2014-02-14

The Might of Middle Managers

Middle managers are in direct contact with employees, and they create various roles for both sexes. In the Gender Network of Sweden’s Fiber Optic Valley, middle managers have found out how they can boost gender equality in their teams.

‘In challenging the gender order, what is the hardest thing to change?’ This question is displayed on the flip chart at the closing conference for Fiber Optic Valley’s Gender Network (Genusnätverk) at Högbo Bruk in Sandviken, in November 2008. The process manager, Eva Amundsdotter, urges the delegates to go to one of four corners:

  • Structure (skills development, salary, recruitment)
  • Interaction (how people behave towards one another at meetings, in the coffee lounge etc.)
  • Symbol (images of the organisation and of various occupational roles)
  • Open corner.

Most people go to the interaction corner. A couple position themselves in the symbol and open corners. First, those who have chosen the same corner discuss their motives with one another. Then Eva Amundsdotter opens a discussion in the whole group by asking why the structure corner is empty. Torbjörn Jonsson, logistics manager at Ericsson Network Technologies in Hudiksvall — who stands in the interaction corner — replies.

‘Structures like gender distribution of skills development or recruitment routines are matters I can take formal decisions about. But to change interaction among people, an informal effort is required for my part.’

‘How can we get the co-workers on our side, so that we can change our ways of being together?’ continues Moniqa Klefbom, unit manager at the Centre for Development and Learning in Hudiksvall.

Gender in Organisational Processes

Åsa Claesson, head of department at the research company Acreo, stands in the symbol corner because she thinks that the picture of a technician is the biggest obstacle.

‘The symbol picture of an engineer is a heterosexual man of about 45,’ she says. ‘That’s the kind of person who is seen and who counts.’

In the open corner stands Lars Johansson, editor-in-chief at Sverige Bygger, the building information company in Hudiksvall. In his opinion, the staff’s personal attitudes towards gender are the hardest thing to change. Several people say that they wanted to take up a position somewhere between the corners. Symbols, interaction and personal attitudes are interconnected and have reciprocal effects.

Evidently, the delegates have thought along these lines before. The corners in the value exercise come from the model used by the Gender Network to systematically clarify the gender order. The model is based on the description by Joan Acker, an American sociologist, of how gender is formed in four organisational processes:

  1. gender distribution or segregation patterns
  2. interaction
  3. symbols and notions
  4. identity or personal attitudes.

The Gender Network

The Gender Network is a research and development project that began in 2005. It comprises 13 middle managers from 12 organisations included in the Fiber Optic Valley innovation system. This is an organisation on the southern coast of Norrland that supports companies engaged in developing products and services based on fibre optics.

‘The gender-equality perspective has been a key driver of change right from the start,’ relates Marita Svensson, the Gender Network project manager, who helped to establish Fiber Optic Valley.

‘The gender-equality perspective has been a key driver of change right from the start’

The project management for the Gender Network comprises three people: the project manager, research manager and process manager. Marita Svensson’s responsibility as project manager has been to disseminate information and liaise with management groups. Susanne Andersson, the research manager and a gender researcher at Stockholm University, has concentrated on the project’s research ambition to make the role of middle managers visible. Eva Amundsdotter, the process manager, who is a consultant and a PhD student in Human Work Science at Luleå University of Technology, has focused on initiating learning processes in the network. This division of roles makes it clear that the project involves both research and development.

Unused Potential

Previous research on promotion of gender equality has shown that management support is vital. Nevertheless, Susanne Andersson thinks there is a risk of the importance of management being emphasised so heavily as to curb the power of middle managers.

‘There is great unused potential at middle managerial level. Middle managers are in direct touch with employees, and their actions can create different roles for women and men.’

The conference delegates have sat down and Eva Amundsdotter asks about their own personal development as managers during their years in the Gender Network. Several relate that they used to think their approach was gender-equal but have now realised that this was not the case.

‘Outdated notions of gender restrict human development and the development of new products’

‘I’ve discovered that I expect women to be more socially competent than men, while men who fail to deliver results annoy me more than with women who don’t do it,’ says Moniqa  Klefbom.

They discuss how to proceed with the project. In the next stage, the aim is to disseminate knowledge from the network to more organisations and stakeholders within their own organisations. The new project will study how traditional notions of gender inhibit development.

‘Outdated notions of gender restrict human development and the development of new products,’ says Susanna Andersson. ‘We’ve already seen this, but we want to know more about how.’

Reward Managers Who Tackle Gender Issues

Torbjörn Jonsson, logistics manager at Ericsson Network Technologies in Hudiksvall, is convinced that gender equality affects efficiency.

‘In single-sex work teams, subcultures are created that aren’t efficient,’ he says.

Ericsson is a major employer in Hudiksvall, with a good reputation and many employees of long standing. Gender equality is not an unknown issue, and there is a central policy in place.

‘It’s a matter of venturing to take the first step,’ says Magdalena Lindström Eriksson, personnel manager at Ericsson Network Technologies. ‘Helping people to see new ways of doing things that are different from what we’ve always done.’

In the future, she hopes that gender equality will be included in quantitative assessments carried out by managers.

‘Managers’ performance is measured all the time, for example in terms of customer satisfaction, and by employee surveys. I wish we could reward managers who tackle gender issues vigorously.’

Ulrika Lorentzi
Edited: 25 Oct 2016
Published: 14 Feb 2014
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