Culture is the shared beliefs, values, morals, and norms of a team, group, or society (Northouse, 2016; PSU WC, 2019, L. 13). Culture affects our perceptions of others, we view those in our group differently than those who are not; this perception can affect our behaviors (PSU WC, 2019, L. 13). I work for an industrial sales organization. We sell equipment that goes into warehouses, factories, and distribution centers that holds, transports, or handles products and materials. We have about 50 employees, of which 5 are women. When I started there, almost fifteen years ago, we had about 30 employees, 5 of whom were women. Thinking back, I’m not sure the number of women ever went above 6. There are no women on our outside sales, inside sales, engineering, marketing, or leadership teams. The functions that drive the revenue of the organization are entirely male. Certainly, we are a male-dominated firm, the in-group is men. Women are the out-group, the other.
Social dominance theory describes how humans organize themselves into hierarchies using biological factors and arbitrary distinctions to create groupings of people (PSU WC, 2019, L. 13). These factors and distinctions include sex, age, race, religion, laws, values, and much more. Beliefs form around these distinctions and become ingrained in culture through legitimizing myths, widely shared beliefs that support the hierarchical structures (PSU WC, 2019, L. 13). Many leaders in our organization are reticent to put women into sales roles. They have justifications for this belief. First, we have employed a few women, over the years, in sales roles. One was fired for poor performance, one was a cultural misfit, and the last only worked a few months before finding a different job. Second, our largest direct competitor is owned by a woman. Often, we refer to her company by her first name instead of by its business name. Women are the “other team” in sales. Third, women have traditionally worked in support roles within the organization like accounting, order fulfillment, and reception. There’s a reflection of the larger societal belief that women should support men. There are certainly other justifications, spoken or not, that leaders use to maintain this hegemony. Regardless, men are the dominant group and use legitimizing myths to maintain their superior position.
This hegemony is self-reinforcing. Northouse (2016) describes one challenge for women in the workplace, homosocial reproduction. Homosocial reproduction is the tendency for groups to find new members who are like existing members, to make a photocopy of itself (Northouse, 2016). When looking for new candidates, our leadership often seeks candidates who “fit the group” or “fit the culture”. These candidates, normally without fail, are masculine, independent men. Women aren’t offered the opportunity to even work in the revenue generating groups. This serves to reinforce the narrative that a woman’s place is to support the men.
Women and men go “up the ranks” differently within the organization. Several employees have started in the warehouse as part of our assembly team that later have been promoted to higher-paying, higher-responsibility positions. Men, typically, end up in our inside sales team where they enjoy a good base salary and some performance-based incentives. Women end up on our accounting team, enjoying a slightly higher salary but few incentives. Women’s developmental opportunities are curtailed by the beliefs of the organization (PSU WC, 2019, L. 13). Since women end up in a support role, they are unlikely to achieve higher statuses because the organization privileges revenue generation.
Prejudice describes a series of beliefs that reinforce our ideas and perceptions of others, be they individuals or groups (Northouse, 2016). These assumptions we make about others affect our behavior towards them. Prejudices are often self-reinforcing, they blind us or numb us to the brutality of our decisions, leaving our attitudes unchallenged and unchecked (Northouse, 2016). Prejudice is a cultural artifact, it exists in part because we construct hierarchies based on the differences between groups. The legitimizing myths that our organization uses are prejudicial. They are based on incomplete information and assumptions (Northouse, 2016). Prejudices are self-blinding. We don’t know we’re doing it because we often don’t experience negative consequences. The next man we hire will, probably, do well in his position. The woman we didn’t hire may have as well, but we don’t need to consider it because the man did well. We remember how a couple of women performed poorly on the sales team, reinforcing the belief that women shouldn’t be in sales. We’ve also fired men from the sales team for poor performance but we don’t reprise those stories when considering a man.
Northouse (2016) described a number of challenges to women in the workplace like the glass ceiling, glass cliff, and the leadership labyrinth. The labyrinth describes how women are normally clumped in lower-level jobs, structurally restrained from reaching higher positions through human capital choices, perceived gender differences, and prejudices (Northouse, 2016). The labyrinth is well established at our organization. Women, with rare exception, are relegated to the bottom of the organization supporting the men who dominate them.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership theory and practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2019). Lesson 13: Leadership and diversity. PSYCH485: Leadership in Work Settings. Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/canvas/su19/2195min-5376/content/13_lesson/printlesson.html