Written by Heather Burke Tuesday, March 20 2012
Snapshot: Dr. Elisabeth Kelan, associate professor, King’s College London
Elisabeth Kelan, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the department of management at King’s College London. Prior to King’s College, Kelan held the post of senior research fellow in the Centre for Women in Business at London Business School and also worked at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
She is author of the book, "Performing Gender at Work," which offers a unique exploration of gender in our contemporary and evolving workplace settings. Kelan is an expert in the areas of diversity, gender and generations in organizations. She is published widely and frequently called upon by the private sector as a keynote speaker and consultant on the topics of gender and generations at work.
Womenetics: Tell us about the phenomenon you describe as “gender fatigue” and your finding that popular narratives of the status of women in business have created a “post-feminist” climate.
Dr. Elisabeth Kelan: In various research projects, I have found that individuals claim that they work in a gender-neutral environment, that they do not register gender and that gender does not matter, only to tell me shortly after how they experienced gender discrimination. I was struck by the fact that my smart interviewees could not see the obvious contradiction in their constructions. This was systematic.
When researching this in more detail, I found that women and indeed men are growing tired of constructing the workplace over and over again as gender neutral in spite of evidence of the fact that gender discrimination exists.
Womenetics: Europe has caused excitement and debate with the use of quotas to secure women’s boardroom representation. What is your take on this strategy?
Kelan: The gender quota normally causes strong emotions in people: Some love them and see them as an effective way of progressing gender equality; others hate them because they seem to go against merit. To be honest, I find both approaches not very constructive in changing systemic gender inequality.
Instead of focusing on quotas in a yes or no way, I focus on what kinds of quotas change gender in organizations. The Norwegian gender quota on boards is an “outcome” quota. It aims at filling at least 40 percent of board positions with women – or men as the quota works both ways. I prefer “process” quotas.
I always suggest to companies to explore internally how leaders are developed and then to target critical activities for leadership development. For instance, an organization might notice that women only make up 2 percent of executive development programs. Yet we know executive development is important to develop leadership capabilities. This might lead an organization to mandate that at least 30 percent of the executive education program is made up of women. This is a process quota, and through this process quota women get the right type of leadership development and can reach leadership positions on their own merit.
Womenetics: How might the larger project of feminism help the business community shape their understanding of issues around gender, diversity and inequality in the workplace?
Kelan: First and second wave feminists have been very successful in tackling gender inequalities. However, we now find that gender inequality is moving underground and is more difficult to tackle through, for instance, legislation.
Organizational culture still hinders women to flourish, but the mechanisms through which this happens are much more subtle. It is based on micro-interactions that lead to micro-inequalities. However those micro-inequalities add up and that causes women to lose motivation in the workplace. What can be done about this? I see lots of organizations engaging in work on unconscious biases, which is a very effective way of addressing these deep routed inequalities.
Womenetics: How do assumptions affect the potential for women’s advancement in the workplace?
Kelan: Unvoiced assumptions are one of the central ways through which gender affects women’s potential. There are often assumptions that women do not want to take certain positions due to the travel involved. There are equally many assumptions of women that a senior role would mean giving up your private life.
The issue is not whether these things are right or wrong, but the fact that they are rarely addressed openly. A manager should for instance not presume that a woman does not want to travel but should ask her. Women should not just presume that taking a senior role means giving up one’s private life but should try to find their own balance that works for them. These unvoiced assumptions are one of the main impediments for women’s advancement.
Womenetics: How can organizations deconstruct visible and invisible masculine ideals of leadership and create space for a feminine subject?
Kelan: The masculine ideal worker is very deeply routed in men’s and women’s expectation of how a leader looks. However, we know that leaders of tomorrow need to coach and mentor their people to allow them to achieve top performance. These activities are more feminine than masculine. In business schools and in the workplace, those feminine skills are rarely valued. We need to ensure that those nurturing elements are encouraged in women as well as men.
We have seen that women have shown flexibility in adopting masculine traits, but we have not seen men adopting more feminine traits. Both masculine and feminine traits are important in men as well as women who want to be leaders.
Womenetics: What advice would you give to women navigating the “double-bind” of gender stereotypes in the workplace?
Kelan: The double-bind refers to the requirement to be feminine in order to count as a woman and to be masculine in order to fulfill the requirements of the masculine ideal worker. I have observed that the most successful women are often high in masculinity and high in femininity. How women do that is highly individual and is subject to constant recalibration.
Womenetics: What are some immediate solutions managers can adopt to address systemic issues of gender and inequality in the workplace?
Kelan: I do not think that there are any immediate “recipes” managers could follow to solve gender inequality once and for all. Gender inequality is too deeply engrained in our minds. Having said that, I think that many workplaces would benefit from managers just taking time in their busy schedules for a minute or two every day to think about an instant when they were led by assumptions rather than knowledge and what impact that had on the interaction. This helps to generate more awareness on the power of assumptions.
Womenetics: Tell us about some of your key findings on the topic of gender composition of teams and innovation.
Kelan: In a research project we conducted at London Business School, we were interested in which team composition in regards to gender is optimal if one aims for innovation. Previous research has always presumed that 30 percent of either gender is a tipping point, but we found that actually the innovation indicators that were used to assess innovation were at optimal levels when there were 50 percent men and 50 percent women in teams. This is powerful material for organizations because it provides an interesting angle on the business case for gender equality.
Womenetics: You have a fascinating background. What research findings or life experiences have had the greatest impression on your career?
Kelan: One of the research findings I discussed in my book “Performing Gender at Work” is that women often tell their biographies as being due to luck and coincidence. This gives others the impression that women are not self-directed agents but passive recipients of their career. It reproduces stereotypes.
I was once telling my career narrative to a senior colleague and friend, and she just told me “sometimes we need to learn from our own research.” I had told my career narrative as being due to luck and coincidence and thereby inadvertently reproduced what I found in my research. This shows that even if you spend your life researching gender and inclusion in the workplace, it does not mean that we can navigate the central issues any better.
Womenetics: What are you currently working on?
Kelan: I am currently working on three research projects. First, I am writing a book on developing Millennial women as leaders. It will be published at the end of 2012. Second, I am conducting interviews with CEOs who have signed the Women’s Empowerment Principles -- a set of principles developed through collaboration between UN Women and the UN Global Compact. The aim is to explore how CEOs support gender equality, and why leadership from the top is so important to move the needle on gender equality. Third, I am involved in research with two colleagues on gender on corporate boards of directors, which explores the Norwegian and UK situation.
Womenetics: Where do you find inspiration?
Kelan: I am influenced by what I learn from people I meet on a daily basis – practitioners in organizations, students, people I meet on planes. You can learn so much from others. I normally take what I learn from them and then design research studies around it. The research design process is rather solitary, as is writing, and I prefer to do that in places that are inspiring and vibrant. The idea for the current CEO study on support for gender equality, for instance, was envisioned while sitting on a balcony overlooking Istanbul. Istanbul is one of those places that is truly vibrant and inspiring.
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Heather Burke has more than eight years experience working with partners in the public and private sectors to promote women’s empowerment and develop innovative investment strategies for community development. She has worked in 12 countries on initiatives spanning women's and girls’ leadership, education, income generation, social entrepreneurship, public health, food security, political participation, and environmental conservation. She is a social venture consultant based outside of Washington, D.C.