Organizational reforms, ‘ideal workers’ and gender orders: a cross-societal comparison

Organizational reforms, ‘ideal workers’ and gender orders: a cross-societal comparison

Janne Tienari


In this article, we put forth a comparative study of gender distinctions and relations within the processes of organizational reform in a German and a Finnish bank. We demonstrate how these processes are interwoven with assumptions about the ‘ideal worker’ (cf. Acker 1990; 1992) that organizational members are measured against in management. We argue that the ‘ideal worker’, even though, in general, a masculine notion, should not be perceived as a universal or as a static category. We suggest that notions of the ‘ideal worker’ not only vary within different models of work organization, but that they vary across societal contexts. These notions are based on different gender orders (cf. Connell 1987) which penetrate organizational life and become incorporated in different, though predominantly masculine, conceptions. ‘Ideal worker’ is also not a static category. If we consider gender distinctions and relations in organizations as produced, reproduced and redefined through continuously ongoing social interaction , there is a need to analyze how the notion of the ‘ideal worker’ evolves in time — when organizations become subject to change efforts through reforms.

Descriptors: organization, ideal worker, gender order, cross-societal comparison


Gender distinctions and relations remain embedded in organizational practices and social structures. These practices and structures are, however, in constant flux. They also tend to vary across organizations and societies. As a result, notions of gender are also likely to vary at different times and in different settings, although the ‘power of men’ is likely to remain prevalent (Kerfoot and Knights 1993). We suggest that more attention should be given to the contradictory dynamics by which gender distinctions and relations evolve and become redefined in organizations. The conditions, events, processes and consequences that may lead to redefinitions have often been neglected by researchers (for criticism, see e.g. Acker 1990, 1992; Alvesson and Due Billing 1992; Benschop and Doorewaard 1998a, 1998b; Collinson and Hearn 1994).

Gender-sensitive studies of the processes and outcomes of organizational reform can help to overcome the deficiencies of static conceptions of gender distinctions and relations (see e.g. Acker 1994; Cockburn 1983; Lewis and Morgan 1994; Maile 1995; Tienari 1999, 2000; Woodall et al. 1997). We use the term reform in this article for intentional, top-management-driven change efforts related to the form and structure of the organization (cf. Brunsson 1989; 1997). In our view, taking reforms as an integral part of the research framework is particularly timely, given the prevalent contemporary discourse on globalization and transformation which penetrates (post)bureaucratic organizations through different techniques of ‘change’. Top management manoeuvres for organizational reform are apparently gender-neutral. However, the processes of reform often entail a redefinition of the gendered division of labour and assumptions about women’s and men’s work roles in the organization.

In this article, we demonstrate how organizational reform processes are interwoven with assumptions about the ‘ideal worker’ that organizational members are measured against in management. As Acker (1990, 1992) argues, the ‘ideal worker’ is a masculine notion. We analyze this notion as an important manifestation of the gender subtext of organizations. Gender subtext refers to power-based organizational and individual arrangements that produce and reproduce gender distinctions underlying the dominant organizational rhetoric, which typically emphasizes equality and equal opportunity (Benschop and Doorewaard 1998a; Smith 1987). Both ‘ideal worker’ and gender subtext become reflected in the individual experiences of men and women. These experiences are conditioned by the divide between public and private spheres of life. This divide, however, varies across societies. Following Connell (1987), we use the term gender order to refer to a historically constructed pattern of gendered division of labour and power relat ions between men and women that is institutionalized in society.

We put forth a cross-societal, comparative study of gender distinctions and relations within the processes of organizational reforming. Existing comparisons tend to be based on quantitative data, and/or focus predominantly on variations within and between organizations operating in similar social environments (for exceptions, see e.g. Crompton and LeFevre 1992; Crompton and Harris 1997; Jacobson 1991). Cross-societal studies of gender and organizational reforms are even more rare (see, however, e.g. Tienari 1999). This is a shortcoming, given that various studies in the field of gender orders and systems suggest cross-societal comparisons as a fruitful approach towards understanding the multiplicity of gendered phenomena in organizational settings (see e.g. Duncan 1998; O’Reilly 1999; Pfau-Effinger 1998).

We examine the evolving links between organizational reforms and the notion of the ‘ideal worker’ in management in two societal contexts. We focus on a specific lower middle management position in two banks; one located in Germany and the other in Finland. We draw on both (male) senior managers’ accounts of organizational reforms and on autobiographical accounts of women who have risen to lower middle manager positions during the course of the reforms.

We argue that the ‘ideal worker’, even though in general a masculine notion, should not be perceived as a universal or as a static category. It is not a universal category. Recent work by Benschop and Doorewaard (1998b), for example, has shown how different models of work organization — in this case, Taylorist and team-based work — contribute to the emergence of different, but equally gendered notions of the ‘ideal worker’. We suggest that notions of the ‘ideal worker’ also vary across societal contexts; they are based on different gender orders which penetrate organizational life and become incorporated in different, though predominantly masculine, conceptions. ‘Ideal worker’ is also not a static category. If we consider gender distinctions and relations in organizations as produced, reproduced and redefined through continuously ongoing social interaction, there is a need to analyze how the notion of the ‘ideal worker’ evolves in time — and when organizations become subject to change efforts through refor ms.

Organizational Reforms, ‘Ideal Workers’ and Gender Orders

Organizational Reforms

We introduce the concept of organizational reform in our theoretical framework to examine questions of change and stability. Brunsson (1997) defines organizational reforms as the processes whereby new organizational forms are launched. These processes consist of ‘attempts at convincing people that the new forms should be installed and attempts at getting them implemented’ (ibid: 312). Typical contemporary examples of the ‘content’ of reform in organizations include divisionalization, customer segmentation, profit centres, internal markets, delayering, downsizing, and outsourcing. Mergers and acquisitions are popular examples of reforms that cut across organizational boundaries.

We reserve the concept of organizational change for the interpreted consequences of reform. On the one hand, the distinction between reform and change includes awareness that the intention in launching new organizational forms can be to maintain the political (and gendered) status quo or balance of power rather than to foster change. Reforms may contribute to stability. Reforms are often repetitions of earlier reforms, and they tend to become causes and effects of further reforms. On the other hand, the distinction between reform and change acknowledges difficulties in steering organizations in particular ways. Resistance and/or a sense of ambiguity of content, objectives and outcomes are always present (cf. Brunsson 1989, 1997; March 1981).

Processes of reform often entail a redefinition of the division of labour within organizations. Middle management becomes an important arena for these changes in the (post)bureaucratic order, since attempts at reform involve middle managers not only as implementors or facilitators of change. Middle managers become a potential target or recipient of change, both interms of ‘downsizing’ and of the changing organization of work (Kanter et al. 1992). Earlier research suggests that the distinction between core and peripheral positions in organizations typically shifts throughout reforms. This, in turn, entails shifts in the content, decision-making authority, perceived career opportunities and status of specific managerial jobs. These shifts are likely to be gendered in that they involve assumptions about men and women and their work roles in the organization and ‘place’ in society at large (see, e.g., Bird 1990; Cockburn 1983; Halford and Savage 1995; Kanter 1977; Tienari 1999, 2000).

‘Ideal Workers’

Although jobs and hierarchies are made to appear as abstract categories in organizational logic, they are fundamentally gendered concepts (Acker 1990). They are occupied by human gendered bodies. Acker (1990) suggests that characteristics of the apparently disembodied ‘ideal worker’ include qualifications (i.e. means), full-time and continuous availability (i.e. opportunity) and work-orientation (i.e. motive). Hidden within the concept of a job — and of the ‘ideal worker’ — are thus assumptions about separations between the public and private spheres of life, and about the gendered organization of reproduction and production. The ‘ideal worker’ usually corresponds to a man’s body. ‘The abstract worker transformed into a concrete worker turns out to be a man whose work is his life and whose wife takes care of everything else’ (Acker 1992: 257).

