Gendered Organisations: How Organisational Processes Contribute To Gender Inequality

This case study was written by Andrea Wessendorf, a first year PhD  candidate at the Cambridge Judge Business School . Her research looks into the ways in which organisations contribute to the recreation of patterned social inequality.


In 1965, CEOs earned 20 times as much as workers within the same organisation[1]. In 2013, this divide has almost increased fifteenfold: CEOs earned 296 times as much as the workers in the same organisation.

Organisations distribute resources. In general, we assume that hard work will pay off. The top jobs in our society – that is the jobs with the most power, status and remuneration – are allocated to whoever has the most talent and put in the most effort. This believe diverts our attention away from other explanations. After all, organisations are rational, and as rational actors, it is in their best interest to give the most important positions to the people who have the most skills. But are they?

On average, girls are equally good or better in school than boys[2]. Last year, in the UK women were 30% more likely to go to university than men[3] and likewise results in the US indicate that more women graduate from college than men[4]. Assuming gender parity at 40%, women caught up on higher education in the late 80s. If women are successful early on in their years, we should expect them to perform well in the later stages of their lifes, too.

Still, we do not see many women in the upper echelons of the organisations. In fact, 80% of the Fortune 500 boards are men. The contrast is even more stark at the very top of the organisations where 95% of the Chairs are men[5]. There is a clear gender divide between the lower and upper echelons of organisations that, looking back at the pool of candidates who left university, cannot be explained with ability.

Early research on gender inequality has shown that jobs are sex-typed[6]. That means that job roles have normative ascriptions and gendered assumptions. The industrialisation led to a spatial divide of paid work and household work, and to gender segregation within and across organisations and industries[7]. During these years job roles were formed by the job role incumbents. And these formative years still influence our perceptions today. Because men were managers in the past, managers are still assumed to be men. Under this assumption, women do not fit the job role. There is a perceived lack of fit[8] between the managerial requirements, which are “inherently” male, and the gender expectations towards women.

The consequences are manifold: All else equal, men get the benefit of the doubt and are thus more likely to be hired or promoted. Even if a woman got the job, she is likely to be under-evaluated[9] – regardless of actual performance. Consequently, men and women have different opportunities within the workplace. Moreover, when women perform managerial roles well, there is a social backlash[10]. A manager is, for example, expected to demonstrate agentic behaviour. If a man demonstrates agentic behaviour, this is perfectly in synch with the gender expectations. If a woman is agentic, there is a punishment for not being nice enough. This leads to a neglect of much needed strong social networks and may result in both less career progress and less job satisfaction.

The perceived misfit is largely due to the sex-typing of jobs. We have assumptions about jobs and people, and such stereotypes evoke an idea about how well a person will or will not fit the job – beyond actual abilities. Stereotypes therefore induce bias in evaluations. This process is often unconscious. But this means that the meanings we attach to categories, such as gender, matter because they influence our actions.

Even if it is unintentional, it is still effective. It is structural, because it affects many decisions by many people in many cases. It leads to patterned outcomes in organisational processes, based on social group membership. This leads to a systemic privilege, on average, for men as they fit the managerial positions better. And because the same structures are created and recreated time over time, the stereotypes, about job role incumbents and gender, are reinforced, continuously creating artificial barriers for those who do not fit. As a consequence, the jobs with the highest power, status, and remuneration largely continue to be assigned to men.

The central role of organisations in facilitating gender equality

Organisations contribute to gender inequality beyond the upper echelons in organisations. Gender equality is essentially about equal opportunities. It should mean that every person, given the required skills for the job at hand, should have the same opportunities of access and performance, regardless of their gender. In reality, this is not the case.

As pointed out above, we have assumptions about people based on how we categorise them. We expect a woman to be caring and a man to be assertive. We also have assumptions about job roles. A manager is a man[11] and a nurse is a woman. When job role incumbents deviate from these expectations, we tend to jump to wrong conclusions. For example, women in management positions are frequently under-evaluated, regardless of actual performance[12]. On the other hand, male nurses are regularly mistaken for doctors[13] .

