The Challenge of Feminist Theory in Organisational Analysis
Onar Usar
Faculty of Management, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey
  • Introduction

  • Structural Contingency Theory

  • The Research Paradigm & its Critiques

  • Feminist Approaches to Organisations

  • Socialist Feminist Theory and its Critique of Organisation Theory

  • References


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    Structural contingency theory has been the dominant perspective in organisation studies since the 1950's. This paper aims to highlight the essential aspects of the criticism of the structural contingency theory by feminist theories.

    Organisations are generally defined as social entities composed of people with knowledge, skill and experience to reach a well-defined objective. It is supposed that the objective leads to the production of core values that meet certain social needs and wants. However, one cannot think of any group of people with a purpose as an organisation. There have to be well-defined rules and procedures, and a structure defining mainly hierarchy levels, power relations, division of labour, and behaviour (communication and decision-making) patterns. Moreover, the production and reproduction of a certain ideology, or  culture, that unites the members of organisations should be included in the definition of organisations. Therefore, when one talks about organisations, one refers to a complex set of patterns and regulations.

    At the most general level, organisation theory focuses mainly on bow organisations are actually structured and designed. Surely, there exist various perspectives with different epistemological assumptions. Most of the mainstream perspectives offer suggestions about how organisations can be constructed to improve their effectiveness. Structural contingency theory appears to be the most acknowledged of these perspectives - indeed, it is the dominant one. In this paper, I will first briefly review the contingency perspective, its development, research paradigms, and models. Then, I will take up the challenge of socialist-feminist perspectives to this theory.

    Structural Contingency Theory

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    Structural contingency theory has been the most widely used approach in organisation studies for about four decades. It seems it will continue to dominate the field at least in the near future. The theory simply claims that there cannot be  any single organisational  structure that can  assure organisational effectiveness.  Structure depends on  certain characteristics of the organisations called "contingency factors" such as strategy, size, task uncertainty, and technology. These factors are influenced by elements such as industry, government, competitors, society which are located outside organisations  According to this theory, organisations can only be effective if they can fit their structure to the contingency factors and thus to the environment (Donaldson, 1996)

    Before the contingency theory, organisation studies were dominated by Classical Management School which had searched for an organisational structure  that could be suitable and effective for all sorts of organisations. This structure involved a high degree of centralisation, formalisation and strict authority of the top manager. The idea was that when well planned formal rationality, technical capability  and  legitimate  authority  would  lead  to organisational success. Weberian type of bureaucracy that consists of impersonal administration, rules and procedures,  specialisation  and  division  of  labour, hierarchy of authority, written communications and records etc., was considered the best alternative in reaching the highest effectiveness.  However, from the 1930's on, Human Relations  School  started  to  challenge  this  classical understanding, and hence organisation studies began to shift towards understanding, and hence organisation studies began to shift towards understanding the human aspect of organisations. Decentralisation, empowerment, teamwork, delegation of authority became the key concepts of the Human Relations approach.  Finally, by combining and adapting superior parts of these two approaches, contingency theory was developed in the late 1950's. Task and environmental uncertainty  operations technology appeared to be the core contingency concepts for the new paradigm.

    According to the structural contingency theory, if the tasks are certain and repetitive, a high degree of centralisation and formalisation, decision making and planning by the top management, would be suitable. These features are supposed to lead to higher effectiveness, i.e. tasks can be accomplished in most efficient way. However, if the tasks are relatively uncertain, there will be a need for "rich" information and skilled employees. It would be difficult to make strict plans or job descriptions in such cases. In other words, decentralisation, reduction in hierarchical control and formalisation, and more emphasis on teamwork and empowerment would be more suitable for uncertain tasks.

    Task uncertainty is the most important concept in determining the most suitable structure for an organisation. However  environmental uncertainty has also considerable impact. If the environment is uncertain - that is, if there is not sufficient information about environment; and it is difficult to predict changes - organic structure that means mutual discussions flexibility, greater differentiation between departments will appear to be better. On the other hand, if the environment is somehow stable and certain,  mechanistic structure - characterised by tightly defined roles, rules, centralisation and hierarchy of authority - will be better to obtain superior results.

    Theory  also  argues  that  the  level  of production  and  operation technology influence the choice of structure. When small batches or craft skills are extensive for production - that is, when primitive production technology is used- there is no need for detailed information; and tasks are not affected very much by environmental changes. Organic and informal structures characterise this kind of organisations. If large batches or mass production replace small batches, tasks become complex, thereby specialised machineries are used. In this case, concepts of classical theory apply in the choice of the structure. However, advanced production technologies again require organic structures, since tasks are now very complex, uncertain and only high - skilled, well trained workers who do not need any close supervision, who have capability to work in work teams are employed.

