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The micropolitics of gender at work: Leading women in education rocking the boat and moving on

Peters, Carole C. (2004) The micropolitics of gender at work: Leading women in education rocking the boat and moving on. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This thesis investigates the experiences of 21 women in leadership and management who chose to leave their positions in the central office of a large state education department in Australia between 1991 and 2001, despite a record of high achievement and, for most, many years of loyal service. In particular, I identified why the women left and elements of the organisational culture that altered their career directions. The study adds to existing knowledge about women in management in Australia and the phenomenon of 'the glass ceiling' (generally understood to refer to an invisible barrier which prevents women, because they are women, from advancing beyond low to middle levels of organisational management). It demonstrates that the few women who do make it into senior management positions often encounter resistance to their acceptance at that level where the predominantly male managers exclude those who are different.

Using a qualitative research approach with in-depth, open-ended interviewing techniques drawn from a critical feminist perspective, I worked with the interviewees to explore their experiences as women in organisational management. In combining a phenomenological approach with critical reflection I aimed to create a dialogue on lived experiences while at the same time using theory to inform and reflect on those experiences. My focus shifts back and forth from the women's stories, related in their own voices, to my critical interpretation through a feminist lens, of their life-worlds.

The sample ranged from women leading projects and special programs to directors, executive directors and chief executives. All, with one or two exceptions, encountered barriers and described gendered micropolitical processes at work. The loss of talent is central to the research. The findings suggest that more could be done to retain women of high potential and, more broadly, to value talented and 'different' individuals who may disrupt the traditional understanding of 'manager' or 'leader'.

In a profound questioning of the corporate culture the research participants identified the micropolitical processes at work that often blocked career progress. They questioned political game playing, factional politics, unwritten rules, gatekeeping, the exclusiveness of the boys' club, positional power, and the hierarchical and bureaucratic management structure. They observed that relational, inclusive and interactive management styles were not valued in a corporate culture that defined merit in masculinist terms. Many challenged excessive self-promotion and careerist politics; recognised techniques that excluded and marginalised women; and asked why men with mediocre performance records got promotions, often ahead of more qualified, experienced and talented women who worked passionately for 'the good of education'.

Yet these female leaders recognised that behaviours cannot be divided neatly along gender lines. Many of the interviewees cited examples of a new wave of women they considered had become honorary males, responsible for perpetuating rather than resisting deeply entrenched practices, and not supportive of other women. One experienced CEO, who had worked in a wide range of public sector positions, distanced herself from gender debates and rejected feminist arguments that identified leadership as gendered. Adding to the complexity of the stories, other women at executive level talked of survival, the exhaustion of the lone female, the overwhelming weight of expectations from others (both male and female) and the ethical dimension of working in an 'alien' environment. As the 90s progressed, social justice discourses were lost in the neoliberal agendas of managerialism and economic rationalism and feminist voices were submerged.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Education
Supervisor(s): Currie, Jan
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