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Historically, patriarchal and colonial influences have heavily contributed to the exclusion of women and other minority groups from the professional sphere. It is enticing, and to a certain extent still appropriate, to attribute the view that women are the ‘forgotten voices’ of OD to such influences. This was certainly my own opinion before my research for this blog. Now, however, research has led me to believe that there is a more nuanced interpretation of this erasure which does not allocate gender barriers as the sole factor affecting women’s place in OD. Instead, I believe that the lingering patriarchal and colonial systems in organisations that bind women and other minorities are exasperated by a greater challenge facing OD – the ambiguity surrounding it.  

This new line of thinking has been informed by interviews with the following Roffey Park Institute MSc in People and OD Students – Li Zhang, Lisa Billard, Irena Pericin, and Christina Matlhaga, alongside further independent research, and discussions with renowned figures in OD and upcoming keynote speakers at Roffey Park Institute’s OD Conference, such as Gervase Bushe and Linda Holbeche

Women in OD – the ‘Forgotten Voices’ 

Women are commonly referred to as the ‘Forgotten Voices’ of OD, despite the percentage of women publishing in the practice growing from 2% in 1985-1991 to 43% in 2015. Subsequentially, there have been numerous historically influential women in the field. These include but are not limited to Edie Seashore, Barbara Bunker, Billie Albain, Elsie Y Cross, Katheleen Dannemiller, Kalell Jamison, Mikki Ritvo, and Alice Sargent. In recent years, there has been the hugely influential and revered Mee-yan Cheung who sadly passed away last year, Linda Holbeche and perhaps one day the MSc students we interviewed will have carved out their legacy.

Research conducted into if and how gender may impact consultancy has proven that for “nine out of ten areas studied which were significantly affected by gender (including ratings of participant learning, emotional involvement, verbal participation, and conference facilitation) results favoured women.” I believe that this success may be attributed to the fact that women approach consultancy more holistically and with a gentler approach. In fact, Christina Matlhaga told us that she “always perceived [her] role to be bringing the softer side of things without losing focus of what the business is all about.” She emphasised that we don’t have to be harsh on people to achieve results.  

If to be successful, OD must value “empowerment, collaboration, open communication, ownership, and concern for human dignity,” through dialogic methods then, of course, women will be more successful. The historical and patriarchal stereotype that once confined women to the domestic sphere, branding them to be too ‘soft’ for the demanding world of work has now enabled women to become successful consultants. Traits such as gentleness, compassion, patience, and being motherly find harmony with OD because it is a practice that values a holistic and human approach that values individuals.  

Yet, despite this harmony which could be argued to have been orchestrated by the patriarchy, women and their contributions to the world of OD, are largely overlooked. Why?  

Traditional spaces  

This erasure of women from the OD sphere can largely be attributed to the traditional, non-inclusive structure of work organisations. This exclusion is not limited to just women, nor is it found just in the world of OD. It is a challenge society must overcome to make all workplaces intersectional.  

Historically, in the Western world, it was largely expected that a woman’s role was to stay at home and rule the domestic sphere. This perception of women was disrupted by the introduction of the contraception pill in 1961. This became the harbinger of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the United Kingdom and across the pond as the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964

Kathryn Kaplan, an Organisational Development consultant in healthcare and educator, and coach in women’s leadership, conducted a series of interviews with women who joined the consultancy practice during this time. She concluded that although these women brought their social consciousness to their roles “just having more women at work and in leadership positions does not guarantee equity and social justice.” 

Traditional patriarchal workspaces thrust numerous disadvantages onto working women, which many women still experience today. These include but are not limited to unequal pay, sexual harassment, lack of recognition, and imposter syndrome. It could be viewed that these traditional structures don’t provide space for women.  

Imposter Syndrome 

A symptom of non-inclusive workplaces is imposter syndrome. A KPMG study found that 85% of women believe that they “commonly experience,” imposter syndrome and that 74% believe that their male counterparts do not experience the same feelings of self-doubt.  

Initially, I believed that imposter syndrome arose from women believing that they were inadequate for jobs that were traditionally reserved for men. However, Amanda Khong’s intriguing article, ‘Imposter Syndrome is Sexist, Actually: Embracing Your Feelings as Protest,’ countered my surface-level analysis. Khong states that “imposter syndrome is a feeling that people get when they participate in systems that are not welcoming to them.”  

Like many ideologies, organisational development, unfortunately, has patriarchal influences baked into it because workplace systems did not account for women. Lisa Billard told us that OD history books have “very little representation,” of women. Li Zhang expanded on this, explaining that “the traditional theories that still underpin OD today come from a relatively exclusive set of founders.”  

Confident in my assessment that imposter syndrome was the main contributor to the silencing of women within OD, I asked Li Zhang if she agreed, and her response shocked me. She said yes, but not just exclusively to women. This changed my perception of what may be silencing women in OD. 

The wider problem 

Li Zhang expanded, telling us that there was “a lack of urgency” amongst women to become relevant within OD. I was shocked – I couldn’t reconcile this with my own drive to push against patriarchal perceptions of women in the workplace! 

It was not until we had the pleasure of interviewing the renowned Gervase Bushe that I understood Li Zang’s point. Gervase explained that OD is shrouded in mystery because of the lack of a certification process in the profession, which enables those with no qualifications or experience to proclaim themselves as experts.  

“I run into this all the time,” Gervase told us, “Companies would create a director of organisation development who knows nothing about organisation development.” This reduced the credibility of OD and client trust in the practice. “So, over time, it just really made the whole thing fuzzy for people unless you were an OD person,” Gervase concluded.  

Li Zhang’s view echoed Gervase’s story. She told us that referencing OD to some clients won’t add any value, and if she were to recommend other tools like executive coaching then she “would arguably get more clients and do more meaningful work.” 

Following these conversations, I began to ask myself; how could women feel confident enough in their competencies – who are statistically more likely to self-criticise – to take ownership in a field that is still so mysterious? How can we expect them to claim expertise now in a field when its relevance and usefulness are debated? The ambiguity surrounding OD as a concept exasperates the struggles women face within the field and the workplace.  

What is next for women in OD? 

So, the question remains – how do we move women from the periphery of OD to the centre?  

We must develop greater clarity surrounding OD to help others understand what it is and how it can benefit them and their organisations. If we reduce the ambiguity around OD, hopefully, we can increase the number of people crediting their work as OD because its value has been acknowledged.  

Moreover, what can women do as a group to increase their presence in the OD world? One thing is to continue to pursue intersectional equity in the workplace. Other advice from the previous two generates of female OD consultants obtained by Kaplan includes maintaining strong relationships with other women but not competing with one another, “investing in creating good working partnerships with internal and external people,” and “challenge assumptions and group thoughts, but do so with a light touch and never make anyone look bad, wrong, or stupid.” 

When I asked Irina Pericin, what advice would she have for women wanting to enter the OD space, she said, “Just do it. Reading is not enough, get out there and try it.” It is this bold and brave mindset that we must encourage if we are to see women at the forefront of OD, now and in the future. Most importantly, the older generation of women urges younger women to write and publish so that their voices are not forgotten.  

It is the duty of researching organisations like Roffey Park Institute to provide a platform for women and their voices – much like how Linda Holbeche and Shelly Hossain are keynote speakers at our upcoming OD Conference. Join us to continue the ever-evolving debates that surround OD this October.

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