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Web Event 3: Unbinding the Definition of a Woman and its Implications within the Corporate Workplace

ari_hall's picture

What is it to be a woman? Some say it’s biological, others say it’s social, or a combination of the two culminating into an entity of sensitively nurturing, docile domesticity. But what might it look like to not be restrained to such narrowing definitions of womanhood? To unbind the codex of the female essence? Let us for a moment erase woman, not her being or her individual self, but the attributes assigned to her as a woman. She is no longer a she, but a human; uncategorized and unbound by societies stereotypes of how this being should act and present themselves. And in order to do this effectively, as to eliminate the risk of having this newly freed group re-packaged only under another name, we must eliminate the ideology of what it means to be a man. Now there is no man and no woman, just a spectrum of diverse creatures.

However, a world with no dividing gender categories is difficult to imagine at this point. Society is steeped in the belief of a clear separation between the two and what it means to be either, that simply eliminating the terms would not be enough to eliminate the centuries of learned behaviors, assumptions and stereotypes of one gender and the other ingrained within us all. So how do we begin to unbind what it means to be a woman in a place where it is difficult to imagine anything else? Where do we start? I say, it should begin with a shift in practices. One place, with often clear gender borders, to examine is the corporate workplace. This is one arena in which most “women” within it feel the tantalizing suffocation of the glass ceiling, isolation and exclusion from “male” co-workers at social events and find getting their voice heard often as frustrating as opening your mouth to scream and having no sound come out. To penetrate these barriers, and begin to release the woman, certain assumptions about “women” must go.

One major assumption made about the typecast of a woman is that she has children that she is the primary caretaker of or that she is likely to become pregnant. These assumptions are placed on all individuals under the category of woman, without regard to whether they might not have children, do not want children, or have a partner or caretaker at home to watch their children (or children old enough to care for themselves). This assumption drags with it the burden that because of her assumed status as caretaker or possible child bearer, she will need to take leave and after giving birth her work schedule will change and she as a result will be, if not already, less committed and available for work. And the connecting piece to this is the assumption that the male gender does not have the primary responsibility of taking care of children or other obligations or circumstances that might too limit them from devoting 24 hours seven days a week to the office.

But a shift in the way the workplace is run and an elimination of the assumptions we hold about these narrow gender roles may help begin to break down some of the barriers that oppress individuals in the corporate workplace. One structural change that might be able to aid those who need to care for younger children would be incorporating child care services in or near corporate offices. Many services have already been created to assist employees with children, for example La Petite Academy.  La Petite is a child care service organization that is employer-sponsored with locations within “five miles of the workplace” with all the “features and benefits of an on-site version” of daycare. On-site and near-by day care facilities, like La Petite have been able to greatly assist employees in being able to balance their demanding work schedules with their familial responsibilities. And not only do child care facilities aid corporate employees, but they aid the employer as well. One study found that “the institution’s on-site day-care program saved it $138,000 to $232,000 in annual operations costs, due to the reduction in both turnover and absenteeism” because workers no longer have to take off early or take leaves to attend to their children miles from their work site. These services are also said to create an overall less stressed working environment. Therefore, it is with this shift in corporations that could eradicate the assumptions that fall on the female gender and begin to liberate the construction of a woman.

But let us back up a little and consider the assumptions and burdens placed on women who do not have child care responsibilities and may be single. If it is known that a woman has no stereotypically defined “familial” obligations, such as kids and a partner, and a lower expectance of becoming pregnant, then new assumptions are placed on her. It is believed that she must have more time to devout to work; staying longer hours and traveling more for business, because if she has no kids or partner, she must be solely dedicated to her career. If individuals in this situation are not assertive enough to demand leave when appropriate or express their needs it can make way for an abusive power to gain control over them. A boss, or even a co-worker, typically a male, can force them to stay later hours which, besides exhausting an individual, can sometimes lead to sexual abuse. This leads us to another assumption about what a woman is, especially a single woman, which can be harmful.

Women are often looked at as sexual objects, voiceless docile beings subservient to the male, and submissive to his command. This view of woman that some hold, not always but typically and stereotypically men (which we will focus on here), convinces them that they can take advantage of women and because of the “male’s” dominance and power; they believe the woman will submit to them and not speak out about their abuse. There have been several incidents in the corporate workplace in which women have been sexually harassed because of these perceived assumptions.  In the United States among corporate workplaces, one in four women are sexually harassed.                                                                                                               

Harassment often causes stress and anxiety for the victims and can lead to absenteeism, low morale and decreased productivity among other things. So how do we change these assumptions and prevent harassment?

            This is not an easy question but an important one. Many solutions that have been created around this issue include confronting the abuser, reporting it immediately, calling the police and hiring a lawyer. These important and cautionary procedures are helpful however, they place all of the responsibility to avoid harassment on the victim. If one were to unbind the role of a woman, we would place less of the obligation of avoiding and responding to attacks on the woman and instead change the dynamics of the workplace and hold the perpetrators more accountable for their actions. The “guide to avoid harassment” instead of for women would be for men to “avoid harassing”. The stereotypical perpetrator role that befalls the male could be removed if the characteristics of males as dominating, physically powerful and manipulative were to be eliminated and the role of women as submissive and docile was gone, the risk of harassment could lessen.