    Research and studies conducted based on the structural contingency theory draw upon these concepts with some variations, like effects of globalisation, corporate strategy, organisational goals, product life-cycle and so on.

    The Research Paradigm & its Critiques

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    There is a considerable amount of research and empirical evidence that mostly supports the claims of structural contingency theory,  i.e. the effects of the environment on the contingency factors, and thereby the design of structure. Structural contingency theory draws on the functionalist paradigm in sociology. It explains organisations as a function of different departments coexisting in a harmony; explaining the reason behind the overall effectiveness or well-being of the  organisation.  Research  supporting  the  theory  has  come  not  only  from management science, but also from different sociological approaches. Studies have been conducted mostly to determine the fit between contingency factors and type of organisational structure, (for example, a comparative study by Woodward (1965) on each contingency factor and type of structure was one of the typical studies). Although initial  studies  had  difficulty  in  tackling  problems,  such  as  the reliability of measurement, and precision of definitions and concepts, as the research practice developed,  these were solved.  Later studies had more clear definitions and concepts, used more sophisticated evaluation and measurement techniques and tried to specify the effects of many contingency factors working at the same time.

    Structural contingency theory and the research built on it has been widely criticised. These  criticisms focused on three problematic areas. Firstly, the theory and the research paradigm use a positivist approach. Structure is assumed to be adjusting  only to the material factors, such as  size,  and  technology. Organisational culture, values and ideas of employees and power relations within the firm are not considered as factors affecting the structure. Secondly, decision-makers, mostly top managers, are not taken into account. Thus the analysis is depersonalised and human factors totally excluded from the research. In fact, much of the criticism from outside of the paradigm revolves around the perceived neglect of an action-level analysis in structural contingency theory research (Donaldson, 1996 ). Thirdly, there are some doubts whether the results will be valid in different countries at different time settings. Yet, further studies removed these doubts at least for some of the contingency factors. For instance, organisational size appears to be a universal contingency factor operating all over the world at all times.

    Another  criticism  of  the  research  paradigm  is  its  theory  of explanation. When the data is interpreted, causation is made from contingency to structure. In other words, inferences made in such a way that only the changes in contingency factors which reflect the change in environment, change the structure but not vice-versa. However, by this correlational method, different causal relationships can be established. One can legitimately argue that structure might influence and change contingency factors.

    There is one more shortcoming of the paradigm. The theory in general focuses on effects of individual or particular groups of contingency factors leading to conflicting inferences. For example, it has been argued that when the number of employees increases, there would be greater specialisation.  In such a case, each task would be less varied and complex.  Thus uncertainty of tasks decline, and as has  been  claimed  low  uncertainty  tasks  are  most  effectively  performed  by a centralised hierarchy (Donaldson, 1996). However, from another point of view, if the size and number of employees increases as a result of innovation, a bureaucracy may replace a  simple  centralised  structure.  Bureaucracy  allows  decentralisation, as employees are increasingly controlled through formalisation (Donaldson, 1996).  It is clear that these two inferences are conflicting with each other.

    Although  the  theory  seemed  very  stronger  in the  1960s,  new developments  and  studies  in  all  disciplines  started  to  challenge  structural contingency theory and its assumptions. Much criticised was the assumption of "rational behaviour " of managers, i.e. choosing the best suited structure. It is debatable whether top managers make rational decisions in designing the best structure for the efficiency of the organisation or for the protection of his/her status and power within the organisation. Reflecting on this point Carole Pateman argues that even the employer has a chance to replace all his/her employees by machines and robots which provide better efficiency for the production process, he would not do that. Since the  employer has an interest in workers as selves  without them, he ceases to be a master and loses the enjoyment of command over subordinates  (Pateman 1988).  Since the maintenance of the organisational status quo - an implicit orientation of the theory - also means the maintenance of executive positions, all factors that threaten the status quo are eliminated and underlying values are reproduced over and over again. As a result of such criticisms coming from other perspectives, new approaches have emerged for the explanation of organisational structures.

