Outskirts online journal

Susan Harwood

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Volume 12, October 2005

A Tactical Response to the Gendered Organisation of Policing

Experience has shown that promoting gender equity in organizations is a challenging task.
Kolb, D and Fletcher, K (2003: 14)

This paper reflects on the process of taking on the “challenging task” of promoting gender equity within a policing organisation. It argues that the task cannot be accomplished without committed collaborators and significant tactical skills. Challenging the gendered organisation of policing calls for a range of tactical manoeuvres, best identified and enacted by those who engage in them on a regular basis - men and women within a police service. The paper draws its data from a three year PhD action research project specifically designed to find new ways to redress the gendered workplace culture of a policing service. The stated intent of this project was:

To examine causes of behaviours and practices that inhibit promotional and other opportunities for women in the Western Australia Police Service and which contribute to low morale and poor performance issues, including the incidence of harassment.

This research journey has been dramatic in many ways, and involved a variety of star performers. The paper focuses on one period in particular when the theatrics of this project were particularly striking. The time in question is towards the end of the Project when team members presented their data and recommendations to the management team. The presentation called for considerable planning and deliberation on the part of the presenters who had earlier invested significant amounts of time, commitment and energy in gathering the data they were about to present. The presentation team was in no doubt as to the controversial nature of the research findings in an organisation known, at least up to that time, for its lack of a sustained and effective response to gender equity issues. The planned manoeuvres were designed to collectively mobilise for this space and this time the team members’ considerable knowledge about their gendered workplace, enabling them to stand firmly in line against the formidable strength of the prevailing patriarchy of the boardroom. There was consensus that the manner of this presentation called for performance skills of some culturally apposite and rewarding tactical response manoeuvres. The deployment of these tactics immersed the players in an unanticipated “drama” that extended beyond the life of the boardroom, affording some further opportunities for closer analysis of the impact of change within this gendered workplace.

The Impetus for this Research Project

At the commencement of the project, there was anecdotal evidence of ongoing sexual harassment of women police and public service officers by their male colleagues and supervisors. A survey conducted by the ACPR 1 in 1999 had indicated that women in this Service were more likely to tolerate harassment than their counterparts in other States. Some progressive changes to the promotional system, instigated by a previous Commissioner, had resulted in the ‘gates’ being opened for younger men, but not for women. Despite the significant investment in recruiting drives targeting women, increased numbers at entry points were not translating into higher numbers at mid to senior management levels. There was also anecdotal evidence that many sworn women had left the service in the previous 5 years - but nothing was known about their reasons for doing so.

What was already known to people within the research site was the composition of their gendered workplace culture:

  • sworn female officers comprised the lowest rate of participation of women in policing in Australia (13.1%) - and the gap between this and other policing jurisdictions was widening;
  • there were no sworn female officers at senior management level, with the highest-ranking female officer being at Inspector level (middle management);
  • The actual number of women public service officers was significantly higher than their sworn counterparts (women public service officers comprising 61% of all public servants) but they were predominantly (90%) clustered at the lowest public service levels (Levels 1-3).

The recruitment of a new Police Commissioner was crucial to the development of this project. Employed on a five-year contract to take the Service through a process of weeding out corruption and malpractice by way of a Royal Commission, he saw the need for a new-look police service that was more representative of the diversity of the populace it served. He also had in process some long-standing claims of sexual harassment, by women employed as police and public service officers. His support was not only forthcoming but dependable at all points of the project, and ensured the recruitment of some dedicated members on the Reference Group and the eventual audience with his management team which has become the substance of this paper.

The Project Methodology

The project used what Kolb and Meyerson (2000: 554) refer to as a gender lens [authors’ italics] approach, developed to incorporate the idea of the “gendered organization” (Acker, 1990). Acker provides a salutary warning to all researchers of gendered organisations, noting, “feminists wanting to theorize about organizations face a difficult task because of the deeply embedded gendering of both organizational processes and theory” (1990:154). The gender lens approach offers a tool for fleshing out that “deeply embedded gendering” and affords the opportunity for people within the organisation to closely examine their own organisational processes. Further, Kolb and Meyerson suggest that this approach is “critical” for enabling people to question the “many gendering processes in organizations, both micro and macro, that produce knowledge, relations and identities” (2000: 563). Equipped with this tested tool, I had worked collaboratively with staff at the Police Service for three years. After gaining the support of the new Commissioner, our first step was to establish a reference group, comprising a team of male and female change agents from within the service, who in turn, enlisted their colleagues to join them on specific projects. We then applied an action research methodology to look beneath the surface to the gendered workings of the organisation and to examine and critically assess what Senge (1990: 8) refers to as “mental models”: stereotypical images and symbols about what it is to be a man, what it is to be a woman within gendered workplaces. Would we discover, as Kolb and Meyerson (1999: 194) did in their research site, that such mental models are reflective of the “work practices, structures and norms” of gendered workplaces, that tend, they suggest, “to reflect masculine experience, masculine values and masculine life situations”? (op cit) .

