The future is female? A re-traditionalisation of gender

March 3, 2011


Ruth Simpson is professor in management at Brunel Business School in West London and founding member of the Centre for Research in Emotion Work and Employment Studies. The opinions expressed are her own. Thomson Reuters is hosting a live blog for the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2011.

Are we in a post-feminist era or are conventional images of masculinity and femininity re-surfacing in society? I argue that rather than gender disadvantage being a thing of the past, as captured in understandings of post-feminism, gender is becoming more entrenched. In fact post-feminism itself – the belief that sexism is over – has allowed renewed disadvantage to emerge.

Post-feminism can be identified in a range of social trends. It can be seen in representations, common in the media, of the “Future is Female” celebrating the supposed assets that women bring into organizations. Women are thus seen to be the new “winners” – bringing crucial “emotional skills” to an economy characterised by attention to customer service and to “modern” organizations that are based on managing horizontal relationships rather than vertical ones and on a need for team-working rather than old-fashioned command and control.

Women are seen to have the right skills and mindset for this new working environment – to be adept at listening and communication, to be risk-aware rather than risk-taking and to be charismatic and visionary leaders. These celebratory visions are associated with Generation Y – the younger generation born after 1977 and who are just entering or who have recently enrolled in the labour market.

Members of this generation are confident, independent and seek challenging enjoyable work as well as time for play. They believe they can author their own lives through the choices they make, have a faith in meritocracy and, in terms of gender, believe that discrimination is a thing of the past.

The glass ceiling has been broken and feminism is an issue for their parents’ generation, not their own, with young women, particularly in the context of education, outperforming men. But a post-feminist faith in meritocracy and choice may mean we have become blind to issues of gender so that a new traditionalisation has crept in. A feminist consciousness has been replaced by a belief in merit, empowerment and choice. But notions of merit are not gender free.

The criteria on which decisions are based (e.g. around skills, experience) reflect normative male experiences and the normative male career. Measures that are applied to both men and women overwhelmingly concern the outputs of an ambitious, single-minded young man unencumbered by family responsibilities and with an uninterrupted career.

On this basis, women are encouraged to interpret gender based disadvantage they encounter and experience or the inequalities they observe elsewhere as a matter of individual deficiency. The organization is meritocratic so discrimination is not possible and they themselves must be to blame.

Equally, unequal outcomes are viewed as a result of the personal choices women have made. Women may choose to step down from a senior role, work part-time or leave an organization.

Women are in the minority in senior positions, not because of patriarchal structures, but because they have other preferences and have not “chosen” to enter a management career. But as with merit, choices are not neutral constructs. They reflect the challenges and difficulties women face from marginalisation at work to the problem of combining family with career.

They are made within specific power relations, containing their own culture, history and persuasive effects. Choices are not that “personal”, and are, accordingly, rarely free. A new form of sexism has crept in, concealed within powerful discourses of meritocracy and choice as guarantors of equal outcomes.

For example, despite the so-called “feminisation” thesis that suggests women have the right skills and mindset for the modern organisation, there is growing evidence that work has become “re-masculinised”. This can be seen in the rise of more macho values and practices at work – with recent reports of “excessive masculinity” linked to the financial crisis (referred to in one report as “masculinity run amok”).

An increasingly traditional orientation can be identified in the “pinkification” of young girls,assisted by aggressive marketing, whereby young girls inhabit a world that is almost entirely pink. Traditionalisation can be seen in the mainstreaming of pornography under the mantle of personal choice – and in the absence of a countervailing feminist voice as well as in the pressure to conform to bodily representations of a feminine ideal.

In short, while feminism has been relegated to the past, sexism continues and has perhaps become more entrenched.

Picture Credit: A trader in inflation swaps works at BGC Partner’s offices in the Canary Wharf financial district, in London January 20, 2009. REUTERS/Stephen Hird

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