The ‘ideal worker’ does not, however, correspond only to a man’s body. It is related to societal assumptions about what men and women ‘are’ and what their ‘place’ is. It is related to assumptions which categorize stereotypical masculinities and femininities and assign such conceptions to men and women. For example, specific masculinities become preferred in management. These preferences — although they continue to assume the ‘power of men’ (Kerfoot and Knights 1993) — are not fixed. They are socially produced and reproduced. Different masculinities are preferred at different times and in different contexts. Kerfoot and Knights (1993), for example, suggest paternalistic and competitive masculinities as concrete manifestations of the interplay between historically shifting forms of management and masculinities in operation. Collinson and Hearn (1994: 16) outline ‘several dominant masculinities that seem to remain pervasive, persistent and privileged especially (but not exclusively) within the discourses and p ractices of managers and management’: authoritarianism, paternalism, entrepreneurialism, informalism and careerism.

Benschop and Doorewaard (1998b) analyzed the masculine connotations of the ‘ideal worker’ in two contexts: Tayloristic organization and teambased work. In the former, elements of the masculinities of authoritarianism, paternalism and careerism are dominant, while in the latter characteristics of the masculinity of careerism and entrepreneurialism prevail (cf. Collinson and Ream 1994). Benschop and Doorewaard (1998b) point out that, simultaneously, the ideal profile for low-qualified jobs has feminine connotations. They conclude that, in both contexts, the gendering effects of masculine connotations are supported by gendered notions with regard to care responsibilities (obligations to do unpaid work at home) and qualifications:

‘Qualifications are categorized as high or low, based on dichotomous distinctions (for example, skilled and unskilled, rational and emotional). These categories have a hierarchical relationship, in which some traits (skilled, rational) are interwoven with definitions of men’s work and other traits (unskilled, emotional) with definitions of women’s work.’ (Benschop and Doorewaard 1998b: 16)

The key issue here is that organizing is laden with gendered — categorizing and hierarchical — distinctions. Masculine notions of the ‘ideal worker’ prevail vis-a-vis managerial jobs. Relatedly, it is apparent that top management manoeuvres for organizational reform (which affect managerial jobs) are not gender-neutral. Reforms are likely to incorporate an official and a concealed agenda. This can be made sense of through the concept of gender subtext. Inspired by the work of Dorothy Smith (1987), Benschop and Doorewaard (1998a: 787) conceive of gender subtext as ‘the set of often concealed, power-based gendering processes, i.e. organizational and individual arrangements (objectives, measures, habits), systematically (re)producing gender distinctions’. This definition comes close to the gendered substructures of organizations, located in the practices relating to, and assumptions about, the extra-organizational reproduction of organizational members in society at large (Acker 1990, 1992, 1994).

Gender subtext can be understood as something opaque that underlies the dominant rhetoric in organizations. This dominant rhetoric typically pervades myths of equality and equal opportunity, while organizational practices continue to categorize between men and women (Benschop and Doorewaard 1998a). Both the subtext and the dominant rhetoric are ‘real’ in the sense that they condition the lives of organizational members. Benschop and Doorewaard (1998a) provide examples of particular organizational settings where the gender subtext becomes evident; ‘show pieces’ (only a few women reach positions in top functions and those that do become tokens), ‘the mommy track’ (many women with young children are shunted to an organizational side track), and ‘the importance of being asked’ (practices of career making are gendered).

The dominant rhetoric of organizational reforms within the prevalent contemporary discourse of globalization and transformation is that of financial and economic rationale — and of inevitability (for criticism, see e.g., Fairclough 2000). Little room is left for alternative interpretations. The dominant rhetoric is also typically laden with reference to equality and equal opportunity vis-a-vis management and managers (Calas and Smircich 1993). These elements, however, arguably only concern those who subscribe to the demands of the discourse; those who have the opportunity, means and motive (cf. Acker 1990) to put the ‘good’ of the company before their personal ‘good’ when necessary.

We want to emphasize that gendered notions with regard to qualifications, work-orientation and care responsibilities are not fixed. As a set of processes, the gender subtext constantly reproduces distinct perceptions of men and women, and masculinities and femininities. People ‘do’ gender in everyday social interaction (Acker 1994; Gherardi 1994). There is an element of potential transition in gender distinctions and relations, then, particularly when organizational life becomes subject to reforming.

Such transition, however, finds its constitution in the particular societal context in which the organization — and organizational reforming — is embedded (cf. Rantalaiho 1997). In our view, cross-societal variation in gender distinctions and relations must be taken into account in studying the notions of ‘ideal worker’ and gender subtext. By comparing gender systems in European countries, Duncan (1998: 195) notes the ‘substantial differences in gender inequalities and gender relations’ across societies. We prefer the term gender order to gender system to denote a societal structure of distinctions and relations, because it leaves room for (re)negotiation and shift.

Gender Orders

Following Connell (1987), we use the term gender order to refer to a historically constructed pattern of power relations between men and women, together with definitions of femininity and masculinity, which become institutionalized in society. Connell (1987) starts from the assumption that personal life and collective social arrangements are linked in a constitutive way. Over time, each society develops a specific gender order that, Connell (1987) argues, consists of three elements: (a) gendered division of labour; (b) power relationships, expressed in the connection of authority with masculinity, and (c) cathexis, which refers to emotionally charged relations between the sexes.

The elements of gender order are interconnected, but not fully determined by each other. Hence, they leave space for (re)negotiation (Connell 1987). Over time, gender orders become institutionalized through structural arrangements such as welfare-state policies relating to family, employment and social security. Gender orders also become institutionalized through cultural templates, such as prescriptive norms and gender stereotypes about what is considered appropriate behaviour for men and women in the society. Gender order encompasses generalized assumptions of what is considered the ‘place’ of men and women, distinctions between the public and private sphere (including perceptions of motherhood and fatherhood, and the responsibility of the state for child care), and the relative value which is attributed to each sphere. This order also encompasses perceptions of equality and inequality between men and women in the society in general and the labour market in particular (ibid.; Crompton and Harris 1997; Dunc an 1998; Lane 1995; Pateman 1989; Pfau-Effinger 1998).

Gender orders impact on organizations through employment regulation and gendered patterns of labour supply and demand. They also impact on organizations through norms and perceptions of men’s and women’s ‘place’ that organizational members carry with them to work. Through these channels, societal arrangements leave their mark on gendered constructions of job hierarchies and organizational power relations (Crompton and Le Feuvre 1992; O’Reilly 1999; Rubery and Fagan 1995).

We conceptualize gender order as a social structure in flux which comes to shape organizational settings and practices through various links. As Wolff (1977: 20) stated: ‘women’s position in any organization is inseparable from women’s position in society’ — and the same can be said about men. Not only the dominant, ‘official’ rhetoric of equality in organizations, but also the often concealed, power-based processes which reproduce gendered assumptions and hierarchical distinctions are embedded in society. Societal arrangements impact on what it means to be qualified (means), available full-time (opportunity) and work-oriented (motive). In other words, they impact on what it means to be an ‘ideal worker’ in a particular societal context (cf. Acker 1990. 1992; Benschop and Doorewaard 1998a, 1998b). Opportunity, means and motive are manifest in different combinations. They are interpreted differently, and become subject to different emphasis.

In this article, we draw our attention to the shifting variety of gender relations and distinctions in organizational life, and suggest a focus on apparently contradictory and ambiguous gender processes in contemporary organizations. This entails simultaneous sensitivity for discriminatory practices and equality-producing elements, as has recently been pointed out, in particular, by researchers from the Nordic countries (see, e.g., Alvesson and Due Billing 1992; Alvesson 1998; Katila and Merilainen 1999; Korvajarvi 1998; Merilainen 2000; Sundin 1998; Tienari 2000).