With their action research methodology in hand, we gathered quantitative and qualitative data on projects within our research site, ranging from lack of training and recognition for female public service staff to the barriers women faced in promotion, the lack of family-friendly practices and the challenges that faced women officers-in-charge in isolated country outposts. The final component of the methodology was to develop workable solutions and implementation plans with team members and to present these to the management team.

The danger of highlighting gender as a central structuring principle

The results of my initial environmental scan of policies, structures and procedures had highlighted that organisational definitions of competence and leadership were indeed largely defined in masculine terms. Meyerson and Fletcher’s (2000) research on gendered workplace cultures affords some insights into these masculinised structures of organisations:

The barriers to women’s advancement in organizations today have a relatively straightforward cause. Most organizations have been created by and for men and are based on male experiences; organizational definitions of competence and leadership are still predicated on traits stereotypically associated with men: tough, aggressive, and decisive. [Meyerson and Fletcher, 2000:129]

In analysing the data from each of the six projects, Reference Group members identified a number of key, interconnected themes underpinning the whole project. They determined that what we needed to take into the Boardroom was the data analysis, which demonstrated the following:

Key Themes

  • There are ‘dinosaurs’, ‘thugs’ and ‘bullies’ at every level of the Service
  • The ‘dinosaurs’ are not becoming extinct: they are ascending the ranks and levels
  • There is a climate of hostility towards women so strong that women fear speaking out
  • There is a backlash by men and women against those (small numbers of) women who have been promoted (perceived to be token because of the Commissioner’s commitment to improving women’s status)
  • Women have become institutionalised - ‘the problem is women’
  • Women’s lack of access to training and development opportunities is impacting significantly on their capacity to seek and gain promotions
  • Direct and indirect discrimination is enacted on a regular basis
  • There are demeaning mental models of women in this Service
  • This is a culture defined by its walls - structural and attitudinal
  • There is a lack of real measurement of training availability, expenditure, outcomes
  • Recruitment school is where the gendered climate is set

There was no doubt this research would be seen as contentious. The key question for those involved in the project over two years then was: how would we present this material? Further, how could we present the material in a way that encapsulated the teams’ participative, empowering and non-hierarchical framework? These men and women had succeeded in working together, within the Project, in ways that had subverted the normative terms of engagement for men and women, sworn and public service officers in this organisation. We needed a style of presentation that would highlight this shift in gendered, hierarchical relationships, challenging what Messerschmidt (1995: 171) describes as the “situated construction of gender” in this organisation. Building on West and Zimmerman’s (1987) work on “doing gender”, Messerschmidt (1995: 171) suggests that “…gender involves a situated accomplishment: the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions, attitudes and activities appropriate to one’s sex category”. The research data had already pointed to one of the key problems for women in policing: their need to situate their conduct in response to what had been described as hostile, male territory.

The team of presenters found the answer to their questions about the appropriate style of presentation from within the cultural framework of policing: they decided that there was a need to gather their collective strength and “morph”, for a moment in time into a “tactical response group” [the TRG]. Constructing this new, yet familiar, collective identity for themselves would offer a range of protections; for example, the wearing of a metaphorical “TRG” mask would challenge, for the presentation period at least, this organisation’s propensity to label people according to their hierarchical rank and status. Building on Foucault’s argument that “social analysis is a matter of revealing masks…”, Linstead and Thomas (2002: 15,16) argue that such masks can play a range of useful, often contradictory roles:

Convinced that they would be facing some hostile reactions, the team members thought about how to defuse that hostility, while at the same time, ensuring a successful engagement with their management team. They were very clear that in projecting themselves as a “TRG line-up” that they would also afford some strength, as well as protection, to those members of their team more often perceived within this culture to be the “weakest links” – women police and public service officers. Presenting women as integral components of such a power display (albeit temporarily) would situate their gender quite differently, offering some resistance to the usual “structural space” (op cit) and feminine place that women within policing have grown accustomed to accommodating. The relevance for this study of offering some resistance to what Connell (1987) describes as “hegemonic masculinity” and “emphasized femininity”, becomes clearer in Messerschmidt’s discussion about the management of “situated conduct” (1995: 172): the need for such management occurs, he suggests “…because femininities are constructed in the context of gender relations of power”, with the result that “femininities are polarized around accommodation or resistance to masculine dominance” (1995: 173). Countering the implicit and explicit dominance of male power within and outside of our team of presenters would be a challenging facilitation role; equally challenging would be how to ensure that women members of the team resisted the countervailing pressure to display the expected “femininities” of passivity, and accommodating “niceness”.

These facilitation challenges would not only call on the skills and capacities I had developed as a consultant, but also as a researcher on the project over three years. I had, by this stage, become an “insider” – I was part of the group and the teams and their facilitator were now “we”. This participant-observer role provided much in the way of unexpectedly rich new data; additionally, being part of the presentation team also enabled me to provide strong support to those women who were nervous about their first foray into the Boardroom. While these women were prepared to display their skills and knowledge in ways not seen by most of the management team before, they were nonetheless anxious about stepping outside their organisation’s normal frame of reference for women, and this was particularly the case for those at lower ranks and levels.

The Commissioner had keenly supported the idea that the Project findings should be tabled and some recommendations made as to how to address the concerns. However, he was not initially supportive of the idea that the teams present and speak to their data. I was able to negotiate a three-stage strategy that was designed to go some way towards ensuring organisational ownership of outcomes:

Stage One
Reference Group members and their project teams present their findings and key recommendations to the management team
Stage Two
During a three week interregnum, management team members could discuss any issues with members of the Reference Group
Stage Three
The same forum reconvenes to discuss and endorse/revise the recommendations

Reflecting on the process

Each of the three stages proved to be integral to the success of the project as a whole. Their cumulative effect, however, could only be measured and analysed after the full process was completed. Reflecting on the process later we began to see the theatrics in which we had engaged. Without exactly planning it that way, we had produced and performed a three-Act play: by the time the final curtain dropped, the research team had experienced an unexpectedly compelling, and seemingly promising piece of theatre. In the rest of the paper I use that theatre analogy to depict the team’s experience and some subsequent outcomes. As can be seen in what I depict as scene setting below, our team had become acutely sensitive to the ways in which gender is “done” in this workplace. Meyerson and Fletcher remind us “most organizations have been created by and for men and are based on male experiences…” (2000: 129). The task we set ourselves was to lift the lid on those male experiences. It is the lid-lifting that on reflection I am positioning as a piece of theatre, played out on the Boardroom set.

The Theatrics of Feminist Intervention

  • Block the capacity of the audience to undermine us by not making the Final Report of the project available before the meeting
  • Display our unexpected strength by lining up as a team, and standing on our collective knowledge and understanding of a complex issue
  • Resist pressure to be ‘nice’ by showing the actual data, highlighting the climate of hostility and fear described by women, and by using interviewees’ actual words
  • Stay in line, and hold the line: by supporting each other; no-one was isolated or left to answer challenges from the floor on their own
  • Display our “weapons”: by providing qualitative and quantitative evidence to support the intent of the recommendations
  • Direct the play: by articulating what needed to be done to overcome some poor management practices and the appalling attitudes towards women
  • Engage our audience by using language that had meaning to them: words such as “unprofessional” and “unlawful” behaviours
  • Shock the management team: by using the language that women are subjected to, providing examples of the slanging, sledging, and sexual profiling that interviewees had provided to project team members.

After three and a half hours, without a break, we filed out of the room. We re-formed shortly afterwards at a local coffee shop, where we exchanged notes, compared our ‘snapshots’ of the room, and collectively reported our individual responses. We were exhilarated, exuberant, relieved – and felt, for this time and space, very empowered. To cap it all one of the males in our group, inured to years of Boardroom meetings of this kind, expressed some amazement at the time we had been given by the management team (3.5 hours – one hour of which was over our allocated time). It was his view that we had “bowled them over” with our data, our professionalism and the collective weight of our knowledge about our subject.

