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«Equality and diversity discourse: a cross-sectoral comparison of organizations in Australia Andrea North-Samardzic PhD Candidate School of ...»

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Equality and diversity discourse: a cross-sectoral

comparison of organizations in Australia

Andrea North-Samardzic

PhD Candidate

School of Organisation & Management

University of New South Wales

Email: andreans@unsw.edu.au


It has been acknowledged that gender discourse in organizations has shifted from

Affirmative Action (AA), to Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO), onto Diversity

Management (Edelman, Fuller and Mara-Drita 2001; Kelly and Dobbin 1998; Liff

1999; Sinclair 2000; Smithson and Stockoe 2005; Strachan Burgess and Sullivan 2004). Edelman et al. (2001), conceptualise this shift as the ‘managerialisation of law’ whereby the rise of diversity rhetoric occurs in tandem with a decline in the popularity of the legally driven principles of AA and EEO, creating a ‘see-saw effect’ (Bacchi 2000). Although this was demonstrated to have occurred in the professional management literature, Edelman, et al., (2001) acknowledge they did not investigate the extent to which this ‘managerialisation’ occurs in organizations. This paper discusses the findings of an ongoing study into gender discourse across different sectors of the economy under Australia’s EEO regulatory framework. It will be argued that although diversity management may have risen in importance, particularly in the private sector, it does not necessarily dominate discourses of gender equity.

This necessitates a contextual understanding of how organisations ‘managerialise’ law and the effect this may have on gender equity outcomes.

Keywords: Gender, AA, EEO, Diversity Management, Equity Law, Organisations Introduction At the time of writing, the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999 (Commonwealth) is under review. This legislation and the associated regulatory framework have undergone critique for its inability to effectively enable the advancement of women in Australian workplaces (see for example Bacchi 2000;

French and Strachan 2007; Thornton 2001). Significant scholarship has been devoted to understanding how organisations interpret and effectively ‘mediate’ their regulatory environments, bridging the sociology of law and the sociology of organisations (Edelman 1992; Edelman, Riggs fuller and Mara-Drita 2001; Kelly and Dobbin 1998;

Suchman and Edelman 1997; Sutton and Dobbin 1996; Sutton, Dobbin, Meyer and Scott 1994). The general consensus from these scholars is that due to certain elements common to regulatory frameworks, namely legal ambiguity, a procedural emphasis and weak enforcement (Edelman, 1992), organisational understandings of the law often differ considerably from the written legislation.

The present study seeks to understand how organisations interpret and potentially mediate the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999 (Commonwealth). According to Edelman, et al. (2001) as organisations interpret the law, their understanding becomes infused with managerial values, conceptualising this shift as the ‘managerialisation of law’, whereby the legal ideals of Affirmative Action (AA) and Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) are replaced in favour of the rhetoric of Diversity Management (DM). Frank Dobbin’s research in particular (see Dobbin and Sutton 1998; Kelly and Dobbin 1998; Sutton, Dobbin, Meyer and Scott

1994) demonstrates the role of human resource professionals in this process.

Therefore, determining the extent to which Australia’s legislation is managerialised has important implications for the rights of workers, as well as highlighting an area of concern for human resource professionals.

Theoretical background There is debate on the extent to which diversity management undermines gender equity. Diversity management’s use of gender-neural and all-encompassing language has been argued to reduce the potential of backlash (Cox 1994; Kramar 1999) and thus can be a more successful tool for advancing gender equity than EEO or ‘women’s issues’ (Sinclair 2000; Smithson and Stockoe 2005). Edelman, et al.

(2001:1590) acknowledge the similar ideals of diversity and AA arguing ‘it decries discrimination and extols inclusiveness. It condemns arbitrariness and supports fairness, discredits segregation and celebrates integration.’ It is therefore possible for organizations to effectively combine competing discourses if an organization is genuinely open to removing inequality (Liff 1999).

However, despite some similarities there are problematic differences. Diversity management is not supported by a legislative or regulatory framework. It can be argued that diversity management lacks the emphasis on power differentials and structural inequalities (Liff 1996; Lorbiecki and Jack 2000; Sinclair 2000) as well as removing the basis for collective action and redress by focusing on individual differences and choices (Kandola and Fullerton 1994). Furthermore, it can dilute societal and organizational responsibilities for providing equal treatment and equal opportunity (Liff and Cameron 1997; Linnehan and Konrad 1999) by supplanting legal categories of employee differences with an approach that equates dimensions based on historical disadvantage with those based on managerial ideas about how to produce an effective and creative workforce (Edelman, et al. 2001). Therefore, diversity management can justify an organization that is predominantly male but diverse on other dimensions.

There is evidence supporting a shift of discourse in Australia away from AA and EEO towards diversity management. Teicher and Spearitt (1996) argue that diversity management is the ‘second generation’ of equal opportunity in Australia, spurred on by business cases for efficiency and competitiveness. Strachan, et. al. (2004) similarly contend that Australia has followed the U.S. agenda of diversity programs effectively replacing AA and EEO programs, with the emphasis of achieving business success. This is believed to problematic as the linguistic shift towards diversity management masks gender issues in the workplace and fails to adequately recognise the historically marginalised position of women in paid employment (Thornton 2001).

This makes status of women within diversity uncertain as the rhetoric of diversity management fails to acknowledge injustice or inequality, thereby placing it outside of the legal realm (Bacchi 2000; Thornton 2001). However, it is uncertain how this has influenced the gender discourse in organizations.

