Tackling ‘the second generation of gender discrimination’

Men and women graphic


Dr Savita Kumra and Dr Simonetta Manfredi talk about the barriers preventing women in business from rising to the top.

The issue of gender in organisations has attracted much attention and debate over a number of years. More recently it has been brought into sharp focus by the debate about the under-representation of women on corporate boards and the proposal by the European Commissioner, Viviane Reding, to introduce legislation on quotas to address this gender deficit.

Some progress however, has been made with women participating in organisational life in greater numbers and at more senior levels than has been historically the case. According to the 2011 ‘Sex and Power Report’ published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), women comprised 22.2% of members of parliament in 2011 compared with 18.1% in 2003. They constituted 17.4% of members of Cabinet, compared with 23.8% in 2003.

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In business, 12.5% of Directors (executive and non-executive) in FTSE 100 companies were women, up from 8.6% in 2003 and 9.5% of editors of national newspapers were women in 2011, compared with 9.1% in 2003. The report describes the progress of women to positions of authority in Britain as “tortuously slow”. It is evident from the statistics that progress is not even – it waxes and wanes or even reverses in some areas. The report explains that women are on a level pegging with men in their twenties, but several years later a very different picture emerges. Many have disappeared from the paid workforce “or remain trapped in the ‘marzipan layer’ below senior management, leaving the higher ranks to be dominated by men”.

Given these observable differences in organisational outcomes between men and women, we want to focus on organisations and the way in which their processes and practices systematically work to produce gender inequities. We believe it is essential that organisational work cultures and practices which appear superficially neutral, but result in differences in experience and treatment between men and women are challenged. In contrast to first generation gender discrimination which typically involved intentional acts of discrimination, second generation gender issues appear objectively based and to contain no intentional bias.


Examples, of such processes would include issues related to advancement and how decisions about promotion are made. In her work examining the promotion to partner process in a consulting firm, Savita Kumra has found that women are not promoted to these positions as frequently as their male peers because of a masculine work culture, requiring those seeking future promotion to behave in ways similar to those who have been promoted in the past. Given that senior management in the firm is male-dominated, this is much more problematic for women who find the model of success identified in the firm much more challenging to comply with.

Issues they struggled with included overt displays of ambition, active self-promotion and issues in respect of networking and out of hours socialising. The study revealed that talented, ambitious women were having their contributions overlooked because the culture of the firm was not sufficiently reflexive to recognise the value they bring unless it is presented in expected and accepted ways.

Another key issue for working women with caring responsibilities is around work-life balance. Although flexible working is now widely available in many workplaces, working reduced hours can still hinder women’s career prospects. Simonetta Manfredi found in her research that women working part time are often overlooked for career opportunities and that there is still a widespread belief among many managers that people can only work in senior roles on a full-time basis.

These studies show how the ‘second generation of discrimination’ is grounded in organisational practices and that in order to challenge these it is necessary to focus intervention at the level of organisational culture.

*Savita Kumra is a Senior Lecturer at Brunel Business School and Simonetta Manfredi is a Reader in Equality and Diversity Management and Director of the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice at Oxford Brookes University. They won the top prize in the Management & Leadership Textbook category for their book Managing Equality and Diversity: Theory and Practice at the national final of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) Management Book of the Year held last month.

Comments [1]

  • Anonymous says:

    A very interesting read indeed and I would agree with some of the views in this article. I have just launched a report to find out if a Glass Ceiling exists which you may find of interest as well. The findings will form the basis for a report launch in Parliament in May this year.

    Best Wishes,

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