These assumptions influence decision making processes. Within organisations, women are segregated into lower positions relative to men, and across organisations and occupations women tend to do more caring jobs. These phenomena are not only driven by organisations. They are recreated in daily interaction across social spheres. Consequently, gender equality in organisations is inextricably linked to more basic assumptions about gender roles. Still, organisations play a huge role in bridging the gender divide.

Not only do organisations distribute resources through organisational processes, such as hiring and promoting, in patterned ways, thereby directly contributing to gender inequality. Their policies and cultures also affect gender roles beyond their organisational boundaries. Specifically, studies have shown that the success of government policies in driving gender equality is affected by organisational policies and cultures.

At entry level positions, men and women earn the same wages[14]. The pay gap emerges as soon as partners start having a family. Women tend to stay at home and work reduced schedules, thereby suspending their careers. But even if women work full-time, they spent more time in the household than men. This is a double-burden that men are not expected to carry.

Sweden tried to address this issue by making a portion of the parental leave obligatory for fathers[15]. However, a study found that men will only take parental leave if they feel that it is socially accepted and not punished in the company[16]. This bring the responsibility back to organisations. Their policies and cultures play a big role in making the change. Gender equality cannot be achieved without organisations.







[6] Epstein, C. F. (1970). ‘Encountering the Male Establishment: Sex-Status Limits on Women’s Careers in the Professions’, American Journal of Sociology, 75(6), pp. 965–982.

[7]Calás, M. B. and Smirich, L. (2006). ‘From the “Woman’s Point of View” Ten Years Later: Towards a Feminist Organization Studies’, in The SAGE Handbook of Organization Studies. Second. London: SAGE, pp. 284–346.

[8] Heilman, M. E. (1983). ‘Sex bias in work settings: The Lack of Fit model’, Research in Organizational Behavior, 5, pp. 269–298.

[9] Heilman, M. E. (2002). ‘Description and Prescription: How Gender Stereotypes Prevent Women’s Ascent Up the Organizational Ladder’, Journal of Social Issues, 57(4), pp. 657–674. doi: 10.1111/0022-4537.00234.

[10] Eagly, A. H. and Karau, S. J. (2002). ‘Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders.’, Psychological Review, 109(3), pp. 573–598. doi: 10.1037//0033-295X.109.3.573; Rudman, L. A. and Glick, P. (2002). ‘Prescriptive Gender Stereotypes and Backlash Toward Agentic Women’, Journal of Social Issues, 57(4), pp. 743–762. doi: 10.1111/0022-4537.00239.

[11] Schein, V. E. (1973). ‘The relationship between sex role stereotypes and requisite management characteristics’, Journal of Applied Psychology, 57(2), pp. 95–100. doi: 10.1037/h0037128.

[12]Heilman, M. E. (1983). ‘Sex bias in work settings: The Lack of Fit model’, Research in Organizational Behavior, 5, pp. 269–298; Heilman, M. E. (2002). ‘Description and Prescription: How Gender Stereotypes Prevent Women’s Ascent Up the Organizational Ladder’, Journal of Social Issues, 57(4), pp. 657–674. doi: 10.1111/0022-4537.00234.

[13] Wingfield, A. H. (2009). ‘Racializing the Glass Escalator: Reconsidering Men’s Experiences with Women’s Work’, Gender & Society, 23(1), pp. 5–26. doi: 10.1177/0891243208323054.



[16] Haas, L., Allard, K. and Hwang, P. (2002). ‘The impact of organizational culture on men’s use of parental leave in Sweden’, Community, Work & Family, 5(3), pp. 319–342. doi: 10.1080/1366880022000041801.

Podcast: What Role Can Men Play in Gender Equality and Activism?

In our recent report on consent workshops, we recommend promotion of male allyship: a concept that feels all the more pressing a year after the rise of the #MeToo movement. Gender inequality is deeply rooted in our cultural and societal norms, and whilst supporting women to revert justice, men also have a lot to gain from a more gender equal world.

If you’re interested in finding out more, we’d recommend listening to the podcast we co-produced with SOS Music Media  last June, where our CEO Lilia Giugni took to the microphone to discuss what role men can play in gender equality and activism.

