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Highly-skilled women, career progression and respectable femininity


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Increasing numbers of women are entering higher education and professional employment in South Asian countries. However they remain significantly under-represented in senior positions. In Sri Lanka, women comprise over 60% of the total professional workforce but they account for less than 20% of all senior officials. In this article I introduce an implicit, oblivious but powerful barrier which significantly constrains highly skilled women’s career progression – respectable femininity. 

Respectable femininity is a gendered construct associated with the pre-twentieth century. Respectable women dressed modestly, demonstrated self-restraint, were sober, well-mannered, dutiful mothers and confined themselves to mainly private spaces. The few women who entered the labour market had to justify their presence in the public sphere in terms of fulfilling important nurturing duties. In contemporary society, women’s presence in the public sphere is taken for granted. In line with diversity and talent management agendas, even traditionally male dominated occupations specifically target women workers. 

However notions of respectable femininity are still present in a more implicit form operating through the ideological regulation of women’s appearance and conduct. Women are welcome to the world of work, but they are expected to adhere to gendered ideals of appropriateness exercising just the ‘right’ amount of freedom for women, conforming to ‘appropriate’ sexual behaviours and striking a balance between work and family. Adherence to such notions of good behaviour is vital to win respect from colleagues and superiors and thus crucial for women’s survival in organisations.

Problematically however, notions of respectability significantly constrains women’s career agency – in particular their capacity to network and manage impressions. Because excessive interaction with casual male acquaintances can be misinterpreted as inappropriate behaviour and lead to rumours in the workplace, many early and mid-career women in South Asia network cautiously and selectively. Given that weak ties in social networks are vital for developing a career in a country like Sri Lanka, providing incumbents access to important job related information and opportunities, cautious and selective networking is a significant career impediment. On a similar vein, many highly skilled women workers limit afterhours socialising with colleagues and clients, because frequent drinking and interaction with men in the nightscape is not considered respectable. This again is a significant career constraint because informal socialising is a crucial career building activity for particularly early careerists, presenting them with opportunities to build rapport and make their achievements known to senior organisational stakeholders. Women workers who limit engagement in the organisation’s after-hours agenda are often unable to demonstrate their sense of citizenship to important organisational stakeholders and/or build relationships with them to secure their sponsorship – key criteria for career progression. With regard to impression management, women are often hesitant to self-promote their selves and disclose their desire for upward progression because respectable women are not expected to attract excessive attention to their selves and they are rarely materialistic and almost never confrontational. Thus notions of respectability work as a powerful self-disciplinary mechanism to regulate women’s professional behaviour and constrain them from making their potential and desire for leadership visible. As a result, many high potential female candidates arguably go unnoticed for senior positions, or are assumed to not desire upward progression. 

Significantly, respectability for women involves demonstrating relational orientation. Although employers in South Asia expect women workers to be dedicated to their work, they also expect them to desire balance to fulfil their family obligations. Good women are individuals who fulfil their relational responsibilities to all concerned. From this perspective, female employees who demonstrate their profound commitment to balancing work and family are accorded respect by colleagues and superiors, while those who present themselves as ‘too careeristic’ are often reprimanded for neglecting their core priorities and/or are perceived as highly self-centred individuals. 

Thus many highly skilled women workers find themselves in a double bind situation. They need to highlight their desire for balance to be socially accepted in the organisational sphere, but ‘balance’ can also be used as a convenient excuse to keep women out of senior positions. Indeed gatekeepers are often reluctant to offer female candidates key positions because they perceive little scope for balancing job responsibilities with their domestic lives. From this perspective, showing one’s commitment to balance is a career suicide for women, although they are also somewhat paradoxically expected to do this. Thus domestic responsibilities become more of an ideological barrier for women rather simply a practical barrier.

In sum respectable behaviour is vital for women to gain social acceptance in the organisational sphere in especially South Asian countries, but it also significantly constrains their career progression. But how do professional women respond to this paradoxical imperative? Most women never explicitly acknowledge this paradox, choosing instead to manoeuvre around notions of respectable femininity through a combination of balance and restraint, and ignore the accompanying career compromises. In other words, they scrutinise and self-discipline their own selves to ensure they are seen as acceptable and legitimate within prevailing prescriptions and significantly disadvantage their careers in the process. From the organisational side, managers and bosses actively support and encourage women’s manoeuvring, implicitly according to social credit to individuals who do this skilfully.

Some women appeal to established, non-sexual gender roles to network and build relationships in the workplace in a respectable manner. They position themselves as daughters and sisters in their interactions with male colleagues and/or play out these roles when male colleagues position them in this way. While this reduces allegations of unrespectable behaviour, it is important to note that patriarchal relations at work are not only problematic from a gender equality point of view, but they can also constrain women from being nominated for leadership positions.  Indeed ‘daughters’ and ‘sisters’ who need guidance and care, might not be seen as the most promising senior management candidates.

It is notable that only few women dare to challenge prevailing ideologies of respectable behaviour in the organisational sphere. This might be because they are closely scrutinised and policed by their fellow female counterparts and often ridiculed and marginalised when they are seen as occupying a challenging position. Studies have shown how senior women go out of their way to shun junior counterparts who breach notions of respectable behaviour and/or advise them to get their act together. Through such active intra-gender policing, women workers collectively reproduce the implicit, prescriptive gender stereotype which significantly constrains their careers and thereby maintain the extant gender order in their organisation. 

So what can organisations do to address this situation? In line with diversity agendas, many contemporary organisations in South Asia actively seek to increase the representation of female candidates through means such as quota systems and/or flexible working options. However these are not effective solutions for powerful deep level gender stereotypes which are often oblivious to all concerned. To address the paradoxical demands imposed by respectable femininity, organisations need to raise awareness of this prescriptive gender stereotype and encourage employees to talk about gender issues for which straightforward solutions may not exist.  

Discussion of complicated gender issues at grass root level prevents these issues from going unnoticed. Furthermore it encourages reflexivity at each level – Am I being judgmental? Am I making a gendered assumption? Am I witnessing respectable manoeuvring and encouraging it? Is there a career compromise involved in the way I present myself? 

Line managers should also actively think about how they can, within their own team, provide a micro environment free of gendered judgement, rumours, humour etc. which does not make women feel the need to engage in respectable manoeuvring. Instead managers should actively encourage their female staff to challenge gendered preconceptions and support them to do this. Here the role of senior women managers is particularly important. Senior women are often the moral guardians of respectable femininity and they have a significant role to play in initiating change. Indeed they should be role models to promote alternative femininities in the workplace and take it upon themselves to support their junior counterparts to challenge rather than ensuring their conformance. 

Despite the collectiveness charactering South Asian culture, in organisational settings, women rarely operate as a collective. I argue that collective organisation and collective voice is crucial to address gender inequality in work settings. Women should stand together with one another and work together to change the gendered social order.



(The writer Dr. Dulini Fernando (BSc London School of Economics, BSc Lancaster, MSc London School of Economics and PhD Loughborough) is an Associate Professor at the Warwick Business School, University of Warwick UK. Dulini researches on highly skilled work and careers focusing on understanding(a) how organisations can attract and retain highly skilled workers and facilitate their career development and (b) how highly skilled individuals can navigate barriers and strategically utilise resources to achieve career success. Her research on careers in technology and finance, careers in the BPO sector and careers of women workers has been published in world leading academic journals. Dulini consults for numerous organisations in the UK using in-depth qualitative research to solve organisational problems and create empowered culturally sensitive work environments. She also undertakes career coaching for high potential employees and organisational training on an array of HR topics. The writer could be reached via email dulini.fernando@wbs.ac.uk.) 


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