In summary, our theoretical framework consists of three main elements: organizational reforms, ‘ideal worker’ (as a manifestation of gender subtext in an organization) and gender order. In the empirical part of this article, we apply this framework to focus on, and compare, two banks, one German and one Finnish. The Finnish case is a result of a recent merger, and thus comprises several earlier-established organizations.

In the next section, we present the organizational fields, method and data for our study. Our first task is then to make sense of the prevalent notions of the ‘ideal worker’ in management in each organization, and to demonstrate how these notions (and gender subtexts) may be linked to the gender order of each society. We then go on to show that there is an element of potential shift in gender distinctions and relations, particularly when organizations become subject to reforming. Because they are societally embedded, organizational reforms — even if they are of a similar nature in content — go hand in hand with distinct redefinitions of ‘ideal worker’ which have context-specific consequences for individual members of organizations.

Organizational Fields, Method and Data

For illustrating and specifying our argument on contesting the notion of ‘ideal worker’ in management as a universal and static category, we chose Germany and Finland as the societal contexts for a comparative study. This is because they have been identified as different in terms of their prevalent gender order; German society has a reputation for conservative male dominance while Finnish society, in the Nordic tradition, appears to be characterized by more emphasis on equality between the sexes (cf. Duncan 1998; Ostner 1994; Pfau-Effinger 1998).

We chose financial services (or more precisely, banking) as the field of study for two main reasons. First, banks have been portrayed as the traditional heartland of gendered bureaucracy (Halford and Savage 1995). Second, however, recent eliminations of protective regulation and rapid development of information technology have made banks a particularly fertile ground for unprecedented change efforts through organizational reforms (Canals 1997; Morgan and Knights 1997). Further, in studying gendered processes in organizations, both Acker (1994) and Benschop and Doorewaard (1998a, 1998b) have based their arguments on fieldwork in banks. Crompton and LeFeuvre’s (1992) cross-societal comparative work is also on banking.

In both Germany and Finland, the financial system has traditionally been bank- or credit-based, dominated by universal banks offering the whole range of services for several customer segments. Banks and industrial firms have also been firmly interlinked in both countries. Despite the historical similarities between the German and Finnish financial systems, there are also emergent differences between the fields of banking in the two countries. Since the 1950s, the German financial system has been operating in a relatively ‘open’ legal environment. This system has also been said to have remained relatively stable throughout recent decades in that legislative changes have not — until very recently — upset the basic feature (see, e.g., Morgan and Quack 2000; Oberbeck and d’Alessio 1997).

In contrast to Germany, since the early 1980s, Finnish banking has exemplified deregulatory transformation in a pronounced way. The Finnish financial system began at that time to shift towards a capital-market-centred model. In the latter part of the 1980s, the Finnish banking sector was rapidly deregulated and the banks experienced a boom. Traditional competitive practices changed. By the early 1990s, however, the banks were confronted with a serious financial crisis. Finland plunged into the deepest recession in its history as an independent nation. The financial services sector was then fundamentally transformed through a series of mergers and acquisitions (see, e.g., Tainio et al. 1997; Tienari 2000).

The field of banking carries gendered legacies in both Germany and Finland. Managerial positions at all hierarchical levels have traditionally been almost exclusively occupied by men. However, there are also differences between the two countries. In Germany, banking is a mixed field, with both sexes representing approximately 50 percent of the overall work force. Women and men typically enter the banks through the same channels (e.g. training / apprenticeships), and the subsequent vertical sex segregation has been argued to result mainly from differences in initial job assignment. In Finnish banks, the low grade clerical jobs continue to be carried out almost exclusively by women. In this sense, banking is a feminized field. Vertical sex segregation has been grounded in gendered entry modes. Managers were recruited either through the internal training of male academic recruits or, since the 1970s, also from the growing pool of young men entering the banks with diplomas from two-year commercial colleges. Since the 1980s, the academic intake has become more balanced between the sexes (see, e.g., Figge and Quack 1990; Quack 1999; Tienari et al. 1998).

The German part of our study presents evidence from a commercial bank (1982-1998) under the pseudonym of BANK. Our agreement prevents us from revealing its real name. BANK is middle-sized in the German market, but relatively close in size to our Finnish case. The Finnish part of the study presents evidence from the Kansallis Banking Group and the Union Bank of Finland (1982-1995), the two largest and most influential commercial banks in the Finnish market, and from the implementation of the merger between the banks to form Merita Bank (1995-1997).

We focus on retail banking activities in the case banks’ domestic service networks. We draw on both (male) senior managers’ accounts of organizational reforms and on autobiographical accounts of women who have risen to local branch-manager positions during the course of the reforms. We follow an intensive case-study research design, attempting to contextualize the actors’ accounts of organizational realities (cf. Silverman 1993; see, e.g., Crompton and Le Feuvre 1992 for a similar ‘in-depth’ comparative study on gender). We proceed from interpretations of individual accounts to within-case comparisons, to comparison across cases (cf. Pettigrew 1997).

The core of our study is based on in-depth interviews with female local branch managers. To situate the branch managers’ autobiographies in context, however, we interviewed (male) senior managers on the goals, implementation and outcomes of the reforming processes and the individual events of reform in our case banks. Senior managers refer in the German case to regional managers (the next decision-making level below the board of directors), and in the Finnish case to individuals in positions hierarchically equivalent to regional management, as well as to a small number of board members. In the German case, we did not gain access to the board of directors. The thematic structure of the interviews, and individual questions, were based on reviews of the banks’ internal documents (e.g. annual reports, memos, and statistical data on the proportion of men and women on different organizational levels) as well as on newspaper and business journal articles. The Finnish case also included a review of the banks’ interna l staff newsletters. The interviews proceeded from ‘gender-neutral’ questions on reforms (and their effect on specific organizational positions and jobs) to specific questions on men and women vis-a-vis branch management. All interviews were taped and transcribed verbatim. Interview data were constantly compared and triangulated with real time archival evidence, i.e. the internal documents specified above (Denzin 1978; Fielding and Fielding 1986, cited in Silverman 1993).

In our in-depth interviews with female local branch managers, each respondent was first asked to describe her life since first entering the bank, in her own words. Each respondent was then asked to comment on her perceptions of particular organizational reforms carried out in the bank, and, if perceived relevant, to establish links between these reforms and her own life. In all, 21 female branch managers were interviewed (the interviewees, in Germany and 12 in Finland, were chosen randomly). The interviews in Germany were carried out in German by Hildegard Theobald, in spring 1998, with subsequent telephone interviews with three respondents to check up on specific themes. The Finnish material includes three rounds of interviews conducted in Finnish by Janne Tienari during the period from 1995 to 1998 (the respondents were part of a larger study on organizational reforming in banking, reported in detail in e.g. Tienari and Talnio 1999; Tienari 1999, 2000).

The German and Finnish interview transcripts were first coded thematically by the interviewers. After discussing the German material in detail, Hildegard Theobald and Sigrid Quack produced a first draft of the German side, including selected pieces of the original interview transcipts translated into English. The same was done by Janne Tienari for the Finnish case. Interviews with two female branch managers were made available to a Finnish colleague, Susan Merilainen, and discussed in detail in relation to the themes of the present study (she also read and discussed earlier drafts of this article). Independently of this study, Susan Merilainen also carried out a discourse analysis of the interview transcripts (Merilainen 2000).

In several steps during the present research process, more German and Finnish texts were translated into English, i.e. made available for all three authors. During the process of discussing the texts, the English translations also underwent modification. Particular care was taken in negotiating that no original meanings would be lost in this process. The pieces of text selected for this article were then grammar checked by a native English speaker.