Happy Listening


Mapping Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) in Italy

Dr Iole Fontana is a political scientist and a researcher at the University of Catania. She has a PhD in Institutions, Politics and Policies and has been a visiting researcher at the London School of Economics and at the Université Hassan II in Casablanca. She has worked as a research intern for the Delegation of the European Union in Tunisia and is specialized on EU politics and Euro-Mediterranean relations.  This case study is an extension of her  pre-existing research for GenPol’s Can Education Stop Abuse policy paper.


Relationship and Sex Education (SRE) is now considered an essential tool to empower young people to stay physically and mentally healthy as well as to prevent gender-based violence, as GenPol’s recent policy paper has showed us. Yet, whereas the potential of education in this domain is widely acknowledged, comprehensive programs are still lacking. In Europe, students’ sex education remains a geographical lottery, with SRE initiatives remaining patchy across and inside countries. Italy is a case in point. As one of the few EU member states where sex education is not compulsory, to date, there has been no law on the matter. As such, SRE is still not part of any teaching and education ministerial program. The consequence is that initiatives and activities remain uneven across the country, and dependent on the willingness and financial availability of schools, associations and non-governmental organizations.

What SRE is…and what it is not.

According to the reports of the European Parliament (2013:10) and of the IPPF European Network (2007), SRE is the process of disseminating information, increasing awareness and providing young people with the essential knowledge to enjoy sexuality both physically and emotionally, individually as well as in relationships. To put it briefly, SRE is the result of sex education (the ‘S’ component) and relationship education (the ‘R’ component). The first addresses the biological aspects of reproduction and deals with contraception possibilities, prevention of teenage pregnancy and protection against diseases. The second is concerned with ethical, moral, psychological and emotional aspects of sexuality. In this sense, SRE is not ‘a simple mechanistic coverage of biological facts’ (IPPF, 2007:12). Rather, it links general topics on sexuality with emotions, relationship, consent and respect of the other. Yet, in many countries –Italy included- the ‘S’ and ‘R’ are not promoted in an integrated fashion, with initiatives addressing just one of the two dimensions.

Italy and SRE: a leap into a legislative vacuum

Convoluted discussions on the subject have often heated parliamentary debates (Forleo and Lucisano, 1980). Both right and left wing parties[1]  tabled several legislative proposals on SRE, yet none of them passed the discussion-stage and become formal law[2]. This legislative vacuum stems from the preponderant role of the Vatican, which has traditionally questioned the responsibility of schools in this domain, relegating SRE to the domestic and family sphere. Moreover, the controversial reactions by parents and citizens have complicated the matter even further. As a glaring example, in many cases they have obstructed attempts to distribute in schools booklets on sex, gender issues and same sex relations[3]. For these reasons, no fully-fledged policy framework was ever developed, with politicians and successive governments approaching the issue with great caution. The Education Plan approved by Matteo Renzi’s former government (the so-called ‘Good School Plan’ or ‘La Buona Scuola’) adopted in fact a very soft and generic stance, devoid of comprehensive SRE initiatives. Similarly, the manifesto of the current Five Stars-Lega Nord government fails to refer to the issue.


Who takes care of SRE in Italy?

Due to the lack of a proper legislative framework, institutions are not at the forefront of SRE activities. The Ministry of Education is not directly responsible for centrally coordinating the delivery of the SRE initiatives,  and there is currently no Ministry for Equal/Gender Opportunities to take on this task. Schools remain the main institutional actor for the provision of SRE to young people aged between 8 and 19 years old.

In the absence of any ministerial guidance, each school is free to adopt (or disregard) SRE initiatives and to autonomously define educational contents and objects. The result is an uneven geographical distribution and the lack of common standards[4]. Students are in fact exposed to different meanings and messages, depending on their instructor and school. Moreover, many schools do not have enough funding for the delivery of SRE, especially when this implies the involvement of external experts. This further results in a patchy geographical distribution.

