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Leaders love to brag about their corporate culture – how it’s different (and, of course, far better) than that of other organizations. The culture might be competitive, collaborative, innovative, agile, open, questioning – there are a range of variants.

But there’s also a key element of culture that all organizations share, which arguably dominates all corporate cultures. They are all patriarchal.

To raise that – even to use that word – is to rankle some people. But it’s reality: We live in a patriarchal world. It’s like the air we breathe. Patriarchy is thus present, in every organization.

Carol Gilligan, a professor at New York University and author of In A Different Voice, one of the most influential feminist books of our time, joined with research fellow Naomi Snider to look at a fascinating question that serves as the title of their new book: Why does Patriarchy Persist? They’re talking of the world but the question obviously applies to workplaces. And the answer they found – why patriarchy persists – is somewhat unexpected, less about power dynamics and more about the psychological dimension.

First, what exactly is patriarchy? In an interview, Prof. Gilligan says it’s a way of organizing living that’s based on gender – a gender binary, in which some things are deemed masculine and some things feminine. If you step back, she notes, it’s idiotic: “The idea that rationality is somehow masculine and therefore women are somehow by nature irrational, or women are emotional and intuitive as if men weren’t emotional and intuitive. We repeat these distinctions as if somehow it makes sense but it doesn’t.”

More to the point, a lot of our operating premises at work actually carry this thinking buried within them, even in an era where we feel we have transcended patriarchy. It comes up in hiring and promotion, how we share the burden in teams, and how we approach work-life balance. Men find it hard to express vulnerability. They feel compelled – by something deep within them – to be strong, knowledgeable and in control. Women are stuck with having to be caring while they strive to be as productive as the next guy. “It’s idiotic. I have three sons. The idea that they aren’t emotional or intuitive is crazy,” Prof. Gilligan says.

Interestingly, many of the attacks in the past few decades on feminist ideas have insisted that men and women are much the same. And she agrees: “We’re all human beings. Women can think. Men have feelings.” But patriarchy persists: The workplace has been gendered, through patriarchy, to favour masculinity, she says, while the home has been gendered feminine. It may be a question of degree in your workplace, but the stereotypes are deep within us and this gendering, she says, divides everyone from parts of their humanity.

Seeing this cultural overlay allows us to deal with it. In the workplace, we have to give a higher standing to things that have been gendered feminine, such as relationships and emotions. Everyone should be their fullest and deepest self.

A key element to that is maintaining deep relationships with others. The book has a complex look at how a psychology of loss features in patriarchy, with a fear of vulnerability, rejection or betrayal leading people to seek safety in detachment from others. A prominent example is how the patriarchal overlay nudges or forces men to be colder in relationships than they might otherwise be – to not express vulnerability. Is this happening to you, if you’re male? Women, meanwhile, find themselves, in the words of her 1982 best-seller, serving as a different voice, and must silence it, holding back. Is this happening to you if you’re female?

What can we do? Men, Prof. Gilligan says, should be fully human, recognizing the forces that keep them from doing things that expose vulnerability – at the core, she says, the fear they will be seen as girly or gay. Women need to express themselves – what they really think.

Organizational leaders need to recognize that patriarchy persists in their organization and is keeping them from being a place where everyone has a voice and is respected. She points to studies in medicine and airlines that found when communication is open and everyone can contribute – in operating rooms, notably female nurses – there is a better safety record. “There’s a huge cost to the workplace from patriarchy. Good managers know this,” she says. But it has to change, she adds, in a way that men don’t feel their masculinity is being challenged.

Why does patriarchy persist? In some part it’s because we don’t notice it and when we do many of us feel it serves a purpose. But it doesn’t. So it’s time to recognize it’s alive and well in your workplace culture and doing you no good.


  • The number of women on boards in the United States has climbed sharply from 15 per cent of positions in 2016 to 20 per cent, thanks in large measure to a California requiring every public company in the state to appoint at least one woman to their board by the end of this year or face fines, Forbes reports. Illinois passed similar legislation recently.
  • Do women change boards? Recent research suggests having female board members helps temper the overconfidence of male CEOs, improving overall decision making for the company. That fits with studies over the years showing that having women on a board leads to better acquisition and investment decisions and less aggressive risk-taking, four professors report in Harvard Business Review.
  • And some insight on patriarchy in the workplace from a Silicon Valley man who transitioned into being a woman, from Ask a Manager blog: “Before my transition, people assumed I knew what I was talking about. They didn’t talk over me in meetings. They trusted me when I spoke, and they didn’t look to others for confirmation of my ideas. There was a baseline assumption that I was competent and capable. Since my transition, it’s distressingly common for people to talk over me, to look to men for validation of the things I say, to assume that I couldn’t possibly know anything about [technical topic] because I’m a girl. I’ve actually had people tell me, ‘what could you possibly know about that? You’re a girl!’ ”

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