As previously stated, the present study uses Edelman et al.’s (2001: 1592) notion of the ‘managerialisation of law’ whereby ‘conceptions of law may become progressively infused with managerial values as legal ideas move into managerial and organizational arenas,’ to investigate the gender discourse of organizations in response to the Australian legislation The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999 (Commonwealth). The potential for ‘managerialisation’ to occur stems from the ambiguous nature of the legislation. ‘Laws that regulate employment relations tend to set forth broad and ambiguous principles that give organizations wide latitude to construct the meaning of compliance’ (Edelman 1992: 1532). Legislation is constructed in general terms about the way ‘things should be’, whilst allowing organizations to construct their own version of the way ‘things should be around here.’ The understanding of law within organizations is very much a managerial understanding of law; it is an important constraint but not always an important objective (Edelman et al. 2001).

There is significant research devoted to investigating AA, EEO and diversity management in Australian organizations (Burgess, Henderson and Strachan 2005;

French and Strachan 2007; Konrad and Hartmann 2001; Lafferty and Fleming 2000;

White 2003; Sheridan 1995). There is also scholarship examining discourses of gender (Connell 1992; Grace and Lennie 1998) and diversity (Blackmore 2006;

Sinclair 2000) in Australia. However there is less research devoted to bridging these two spheres; that is, using discourse analysis as a means of investigating gender equity in Australian organizations. This study seeks to make a contribution to understanding cross-sectoral differences in discursive responses to the Australian regulatory framework. It also extends the work of Kelly and Dobbin (1998) and Edelman, et al. (2001) by taking an organizational level of analysis to determine the extent to which diversity discourse has overtaken that of AA and EEO in organizations in Australia.

Method Three organizations are used as illustrative case studies: a nonprofit, a university and a private sector financial services organization. Eisenhardt (1989) advocates the use of ‘polar type’ organizations when using a small case sample. As such, it was deemed appropriate to choose organizations that are in different economical sectors as a means of advancing research in the field of gender and diversity. To select cases, organizations that have been recognized as exhibiting ‘best practice’ in gender equity were targeted. Such organizations are found in the pool of previous winners of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency’s Business Achievement Awards which are presented annually to organizations that exhibit best practice for the advancement of women; and the Employer of Choice for Women citation which is also awarded annually to organizations. To preserve anonymity no further information about the sampling will be disclosed.

To explore the contextual variations in organizational discourse, empirical material was collected through interviews. Data collection was undertaken from June 2007 to January 2008. Interview participants were sourced differently according to organizational constraints. Table 1 outlines the different approaches taken and the various pools of respondents.

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Participants included those who were able to speak extensively about policy development and implementation, or their experiences of these policies in action. All individuals wished to remain anonymous. Each interview was recorded and subsequently transcribed. To increase the quality, interviewees reviewed the transcripts and made any necessary changes to ensure the transcript accurately reflected their thoughts and feelings.

The interviews were semi-structured and open-ended, to ensure a degree of comparability but also allow opportunities for interviewees to relay their unique organizational accounts. Interviews lasted from thirty to ninety minutes and conducted face-to-face where possible. As the nonprofit organization spans the entire of Australia, only three interviews were able to take place face-to-face in the Head

Office in Sydney. The semi-structured interview design included several topic areas:

1) their impressions of the state of gender equity in the organization 2) their knowledge of the various policies and programs designed to enable the advancement of women 3) their perceptions of organizational commitment to gender equity d) the impact of the policies and programs designed to support women.

Once verified, each transcript was uploaded into Nvivo for computer-aided qualitative data analysis (Richards 1999). The transcripts were coded according to the use of the terms ‘diversity’, ‘equal employment opportunity’ and ‘affirmative action’ to facilitate content analysis of discourse. The first stage of analysis involved coding only explicit statements to determine how these terms were mobilised and understood by the respondents. The explicit terms coded were ‘AA’ ‘EEO’ and ‘diversity.’ Equal Employment Opportunity’ was recognised as a term whenever the word ‘equal’ or ‘equality’ was used to describe phenomena within the case-study organization. Findings from this first stage of analysis will be discussed.

Findings Table 2 shows the number of times the interviewees explicitly used the terms ‘AA’ ‘EEO’ and ‘diversity’ when discussing their understanding of gender equity in the organization. These terms were employed without the prompting of the interviewer but in response to questions about ‘gender equity.’ Table 2: References to ‘gendered’ discourses

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From this table it can be seen that only members of the private sector organization explicitly used the term ‘diversity’ when discussing gender equity. It was most commonly utilized when referring to their ‘diverse client base’ which necessitates the organization employing people to reflect such diversity. In these instances diversity

was constructed as ‘diversity of sex.’ For example:

‘And well, I mean our client base is diverse, my client base is fund management companies And, you know, I have a number of female clients that don’t all want to, that don’t react well or respond well to, you know, a lot of aggressive chest-thumping men, they don’t want to speak to someone like that.’ This somewhat narrow view of diversity was attributed to the Australian context by one woman manager: ‘Whereas is Australia, I think it’s been to a lesser degree because it’s not considered that it is a significant issue as it relates to race, primarily just gender.’ This ‘diversity of sex’ focus was evident in the examples proffered to illustrate how the organization approaches diversity management such as through mentoring programs for women and highlighting their Employer of Choice status. It was specifically noted by four women that the organization’s Diversity Council is focused mainly on increasing the number of women in certain areas of the organization, particularly in the investment banking arm.

Three individuals noted the organization was trying to broaden its diversity agenda to include other areas, for example internship programs for indigenous Australians.

When asked why the agenda should be broadened, the HR Manager stated that there was resistance by some people in the organization to diversity initiatives as it was considered ‘just a woman’s thing’ and she didn’t want to ‘brand it that way.’ This

shifting of agenda was put down to diversity being:

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