Act Two: individual scenes with managers

At the end of the presentation the Police Commissioner extended a general invitation to all the managers, inviting them to use the three-week period between Stages One and Three to meet with and ask questions of the presenters. Deciding not to leave anything to chance, the Commissioner later added a proactive component, asking me to make appointments with each of his managers and take them through the process of the research project to date. This twist in the plot provided some strategic and revealing scenes in the play, engaging me, and some of the other presenters, in a series of in-depth interviews that were instrumental in extending the drama beyond the boardroom.

These “bonus” interviews provided unexpected insights into the individual managers’ responses to the boardroom presentations, to the content of the data, to their gendered workplace culture. Despite the relative simplicity of the initial question to them - "are there any of the recommendations that you feel that you would not be able to support?" – we received some very complex and at times, ambiguous, data. Mostly unprompted, these managers took the opportunity of the interviews to respond to what some saw as the “charges” that had been levelled at them collectively with regard to the hostile culture for women in this Service.

In reflecting on the process and content of these interviews, it is clear that the participants were engaged in a reframing exercise of their own, some apparently feeling the need to position themselves strategically in relation to the contents of the Report. Having heard the data, they seemingly felt obligated to provide assurance to me (as the emissary of the Commissioner), to anyone accompanying me, and to themselves, that the data that had been presented was not about them individually [even if it was]. They did this by telling stories – some naming themselves, and referencing themselves to the data that had been presented. For example, some named themselves as “probably being one of those dinosaurs”, saying “I have to admit…I’m probably one of them”. Others suggested that they were “probably one of those male chauvinists” named in the Report. Yet others took the opportunity to set the record straight, saying that behaviours cited in the Report did not occur in their time: “not while I was there…” [did the reported events occur]. Others listed their credentials: “these are the women I have supported…”

Their elaboration of their stories can be interpreted as a way of doing some joint identity work (Linstead and Thomas, 2002) with the researcher – so that they, as the subjects of the research, could reclaim an identity as complex people. In short, they could well be saying, “don’t stereotype me” and “I am not one of them”, even as they admit to being a dinosaur. Or, they are saying “I might be a dinosaur in some things but that is not all I am”. Revealing a number of what Linstead and Thomas refer to as “masks behind the façade” (2002: 15) some spoke of their wives, their daughters, their sisters, their personal assistants and their women colleagues – and in doing so, presented their “feminist” credentials. Some referred warmly to women with whom they had completed recruitment school. They were keen to show their support for the latter (small numbers of) women, the members of their training cohort, even though, as they and I knew, not one of these women had achieved their rank. I was surprised that not one of these interviewees wondered aloud, “why not?”.

One way of analysing the use of masks in these array of “performances” is to see them as affording the key players a rare opportunity to try on a new or hidden persona. In the non-threatening environment of their own offices, they were choosing to read and improvise from the different, more challenging script of the gendered culture of policing. In such a setting, as Linstead and Thomas suggest (2002: 16), “the masks used by managers in their performance of the self may actually enable the managers to be and say what they would fear to otherwise”. At the same time, they suggest, this process allows the performers to create new identities, to initiate “the recreation of managers’ identities” (op cit).

It should be acknowledged that in their parallel universe of competitive advancement, nearly all of these players were jockeying for attention and promotion. There would be places for some, but not all, in the new, post-Royal Commission regime, under a new, yet to be appointed Commissioner - who was likely to be coming from within their ranks. While all of these interviews were unique, there were some overlapping themes. The resonances between all of the seventeen performances has made it possible to frame two of them as representative of certain, recognisable roles that reveal some collective masks. Such masks, according to Linstead and Thomas (2002:16), not only serve to link “…the past and present”, but, as will be revealed here “…the public and private” as well.

Act Two, Scene One: the Convert [on the Road To Damascus]

Brian, one of the more senior men on the management team, has considerable longevity within the organisation and is known to have a large support base within policing. Alluding to these age and longevity factors, Brian cast himself as “probably one of the dinosaurs” mentioned in the Report. While I reiterated what had been said during the presentation (that the dinosaur attitudes within this organisation could be found within all age groups and at all levels), I was aware that Brian had been given this, and other, labels as reference to his conservatism.

