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All jobs in our Centre [are] offered part time.

People didn't have to give a reason, they just would have to say, "This year I want to work three days a week," and then their contract could be extended to take that into account.

Consider this… 


Is it ok for workers to ask for flexible work arrangements? Is there a career penalty if they do? Are meetings scheduled at 7am? Is there a prescribed requirement for having both men and women on an interview panel? What about in the candidate pool? Is someone making sure that advertising material is inclusive? What about the wording of job descriptions? 


All of these questions relate to having a gender diversity supportive culture. A positive gender diversity culture is one in which gender representation improvements are sought at all levels. Further, individuals are valued for their skills, rather than as a representative of their gender. 


Let's talk through some of the ways the questions above show a lack of support for gender diversity. Early morning meetings are an example of indirect gender discrimination because women are less likely to be able to attend such meetings. In the majority of cases, women are still the primary caregivers in families with children, so early morning meetings mean having to source childcare or make alternative arrangements that can be difficult and costly to organize. Similarly, the hiring process itself may appear to be fair, but if women are not finding out about available positions (e.g. if candidate pools are sourced through employment agencies who have predominantly male databases), then gender diversity cannot be adequately addressed. 

What is organisational culture? 


Organisational culture is a difficult term to define. In the academic literature there is some variation about how to define it, but the following definition is one of the most common ones:  

Organisational culture may be defined as the shared basic assumptions, values, and beliefs that characterize a setting and are taught to newcomers as the proper way to think and feel, communicated by the myths and stories people tell about how the organisation came to be the way it is as it solved problems associated with external adaptation and internal integration” [1].  


In essence, organizational culture is the shared and taken-for-granted way that ‘things are done around here’.  For example, a culture that encourages gender diversity might have a norm that all selection panels will have at least one woman included. A less inclusive culture might be one in which male-only selection panels are seen as acceptable. 

An organisational culture helps employees understand expectations about behaviour in the work place (e.g. a strong gender diversity culture means managers are expected to support women as much as men). 

How does organisational culture develop? 


The impact of a chief executive and senior management on culture is clear. What these senior members focus on - for example, where they allocate resources - sends signals about what they think is important. If a CEO states to employees that diversity is desired, then this sends a strong signal about organisational diversity culture.  


Similarly the policies and practices within an organisation will impact culture. Imagine an organisation with a diversity statement as part of its mission versus one that does not even have a diversity policy. The presence (or absence) of this information speaks volumes about the values of an organisation. Similarly, managers who make it clear that diversity is valued versus those who are silent on diversity (or even negative) are signalling the way they think that gender diversity should be managed. Policies and practices - both formal and informal - send clear messages about what is expected. 


Importantly, though, usually just having a diversity policy is not enough on its own to generate a gender inclusive culture. The policy needs to be backed up by the day-to-day behaviours of front-line managers as well as actual work practices. For instance, if a company has a policy of flexible work practices, but has managers who treat workers who ask for flexible work as less committed to their job, then the real organizational culture is not gender friendly [2]. 

Why is organisational culture important? 


According to Scott, Heathcote and Gruman [3] “organisational culture may be key to understanding when organisation will benefit from a diverse employee base”. In other words, the evidence for the relationship between diversity and organisational performance is mixed, and a positive gender inclusive culture may be the key to organisations successfully leveraging a diverse workforce.

Different types of gender cultures or ‘paradigms’ 


An organisations diversity paradigm will inform the diversity policies and ultimately the practices that exist [6]. Recognizing an organisation’s diversity paradigm can help to inform what actions are required to improve diversity culture.  

Thomas and Ely’s [4] seminal work began a discussion about how organisations view diversity. They suggest three distinct diversity paradigms under which organisations operate:  


  • discrimination and fairness;  

  • access and legitimacy;  

  • learning and effectiveness.  


Discrimination and Fairness: If an organisation focuses on equal opportunity compliance, fairness, and equality then they may fall under the discrimination and fairness paradigm. These organisations provide specific programs for women such as mentoring and leadership training. While organisations with this paradigm try to achieve increases in female representation, they ignore gender differences: women are seen as the same as men. These organisations don’t see the benefits of diversity, such as increased creativity or the introduction of new ideas. Women are hired, but if they question the status quo, they are seen as undermining and difficult to work with. Female representation improves, but culture remains an issue. 


