Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999

Challenging Women: Gender, Culture and Organisation

Su Maddock
Sage Publications: London
076191512 (pb); 0761951504 (hb)
14.99 (pb); 38.00 (hb)

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"Challenging Women" is the culmination of a 10 year project by Su Maddock studying women in management. Focusing on several local organisations such as hospitals and education authorities, Maddock looks at the impact of innovative and challenging women managers, both inside and outside of the organisations in which they work. 'Challenging women' are typically those who choose not to accept the status quo which often characterises bureaucratic organisations, but who question inefficient practices and seek to introduce more effective ones. A major obstacle to this is the gender cultures which persist within organisations, and these continue to operate to the detriment of women managers. Maddock's research seeks to determine how organisational change is influenced by challenging women, and what effect gender cultures have on inhibiting that change.

Although Maddock acknowledges that women managers do not share any one management strategy or approach, what they do have in common is an identifiable "holistic and analytical" management style. In particular, it is women managers who recognise the importance of collaborative relationships and are intent upon promoting and sustaining a healthy internal work culture within organisations. The widespread restructuring of organisations, such as the health service and local government in the 1980s, provided a perfect opportunity for these women to exercise their managerial talents. It also provided Maddock with a context through which to appraise the effect of challenging female managers on their attempts to implement change.

The influencing factors which steer a career in a particular direction are obviously very complex. Maddock does mention the obvious restrictions common to women's careers, such as inflexible training schemes and inadequate childcare, but she concentrates more on the individual and organisational culture to explain why women are in particular positions, or not as the case may be. Maddock does a good job of initiating those of us unfamiliar with management speak into a position where we are aware of the mainstream management systems. Throughout, the book is well referenced and well resourced. There are plenty of examples, both local and international, historical and contemporary, to aid understanding and to substantiate Maddock's points.

Maddock looks at management style and agency within organisations; the personal attributes that make certain women managers challenging; the opposition to women managers; as well as identifying strategies used by women to overcome the barriers to change. What her evidence confirms, and something that women have always suspected, is that women are still expected to behave in a certain way. And whether this be in the boardroom or the operating theatre, the point of reference remains the naturally 'caring and nurturing' predisposition innate in all women: "..women's actions were not judged on their individual merits, but as the expected behaviour of all women" (p169). When women start to be more assertive and domineering, or take a lead in meetings, they are seen as threatening. A common male response to this threat is to jeer and mock the individual, often targeting their personal lives for gossip and speculation (p68).

The gender cultures which characterise the working lives of challenging women in organisations are not necessarily obvious or conscious, which makes it a more difficult problem to address. It is often an ongoing battle, day to day for women to transgress these cultures to function effectively. Many women have developed their own strategies, which suit their own modes of working and the environment in which they function. What is interesting in Maddock's empirical study is the persvasiveness of gender cultures, which are evident in the majority of organisations. The comments and experiences of women particular to one institution were frequently echoed in other, seemingly diverse, companies. Maddock has succeeded in confirming the widespread existence of gender cultures and their effect on women's careers and implementing change within organisations. The end result is a testimony to those challenging women who persevered despite the ongoing prejudice against them.

It is evident that Maddock has interviewed many women managers, in several different contexts and using various formats. There are lots of direct quotes from the participants in her study, and their is an occasional reference to a group of interviewees. Some of the results of particular case studies are positioned under titles such as, 'Women in Medicine' or 'Local Government', which makes it very clear where the information came from. But there are lots of captions and interview extracts that are not attributed, and it is not always clear who said them and what area they worked in. Disappointingly, the reader is not given any details of the research process. For instance, we are not given any information on the number of women interviewed, the particular format that the interviews took, or, in the majority of cases, for which organisation the women actually worked. It may be that Maddock has chosen to exclude certain information due to editorial constraints, concentrating more on the results of the study as opposed to its process. Or perhaps the specifics of these women manager's working lives were not as important as the shared effect of working within gendered cultures. Whatever the reason, the effect is that the reader's own reflexivity is compromised and comparative reference to similar studies can therefore only be made with caution.

The content of the book is well organised. The chapters provide a logical order, and Maddock makes a good job of explaining specialist concepts without reducing the calibre of the content. The chapters are further divided with plenty of headings and bullet points. This is helpful in identifying the key ideas, especially if the subject is not one the reader is particularly familiar with. The subject of the book, at a time when we regularly hear about 'the crisis in masculinities', is very topical, and effectively reinforces, through empirical evidence, the assumed conviction that gender cultures remain widespread. Su Maddock is an eloquent writer, and not only is this book full of interesting material, it is also a pleasure to read. It should be compulsory reading for all those interested in the subtitles of women's ongoing oppression and what 'Challenging Women are doing to resist it. However, the publisher should note that there are a large number of typing errors which do detract from the finished product slightly.

Rachel Lewis
University of Manchester

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999