Brian picked up on a number of the comments that had been made during the presentation about how women are perceived and talked about in this organisation. In particular, he expressed his concern about the “lesbian mafia” label that had been used to describe one of the mental models of women in this organisation. He asked me: “How big a problem is this?” I asked him to clarify his question and he said that what he wanted to know was: how big a problem does the organisation have with regard to lesbian women “running the place”? What impact, he wanted to know, does this image have on “other women”? I told him that the issue was not so much that there are lesbian women in policing, but rather, how this label is used to denigrate all women who are assertive, women who are not married, women who do not have a visible partner, women who choose not to have children - irrespective of whether they are actually lesbian or not. It was clear that he had taken my words in the presentation literally, and had not understood that we were reflecting the mental models that men (and some women) have of women in policing.

Brian spent some time talking about his personal disdain for “bad language”: he spoke of the importance of protecting women from such language, and his concern whenever he heard women using such language. We talked about the level of swearing and abusive language that women are subjected to, and my reporting of this in the Final Report. Brian reported that he is personally affronted when women swear (and noted how much this had increased during his time in policing) and when men swear in front of women.

Expanding on this theme, he recounted the time when a woman had to report to him because she was “up on a charge” for swearing at her senior officer. When he asked her to explain herself, she told him that she had indeed sworn at this officer, and asked “wouldn't he have done the same if this person had sexually harassed him?” He was shocked, he said, by her use of colourful language to describe what this officer had subjected her to. However, once he knew “what the situation really was”, he told the woman that he would investigate and deal with it, and that she would no longer be up on a charge. He found pornographic material in the man's desk, and immediately removed it. This bloke, he said, “was reprimanded”.

Commenting on several women whom he said he had “high regard” for, Brian recalled that he had been told by the head of another agency that one of these women had been “extremely competent” in representing him at a conference that he could not attend, and that she was an excellent advocate for this agency. He also mentioned a Sergeant from our Reference Group, whom he had encouraged to input to some of the Gordon Inquiry 2, material that the senior team “had been struggling with”. She had done this very well, he recalled, and said that she was another one (of the women at this level) “who should be on the way up”. When I commented to him that this officer had already applied, and had been rejected, twice for Senior Sergeant positions over the life of the SPIRT Project, he said that “perhaps it had been too early for her” and that she may not have been “well prepared” [it would be nearly another twelve months before this officer was successful, at her fourth attempt].

The Conversion: Brian’s Road to Damascus Scene in the Boardroom

Known for his conservative views, Brian had revealed during his interview with me that he would be retiring within the month; this had not yet been made public. However, he said that he would make sure that he was present at our next meeting in the Boardroom, to support the recommendations, saying, “we have to bite the bullet on this - the organisation must change”.

True to his word, Brian not only attended the ensuing meeting, but also played the unexpected role of advocate, turning the group around on two of the more contentious recommendations.

This “conversion” caused some surprised reactions amongst those present. With nothing to lose, Brian clearly took the opportunity to demonstrate that an “old dinosaur” was capable of “dancing” – significantly influencing acceptance among his colleagues of some of the very positive initiatives for women in this organisation that would occur after he had left.

Act Two, Scene Two: the Blusterer plays to his Foil

This meeting was unusual for its composition, Ben being surrounded by four women: his administrative officer, two other women from the Reference Group (one of whom was the union representative), and myself. Ben stated at the outset that he had come back from the presentation somewhat “hot under the collar”, saying that he “objected to the unbalanced report” and its “women-focused” recommendations. His rhetorical question - “but what about the men?” – had been repeated several times during the Boardroom meeting by both Ben and some of his colleagues, and was to be repeated several times during this performance. This focus on women, he said, was “going to put the organisation back, rather than forward”, creating a bigger “wedge” between men and women that was “only just slowly being addressed”. Ben identified the proposed training and development scholarships for women as an example of what he meant – “but what about the men?” he repeated. Expressing the view that the issues were much broader than “just women”, he said that this agency had to look broader than just women, to “other groups”.

Striding around his stage as he spoke, projecting his monologue to his seated audience, Ben said that he felt that he (and the other members of the management team) had been “ambushed” by the presentation. He had felt concerned, he recalled, when approaching the meeting venue, painting a scene for us of the waiting group being lined up “like a posse waiting in ambush”. He had expressed these concerns, he said, to the others in the management group before we came in to the room.