Access and Legitimacy: Some organisations accept that diverse people are different. Women are seen as providing access to other women; they know what women want, have access to new markets/clients and create legitimacy for stakeholders seeking gender diversity. These organisations fall under the access and legitimacy paradigm. This paradigm is an improvement over the discrimination and fairness paradigm because organisations take advantage of gender diversity when seeking new opportunities. However, women in these organisations can believe that they are there just for the purpose of creating access to new markets, rather than bringing in a useful skill set. They are pigeonholed into roles where their gender is paramount, rather than their capabilities. 


Learning and Effectiveness: Finally, there are organisations that move beyond either the discrimination and fairness or the access and legitimacy paradigms. These organisations have a learning and effectiveness paradigm, in which they recognise that diversity is more than just compliance/fairness or access to markets. Diversity in these organisations is part of the way the organisation functions; it is incorporated into all aspects of an organisation. It is part of the way individuals think, how they view tasks, products, strategies and so on. These organisations do gain access to new markets, as per the access and legitimacy paradigm, but they also encourage new ideas that emerge within a diverse group. 


An additional paradigm called the resistance perspective has been suggested by Dass and Parker [5]. In this paradigm, calls for diversity are either ignored, treated as irrelevant, or seen as a threat to the organisation. Organisations may resist calls to change, try to avoid change, or even defy such calls. Any actual responses are reactive. 

Developing a more positive gender culture 


How does an organisation transform into one with a learning and effectiveness paradigm? 


According to Thomas and Ely [4]: 


  1. Leaders must understand that a diverse workforce will embody different perspectives and approaches to work, and must truly value variety of opinion and insight. 

  2. Leaders must recognize both the learning opportunities and the challenges that the expression of different perspectives presents for an organisation.  

  3. The organisational culture must create an expectation of high standards of performance from everyone.  

  4. The organisational culture must stimulate personal development.  

  5. The organisational culture must encourage openness.  

  6. The organisational culture must make workers feel valued.  

  7. The organisation must have a well-articulated and widely understood mission.  

  8. The organisation must have a relatively egalitarian, non- bureaucratic structure. 


It is unrealistic to expect that all eight of these conditions will be met at once, or that these will be easily achieved. Organisations will need to take a systemic and strategic approach. Diversity should be incorporated into existing systems and become an integral part of core activities [5]. For example, reward systems should be linked to diversity outcomes, such as retention.  


There is research that suggests women will overcome barriers once they reach a critical mass. It is true that gender salience (e.g. a single woman who raises an issue can be seen as disruptive due to being female) reduces once female representation reaches a critical mass [7]. However, structural barriers (see 2nd generation gender bias) are still likely to exist within organisations.


Helitzer et al. [8] found that critical actors are also needed for women to be able to overcome these structural barriers. In other words, organisations need “gender diversity champions”. These are individuals in positions of power, who are able to lead by example and influence culture, such that it becomes more inclusive. 

Suggested links

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  1. Schneider, B., Ehrhart, M. G., & Macey, W. H. (2013). Organizational Climate and Culture. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 1, 361–388. 

  2. Windscheid, L., Bowes-Sperry, L., Kidder, D. L., Cheung, H. K., Morner, M., & Lievens, F. (2016). Actions speak louder than words: Outsiders’ perceptions of diversity mixed messages. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(9), 1329. 

  3. Scott, K. A., Heathcote, J. M., & Gruman, J. A. (2011). The diverse organization: Finding gold at the end of the rainbow. Human Resource Management, 50, 6, 735–755. 

  4. Thomas, D. A., & Ely, R. J. (1996). Making differences matter: A new paradigm for managing diversity. Harvard Business Review, 74, 5, 79–90. 

  5. Dass, P., & Parker, B. (1999). Strategies for managing human resource diversity: From resistance to learning. Academy of Management Perspectives, 13, 2, 68-80. 

  6. Kulik, C. T. (2014). Working below and above the line: The research-practice gap in diversity management. Human Resources Management Journal, 24, 2, 129-144. doi: 10.1111/1748-8583.12038  

  7. Konrad, A. M., & Kramer, V. W. (2006). How Many Women Do Boards Need ? How Many Women Do Boards Need ? Harvard Business Review, December, 1–2. 

  8. Helitzer, D. L., Newbill, S. L., Cardinali, G., Morahan, P. S., Chang, S., & Magrane, D. (2017). Changing the culture of academic medicine: critical mass or critical actors?. Journal of women's health, 26(5), 540-548. 

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