In order to map the state of SRE initiatives in Italian schools, a sample of 106 schools was randomly selected from the list of Italian registered schools. For a broader coverage of the Italian territory, schools were selected equally from Northern, Central and Southern regions. To facilitate the analysis, the sample was restricted just to high schools. The content of the Programmatic Document of each school (the so-called ‘PTOF’) was explored to identify the presence of key words (e.g. sexual education; sexuality; affectivity; gender; violence; women; love; HIV etc.) and understand how many schools include SRE activities in their educational offer and -if so- what kind. Overall, -out of 106 schools- 57 do not plan or even mention any kind of SRE. For the remaining 59, at least one SRE activity is mentioned in the PTOF (see table 1). Yet, for many of them, clearly recognizable projects are not always available, and it rather seems that SRE is only formally and merely mentioned in the PTOF but never really translated into action.

Source: Author’s Own

Moreover, the analysis of the PTOFs reveals that the combination of the ‘S’ and the ‘R’ components is hardly reflected in the educational offer of Italian schools. Most of the schools focus just on one of the two dimensions, overlooking the other. The schools promoting the “S” tailor their activities to sex education, prevention of sexual diseases, pregnancy and development of sexual awareness through cycles of meetings with gynaecologists, psychologists or other external experts. The schools that address the “R” target their activities to the fight against gender violence, discrimination, gender equality and relationship with the other. They use different interactive teaching tools, such as calls for journal articles, movie/photograph contests or the participation to key symbolic events (e.g. the woman international day). Many schools affirm their commitment to introducing gender and sexual education in a transversal way across different schools’ subjects.

However, of the selected sample, just 2-3 schools were actually able to support SRE in a comprehensive way, by combining the “S” and “R” components. There is no evidence that schools in the South are less receptive to SRE than schools in the North. The high number of schools without SRE initiatives concerns all Italian geographical areas. SRE activities are distributed unevenly, independently from the school’s geographical location. Finally, for most of the schools engaged into SRE, there are interesting synergies with other local actors (hospitals, ASLs, associations) who contribute with their expertise to the delivery of SRE initiatives.

SRE at a grassroots level

An increasing number of Italian civil society associations have made gender equality (and SRE) their mission. Their main strength is that they are able to target a much bigger audience than schools. Whereas the latter are generally limited to 13-19 years old teenagers, SRE initiatives in the associative world can address a mixed target composed of students, teachers, educators and parents. Some of the activities specifically target primary school students. Different methodologies and teaching methods are adopted. Many promote awareness-raising days on key topics such as gender-based violence; others organize interactive and training laboratories in private and public structures. Most of the associations cooperate with schools and some of them have even activated training courses on gender violence in cooperation with Universities.

Yet, ‘the exacerbation of the anti-gender campaigning as well as the recrudescence of racism and xenophobia have made the education work one of significant difficulty both inside and outside schools’[5]. In this regard, several associations have recently emerged with the goal of contrasting public SRE activities and keep the issue as a private affair within parents’ competence. The National Observatory devoted to affective and sexual education is a case in point. Born within the Committee “Let’s defend our children”, the goal of the Observatory is to keep a tight control on schools’ educational offer, warning about any potential teaching and educative ‘abuse’. These social divisions directly impinge upon the work of many of the associations engaged into SRE promotion.

Overall, SRE remains a contested issue in Italy. The absence of a clear public policy on the point gives raise to uneven implementation, with schools and associations’ capacities and practices varying greatly across the country.


Dr. Iole Fontana
Reserach Associate 




IPPF (2007), The Safe Project.

European Parliament (2013), Policies for Sexuality Education in the European Union, Policy Department C.

Forleo R. and Lucisano P. (1980), Sex Ed in Italy, Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, n.6

[1] The proposals equally came from centre-right, extreme right, centre-left and extreme-left parties.

[2] For instance, the first draft bill in 1975 was blocked during the discussion within the parliamentary committee. The same happened in 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2007, 2013, 2015.

[3]  ;

[4] Informal interviews with a sample of Italian high school professors.


New Report: Consent training and sexual violence prevention in UK universities

We are delighted to present GenPol’s report on consent training and sexual violence prevention in British universities. Through desk research, focus groups, workshops, and an online survey, we have aimed to assess how current training practices help prevent sexual violence on campus, and what else could be done to support practitioners and enhance the impact of prevention work. This report was born from the collaboration between GenPol and Dr Tom Dougherty, a philosopher who researches consent at the University of Cambridge. It has seen us working for many months with university staff, students, trainers, sexual violence experts and gender equality activists.

