A wide-ranging collection, Ivanica Vodanovich

The Gender Factor: Women in NZ Organisations
Suzann Olsson (ed),
Dunmore Press, $39.95

A focus on gender, one of the major contributions of feminist research, shifts the emphasis from biology to culture, from a perspective that sees the organisation of work in society as rooted in sexual biological differences to one that sees culture as a central organising principle of human society. Therefore gender roles are not ‘fixed’ by biology, but are problematic, culturally variable, and historically and socially determined.

This approach to the division of labour in society has provided a basis for a radical critique both of society and much contemporary social research, and raised important policy issues. Feminist research is characterised by a commitment to the connection between theory and practice, and between fundamental research and policy debate.

This collection, edited by Suzann Olsson, fits within this tradition. Its emphasis is, as its subtitle suggests, on women in organisations. The focus is on the feminine gender as opposed to an explicit consideration of masculinity and femininity, and on women in the ‘public’ arena as opposed to women in the private or domestic sphere. However this opens up a large area of social life. The term ‘organisations’ is interpreted broadly, and includes formal organisations as well as voluntary organisations, home work and self-employment, and contains both historical and contemporary studies.

The twenty articles are grouped into five sections, gender theories and New Zealand organisations, employment equity issues, gender, language and media, women and New Zealand organisations, and the self-employment option for women. So it is a wide-ranging collection. Each section contains a range of articles, some highly theoretical, others more like small case studies or research reports. This means that the work as a whole, while comprehensive, is also uneven and fragmented. However it does clearly show the complexity of the issue.

The concept of gender as a cultural construct and the emphasis on the links between research and policy, theory and practice provide the two unifying threads of the collection. Olsson, in her introduction, and James and Saville-Smith in their article on feminist perspectives, outline clearly and cogently this position. New Zealand feminist research on gender owes much to the work of James and Saville-Smith who have argued elsewhere that New Zealand is a ‘gendered culture’ in that in our society all social relations are structured and understood through a prism of gender relations. Although this claim is debatable, particularly because of the primacy it appears to give gender over class and race, this collection of papers shows clearly the usefulness of this perspective in guiding research. It raises questions about assumptions which have been taken for granted and makes explicit practical policy issues.

O’Neill’s analysis of the way in which the myth of equal opportunity functions within the educational institutions to disadvantage women both within the education system and subsequently the labour market, is an outstanding illustration of this. Similarly Parr’s examination of employment equity and EEO and the contradictions between the basic assumptions of ‘traditional’ New Zealand social policy and those underpinning EEO raise issues of general concern which should be the focus of national debate. Armstrong, with her discussion of ‘home-working’ as an emerging trend of post-industrial society, identifies an issue of increasing concern. The papers in the section on language and media document the way in which assumptions about gender are naturalised and perpetuated by cultural institutions so that they become taken for granted.

There is a sixth section which contains three interviews with women who have attained prominence within their chosen field, Jocelyn Fish within the National Council of Women, Ruth Dyson in politics and Phillida Bunkle in Women’s Studies and research. I found these interviews particularly interesting. Essentially they were case studies illustrating the issues involved for women working within organisations and the different ways in which women perceived the problems and attempted to resolve them. They showed clearly the interaction between experience, consciousness and practice. They also demonstrated the complexity of the issues involved that do not allow of any simplistic or single solution.

On the debit side is an absence of contributions from Maori or Pacific island women, a major gap acknowledged by the editor. If it was not possible to obtain a contribution from these groups it might have been possible to address the intersection between ethnicity and gender in organisations theoretically. Class, the other major missing concept in this collection, is implicit in many of the studies. One of the issues that does emerge in this book is of the way in which gender, class, race and age intersect and are related. Such a study could be a logical sequence to this collection. An analysis of these inter-relationships, rooted in the perspective of gender, would raise critical and challenging questions.

On the credit side, the range of issues included in this collection means that it can serve as a handbook and general reference text for work on this topic in New Zealand. It gives wider visibility to this issue and increases understanding of the role of gender in our society. It addresses matters of general and national concern and deserves a wide audience.


Ivanica Vodanovich teaches sociology at Auckland University.



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Posted in Gender, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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