    Feminist Approaches to Organisations

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    Until  the 1980's  organisational  studies  and  feminist  theories  were detached due to their distinctive interest areas. Organisational literature has been dominated by male academics to solve the problems of male managers while feminist studies mostly dealt with women and nature of patriarchal relations in entire social realm  Although roots of studies on women's subordination and inequality goes to late 1700's, theories and researches on sex - segregation or other gender  inequalities  in  organisations  have  a  very  recent  history.  Yet,  rapid development of   women's liberation movement since the late 1960's increased the awareness of women to their subordination both in public and private sphere.
    The increased consciousness to the "gender blind" nature  of organisational theories, eventually led to the gendered analysis of organisational structures. Because traditional approaches to the organisations do not take into account gender differences, considerable errors have been made in interpreting how organisations  operate  (Mills, Peta Tancred, 1992).   For that reason, all organisation research needed to be reconsidered by focusing on the effects of gendered subcultures on organisations.

    Naturally, the division of feminist theories in social theory also appears in the field of organisation studies. Liberal, Radical, Psychoanalytic, Socialist, Marxist, Post-modernist and Post-colonial feminists have different claims about the structure of organisations. However, they all agree on the male dominance and existing inequality in the work-place. Their difference derives from the ways through which this situation may be changed. I shall try to touch upon some of the premises and arguments of socialist-feminist theory in relation to the traditional approaches.  Then,  I  will  discuss  its  alternative  project  for  redesigning organisational structures. However, before the socialist-feminist theory, it would be helpful to consider other feminist theories briefly.

    Liberal feminism is the most popular version due to the political theory on which it relies. Here sex is thought of as a biological issue; and socialisation of sexes for appropriate behaviour is considered to be constitutive of gender. They perceive the organisations composed of rational individuals seeking for autonomy and efficiency in line with liberal political theory. Hence, positivist gender neutral objectivity referred in conducting research. Liberals are critical of the existing sex segregation in both vertical and horizontal dimensions leading to wage inequalities, barriers to higher status jobs for upward mobility at the expense of women. However, they are optimistic about the modification of this condition. If powerless has some power over the decision making process, they argue, inequalities between the sexes would disappear. Some minor changes or regulations within the existing system, like equal pay for equal work, sex - blind performance appraisals, equal opportunity for training and gaining higher status jobs, increase in the number of working women, are considered enough to eliminate inequality in work - places. They are mostly criticised by other feminists  since they do not question the power relations. They are not critical of hierarchical division of labour and the separation of private and public spheres. They have individualistic  orientation  towards  personal  accomplishment.  Finally,  their demands only reflect middle - class, white, western women's interest excluding race and economic class differences.

    Disagreeing with the liberal feminists, radicals believe that sex is one of the instruments for the stratification of society and gender. Nature is not the single cause of men's domination. They argue that exclusion of women from public realm for long years caused differences in the socialisation of women. When women had entered into historically male dominated organisations, they found themselves marginalised. Against this background, radical feminists argue that women's socialisation makes them better equipped than men to perform the skills necessary  for  the  creation  of  democratic,  participatory,  non-hierarchical organisation  (Savage,  Anne  Witz,  1992).  Thus,  they  have  more  radical suggestions, such as women-centred, leaderless, structureless organisations that may eliminate masculine values advocating competition, leadership, hierarchy, and so on. On this view, androgyny - being neither female nor male but human - is an optimal situation to deal with the inequalities of the modern era.  However, women-centred,  separatist strategy being used,  over-valuation of women over men, undervaluation of other differences like culture and history which contribute the inequality, are criticised by other feminists. Moreover, one can argue that like the liberal feminist arguments, this new type of organisation might only represent white, middle class women's interest.

    Psychoanalytic feminism, different from both liberals and radicals, examines the psycho-sexual development of both sexes in patriarchal structure. They reject the traditional view of psychoanalytic theory which justifies women's oppression.  Instead,  they  try  to  find  out  the  effects  of  separatist  social arrangements on different psycho-sexual developments of women. As a result of patriarchal structure in which we live, women are socialised in more passive ways, achievement and leadership seem irrelevant concepts for women. As a result, women  have become  inferior in organisations.  Unlike  the  radical  feminists, psychoanalytic  feminism  perceives  the  women's  socialisation  process  less favourably than men's, and instead of changing the structure of organisations according to feminine values, puts emphasis on changing the process of women's psycho-sexual  development  in  order  to  adapt  them  to  a  male  dominated organisations. Unlike liberals psychoanalytic feminists try to achieve such a change not only at the personal level but also at the societal level "with cultural and historical roots"  Although they think this perspective is a good way to challenge the status quo, they never have an attempt to change existing hierarchical structure. In addition, overemphasis on psycho-sexual development reduces the importance of power dynamics which are the basic causes of gender inequality.

