Women's Work Men's Cultures | Book Review | Professionelle

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

Women's Work

One movie gem this holiday season was Made in Dagenham, the story of how industrial action by women machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant in 1968 contributed to the UK’s landmark 1970 Equal Pay Act.  My son watched the film and, ever curious, asked me how there could still be a pay gap between men and women if equal pay had been enshrined in law for over 40 years. A good question, and one that is well answered by Sarah Rutherford’s 2011 book Women’s Work, Men’s Cultures.

Rutherford is a diversity consultant with an academic background. That combination places her squarely in Professionelle’s sweet spot of combining rigorous research with practical, action-oriented insights! Her mission in this UK-focused book was to grapple with the issue of why there has been so little progress in women’s career advancement, even in organisations where the leadership is genuinely committed and where equality, diversity and inclusion policies are in use.

Taboo territory

That question – like my son’s – is much easier to ask than it is to answer simply and satisfactorily. Rutherford’s take on it, in short, is that the root barrier lies in organisational culture, which is informed by wider societal norms and assumptions, and these do not change easily. Why do they resist change? Because, and here she dares to say what usually remains unspoken,

“Both within and outside organisations more men have more power in terms of access to resources and the ability to control those resources than do women… Power is highly prized and protected… This simple admission – that power bases and interests are being protected – is missing from most discussions on diversity.”

Did you flinch to read that? Don’t worry, Rutherford is not an extremist but she knows these words are challenging.

“Even now, 35 years on from the introduction of equality legislation, speaking of men’s resistance is pretty much taboo – and I’m speaking as a consultant. Blaming a hostile culture has become acceptable …but trying to talk about the practice of men’s resistance to equality is not so popular.”

Gendered culture

What Rutherford is at pains to show is how and why the current discourses on equality and diversity, and the recommended solutions, fail to get to the heart of the matter. In successive chapters that track her proposed nine-box model of gendered culture, she tackles topics ranging from management style to sexual politics. In each, she examines the masculine structures and norms that so often go unseen and/or unquestioned in an organisation and which act to exclude women from prized areas of the workplace.Very good suggestion Miss Wilson (purchased).jpg

Cultures are not neutral, a fact the equality legislation overlooked when it sought to create conditions under which women could compete with men on a level playing field. What the legislation achieved was what Rutherford calls “merely giving women an equal chance under the men’s rules”. Nicely put!

She goes further to highlight the areas where wider societal norms spill over into the workplace, commenting that organisations are open systems, affected by societal dynamics. Right from Chapter 1, she paints the issues of violence against women and the increasing objectification of women as sex objects as relevant parts of the background to organisational culture in the UK and beyond. This is not a book that shies away from thorny topics we’d all rather avoid…

At the coalface

Rutherford draws extensively on both her own and academic research and on anecdotes to make the research come to life. For example, in the chapter on the public/private divide, she quotes a female broker she interviewed during research at an investment firm,

“I’m in an interesting situation right now because I got married six months ago and I’m nearly 37. There are lots of comments about having a family. I say, no, we are not planning a family yet, and they reply, oh you must be, or they say, oh you’d make a lovely mum.”

This woman was uncomfortable that her marriage and decision to have a family had become such a focus for her colleagues. For men, marriage meant settling down, and was taken as a positive move for their careers. For women, it may signify potential disruption, and have a destabilising effect on career prospects.

This is a chapter full of largely unspoken paradoxes like the one above, where societal and organisational assumptions confer benefits on men and disadvantages on women for the same behaviour or attribute. It is rounded out with unpalatable data such as:

  • In an airline Rutherford had studied in depth, 72% of senior male managers were married vs 48% of senior female managers
  • In the same organisation, senior male managers were almost three times as likely as their female counterparts to have children
  • 62% of the airline’s women felt there was a conflict between work and home compared to only 39% of men.

The chapter concludes with questions an organisation could audit itself on, such as: does it know which employees are parents? How many hours of work, including domestic work, are employees doing? Are home responsibilities automatically considered by managers in planning meetings and events? Do employees feel the skills they learn and use in the home are valued at work? The very concept of work is gendered, after all, with working days designed around the lives of men who have wives and partners taking care of the domestic necessities. These men perpetuate the patterns of work that suit them, patterns that materially disadvantage working women who disproportionately often bear the home shift after the work shift.

“The slow pace with which organisations demonstrate their ability and encouragement to integrate parents and carers in the workplace can be seen as a sign of resistance to women’s equality in organisations.”

Who should read this book?

For those of you living the reality of professional lives in mainly-male organisations, the best chapters are those that explore the realities and restrictions of long hours, informal networking over evening drinks, working motherhood and more. You’ll find plenty more great quotations, like the one from a 28 year old fund manager talking about the practical limitations of joining in with the boys,

The boys are all golf mad, playing with each other and the clients. It is difficult as a woman because we just don’t have the same kind of activities to do together on a casual basis. The girls don’t play anyway but I don’t think they would want us to.They like being boys together.” [my emphasis]

For those who are active in HR and equality/diversity initiatives, the opening and closing chapters are the more thought-provoking. Rutherford delves into:

  • Why equality has faded from the discourse and why diversity risks going the same way
  • The usefulness, or not, of a business case for diversity
  • The way ‘choice’ and ‘fundamental biological differences’ are in vogue as explanations for women’s lack of power
  • The hierarachy of interventions that have been used to date but have yet to shift the dial much. The oldest is “fix the women”. More recently she has noted “small deep cultural changes” that shift the focus towards the culture and to individuals’ bias, but not as far as addressing masculinity and resistance.

With extensive notes and a rich bibliography the book is also a good jumping-off platform for wider reading.


Rutherford doesn’t pretend that holistic organisational change is easy. In the final chapter, she suggests measures such as audits across the nine elements of gendered organisation culture her model uses. The aim is to begin to reveal the extent of gender awareness and how welcome the women feel. She knows this is no quick fix measure but hopes that by introducing some wider social theories, including power and resistance, “we can at last have some honest conversations which in themselves will be liberating and lift us beyond the limited rational of business imperatives.”

Rutherford starts and ends the book with the same thought:

The assumption of every organisation, unless it has a majority of women at the top, should be that life for most women at senior levels will be less comfortable than for most men.”

Yes, indeed!


Women’s Work, Men’s Culture is available in hardback at the Book Depository for NZD 52.50 (includes shipping)

Amazon has a Kindle version for USD 31.47.


Few books are perfect. This one contained a few too many typos for my liking. However, the most egregious error for those of us reading it in New Zealand appeared in the unfortunately prominent position of page 1, chapter 1: “One hundred years ago there was only one country in which women had the vote – Finland, where women won the vote in 1906.” Aghh!

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