In response, we told Ben that several of the elements of the presentation reflected decisions that had been made by the Commissioner; that we would not have chosen, for example, to bombard the group for more than three hours without a break. In response to this, Ben said that he noticed that the Commissioner was “going off to sleep several times” during the presentations, and that he had asked one of his colleagues to suggest a break, but that the Commissioner had declined this.

In discussing this comment later, none of us could recall seeing the Commissioner ‘nod off’ during any of the presentation. From our vantage point at the front of the room, most of us were looking directly at him

Ben said that immediately after the presentation he had called his administrative officer into his office to discuss it with her. He had called her in, he said, because he wanted to do a “reality check” on his own behaviour. Describing his Unit as “a very friendly, laid-back mob”, he said that they often went out for coffees and lunches and occasional drinks. Now, as a result of our presentation, he was concerned that he “may have stepped over the line” and had asked for feedback from his administrative officer as to whether he had done so. She was able to assure him then, and again in this meeting, that he had not done so. The union officer and I both congratulated him on doing this and said that there would not be so many complaints about inappropriate behaviours and harassment if more people did this kind of “reality check” and asked for feedback.

Referring to his anger during this debriefing session with his administrative officer, Ben said that he had told her that he felt “ambushed by the whole thing” and that he had asked her: “why didn’t we know about this beforehand? How come there are all of these recommendations for women?” I explained that in taking on this Project, the Commissioner did so in the full knowledge that it would focus only on women, and that WAPS and UWA applied for the joint research grant on the basis of this shared understanding of what the focus of the Project would be. I told him that prior to the current Commissioner coming into his role, other reports had detailed the level of discrimination and harassment that women were subjected to in this Service. I explained that the data spoke for itself, and that the incoming Commissioner had welcomed a Project that would delve into the culture to find out what were the key contributing factors to the current gendered workplace culture of policing.

Indicating that our presentation was the “first he had heard” of the Project, Ben expressed the view that we “should have met with each of them beforehand to brief them on it”.

None of us showed any outward reaction to this feedback – but later, shared our astonishment at this claim, given that Ben’s administrative officer had attended many project meetings over the previous two years while working for him, and had been closely involved in the production of the final report, as well as being a key presenter in the Stage One presentation.

Ben told us that he had now read through the Report and was able to identify several of the people we had quoted anonymously and that he “knows for a fact” that we have got one of them “completely wrong”. He observed several times that things had “really changed”, that the culture had been completely overturned “in the last 8 years at WAPS”. Turning to his administrative officer, he asked her to confirm this view, and she did so. He was concerned, he said, that just as things had been going along well, that this Project “could undermine all of that”.

The union officer explained that in her experience, both within the union, and earlier within WAPS, that people had become more sophisticated in “hiding” the discriminatory practices, that they were less overt and therefore harder to see. She gave an example of how people can use the rhetoric at an interview to get the job, and then revert to normal practice once they are assured of the job. She recounted how an officer going for promotion had written into his application that he had supported the implementation of family friendly, flexible workplace practices. However, once he had the job, he threw the policy out. Ben expressed surprise at hearing this and said that he had hoped that such things didn't happen.

During his performance, Ben labelled himself several times as a “male chauvinist”, saying that he would “have to” put himself in that group. He placed his chauvinism in the context of his age, stage, experience and longevity within the Service, but also stated that he recognises the need for change and gave examples of how he has “pulled up” other males on their poor attitudes towards women. In fact, he told us, things had changed dramatically from his early days in the Service, recalling that “women had to resign on marriage”, were strictly limited “to a few support roles that were not operational policing” and that “they were not seen as real COPs”. Ben recounted stories about several women he regarded as the “real thing”: one of these was in Singapore before the Japanese invasion, another had served in the War in Europe. He referred to both of these women as being “tough old cops” who would not take anything from anyone, and who “commanded respect” because of this, and because of their prior service. He expressed the view that things were very different – “totally different now” - with the younger ones coming through who were “quite different” in their experiences of and attitudes towards women.

