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6 March 2012 | PR 12/45

Loughborough University Professor sounds note of caution on International Women’s Day


Loughborough University’s Professor Laurie Cohen has spoken out with concerns that workplaces are becoming increasingly “brutal” in response to the economic crisis.  She believes that public sector organisations, in particular, are in danger of undoing their good work in establishing family- and female-friendly environments.

Professor Cohen – leader of the University’s Centre for Professional Work and Careers – says that modern technology has made it easier for bosses to sack people, even recounting stories of workers sacked by text message.  She believes this new ruthlessness is a reaction to the harsh economic climate.

“In the early 1990s I conducted a study focusing on women who had recently left senior positions in organisations to set up their own businesses,” she explained.  “When recounting their decisions to quit, there were resounding similarities in the reasons given: inflexible organisational structures, conditions of service inconsistent with their outside commitments, and workplace cultures that reflected values out of synch with their own priorities and understandings.”

Professor Cohen said that the working world was driven by traditionally “masculine” traits such as individualism and decisiveness in a way that made female employees often feel stifled and invisible.

“However, over the course of the next decade, it looked like things were changing,” she continued.  “The service economy was booming and there was a realisation that those ‘masculine’ traits were not wearing well.  These new organisations were about talking, getting together, building relationships, collaborating and cooperating.  The rhetoric was of networking, emotional intelligence and family-friendliness.  In other words, organisations were become ‘feminised’.”

Professor Cohen credits this feminisation process with the development of less hierarchical organisational structures and opportunities for flexible working that were beneficial to all.  The new skills and qualities required from managers may also have created greater opportunities for career advancement among working women.

Cohen is concerned that the public sector has been transformed by the recent programme of cuts – and signals a return to a more “ruthless” style of management.

“What is particularly striking about this rash of cuts,” she said, “is not only its scale, but how it seems to have triggered a new brutality in our workplaces.  I have collected stories of people told to clear their desks by text or of someone being emailed to say that the department she ran for ten years was being closed.  No consultation – just a message and an instruction not to complain.”

“Interestingly,” she added, “these people were not complaining about the cuts – just the callous, even inhuman way it had been done.  The explanation?  Tough times require tough leaders.”

Professor Cohen is worried that the resurgence of “tough” leadership could undo a lot of the positive progress made over recent years.

“What has happened to emotional intelligence, relationships, collegiality and the winning of hearts and minds?” she asked.  “Can it be that economic necessity trumps compassion and provides an excuse not to care.  And, significantly, once those green shoots of economic regeneration do begin to appear, what sort of organisations will be left to nurture them and help them bloom?”

The Professor’s comments come as the world prepares to celebrate International Women’s Day - the annual event highlighting the social, political and economic accomplishments of women around the world, as well as addressing continuing inequality.

To read the full article by Professor Cohen click here.


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Peter Fountain
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School of Business and Economics
Loughborough University
T : +44 (0)1509 228840
E: P.C.Fountain@lboro.ac.uk

Jon Duckworth
Marketing Assistant
School of Business and Economics
Loughborough University
T: +44(0)1509 228849
E: J.R.Duckworth@lboro.ac.uk

Notes for editors:

About the School of Business and Economics
Loughborough University’s School of Business and Economics is consistently ranked in the Top-10 UK universities for Business and Management by The Times, The Independent and The Guardian.  It was ranked 2nd for Finance & Accounting and for Management in The Sunday Times University Guide 2012.

It is one of just 1% of business schools in the world to be EQUIS-accredited by the EFMD.

95% of the School’s Economics research was rated as of ‘international standard’ by the 2008 RAE.  60% of Business research was rated as ‘world-leading or internationally excellent’.

About Loughborough University
Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It was awarded the coveted Sunday Times University of the Year 2008-09 title, and is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in national newspaper league tables. In the 2011 National Student Survey, Loughborough was voted one of the top universities in the UK, and has topped the Times Higher Education league for the UK’s Best Student Experience every year since the poll's inception in 2006. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, the University has been awarded six Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

Loughborough is also the UK’s premier university for sport. It has perhaps the best integrated sports development environment in the world and is home to some of the country’s leading coaches, sports scientists and support staff. It also has the country’s largest concentration of world-class training facilities across a wide range of sports.

It is a member of the 1994 Group of 19 leading research-intensive universities. The Group was established in 1994 to promote excellence in university research and teaching. Each member undertakes diverse and high-quality research, while ensuring excellent levels of teaching and student experience.

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