Our commitment to ending sexual violence

As think tank researchers and gender equality advocates, at GenPol we work closely with universities, their students and personnel. Many of our researchers are, or have been, academics, and many of our interns study at, or have just come out of, university. Thus, we are painfully aware of the existence of sexual harassment and assault on campus. It saddens and outrages us beyond words, and we are committed to do our bit to end it. We hope that this report may be a useful tool for peer-to-peer trainers, student leaders and activists, as well as for sexual violence professionals and all those who work to tackle gender-based abuse in all its forms. We dedicate it to all victims and survivors, whose courage and resilience is a never-ending source of inspiration.

Our findings

Our data analysis clearly shows that consent training is increasingly perceived as an effective violence prevention tool by trainers and beneficiaries alike, and adopted by more and more universities nation-wide. We identified a number of good practices for consent workshops, including break-away group discussions, scenario and myth-busting exercises, and the use of national and local statistics on assault and harassment. However, our report also highlights existing challenges and areas for improvement. These include the reluctance of (mostly male) students to attend consent workshops, existing time constraints, and the fact that trainers struggle to find a suitable language and cover a plethora of complex topics.

Above all, we found that training as a stand-alone tool is not particularly successful. In fact, trainees turn cynical and lose motivation if they do not see their institution truly committing to address the problem, and an institutional culture of sexual respect is not developed. Specifically, our respondents complained about the fragmentation of sexual violence reporting mechanisms and disciplinary procedures across universities, and even colleges within the same institution. They also felt that specifically trained personnel and sexual violence professionals (including therapists) should support consent trainers.

Building on this, we issued a set of comprehensive recommendations for peer-to-peer trainers, student unions, universities, sexual violence professionals and other relevant stakeholders. They include:

  • The introduction of transparent reporting mechanisms for sexual harassment, assault and discriminatory behaviours across universities nation-wide (ideally, an anonymous online reporting system should be developed aside non-anonymous reporting forms, easily accessible on universities’ websites);

  • The introduction of clear, appropriate and well-advertised disciplinary measures, and of specific compulsory training on gender-based violence and discrimination for members of staff;

  • Hiring specially trained therapists to support survivors of abuse and their loved ones, as well as students and staff with specific pastoral duties;

  • Offering multiple forms of consent training and spreading teaching over different sessions, so that complex topics can be dealt with, and information and ideas can sink in;

  • Using in consent training well-tested delivery methods such as breakaway groups (with the double option of single-gender groups and mixed ones), open and interactive discussions, myth-busting, scenario and privilege-related exercises, local case studies, reflections on the differences between legal and ethical concerns);

  • Designing consent training to change not only beliefs but behaviours (through exercises aimed at developing empathy, processing difficult emotions, and offering creative strategies to identify and respond to problematic behaviours);

  • Mapping existing consent-related resources and making them available to the student community;

  • Carefully monitoring and evaluating consent training.


For further details, please see the report below. This study is part of a broader research project started with Can Education stop abuse?’, a comprehensive policy paper in which we examined the linkage between consent-centred sexuality education and gender-based violence on an European level.

Happy reading!

Click here to read the report




Social innovation, anti-mafia and intersectionality made in (Southern) Italy

Students of social innovation know only too well the power of symbols and story-telling. Those who look for innovative solutions to complex, wicked social problems face, first, the challenge of conceptualising and clearly explaining to others the very social evils they are trying to address. This is usually no trivial matter: the way we consider approaching, say, violence against women and girls will very much depend on how, and through which lenses, we understand this phenomenon. Secondly, social innovators who are lucky enough to have identified viable solutions often struggle to illustrate this to donors, investors or policy-makers, and more generally to anyone who’s not as familiar with the subject as they are (or, indeed, as passionate).

