Introduction to Wives of the Organization

An exchange between Alison Konrad and Anne Huff to introduce Wives of the Organization

Alison Konrad
Professor of Organizational Behavior
Corus Entertainment Chair in Women in Management
Richard Ivey School of Business
U. of Western Ontario

Anne Sigismund Huff
Permanent Visiting Professor of Innovation and Strategy
Technische Universität München
& Academic Director
Center for Leading Innovation & Cooperation
HHL - Leipzig Graduate School of Management

© Copyright 2009 Alison Konrad and Anne Sigismund Huff. All rights reserved.

October 2009

Alison: As an Assistant Professor, I remember receiving a copy of Anne Huff's, "Wives of the Organization", and assuming that it would soon be published as a conceptual paper in a journal or as a book chapter. That never happened, and as a result, junior scholars whose Ph.D.s are younger than mine didn't have a chance to read this profoundly insightful organizational analysis. In working toward getting the paper out into the world and more widely read, I asked Anne to send me a hard copy and had my Administrative Assistant, Sharon Rochard, type it into a Word document. Sharon was fascinated by the paper and told me it is one of the most interesting things she had ever read and very relevant to her organizational life. So, this paper is important to organizational practice as well as to theorizing.

Anne: I am glad that you and Sharon found this paper interesting, Alison. The same broad attention surprised and pleased me years ago at the University of Illinois when it began to circulate not only among some of my colleagues but also among staff as my assistant Mary Oberg sent it to her friends and they passed it on. In fact, I suspect “Wives of the Organization” has reached a larger audience than anything that I have published. Over the years I have sent it to a wide range of places, from someone at Harvard Medical School to a consulting firm in South Africa. Even though it is almost 20 years old, I received four requests for it in the last year.

While an underground publication can thus be surprisingly powerful, as a researcher focusing on gender and diversity in organizations you might be interested in the circumstances that made me decide not to reach other audiences by formally publishing the paper. I gave the original speech not long after I became an Associate Professor, as a favor to my friend, Kathleen Underwood. I then accepted several requests to repeat it to academic and professional audiences in the United States and the UK. It generated lively debate, but I quickly felt it pushed me to a major crossroad in my career.

The people I talked with (almost universally women) typically agreed that the issues I pointed to were real, but they also contested some of my claims. It was the beginning of the kind of lively conversation I seek, but I had to realize that I was not speaking from my research training or research. To enter into debate, at least among academics, I obviously had to become more knowledgeable about theory and prior research on gender. Even thought the prospect was energizing, I was reluctant to spread myself this thin, especially because we had two young children at home.

Overload was one reason for not seeking another outlet, but the even more compelling reason was the recognition that this paper made many colleagues (then almost universally male) in strategic management and organization theory very nervous. The decision to remain off the academic radar screen came the day a good friend (male) said, “I didn’t realize you were so radical!” I thought at the time, and still think, that some of my ideas are more radical than the ones expressed here, but this and other remarks made it very clear that continuing to talk about gender would significantly affect my identity. I decided I was at a point in my career that it made sense to focus instead on the general questions of organizational change that initially drew me into academics.

Alison: As for me, I knew I wanted to study gender in the workplace, which broadened to diversity in organizations, from the time I was 19 years old taking a college course in Social Problems from a wonderful Sociology Professor named Steve Buban. With my applications to Ph.D. programs, I enclosed one of my 40+ page undergraduate term papers entitled, “Feminism and the Oppression of Women” (I knew everything back then and still love reading that paper when I dig it out every once in awhile). As you might surmise, many doctoral programs turned me down, but I was fortunate to have Barbara Gutek notice my application to the Claremont Graduate University (eventually, she became my Ph.D. advisor and Dissertation Chair).

Now and again, someone would caution me about making such a radical career choice, but I was always internally driven by this set of issues and challenges for organizations, and nothing was going to shake me off my path. Sadly, even in the 2000s, when I speak at doctoral student consortia, a student will inevitably ask if he or she should drop gender and diversity as a research stream because it will be seen as too radical and will hurt his or her career options. My answer is always the same: an academic life is a very hard life in many ways. We get lots of negative feedback in the immediate term and the delay between doing the work of research and receiving the gratification of publication is extremely long. To remain motivated in the face of such a demotivating environment, a person has to do research that he or she is passionate about. Changing one’s topic for the sake of appearances or others’ approbation is not going to get you through the long hard slogs of a devilish R&R process. You have to choose a research program that you can passionately devote your life to; otherwise, the academic life is just not worth it.

Anne: That is excellent advice, and it applies not just to subject choices but to the many smaller decisions scholars must make about context, methods and analysis. Though choosing to study gender may still be risky, I see considerable progress. It is now more likely that subject pools will be divided, for example, in many different areas of inquiry. More broadly, a diversifying workforce in organizations is having an effect. Certainly it is a pleasure to look out at an academic audience and begin to see the variety that understanding organizations requires.

I did feel that both I and the management field were “growing up” when I was ready for Alison’s plan to publish “Wives of the Organization” in Group and Organization Management. I also had to recognize that though I rather enjoyed being a clandestine author, there is a false romance around an underground paper. Having thought for some time about relationships that troubled my career, my purpose was (and still is) to share my conclusions with others. Word of mouth can be effective advertising, but as you say, Alison, the paper is now virtually inaccessible, which publication would have avoided.

Yet I think my past decision makes sense as an early career move. When advising younger colleagues, I routinely council focusing on one basic field of inquiry. As journal placement becomes more important, the capacity to make authoritative statements is more central than it was it in the past. It takes time to gain the expertise that authority requires.

One result of a world pressured by publication statistics, however, is that a speech like this one is less and less likely to be initially given or later refined. I regret the loss of variety that comes from speaking across fields. It is a needed source of energy for both individuals and disciplines.

A complicated but rewarding path, I believe, is to adopt a portfolio perspective. This is not the only project I have given attention, even though I knew it would not be externally rewarded. Yet I have balanced these efforts with other projects that I knew would be counted. It is not an easy path – not long ago I lost an appointment I would have liked to have because my publication record was “not strong enough” – but I have maintained a sense of enthusiasm and control, of agency, that is invaluable.

Alison: There were interesting timing and career issues for me as well in the saga of bringing “Wives of the Organization” to a broader public. I initiated the project toward the end of my tenure as editor of Group and Organization Management because I was interested in publishing more about Management History and Feminist Organizational Theorizing. I thought Anne’s piece would stimulate interest in the journal as well as generate interesting discussion and debate in the field. It turned out, however, that the timing was not good. Getting the commentaries and Anne’s responses to the commentaries took so long, that the journal had moved to a different agenda under a new editor.

Nonetheless, Joyce Fletcher, Marta Calàs and Linda Smircich, made extremely thoughtful commentaries on “Wives of the Organization,” and Anne has a provocative response in her short paper on citizenship. Together the set provides a sharp feminist lens that can greatly benefit organizational theorizing.

This website is a good home for carrying out my initial vision. I am glad that the original Wives paper as well as the subsequent review will now find an audience and want to thank Anne, Marta, Linda, and Joyce, for sharing their work, along with Anne-Wil for her interest in presenting it.

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