The other social interactions that would need to take place in the workplace to remove these assumptions about male and female roles would include equaling the balance and execution of power. The glass ceiling is an issue most discussed when mentioning gender inequality within the workplace. This glass ceiling exists for several reasons that all have to do with male domination. Males in corporate work, and often in general, have a tendency to monopolize conversations. Many women are often socialized to be quiet and meek and from a very young age are less likely to speak up in class or be assertive compared to their male counterparts. Sometimes this carries into the workplace, and even when women do assert themselves often they are not taken seriously. And if a woman does not lose her gumption to continue speaking up, she is often viewed as “bitchy” or too aggressive, whereas for the male this behavior is normative. And this “normative” male assertion carries over from the office to social outings.

Women are often kept out of the corporate social sphere which is the space in which most networking and connections are made, often resulting in an easier navigation of the corporate ladder. It is not necessarily that women are not invited to these events, but it is in the conversations that they are often kept out of. Again, males dominate the conversations, women are not taken as seriously as men, and the assertive woman is often considered undesirable to be around. And this causes a disadvantage, because it is often at these events that networking is done which aid in receiving promotions and movement up the corporate ladder. Women already are most likely to hold only “staff and support jobs” that offer little transference into higher positions, and lacking connections makes this severely more difficult. Women have a difficult time gaining recognition in work and in social outings, and thus are kept out of paths that lead to CEO positions. But not only are they kept out because of the lack of recognition they receive, but also because those who have the power to promote them or lead them to jobs with more authority, are usually men that work to keep women out of these positions, whether consciously or not.  The dynamic of a “boys club” exists among those in position to make promotional decisions that maintain the current gender stratification hierarchy. They want people in positions of power to be like them and women do not fit this image.

To begin to break down this conception of woman will consist of a lengthy, but direly needed process. But it simply begins with the eradication of the assumptions and stereotypes of both the “woman” and the “man”. Without these defining traits to label individuals there would be a more equal balance of power, interaction and acceptance. Men in power would see women as capable of leading and would give them the space to voice their opinions and hear them out. Women would not feel out of place speaking out and demanding attention. The nature of the boys club would dissolve and be replaced with an all-inclusive consideration of individuals for positions based on their work ethic and ability. The playing field would start to level out.

To unbind the definition of woman and man is both an internal process of self- reflection and a systematic shift in the way intuitions are run. Assumptions and stereotypes need to be recognized and then broken down and thrown out. A radical reconceptualization of individuals separate from their gender placement has to be made. Facilities and services need to be installed to ensure the fairness of access and opportunity is provided for all individuals. Then, it may be possible to shift this society into a place that bases individuals not on the perception of loose biological and sociological categorizations, but on an individual by individual basis, and it can start in the workplace.








Works Cited

Annis, Barbara. "Are Women Being Excluded?" The Huffington Post., 04 Dec. 2013. Web. 03 Dec. 2013. <>.

Magid, Julie M. "Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Workplace: Legal, Psychological, and Power Issues Affecting Women and Minorities in Business." Google Books. Greenwood Publishing Group, 01 Jan. 2006. Web. 07 Dec. 2013. <>.

Santonocito, Paula. "Single Women in Today’s Workplace." Single Minded Women RSS. SingleMindedWomen, n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2013. <>.

Totin, Mike. "Seven Myths about Women and Work." Seven Myths about Women and Work. N.p., 21 Mar. 2013. Web. 07 Dec. 2013. <>.




Anne Dalke's picture

"A systematic shift in the way intuitions are run"

Just last week, the New York Times ran an article about Wall Street Mothers, Stay @ Home Fathers that speaks quite directly to the sorts of interventions you here imagine…or say are so difficult to imagine (actually? not…start w/ all the thought experiments in feminist science fiction, say the classical texts by Ursula LeGuin). Another (nearly!) local site of re-imagining (that I’m surprised you didn’t draw on here) is Heidi Hartmann’s work (all available in our password protected reading file); see esp.

Heidi Hartmann and Stephen Rose. "Still a Man's Labor Market: The Long-Term Earnings Gap" (February 2004).

Heidi Hartmann, Ariane Hegewisch and Vicky Lovell. "An Economy That Puts Families First: Expanding the Social Contract to Include Family Care." (May 2007).

There’s lots for us to discuss here—how your querying of the "clear gender borders" of the corporate world works as an extension of your two earlier projects about BMC’s representation of women, and more especially, about black women’s hair styles, particularly how they appear in the corporate world. Is this something you want to pursue for your final work in the class? You say, @ the beginning of this essay, that imagining the eradication of the assumptions and stereotypes of both the “woman” and the “man” is "impossible"; but @ the end you say that it is "simple." So I'm confused....

Perhaps the most interesting question for me right now is whether you see an answer to these quandries on an “individual by individual” basis, or an institutional one. How do you understand “individual” outside of socially embedded formations? (Thinking Judith Butler here, and also smiling @ your malapropism about the need for "a systematic shift in the way intuitions are run.")