    Marxist feminists perceive the gender similar to class or part of class relations  that constitute  and maintain  system of oppression.  Production  and reproduction of identities and values through power relations. Double burden of women due to their sex and class are central themes of Marxist feminists. They criticise liberals for accepting given hierarchical and capitalist relations and mainstream Marxists for their undervaluation of patriarchy and  for ignoring women's unpaid labour as an important factor in social reproduction (Marshall, 1994)   According to them, unless capitalist economy is analysed in terms of power relations, gender inequality cannot be understood,  and without major structural changes in political realm, we cannot talk about equality both in the public and private spheres.

    Different  from  previous  feminist  theories,  postmodern  feminists question  concepts  of   "positive  knowledge"  and  "identity".  They  criticise ontological   and   epistemological   claims   of modernist  theories; their foundationalism, essentialism, and universalism including the claims of many feminist theories (Calas, L. Smircich,  996 ). They blame feminist theories by focusing on only one privileged category - gender - in their analysis. Postmodern feminists engage in intersections of complex social relations. They argue that knowledge forms the power relations in organisations, and this naturalise the exclusion of certain groups from organisations, such as women, minorities, and elderly. Yet as power creates the possibility of resistance, power relations cannot simply be read off from structural inequalities (Savage, A. Witz, 1992). There are limited numbers of organisational study done by postmodern feminists, though their growing prevalence in explaining social reality. Deconstruction is the mostly used methodology in their organisational analysis. They also re-analyse sexuality, self-actualisation, globalisation, "bounded rationality" concepts treating gender as one of the categories among class, ethnicity, race, and age.   Although they emphasis  more  complex  and  distinctive  issues  that  arc  ignored  by  other perspectives, many feminists criticise their approach. Critics argue that it is too early to question some concepts that women had never a chance to define their own.  Furthermore, postmodern analyses are hard to understand and interpret by most of the people.

    Post-colonial or Third World theory is the most recent approach to feminist theory. It emerged from the criticisms of third world feminists to Western feminists. Western feminist theories are blamed for reflecting interests of white, middle-class, heterosexual women only. They use postmodern consequences in their analysis of feminist theory and challenge popular theorisations of gender and gender relations for being based on images and social experiences of mostly privileged women in the  First World (Calas, L. Smircich, 1996).  Post-colonial feminists also draw some of their critiques from socialist feminism such as, capitalism, colonialism, stratification of gender; and try to explain these complex relations between the first and the third world. They illustrate new ways of organising in the global world by applying concepts of new social movements. They are criticised by other feminists for the same reasons as postmodern feminists.

    Socialist Feminist Theory and its Critique of Organisation Theory

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    In the early  970s, socialist feminism came forward as a result of new Leftist movements all over the world. Although it was originated from liberated women's  movement,  it  rejected  the  liberal  demands  of  that  movement. Presumptions  of  liberal  individualism,  competitive  market  economy,  basic principles of self-interest constituting the political liberal economy are challenged. Capitalist mode of production considered as the basic source of patriarchy. Not only capitalism, but also racism and sexism are the major concerns of socialist feminists.  However,  they also criticise Marxism for being gender blind, for primarily focusing on economic class, employer-labour relations As a consequence, by including gender and race differences into the analysis, socialist feminism re-conceptualise Marxist and Socialist theories as well as feminist theories. They draw some of their concepts from the radicals, while being critical of them for having  separatist  solutions  under  capitalism  and  patriarchy.  Despite  their agreement on exploitation and domination of men, socialist feminists criticise other approaches for omitting historical and cultural conditions, and for claiming some minor changes without altering the existing capitalist social relations.

    Socialist feminism, or "feminist - materialism", relies on the idea that male dominance is a consequence of social practices rather than biological differences. Unequal relationship between sexes is systematically reproduced to meet material needs, which is not universal but rather had occurred in a specific space and time in history. There are considerable amount of research and studies done by socialist feminists  about  organisations,  especially  after  1980's.  Different  from  other feminists, public realm in which organisations are located is not separated from private where domestic relations take place. This is because relations within organisations and within  families are assumed to be mutually dependent. That means, if husband dominates wife in the private as a result of  "patriarchy", capitalist man dominates working - class women as a result of "capitalism".