Organizational Reforms are Gendered

Figures and ‘Basic Explanation’

In both BANK (Germany) and Kansallis, UBF and Merita (Finland), organizational reforms appear to have triggered a trend whereby women are increasingly appointed to local branch-manager positions. In the Northern Region of BANK, the proportion of women in branch management rose from approximately 10 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 1998. The equivalent figures for the Middle Region are approximately 15 percent and just over 30 percent, this being the largest proportion of women in branch management within the entire bank. Differences between the five geographical regions in BANK are relatively small.

In the Helsinki region of Kansallis, the proportion of women in branch management which had still been under 10 percent in 1987, rose to over 37 percent by 1992. More women were chosen during the period up to 1994, at which time, Kansallis went through a serious financial crisis. In UBF, women’s access to branch management was less pronounced and it took place somewhat later. Nevertheless, the proportion of female branch managers in the Helsinki region rose from just under 4 percent in 1983 to 22.5 percent in 1992. A notable phase of increased recruitment of women took place in the context of the merger of Kansallis and UBF into the newly formed Merita Bank. When the Retail Bank division of Merita was set up in spring 1995, the outcome of the selection procedure for branch management was that, in the Helsinki region, women came to occupy 50 percent of the positions at this level of the hierarchy. Similar developments could be observed in other large Finnish cities, whereas the proportion of women in branch ma nagement remained modest in more rural areas.

Thus, our German and Finnish cases both seem to provide further support for the well-established argument that deteriorating working conditions, income and status are likely to be related to a gradual increase in the proportion of women working in specific jobs, occupations and professions (e.g. Bird 1990; Calas and Smircich 1993; Jacobs 1992; Reskin and Roos 1990; Young 1980). There are differences, however, between the German and Finnish cases, which suggest that differing notions of the ‘ideal worker’ were at play when the organizations were reformed.

Organizational reforms are gendered (see, e.g., Tienari 2000). In our German and Finnish case banks, divisionalization, customer segmentation and downsizing were the catchwords of top management manoeuvres which — among other developments — entailed a redefinition of the branch-manager position. The scope of tasks was narrowed and the customer-related decision-making authority was downgraded. This led to a decline in the social influence and status of the job, followed by an increase in the number of women gaining access to it. Consequently, the German and Finnish cases both display an example of what has been identified in the literature as the changing distinction between core and peripheral jobs throughout organizational reforms. Branch management shifted from core to periphery.

Germany: Women as Second Choice

BANK ran into a crisis in the 1980s and subsequently sought to reposition itself within the German banking sector. In 1990, after BANK had faced persistent economic problems for a number of years, a newly elected CEO initiated a relatively radical shift towards divisionalization and customer segmentation. For branch management, the main impact of the reform launched was that corporate customers were transferred to specialized units and local branch managers were to concentrate on private and small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) customers. To establish a new performance-orientated and innovative ‘sales culture’, a specific assessment centre (AC) was also set up in BANK; every managerial employee had to re-apply for his/her position. It is indicative for the envisaged change in BANK that only approximately half of the previous (almost exclusively male) holders of branch-management positions passed the obligatory AC procedure successfully. Reforming the organization thereby gave rise to considerable job mobi lity at the branch-management level.

Even though senior managers in BANK already had problems at this point in finding suitable candidates for branch manager positions, they did not consider women as a possible alternative. One of our senior manager respondents laconically explained away the lack of women in the search to the lack of qualified women available. For positions which could not be filled internally, then, young men were hired from other banks. These men had typically worked one level below branch management in one of the large German commercial banks. Many of them, however, quickly moved to other employers, using BANK only as a springboard for their individual careers. This undesirable high mobility of young male recruits then led senior managers in BANK to reconsider their costly external personnel recruitment policy. They ‘became aware’ of women as potential candidates for branch management.

In the early 1990s, a small number of women who had long experience in selling to the mass market or who had managed to ‘sneak into’ an expert position in the highly regarded credit offices in BANK were offered a managerial position, typically in charge of a small local branch. It is apparent that the same women had been ignored during the first round of search.

Next, senior managers in BANK decided to establish formal development programmes for promising young professionals. This would then allow BANK to train and recruit internally for branch-manager positions. Many of the female (in addition to male) trainees from this programme ‘got their chance’ when BANK implemented another step of its segmentation strategy in 1997-1998, moving wealthy private and SME customers out of the local branches to specialized advisory centres. It appears that a considerable part of the feminization of branch management that occurred throughout the 1990s can be attributed to this recent phase of organizational reforming. The specialized advisory centres attracted men who had earlier been likely candidates for branch banking. Women emerged as the second choice in branch management.

Finland: Women as the ‘Natural’ Choice

In Kansallis and UBF, the proportional increase of women in local branch management occurred over a long process of reforming. Kansallis serves as a good example here. The initial large-scale influx of women into branch management in Kansallis took place in the late 1980s. Already by the early 1980s, however, a large number of women received the title of ‘customer-service chief, thereby officializing their shopfloor supervisory jobs in the branches. The increasing numbers of women in local branch management were most notably the result of an organizational reform in 1988 that aimed at the separation of the banks’ domestic service network into two separate divisions for Corporate Banking and Retail & Private Banking. Most corporate clients were taken away from the branch offices, which now had to focus entirely on private and SME customers (the content of the reform was very similar to that in BANK after 1990).

The 1988 reform in Kansallis forced the men managing the branches to make definite career decisions, and many of them moved with their corporate customers to the newly established spezialized units. In many cases, female ‘customer-service chiefs’ (shopfloor supervisors) took over branch management. More women were chosen during the period 1990-1994, when Kansallis went through a serious financial crisis (and when senior managers began to ‘downsize’ the bank). In economically and socially difficult conditions in the local branches, many women were responsible for good financial performance.

In UBF, a similar, but more gradual, strategy of customer segmentation was implemented, so women’s access to branch management was less pronounced and took place somewhat later. In the context of the merger of Kansallis and UBF, announced in Februry 1995, the outcome of the selection procedure for branch management was that, in the Helsinki region, women came to occupy 50 percent of the positions at this level of the hierarchy. It is noteworthy that the increase of women in branch management took place as an outcome of a manoeuvre, as a result of which a large part of the managerial workforce was dismissed. From just under 150 branch offices in the Helsinki region at the outset of the merger in February 1995. the number had decreased to approximately 70 by autumn 1996.

The initial increase in the number of women in branch management in Kansallis is an example of a large-scale advancement of women who were previously stuck in clerical jobs (cf. Crompton and Sanderson 1986, 1990). For Finnish (male) senior managers, appointing women — many of whom had only sometime earlier been ‘officialized’ as shopfloor supervisors — to fill vacancies in local branch management seems, typically, to have been a prosaic question of ‘why not’. Next, positive experiences with women in branch management (in terms of financial performance and subordinate feedback) and a lack of qualified and interested male applicants, led senior managers to appoint more women at later stages of reform. Women emerged as ‘natural’ choices for local branch management.

Differing Nations of ‘Ideal Worker’ in Branch Management?

Why did women in the German bank emerge as the second choice and those in the Finnish banks as the ‘natural’ choice when positions in branch management were filled? The analysis outlined above raises questions, offering a starting point for examining how different institutional arrangements and cultural norms in societies penetrate discourses and practices of organizational reform.

As part of the everyday (re)production of gender distinctions and relations in organizations, the notion of ‘ideal worker’ has, in our view, played a double role in organizational reforming. On the one hand, it has influenced the way in which organizational reforms were implemented (at least in the initial stages) at the branch management level, and thereby influenced the direction in which gender relations unfolded throughout the reform process. On the other hand, the notion of ‘ideal worker’ has itself become subject to a shift during the course of reforming. This is manifest in the gendered division of jobs and hierarchies. Differing assumptions about the ‘ideal worker’ at the start — and distinctive directions in which the notion evolved throughout organizational reform — refer to the wider societal context of the organizations. In the following, we will attempt to specify and illustrate this in Germany and Finland with regard to the three elements comprising the notion ‘ideal worker’: qualifications, availability and work orientation (cf. Acker 1990).