There is, however, a third way in which the ability to forge narratives, and use sets of languages and symbols, is key to social innovation work. In fact, tackling some of the most entrenched social problems generally requires not only long-term, sustainable actions, but also a change in people’s habits and way of mind. This is where so-called cultural entrepreneurship, namely the processes and skills that allow innovators to (re)craft identities and symbolic practices to gain legitimacy and open up access to new resources and opportunities, often come into play.

Southern Italy, and especially my native Naples and Campania region, offer plenty of intriguing examples. Born in a land rich in traditions, rituals and unspoken rules, no Neapolitan would ever deny how much symbols and stories matter. It is no wonder that local social innovators pay close, conscious attention.

Take the case of Radio Siani, an anti-mafia social cooperative based in the small town of Ercolano (Naples), long-dominated by mafia interests, and once a central hub for extortion and drug trafficking. Radio Siani’s headquarters are in a flat that once belonged to a mafia boss. He used to watch the murders he had commissioned from the balcony .where young activists now enjoy their cigarettes. The flat currently hosts an anti-mafia web-radio (its origins lie in the fact that criminals in and out of prison exchanged messages through their own local radio). The organisation also runs educational activities for the local young people, and workshops for students who come to visit from all over the region. All visitors are asked to leave a message on the wall of what once was the boss’s kitchen.

Over the years, radio broadcasting has become increasingly intersectional, including a sex ed radio programme, regular coverage of LGBT+ issues, and awareness-raising emissions on the theme of disability. When interviewed, Radio Siani activists argued that mafia is fought not only talking crime and spreading ‘legality culture’, but also working towards an equal, democratic and non-violent world, where everyone’s rights, particularly those of the traditionally oppressed, are defended. It is definitely not by chance that the organisation was involved in the setting up of Lilith, the very first gender-based violence emergency point ever opened in Ercolano (now sadly shut down due to lack of funding).


This intersectional ethos is evident in Radio Siani’s effort to reclaim the mafia’s own words and symbols, and propose positive language, rituals and role models to those who were born in a mafia-dominated area. In fact, the radio and the social cooperative are both named after Giancarlo Siani, a Neapolitan journalist killed by the mafia in 1985, aged 26. The flat is packed with pictures and images of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, Sicilian judges also murdered by organised crime, and of Miriam Makeba, one of the most audible voices of the anti-Apartheid and civil rights movements.

The cooperative’s members have recently started to engage in agricultural work, producing a special breed of tomatoes in a field which was, too, once confiscated from a criminal family. The tomatoes, small and pointy, have been nick-named pizzini, slang word for sharp-edged objects but also for the messages whereby the Sicilian mafia used to communicate. Agricultural projects also serve the purpose of offering work opportunities to kids just come out of juvenile prisons in the area, many of whom share a migrant background or a history of mental health issues. Radio Siani’s staff makes a point to provide them with professional and personal mentorship, as well as examples of healthy, non-violent masculine bonds.

Other actors in the Ercolano’s anti-mafia network are equally cultural entrepreneurship-conscious. The Associazione Anti-Racket, the charity which unites shop-owners and entrepreneurs who rebelled to mafia’s extortions and reported offences to the police, organises a yearly ‘anti-extortion’ walk, where the civil society is invited to take the streets and reclaim the right to own their town. Enlightened local school principals adopted an open-door policy, arguing that schools should be open well beyond class-time to offer kids a stimulating alternative to life on the street. The carabinieri (Italian military force with police duties), very much involved in anti-mafia work and central to the eradication of the extortion practice in Ercolano, are about to move to a new head-quarter, in the very centre of the town once controlled by criminal families.

Tomatoes and public walks, radio broad-casting and messages on the wall, then, all fulfil a similar purpose. They are the tools whereby activists and innovators reclaim bits and pieces of an oppressive system (that of organised crime, or, say, that stemming from the intersection of the discrimination directed against women, the LGBT+ community , migrants and disabled people), re-forging them for new purposes. They are meant to empower people and local communities in innovative ways, with the long-term purpose of making social change possible.

Stories worth telling? I’d say a couple of very poignant lessons to be learned.

(This blog is a revised version of a longer articles published on the Cambridge Judge Business School’s website).

Lilia Giugni
GenPol CEO

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