of the female employees happy.
However, from the social justice point of view it must be noted that such discrimination hurts the self-dignity and prestige of the female employees who constantly feel deprived of their true the discrimination against women at the top management level becomes more apparent when the informal socialization and old-boy-network plays a vital role in career development. These are places woman still have not found entry.
In a way, the negative gender role stereotypes arrest the career progress of many women working in organizations. This glass ceiling that women face while ascending to the top management level of Vision is apparent when one of the successful top management executive was promoted to the position of VP but her decision making role was categorically reduced, which, previously, was enjoyed by her predecessors.
She eventually resigned. From this incident, it can be intuitively deduced that she probably felt dejected by the company’s discriminatory policy and decided to leave. Thus, the invisible barrier that stops upward ascend of women in the corporate ladder actually made way for the female executive in question, however, crippled her role as a leader. This is a more subtle and implicit form of discrimination.
Liz faced such discrimination too. She had to prove her worth repeatedly to her male subordinates to establish herself as a leader. Her male juniors often challenged her claim to leadership as a head. This kind of discrimination is ingrained within the psyche of the male employees of the organization who are discoursed by the social constructs of gender differences.
From the ethical point of view, the legitimate rights of the women employees were being trampled by the discriminatory culture of the organization. The few promotions and policies supporting diversity was mere eyewash, a screen that hid the real discriminatory culture of the organization.
If Jack Clark as a CEO were seriously concerned about the discrimination against women ingrained within the culture of the organization, he would have been quick to observe the gender based differences and the lack of female leaders at top levels of his organization. The reality was, Jack too was a party to this discriminatory practice, and he covertly believed in the culture of gender bias.
Otherwise, he as a CEO would have been aware of the situation and would not have allowed top-level executives to leave their jobs when they had been promoted to such high levels. However, ethically he was wrong for this culture of discrimination was crushing the rights of the female employees who were entitled to receive equal treatment from their male colleagues.
Was the treatment that Liz and other women faced at Vision Software fair? This is a debatable issue. On one hand, Liz and a few other women had achieved success at Vision. They had worked very hard for this success and reaped the fruit. But does that imply that the system was fair and unbiased to all sexes.
No, it was not. Had it been fair, then men, who did not even bother to listen to it, would not have belittled a female executive’s presentation for being impractical, and backdated. Discrimination against female employees was observable not only in meetings and other official dealings within the organization, but also in the unofficial interactions between male employees where female employees found no space.
Most of the time, women were not even invited to such interactions. Further, for women to be accepted in the corporate environment they had to leave all worries, concern of their family, and then enter the corporate world as if that part of their life does not exist while men could just chat informally and make a joke about it.
Liz categorically talks of the informal meetings that follow the formal meetings at Visions and where no women executives are invited to join. This is mistreatment of the female peers by their male counterparts, who feel that women are less competent in making serious decisions.
Lack of inclusion in these informal meeting makes the female executives less prepared as to what is there on the boss’s mind and therefore less adept with the situation.
The culture in Vision Software demonstrates a clear lack of compassion in the ethical consideration among its male employees. Liz writes that she and her female colleagues regularly face “seemingly innocent comments that belittle women” . Men never feel that such off hand comments may hurt the feelings or sentiments of their female counterparts.
Publicly belittling traditional female roles makes the female employees feel ridiculed by their male counterparts. Such inconsiderate behavior of the male employees at Vision is common. Further, the narrator of the case also points out that he had known Liz for a long time and he believes she was one of the most efficient employees of the company.
Her career record and efficiency was impeccable. However, she had a hard time to establish herself as a leader to her male subordinates who often tried to disparage her. This could be a serious setback on the psyche of an individual.
In conclusion, we must address the main question raised in the case. Should Liz hand over the memo to the CEO of the company? From ethical point of view, she must. More importantly, now that she believes that she had to take a step to change the culture of the company, she should not refrain from her goal. Not doing it would make her feel lessened and she would never be satisfied at work.
However, practically there are a lot of hurdles that she is likely to face if she decides to go ahead with her plan. First, the CEO, inspite of his claims of encouraging diversity in the organization, was a party to the invisible culture of gender discrimination at Vision. He as a male employee must have observed such subtle differences, female employees face at work but no action was taken to change the culture of the organization.
To, out rightly, go against a person who is known to have an ego might be dangerous. Second, she had to work with the male employees every day.
An overt expression of her detestation of the male-oriented culture of the organization could be considered as an attack on them directly and they might stop cooperating with her altogether. The best way would be to gather more evidence and support from other female and/or male employees before approaching the CEO with the memo.
Mills, A. J. (1988). Organization, Gender and Culture. Organization Studies, 9(3), 351-369.
Reardon, K. (1993). The Memo Every Woman Keeps in her Desk. Harvard Business Review, 1-8.