Germany: An Evolving Notion of the ‘Ideal Worker’ in Branch Management

From ‘Male Bodies’ to Gender-ambiguous Imagery

In the past, the notion of the ‘ideal worker’ for branch management in BANK — as it can be reconstructed from our interviewees’ accounts — clearly corresponded to what Acker (1990, 1992) describes as the abstract and universal worker with a male body. Becoming a branch manager required a level of skills and professional experience which, according to predominant perceptions of the time, could only be achieved through a full-time, life-long banking career. Branch managers would identify sufficiently with their bank to invest voluntarily in their work and be available for overtime and evening activities. Within paternalistic management, branch managers held a ‘father-like’ position combining authoritative power based on seniority, skill and status, with a benevolent approach towards their employees (cf. Kerfoot and Knights 1993).

Exclusion of women from branch management (and other managerial or highly qualified jobs) in BANK was not built on gendered distinctions regarding basic banking qualifications, which were already relatively equally distributed between women and men. Instead, exclusion was based on stereotypical assumptions of women’s transient employment status in the organization. It was regarded as ‘normal’ that, after the birth of children, women would leave the organization altogether or at least interrupt their employment for longer periods. The role of ‘mice at the counter’ fitted this temporary status of women in BANK (this is how one of our female interviewees described many male colleagues’ perception of working women). An invisible, but strict, segregation line was drawn around managerial and highly qualified jobs, which were perceived as appropriate only for men. Segregation lines could be crossed by women only in very exceptional cases. This is described by one of our female interviewees, who was active in the ban k’s works council:

‘The credit units have always been something special. During my time in the works council, for example, this boss told me that he would accept a woman in the credit unit only over his dead body. […] But this woman was excellent. I fought for her and she got the position in the credit unit. After all this, of course, the boss didn’t like me one bit.’

The notion of the ‘ideal worker’ in the management of BANK not only referred to a man’s body, but also to a gendered division between the public and private spheres of life. This division draws from the prevalent order in German society where — at least in the middle and upper classes — men are ascribed the role of breadwinner, whereas women are to take care of the family. In German society, reproduction of status hierarchies overrides equality concerns. State policies are still strongly oriented towards a family model in which women are primarily assigned the role of carers. There are high incentives for women to stay at home during periods of child rearing (cf. Duncan 1998; Ostuer 1994; Pfau-Effinger 1996).

The ‘ideal worker’ in BANK represented a type of hegemonic masculinity (Connell 1987), which was formed around dominance over women built on distinctions relating to ‘bodied processes’ (Acker 1992) in a societal context where human reproduction is institutionally and normatively defined as women’s responsibility within the family. The notion of the ‘ideal worker’ in branch management, however, began to shift from ‘male bodies’ to male-dominated but gender-ambiguous imagery when BANK underwent reforms in the 1990s.

Shifting Notions of Qualification

According to the accounts of top managers and female branch managers, branch management is no longer connected to notions of authoritative power and a focus on the more prestigious (male) business customers. The 1990 reform already entailed a considerable erosion of the power position of branch managers and a shift of the task profile towards social competence and sales orientation. This was reinforced by the decision in 1997/98 to allocate SME and wealthy private customers to separate specialized units. According to one of the regional managers, changes in the relations between the branch manager and customers facilitated the access of women to local branch management:

‘Nowadays, business is different. We buy and sell money. [Branch management] is not a power position, but a matter of service. That’s what the bank lives on. Therefore, it is no longer a relationship of superiority and subordination and thus very male defined, but more [a relationship] on the same level, more like being equal.’

Further, the officially communicated role of local branch managers towards their staff has shifted towards team-leadership. The regional manager’s words above can be interpreted to indicate that ‘power’ is for men and ‘being equal’ is for women. This stereotypical categorization is repeated by many of our female branch manager respondents:

‘It was … something new for the staff that I am one of them. […] I don’t just sit back and be the king and wait until my underlings come to me. I have just tried to improve sales, to be a role model. In this way, it is also much easier to understand each other as a team.’

With the reforms, branch managers were to become sales-oriented team leaders in charge of dealing with the everyday implementation of strategies for the mass market. ‘We are all sales people’, as one of the female branch managers states. Some of the newly required skills can, according to one of the regional managers, be found more frequently among women:

‘In practice … the crucial skills are social competence in building up teams, flexibility and friendliness towards the customers, a feeling for the problems and interests of the customers, empathy and a talent for selling — all this comes more from inside.’

In terms of symbolic gender representations, however, the present profile of the branch manager position remains ambiguous. Social skills in everyday sales work and organizing the staff efficiently to deal with the increased workload have become perceived as something that women are good at and something that can legitimize their choice as branch managers ‘as equals among equals’. However, these newly recognized feminine qualities intertwine with strong persisting notions of masculinity as far as power issues are concerned; despite rhetoric about team-leadership, making the branch profitable, pushing through sales campaigns, and managing the staff still imply a degree of masculine authority that, in the views of the majority of staff and management of BANK, makes the job more suitable for men. In this respect, shifting, but persistent, gender inqualities in BANK reflect the hierarchical and assymmetrical power relationships between men and women in German society at large (Muller 2000; Theobald 1999).

Redefined Nations of Availability and Work Orientation

Driven by changes in the task and qualification profile of the branch manager, and by an overall loss in the status of the position, as perceived by male employees, assumptions about the ‘ideal worker’s’ long-term commitment have become redefined. Branch management is still considered as an attractive position in BANK. However, it is no longer considered as a life-long position, nor a position that one should approach at the height of one’s career. Branch management has become an entry position for young employees with career aspirations. Senior management’s requirements, in terms of work commitment and continuity in career development, have decreased to a shorter time span of a couple of years. As a result, women in certain life periods are no longer excluded as unappropriate candidates. This is expressed by a female branch manager in her early thirties:

‘The danger that someone will move away in his or her mid-30s, be it a woman because of child rearing or a man because of a new position, is likely to be fifty/fifty. This is how it was expressed by my superior, too. […] People get appointed to this position rather independently of their sex. It is achievement and sales orientation that count. By and large, we’re sales people, and we have to produce results. Matching these criteria is more important than whether you’re going to drop out in two or three years time.’

Underlying this new ‘openness’, however, assumptions about hierarchical gender distinctions prevail and contribute to the reproduction of gender inequalities. Women who have recently entered branch management report that questions concerning motherhood and career breaks were lurking around persistently during their recruitment process. One of our interviewees was appointed branch manager at the age of 29:

‘If I’d now become a mother, I’d have worked very hard for two years — and then I’d have to leave. […] In principle, I had to decide for myself beforehand what I wanted to do; whether I wanted to become a branch manager or to have a family. The men don’t have to make such decisions. […] I told them very honestly in my [recruitment] interview that I do not want to have children within the next five years, just in case this should be an argument. They looked at me wide-eyed, and I said that you have definitely been waiting for this statement.’