Ben was particularly scathing of one of the projects, which had been undertaken by one of the males in our team. This male had reported eloquently on the project and its outcomes during our presentation. He had outlined how he had sponsored one of his women officers, with a young family, into a previously male-held bastion. She was the officer-in-charge of a remote country station, in a male-dominated mining town. During his presentation our team member had highlighted a number of unforeseen, discriminatory and undermining behaviours that this woman had been subjected to, the like of which, he reported, he had never witnessed in any of his placements of males to similar postings.

Ben told us that “he had no support” for his colleague’s choice of project or this woman officer’s placement; saying that he felt that this male was now trying “to get them to wear” his bad choice, and that he should “never have put his female officer with a child into that position in the first place”. He was also dismissive of the groundbreaking, women-and-family-friendly recommendations emanating from this project, saying that there “just simply isn't the money” to accommodate to “every need of every person” (including breastfeeding mothers). In times of budget constraints, he said, this is “really going over the top”. Besides, he said, “we are having enough trouble complying with occupational safety and health regulations”.

Ben read from a wide-ranging script, moving onto harassment and discrimination issues by referring to a current “case” within his jurisdiction. He said that he knew that there were one or two individuals - males - around the Service who needed to be “yanked in” for their inappropriate behaviours. People needed to know, he said, “how seriously the management team regarded such transgressions”. He said that he hoped that people would “talk up” and “speak up” about these issues, rather than hiding them.

One of our team members explained in response to this last statement that it can be a “career-limiting move” for a woman to speak up to her superior officer about an EO type complaint. “Trust is not always there”, she said, and while it may be desirable to get such things out into the open, that a person with a complaint had to “carefully consider what the repercussions might be for them to put that complaint forward”.

By the end of his performance, Ben’s persona had shifted; his elevated tone had dropped, he was smiling more, had stopped striding around his stage, and was seated. He could now discard his original script, saying, in doing so, that now that he “understood what our Project brief had been”, he could see that the recommendations were appropriate. None of this had been clear to him during our presentation, he said; at that time, he had not been able to see why there was a focus on women, and had therefore sat there saying to himself: "hang on a minute, where is all this going? Where will this end up?"

In conclusion, however, he finished the performance by indicating to us that it would be “very hard” to get these recommendations accepted “out there”.

Playing the Blusterer’s Foil

Throughout the life of the project, Ben’s administrative support officer had told her project team members how “lucky” she was to have such an excellent boss. In contrast to several of the other, unsworn women, she had never had any trouble, she said, getting the time to come to our meetings, provided that everything that the boss wanted done, was done. Despite this, she had apparently been subjected to a fairly ‘heated’ response from her boss when he returned to the office after our 3.5-hour presentation. Indeed, during the presentation, we had seen some of this heat when he challenged the validity of the data we were presenting, and questioned our methodology. He was one of the early exponents of what would become the catch-cry: “but what about the men?”

Reading the play as we entered his office, and without any preconceived or shared strategy, all of the women reverted to what West and Zimmerman (1987: 137) call “doing gender”. We acted according to our gendered script, in the critical and shared role of a support cast, placating, humouring, and defusing the main actor, whom we perceived to be a fairly volatile and dominating personality. His administrative officer was not part of the cast in this scene that was taking place in her workplace. Rather, despite her physical presence in the room, she was hovering in the wings, performing a similar, but less visible, gendered role. She teetered on the edges, only coming in to play the foil to her boss when requested to do so, and agreeing with us only when it seemed safe to enter the stage. Her performance was confusing to her female colleagues, who had not seen her “doing gender” to her boss before. Later, they reported that they were dismayed and incredulous. We learned much from the experience of this interview about how to successfully engage those men whose indignant behaviours could be masking a genuine ignorance or lack of understanding of the complexities of their gendered workplace culture. Our resolute attentiveness to his performance, our support for his stated anxieties, and our capacity to maintain an appropriately unshaken demeanour in the face of what we perceived to be some fairly outrageous lines, all contributed to some of the unexpectedly positive outcomes from this interview.

By West and Zimmerman’s account, we were doing gender “appropriately”, because we were able to “simultaneously sustain, reproduce, and render legitimate the institutional arrangements that are based on sex category” (1987: 146). However, we had also knowingly engaged in some further tactical manoevres to counter resistance and to collectively create some positive change.

Prelude to Act Three

Prior to our collective return to the Boardroom, I met with the Commissioner, in his capacity as the 17th member of the management team, and provided him with a summary of the outcomes of the previous 16 interviews. He expressed some surprise that all had agreed to support the recommendations, and that some had expressed their anger at not being considered for inclusion on the proposed implementation team.

