There’s no sexism here right?

Change & Organisation Development

by Sophy Pern

08 March, 2022

“On a vu une jolie demoiselle…”

So started the day. “We saw a pretty girl.”

It’s been a long time coming. A company going through a radical transformation – a real one – where the way they work together, talk to each other, share information and make decisions is actually visibly changing. Driven of course by business imperatives, and also by a new CEO who really does want to do things differently.

Who is a great leader in many ways. Who is brave enough to try new things and new ways of working – even though he has worked in the organisation his whole career. Who has a clear sense of the future of the business, and listens to his team. Who has deliberately sought out different external perspectives, as well as paying attention to the organisation’s history and existing culture.

He is creating a leadership team that meets, shares information and makes decisions together, where before there were 15 individuals who met once a month to have information given to them. This is a team where senior leaders are collaborating in ways they didn’t in the past, when the organisation was much more siloed, and the decision making process was much simpler: the most senior person decided. Simple.

The organisation has gone through not one but two participatory exercises; one to decide on a strategy and the other to come up with new brand positioning. A really exciting new brand positioning which is a change of direction, and is both credible and aspirational.

This new branding was being shared with a key group of managers today, so they could start to share it with their teams. Again – in the spirit of co-construction.

The theory and the practices I’ve spent nigh on 20 years studying and perfecting are being called into play. I am making a difference. It has the potential to be a great case study.

So why am I banging on about gender and sexism (again), I hear you ask? Why am I so narked at being described as a ‘jolie demoiselle’?

And what does this have to do with change and organisational development?

Professor of Management Joyce Fletcher talks about disappearing acts. They are things that women do that are necessary to the functioning of an organisation – and, I would argue,  become even more essential in the context of an organisation that is changing.

They fall into 4 categories:

1) Preserving: taking responsibility for the whole in order to preserve the life and well-being of the project;
2) Mutual empowering: enacting an expanding definition of outcome to include outcomes embedded in others such as increased knowledge or competence;
3) Self-achieving: using relational skills to enhance the ability to achieve goals; and;
4) Creating team: creating background conditions in which group life can flourish and the feeling of a team can be experienced.

The key insight from Fletcher though is that women do these essential things – and those same things are then ‘disappeared.’

Neither women nor men recognise what was done, the time that it took, or its importance for the well-being and health of the organisation.

I would argue that in a time of organisational change, there is an even more pressing need for the above: enabling group life, taking responsibility for the whole, enabling others to deliver are all critical ingredients for successful organisational change. That is why I do these things.

It’s not because I am nice.

Trust me – I am not. I just want the job done.

A few things I have done in the last 4 weeks that fall into these categories include agreeing to be here today for this brand launch in the first place. When the conversation came up about the need to prepare the senior managers for this day, there was a heated conversation among the directors about who would actually facilitate the day. I had stated a number of times that I would not be there – having travelled every week out of the last three months I was really keen to have a full week at home. As tempers frayed, I stepped in and said I’d be there. Fletcher would categorise this as focusing on task – extending job beyond defined boundaries and doing ‘whatever it takes.’ Then I spent four hours preparing an operations director who lacks the presentation skills to present the new brand to his team of senior managers. Aside from pulling together the materials for him, myself and another (senior) woman spent two hours ensuring that he understood the work that had taken place. I spent another two hours briefing him on it. Tell me the last time you saw two men spending two hours trying to ensure that a female senior leader will look good in front of their team? It’s a classic mutual empowering move: giving help without making the receiver feel guilty or inadequate.

So when I walked in today to spend the day with a group of 13 senior managers, who just happened to all be male, I wasn’t feeling like a ‘jolie demoiselle.’ I was feeling a sense of professional responsibility for the organisation. For the transformation that the CEO is trying to bring about. For the operations director. For the 13 senior managers in the room who will be asked to go and engage their teams differently from the past.

Over lunch we talked about great customer experiences we had had. I told them that on a recent flight, I’d been invited by the pilot to come into the cockpit for the landing and that it had been a completely different experience to seeing things from the passenger window. “He was flirting with you!” came the reply. (Probably true, thinks the cynic in me)

In conversation, we talked about what they might need in order to run good sessions with their teams. I said that if they wanted someone could run the sessions with them. “Are you available?” came the question. With a wink and a knowing laugh. Oh how we all laughed.

And here is the pattern – I have been here before. We get to the end of the day, and I’ve established some form of professional respect and working relationship. I’ve disagreed with them on some things and challenged them on others, and generally I’ve made a good amount of sense. We shake hands and say goodbye, and there is some comment along the lines of “I hope you didn’t mind our teasing?”

Well actually I did. It’s not big, it’s not clever and it’s not funny. And there were 13 of you. And there was one of me – and you did your level best to put me in the ‘jolie demoiselle’ box.

The ‘jolie demoiselle’ box is not a place I can help you from.

Because I, like all of us, I need to be seen and recognised for who I am (an OD consultant with over 20 years professional experience behind me, among other things) and the contribution I make to the effectiveness and success of the organisation and the individuals inside it.

And just as importantly, because this organisation will not shift and grow without some more of the type of behaviour and skills that I, and that women more typically, bring.

If all that is remembered from my work today is a ‘jolie demoiselle,’ then I too have been disappeared, and I have little hope that real organisational change can happen.

Fletcher, J. (1999). Disappearing Acts. Cambridge, Mass, USA: The MIT press.

There’s no sexism here right?

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