To combine having children and making a professional career still appears to be virtually impossible for women in BANK. One reason is that prevalent masculine assumptions about the need to be available full-time (and to be prepared to work overtime) remained unchallenged when the organization was reformed. This is illustrated by the following two quotes:

‘If you have a family and children, a branch manager position is not scheduled for you in our bank — not yet scheduled — as a half-day position. With our opening hours … that’s not possible. It cannot be considered as family life and being a mother any more, if you come home three times a week at eight or half past nine in the evening.’ (female branch manager)

‘After a parental leave, women would ask “could I not return as a branch manager on a half day basis?” We do not offer such models. This is not possible. […] One [branch manager] would come in the morning and tell the employees “round to the left”. In the afternoon, another [branch manager] would come in and tell them to do it the otherway around, “now I am here, round to the right”. Leadership cannot be divided.’ (male regional manager)

As the quotes above exemplify, both female branch managers and male senior managers are sceptical about the possibilities of combining a branch-manager’s job with child-care responsibilities. They do not challenge the basic assumption that child care is predominantly the realm of women. Since, in Germany, long working hours are rarely supported by opening hours of public child-care facilities, problems of combining career and family ‘naturally’ come down to the question of whether branch management can be handled on a part-time basis (cf. Fagan and O’Reilly 1998). In BANK, this is reinforced by the relatively traditional perceptions that female branch managers hold about their responsibility for looking after children; they rule out the option of private child care to cover discrepancies between working hours and opening hours of kindergardens. Thus, neither the (male) senior managers nor the female branch managers themselves seem to be ‘flexible’ in terms of finding collective or individual solutions to comb ine family and career. As a result, the atmosphere at BANK seems to have remained hostile towards any interference from private life. In this respect, organizational reform has left the notion of the ‘ideal worker’ virtually untouched. Mothers and potential mothers do not correspond to the ideal. Neither do fathers who are actively involved in unpaid work at home.

In summary, the ‘ideal worker’ for branch management in BANK — as reconstructed from the accounts of our interviewees — has gradually shifted throughout the process of organizational reform from notions which were unseparable from a man’s body, to assumptions built on more gender-ambiguous imagery, which no longer necessarily exclude women. This shift was mainly related to a redefinition of qualification requirements. Assumptions about availability and work orientation were gradually revised somewhat, but still adhere strongly to traditional masculine norms of work patterns. As a result, the shift towards a more gender-ambiguous qualification profile remains coated with a thick patina of masculine norms which expell any other kind of social responsibility from organizational life. This also segregates the career prospects of male and female branch managers; there are only a handful of women in the next hierarchical level in BANK. Women may become branch managers, but their performance continues to be measur ed against masculine standards. In the eyes of the (male) senior managers, they remain, in effect, second choices for qualified, managerial positions.

Finland: An Evolving Notion of the ‘Ideal Worker’ in Branch Management

From ‘Male Bodies’ to Feminine Imagery

Until the organizational reforms introduced in the 1980s, the notion of the ‘ideal worker’ in branch management in the Finnish banks seems to have been relatively similar to the one described above for the pre-1990 BANK in Germany. There was a long tradition of segregation between men as managers and women as tellers in Finnish banking. In practice, inherent in this tradition was the norm of a life-long contract with the same employer. The ‘ideal’ in branch management was typically based on qualifications such as an academic degree and expertise in the perceivedly higher status areas of banking such as corporate customers. The latter qualification was developed mainly through on-the-job training in the course of a lifelong, full-time ‘male’ banking career.

It is noteworthy that this notion of the male ‘ideal worker’ in bank management was maintained in a societal context in which, for decades, full-time work and continuous employment careers had been the norm for both men and women (for the latter, interrupted by short maternity breaks). In the ‘official’ discourse in Finnish society, equal opportunities range high on the agenda. Contemporary state policies are based on an egalitarian–individualistic, double-earner family model enabling both sexes to combine continuous employment with caring for children. Labour markets in Finland, nevertheless, continue to be vertically and horizontally segregated according to sex. Furthermore, unpaid work in the home is still predominantly performed by women, even if they are gainfully employed in the labour market (cf. Duncan 1998; Ostner 1994; Pfau-Effinger 1996).

In the Finnish banks, male connotations of the qualification profile for branch management were reinforced by notions of availability, which corresponded better to men’s than to women’s everyday realities. The ‘ideal’ work-orientation of the branch manager was extended in the sense that he (sic) was expected to play an active role in the social activities of the region and/or local neighbourhood of his branch office. Long-term, trusted customer relationships were the key to successful banking in Finland, in particular, during the regulation era. These relationships were nurtured through mutual activities in, for example, different local associations and clubs. They were also nurtured by doing business during long dinners with heavy drinking or sauna evenings, the latter, by definition, excluding women. Further, expectations about geographical mobility as part of career advancement reinforced the male label of branch management (married women, in particular, were considered to have a ‘handicap’, in that they w ere unable to move when the ‘time came’).

The ‘ideal worker’ in management referred to a ‘male body’ in the Finnish banks (cf. Acker 1990). This was constituted through a clear-cut segregation in terms of entry qualifications and tasks, combined with more subtly defined stereotypes about availability and career orientation. The masculine imagery of the ‘ideal worker’ operated in a societal context in which the separation line between private and public was continuously reproduced by organizational practices — not as a question of women’s access to continuous employment, but as women’s feasability for managerial positions. In a regulated business characterized by bureaucratic tradition, women were effectively kept outside management. Since the first steps of deregulation in Finnish banking in the early 1980s, however, the notion of the ‘ideal worker’ in branch management began to change from ‘male bodies’ to feminine imagery. The banks began to be engaged in organizational reforms.

Shifting Nations of Qualification

In the course of organizational reforming, the focus in branch management shifted from being a banker dealing with the most important (corporate) customers towards the everyday running of the branch through sales work in the mass market and team-leadership toward the staff. ‘It’s producing results through people’, as one of our female branch-manager interviewees described her role. The task profile of local branch managers has undergone a notable change. Assumptions about qualification requirements have shifted accordingly. In the old days, an academic degree was regarded as a necessary entry qualification for branch management. Once the reforms were under way, however, local branch management become quickly perceived by senior managers as a job that can be carried out equally well or even better by people who have come up through the ranks. This is exemplified by one of our female respondents who reached a branch-manager position at an advanced age:

‘It is not so much your education that matters nowadays, it’s what you do. [ …] I have made results, and my way of managing is the right way at this time. […] The most important thing is that I get those people [staff] to work together.’

The new task profile of the local branch manager focuses on sales work and the ability to organize the staff. In the eyes of our Finnish respondents, these skills match societal assumptions of feminine qualities. The remark ‘women are good at taking care of small units’ slipped from the lips of one of our senior manager respondents. Both ‘taking care’ and ‘small units’ are key words here. As one of the female branch managers stated:

‘If you ask the staff, women are just sort of softer, and they listen t customers and they have the patience to chat with the grandmas and grandpas. And the patience to listen to the staff’s problems differently than men. The majority of the bank clerks are, after all, women.’

Perceivedly feminine traits of ‘creating a feeling that the manager is one of the team’ were combined with constant demands on the branch managers for strong management an financial performance. Since the early 1990s, in particular, the branch-manager’s job involved harsh actions. This became even more accentuated during the merger of Kansallis and UBF into Merita Bank in 1995. Among the primary tasks of the chosen branch managers was to negotiate and effect staff reductions in their units, and to achieve ‘cultural integration’ among employees coming from banks with different backgrounds.

During this phase of organizational reforming, the role of branch managers in the Finnish case is like that of a trouble-shooter. This role is defined in the Finnish context as something that both sexes can carry out successfully. It can even be argued further that, in our Finnish case, trouble-shooting at grassroots level often came to be associated with ‘feminine’ skills. A female branch manager who amalgamated two small branch offices, one from Kansallis and one from UBF, in autumn 1996 concludes the following:

‘The women [branch managers] have been taken along because we’re needed desperately for three or four years as we master the employee relations side. […] We are going to carry out the crisis period, the time for ‘giving birth’ to the bank.’

The ‘giving birth’ analogy is noteworthy. Further, it is clear that the feminine imagery in the Finnish banks seems to include an element alien to the German BANK. Females are considered both capable and suitable for making tough people-related decisions (it must be born in mind, however, that employees in the Finnish bank branches are almost exclusively women). This may be seen to reflect the dominant gender role model in Finnish society in general. As Korvajarvi (1998: 21) points out, in Finland ‘it is not necessarily easy to look at gender as activities that are always oppressive to women […] Subordination and empowerment are intertwined with each other [in daily organizational life]’. Individual women may take an active role in working life and stretch established gender roles in organizations.