Act Three: Return to the Boardroom

As twelve members of our team filed back into the boardroom some three weeks and many interviews later, it was clear that the Commissioner’s strategy had created a watershed; there was none of the palpable hostility that we had experienced the first time. Instead, there were many welcoming smiles, comments and nods as we took our seats.

Only a few of us had been involved in each of the interviews, so we began this session with a summary of the collated data, indicating at the outset that no-one had said that they would not be supporting all of the recommendations. Then, in an overt display of appeasement, we tackled what had been the most contentious issue in our interviews: the composition of the proposed implementation group. Explaining that there had been two recommendations from the management team for representation from their areas, I told the meeting that these recommended members had now been discussed and approved by the Reference Group. The list of participants had been amended, and we were able to show an overhead with the two new names added in.

We finished this segment with some deliberately “tricky” data, having decided that we needed something very provocative to arrest the attention of our audience. We wanted to focus them towards the real data on women’s numbers and profile in this agency, rather than reinforce their often-repeated misconceptions about how much things had improved. With Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s (1977: 966) “skewed ratios” in mind, and Brown’s (1997) later research on the effect of such ratios on women in policing, we had asked the agency’s “numbers man” to calculate some critical figures. How many women, we asked him, would have to move up within each rank and level for the Service to reach a critical mass of 30% of women in senior management roles within the next five years? A female police officer presented the colourful, eye-catching graphs very professionally. We could see that this data raised instant hackles, evoking considerable expostulation and shock from the floor: “Why, this would mean that every appointment for the next five years would have to be a woman! And even then, we would not reach these numbers!” We watched, and listened, as the outraged and incredulous responses flew around the table. Calmly, our presenter reminded the group that these were merely extrapolations, to demonstrate how far away this organisation was from achieving anything remotely close to a “critical mass”, let alone equal numbers – and equal participation - of women. And how, even with all of the recommendations from this Project approved, it was only a beginning.

Verta Taylor’s (1999) suggestion about the need to “correct distortions” strikes a richly ironic chord here (1999: 11):

The goal of feminist research is to make women’s experiences visible, render them important, and use them to correct distortions from previous empirical research and theoretical assumptions that fail to recognise the centrality of gender to social life.

Reassured that they were not about to be over-run by hordes of women, the management team worked through each of our recommendations, providing their imprimatur on what were, after all, some relatively minor tweaking to the gendered practices of their workplace.

Final Curtain

The challenges of working within a gendered workplace culture to bring about sustainable, measurable change are many and varied; what we discovered was that it is the unexpected acts within the continuing drama that can produce critical shifts in behaviour. Linstead and Thomas’ (2002) research on middle managers’ use of masks and the construction of gendered identities offers some compelling and useful “tools” for analysing our unexpectedly revealing moments of theatre, inside and outside the boardroom. At the same time, these authors caution against being too optimistic about what happens when the masks are removed: “The gendered masks, masks of masculinities, not only conceal but reveal individual subjectivities and serve to reinforce the masculine signifiers of organization” (2002: 16).

While speaking about social movements, Taylor, quoting Thorne (1995) offers an insight that can help us to see a more positive outcome for the team participants in our unexpected theatre. She suggests that theories of gender have tended to neglect the “countervailing processes of resistance, challenge, conflict and change”, and that there is a need to make explicit the “ role of social movements in the social construction and reconstruction of gender” (1999: 9). The team of insiders at this police service that became, for a moment in time, the “TRG”, effectively rolled their social movement into the Boardroom, producing a countervailing force to the usual ways of treating women’s issues. The irony is that in producing that countervailing force, they mirrored several aspects of the usual ways of doing police business. Irony, suggests Donna Haraway (1985: 65) is about both “humor and serious play”. The various players described in this paper have exploited both elements to construct, enact, produce and bear witness to some of the contradictions within their gendered workplace; contradictions of the kind that are central to Haraway’s definition (1985: 65):

Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true.


1. Australasian Centre for Policing Research

2. Inquiry and Response by Government Agencies to Complaints of Family Violence and Child Abuse in Aboriginal Communities – referred to as the “Gordon Inquiry” . This was, and still is, a very controversial and high profile investigation that has significant implications for police/Aboriginal community relationships.


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