Gender Power in Organizations

Most classic organizational texts were written from a masculine perspective and failed to analyze the significance of gender, or the relationships among sex, gender, organizations, and power, in any explicit manner (e.g., Hearn & Parkin, 1992). In many contemporary organizational texts gender is increasingly referred to. Yet it is often included in a brief, marginalized, and unanalytic manner (Gherardi, 1995; Green, Parkin, & Hearn, 1997).

In a classic study French and Raven (1959) differentiated between five kinds of power sources: expert, referent, reward, coercive, and legitimate power. Expert power refers to the ability to influence because you possess superior skills or knowledge. Referent power is charismatic power—the ability to get another person to change their behavior. Reward power means the ability to mediate rewards, such as money and promotion, in order to obtain change. Coercive power refers to the ability to give punishment. Legitimate power refers to the right to influence. Wilson (1995) argues that all of these forms of power are perceived as belonging to men, since traditionally men have held most of the power in organizations, have controlled and dominated women and also other men, and thus have been able to maintain power.

An important source of power in organizations is informal power. Informal power often depends on the informal personal contacts one has inside and outside the organization, and refers to the ability to gather information and mobilize resources and support outside official power structures. The amount of informal power one has is influenced by factors such as age, family background, looks, and attractiveness. In order to gain informal power, whom one knows is important (Drennan, 1997).

Access to informal networks of communication and exchange is an important determinant of an individual's power and success in an organization (Auster, 1993; Lips, 1997). Men's and women's informal networks function differently. Women's relative lack of access to informal networks within and outside an organization often limits their influence. For instance, women may have more difficulty in obtaining rewards for their subordinates, which in turn may create a vicious circle where subordinates lose respect for a manager who appears powerless. This diminishes the manager's power (Ragins & Sundstrm, 1989). In addition, lack of access to informal networks can hinder a woman's chances of career advancement and limit access to resources critical to doing her job properly (Travers & Pemberton, 2000).

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