Shifting Notions of Availability and Work Orientation

In the Finnish societal context, the expectation of continuous full-time employment does not have an exclusively male connotation. For branch management in the banks, it was more the expected long-term geographical and career mobility, the readiness to fulfil ‘extra’ commitments beyond normal working time, and the organization of these commitments in rather male-defined settings (drinking, sauna evenings, etc.) which surrounded the ‘ideal worker’ with a cloud of masculine imagery. This was an imagery of all-round availability that did not fit in easily with care responsibilities at home.

The organizational reforms, however, have led to a downgrading of the local branch-manager job in terms of status and prestige. This is from the viewpoint of both the previous male holders of these jobs and younger potential male candidates. Branch management has turn into an unattractive stage in ‘career’ development. Long-term personal contacts with leading figures of the local community are no longer the key to high performance in branch banking, and this has reduced the need for personal continuity at the managerial level. The need for extended evening activities with prestiguous customers has also been drastically reduced, as the main task of the branch manager has shifted to private customers.

As a result, assumptions about the availability of the ‘ideal worker’ for branch management have changed. First, local branch management has become a job that, in principal, can be carried out during ‘normal working hours’. In Finland, banks are usually open from 9.15 a.m. until 4.15 p.m. (exceptions have only been introduced in recent years). On a day-to-day basis, this allows branch managers to allocate their working hours in a way that more or less matches the opening hours of public child-care institutions in Finland. A female branch manager with young children describes her present ‘principle’ as follows:

‘I arrive at work after I’ve taken the kids to day care at eight, and leave at half past four to pick them up.’

Nevertheless, availability for overtime remained a constituent element of the ‘ideal worker’ for branch management in Kansallis and UBF, particularly during the recession years (1991-1994) and when branches from UBF and Kansallis were amalgamated in the merger of the two banks (1995-1997). However, in the Finnish context, balancing bank work and raising children comes down to individual choices and solutions (i.e. an ‘understanding’ spouse, grandparents, financial means for private day care, etc.). In contrast to Germany, there is no one overriding norm.

‘I know that many of the people [employed in banking] do an awful lot of overtime… I’ve never done that. I think I’m not obliged to do that. […] I have two or I have another life, a family life. The two are connected. But I have always been able to take care of my job this way. […] Of course, at times, you work long hours, when there is a function for the customers or the like. I think doing your job within regular working hours is a question of organizing.’ (female branch manager)

Branch managers in banking may stretch their working day in the morning and/or in the evening to suit the working hours and engagements of their spouse, etc.. With information technology, the manager is also no longer tied down to the branch as a working place. Tasks without the need for immediate customer contact, for example, can be done at home in the evening. This form of flexibility is emphasized in both our senior and branch manager respondents’ accounts.

More generally, it can be said that assumptions about availablity in the Finnish case bank(s) has shifted throughout the organizational reform in a way that allows rather flexible arrangements regarding the combination of managerial work tasks and private care responsibilities. One of our younger female branch-manager interviewees — who was promoted to this position in UBF while having small children — summarizes it as follows:

‘Never have any of my superiors said that it’s terrible [for a working woman] to have kids and so forth. In that sense, too, I’ve had really good bosses all along. And if my kids are ill, there hasn’t ever been any difficulty [to stay at home or to take them with me to work].’

It is noteworthy that references to motherhood typically initially surfaced only as a ‘subordinate clause’ to the main narrative in the accounts of both senior managers and female branch managers (for a more detailed analysis, see Merilainen 2000). Although rhetorically somewhat downplayed, care responsibilities at home do not necessarily have a negative connotation vis-a-vis work. This must be viewed in the context of Finnish society. First, public child-care is organized in a way that allows both partners in a relationship to pursue a full-time job. Often, this is also a financial necessity. Second, our female and male respondents in the Finnish bank(s) signalled a relatively high degree of flexibility in finding individual solutions in cases where public child-care and individual working hours do not match.

Further, domestic arrangements were not irrelevant for those of our female interviewees who were promoted to the branch management position in their late thirties or fourties. This is indicated by a woman who took this step in banking when her children were 10 and 12 years old. In pursuing her new job, she had to work long’ hours during the recession years:

‘At this stage, my husband invested in the kids [he was now able to do so because of a changed work situation]. … In fact, I had peace to concentrate on my work.’

Before her appointment as branch manager, the woman in question has worked for several years as a bank clerk and shop-floor supervisor in Kanasallis. She had postponed her own ambitions for more challenging work responsibilities, because of her husband’s mobile job (and a ‘rising’ career). When the organizational reforms enabled women to advance to local branch management in Kansallis, she was at the right place at the right time with the right qualifications–and with an individual solution for balancing the public and private spheres of life.

In summary, the notion of the ‘ideal worker’ for local branch management in the Finnish case bank(s) has undergone a considerable shift throughout the organizational reforms. It has shifted from notions which were unseparable from a man’s body to feminine imagery. This suggests that women are an equally appropriate — and, at times, even better — choice for branch management. All three dimensions of the ideal worker (qualifications, availability and work orientation) became redefined. Assumptions about qualifications were redefined in a way that downplayed the traditional gender segregation based on entry qualifications (e.g. academic degree) and emphasized a more visible segregation related to tasks (men in corporate banking, women in private banking). Assumptions about availability and work orientation were redefined in terms of a relative downgrading of the branch manager position regarding power and career (no inherent need for ’24-hour socializing’ with key clients and/or for geographical mobility in ma king a bureaucratic career). Women appear as ‘natural’ choices in the Finnish case, but their position as branch manager has a more inferior status then was the case for male branch managers before the reforms. Also, the redefined branch manager position is now much less attractive as a career step.

Cross-Societal Comparison of ‘Ideal Workers’ in Branch Management

In accounting for the differences apparent above, we will turn to the analysis of gender orders, in other words, historically institutionalized patterns of work division, power relationships and emotionally charged relations between men and women in society (Connell 1987). In the German BANK, the evolution of the ‘ideal worker’ from ‘male bodies’ to gender-ambiguous imagery reflects the persistent focus of the German welfare state and family policy on the male bread-winner model, combined with deeply entrenched social norms about the superiority of mothers caring for small children within the family, in contrast to public solutions for child care. Even though welfare-state regulation in Germany has recently given greater leeway to women’s work orientation, by suggesting part-time work as a solution for reconciling family and employment (as exemplified by arrangements concerning parental leave, opening hours of child-care institutions, general attitudes towards the role of family and public institutions in chi ld care), the male bread-winner model has remained prevalent (cf. Duncan 1998; Ostner 1994; Pfau-Effinger 1996, 1998, forthcoming).

With its persistently hierarchical power relationships, based on sex, BANK is by no means an exceptional organization in Germany (cf. Muller 2000; Theobald 1999). In BANK, the ambiguities inherent in the redefinition of ‘ideal worker’ in branch management towards ‘sales people’ reflect the way in which distinctions and relations in the German gender order are shaped by the institutionalization of family and career as contradictory and exclusive orientations for women. Women’s access to branch management in BANK has been conditioned by a continued intrusion of assumptions about women’s role in the private sphere of life in their possibilities to advance in organizational hierarchies. Paradoxically, the ‘official’ rhetoric in organizations works simultaneously to suppress any intrusion of the private sphere in everyday organizational life.

Many women who have made it to branch management in BANK are relatively young and childless. They seem to comprehend that giving birth to a child is likely to ‘end’ (or significantly postpone) their banking career; they would have to start from the bottom again if they chose to re-enter working life. When, therefore, the ‘ideal worker’ is defined within the parameters of the German gender order, the question of availability is dominant; and because gendered assumptions about availability are deeply embedded in the social fabric of contemporary German society, the shift in the notion of the ‘ideal worker’ takes place extremely slowly.