    The  starting  point  for  the  analysis  of the unequal  relationship  is the Industrial Revolution. In the pre-industrial societies, feudal relations characterised the women's place in the social formation- Father had strict authority over his wife and children. There was no separate work-place. Women were both doing domestic and non domestic works. As a result, they were working much harder than men, but their contributions to the economy were accounted valuable. By the Industrial Revolution,  capitalist  work-places  and  wage  employment  appeared  causing separation of home from the work-place. This brought the separation of public and private as well as the sexual division of labour. At first, daughters or young unmarried girls were encouraged to work in those factories since agriculture was still important, and female labour was less costly. However, rapid developments in technology made the industrial work dominant source of the economy. Factory work  became  more  valuable  and  higher  paid.  These  developments  caused replacement of women by men and marginalisation of women in the public sphere. Socialist feminists examine occupational sex-segregation, sexual division of labour, wage inequality, and power relations, symbols, ideologies, images within the organisations after that point in history.
    Organisational theory is mostly criticised for focusing on males as top level managers, because of the fact that men have the leadership position and power. Even when women included into the research, their behavioural differences are explained by gendered stereotypes or distinctive socialisation processes. Other processes like "patterns of selective recruitment" that require passivity and conformity from women and "social control mechanisms" to repress women in the organisation, are usually overlooked. Thus, important studies that are called "classics" of the organisation theory are re-analysed to show their ignorance on gender differences. for instance Hawthorne studies claim that positive treatment of employees increase motivation and productivity ( Daft, 1996 ) is re-examined. It is found out that research conclusions are different for males and females. Control mechanisms used for women are likely to be similar those used for children. Females are subjected to more closer and personalised control mechanisms, while males are subjected to impersonal rules and given some degree of autonomy. In addition, rewards given men are not sex linked whereas women receive more stereotyped benefits, such as maternity leave etc.

    In the ease of sex segregation, women's work in the public is likely the same they do in the home. This is called " vertical sex segregation " and broad concentration of women on service sector or part-time, inferior jobs prove this argument. Even when women are employed in the same industry as men, they still get less pay, prestige, fringe benefits because of the "horizontal sex segregation".  Although it seems that in most of the occupations sex segregation decrease by employment of women to traditional male jobs, glass ceilings are still exist for majority of women. On the hierarchical order of the jobs white men are at the top having critical decision making power.

    Distribution of power within organisations and among subgroups is another debatable issue. Socialist feminists perceive the direct relation between the subordination of women and unequal distribution of power. On this point, the main claim of structural contingency theory  - i.e. size and technology as determining factors of organisational complexity is rejected. Instead, degree of complexity depends on actions and decisions taken by power groups. Some theorists also refers organisations as  totally political units and structure is a product of power relations.  This structure reflects the conflict between the power groups and maintains subordination relations.

    To  explain  the  existing  structure  of organisations,  materialist-feminist  determination  has  four important points.  First,  there  is  a  dialectical relationship between organisational life and "broader societal system ". These simultaneously reshape each other. Second, owners of the means of production have crucial role for the perception of organisational and social reality. Third, although sexual division of labour is determined by class structures, it has a degree of autonomy and determines the class as well. Finally, material conditions are reflected by perceptions of reality but since material conditions change and contradict each other, alternative perceptions can always exist. Through these four assumptions, socialist feminists try to answer some questions like " how social perception of gender affect the structure of the organisation and how this structure affects gender identities?", or  "since organisational leaders are males, to what extent  their  masculine  values  affect  the  understanding  of  organisation's structures?".

    As  a consequence of their analysis  from the view of socialist feminism, they suggest revaluation of feminine values and skills to construct class less and genderless organisation structures.  This would cause elimination of gendered division of labour. Female dominated jobs would receive comparable worth as male dominated professional works. In addition, wages for male and female labour would be readjusted according to the comparable but-not identical-skills. Child care places for every work-place, flexible time jobs, equal and extended time for maternity and paternity leaves are also included into their demands. According to them, elimination of gender dualism does not necessarily mean the elimination of gender differences. Rather, it means elimination of institutional constraints that attribute certain stereotypes to each sex. By this model, it would be impossible for one individual to exclude other gender, or perceive himself/herself as a primary gender.

    Different from radicals, socialist feminist model does not reject emotional  roles by  individuals,  in  sexual,  love,  parenting  or  household relationships.  Because such roles would no longer be tied to gender or even to all aspects of individuals' interactions, they would not support such hierarchical relationships  between  individuals  as  male dominance or compulsory heterosexuality (Ferguson, 1991). In short, this model try to satisfy goals of both individual autonomy and community as well as democracy and social-material equality of people.


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