Finnish society provides a sharp contrast to the German. In the Finnish Kansallis and UBF, the pre-reform ‘ideal worker’ in branch management reflected both forms of segregation in the Finnish labour market; horizontal and vertical. The evolution of the ‘ideal worker’ in branch management from ‘male bodies’ to feminine imagery must then be seen against gender relations at the organizational and societal level. There remains a strong consensus about the double-earner family model in the Finnish gender order. There has been a gradual extension of public child-care facilities to enable combinations of child rearing and labour-force participation for both sexes. In working life, however, segregation still persists in terms of access to different areas of activities and hierarchical levels (cf. Duncan 1998; Ostner 1994; Pfau-Effinger 1996, 1998, forthcoming).

The rapid breakdown of qualification requirements related to the masculine notion of the ‘ideal worker’ in branch management in the early stages of reform in the Finnish banks was built not only on organizational developments (including ‘officializing’ shop-floor supervision), but also reflects a period characterized in Finnish society by a shift towards equality and equal opportunities in working life in general, and women in management in particular. Zeitgeist, with its material consequences, molded organizational practices. For example, more generous parental-leave schemes and equal-opportunity initiatives were introduced in the banks. Balancing work and family life has become a question of individual solutions (cf. Merilainen 2000). It is noteworthy that both our senior and branch-manager interviewees frequently made vague references to a changing ‘atmosphere’ in Finnish society in the 1980s and 1990s when explaining gender-related changes within the banks.

Finnish female branch-managers are a mixed group in terms of age and family situation. In sharp contrast to Germany, assumptions about the ‘ideal worker’ for branch management in our Finnish case bank(s), at present, seem to have more to do with general notions of femininity (such as the ‘carer mode’) and masculinity (such as the ‘business banker mode’) and more general attributes such as power, authority and status, than with domestic responsibilities and parenthood. The gendered underpinnings of organizational reform are linked to these general-type notions, which become built into the hierarchical redefinition of positions and qualifications.

In summary, while, in Germany, the question of availability is the key determinant of the gendered ‘ideal worker’, in Finland gendered practices and discourses related to qualifications dominate. Further, while the German version portrays a relatively monolithic set of assumptions of the ‘ideal worker’ in management, the Finnish version can be speculated to yield specific notions of ‘ideal worker’ for specific managerial positions. The shift in the notion of the ‘ideal worker’ in branch management appears significant in the Finnish version, but a view of the totality of gender relations in the organization reveals its ostensible nature.


In this article, we have focused on contradictory dynamics by which gender distinctions and relations evolve and become redefined in organizations. We have illustrated and specified our argument that the ‘ideal worker’ (Acker 1990, 1992) in management, even though in general a masculine notion, should not be perceived as a universal or as a static category. It varies in different settings and at different times (cf. Benschop and Doorewaard 1998b) and its elements are emphasized differently. By means of a cross-societal, comparative study of gender distinctions and relations within the processes of organizational reforming, we have focused on the differing and evolving notions of ‘ideal worker’ in a particular managerial position in banks located in different societies. Clear cross-societal differences could be identified with regard to the directions in which the notion of the ‘ideal worker’ shifted throughout organizational reforming, and to the relative role which each of its elements. (qualifications, avai lability and work orientation) played in the redefinition of gender distinctions and relations in the organizations.

The ‘ideal worker’ in management should be considered societally embedded and evolving in time. Particular societal gender orders (Connell 1987) penetrate organizational life and become incorporated in different, though predominantly masculine, conceptions of ‘ideal worker’. Our analysis suggests that more attention should be given, first, to the dynamics by which gender distinctions and relations in organizations evolve and become redefined over time, and, second, to the way in which these organizational dynamics are interwoven with the development of specific gender orders in societies at large. Comparative analysis of organizational reforming can provide a timely basis for the application of such a ‘gendered societal effect analysis’ (cf. O’Reilly 1999). Also, it can contribute to a critical analysis of the diversity of concepts of gender, femininity and masculinity (Alvesson and Due Billing 1992; Alvesson 1998), and direct attention to how women themselves discursively produce and reproduce gender distinc tions in reformed organizational settings in particular societal contexts (Korvajarvi 1998; Katila and Merilainen 1999).

Generalizations about gender obscure and exclude. Determinations of specificity, however, cannot be made by methodological fiat, but must be decided context by context (cf. Bordo 1990). Knowledge about the societal embeddedness of mechanisms that condition interaction between men and women becomes particularly salient as structural gender inequalities become increasingly overwritten by apparently neutral symbolical representations of gender relations which are, under the surface, deeply rooted in hierarchical and unequal gender distinctions. Taking organizational reforms as an integral part of the research framework is also particularly timely, given the prevalent contemporary discourse on globalization and transformation which penetrates organizations through different techniques of ‘change’ that emphasize (the apparently gender-neutral) financial and economic rationale. An important way forward was demonstrated in the symposium ‘Beyond Armchair Feminism’ (Organization 7/4: 2000), where researchers from the United States and the United Kingdom who are concerned with issues of gender equity describe and analyze their own efforts to intervene in processes of organizational change in companies. Reports of similar efforts in non-Anglo-American settings are called for.

Table 1

Organizational Reforms and ‘Ideal Workers’ in Branch Management


Before reforms After reforms

Qualifications Banking apprenticeship & Banking apprenticeship,

expertise in loans; further training certificate

patriarchal management & sales skills in retail

banking; team leadership

Availability Full-time; life long Full-time; career stage

specific (entry position);

family breaks still excluded

Work-orientation ’24-hour socializing’ in Less obligatory socializing;

return for high career work commitments continue

status to dominate private life in

return for medium career


Ideal worker Imagery of male bodies Gender-ambiguous imagery


Before reforms After reforms

Qualifications Academic degree & Sales skills in retail

expertise in corporate banking; team

banking; patriarchal leadership;

management ‘trouble shooting’

Availability Full-time; life long Full-time; career stage

specific (getting

‘plateaued’); individual

solutions possible

for family breaks

Work-orientation ’24-hour socializing’ in Less obligatory socializing;

return for high career work commitments allow

status balancing of professional

and private life;

low career status

Ideal worker Imagery of male bodies Feminine imagery

Note * We wish to thank the Editor and anonymous reviewers of Organization Studies, Jacqueline O’Reilly, Susan Merilainen and Andrew Sturdy for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article. Funding from Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) and the Academy of Finland is gratefully acknowledged.


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Janne Tienari

Janne Tienari is acting professor of Management and Organizations at the Department of Business Administration in Lappeenranta University of Technology, Finland. He publishes in the areas of organizational change, gender and organizing, media discourse and management, as well as the spread and translation of management ideas. His current work is on the social construction of organizational change in financial services and management consulting.

Mailing Address: Department of Business Administration, Lappeenranta University of Technology, PO Box 20, FLN-53851 Lappeenranta, Finland.


Hildegard Theobald

Hildegard Theobald is researcher at the Social Science Center Berlin (WZB) in Germany. She completed her Ph.D. in Political Science at the Free University of Berlin in 1997. Her research interests include international comparisons of welfare states, labour markets and work organizations from a gender perspective.

Mailing Address: Social Science Center (WZB), Reichpietschufer 50, D-10785 Berlin, Germany.


Sigrid Quack

Mailing Address: Social Science Center (WZB), Reichpietschufer 50, D-10785 Berlin, Germany.

Sigrid Quack is researcher at the Social Science Center Berlin (WZB) in Germany. She publishes in the areas of institutional theory, national business systems, banking and finance, as well as gender studies. Her current research is on globalization and institutional change, with particular reference to business-related services.


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