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Creating an ‘‘agora’’ for
storytelling as a way of
challenging the gendered
486 structures of academia
Received 15 October 2007 Jennifer Rindfleish and Alison Sheridan
Revised 9 November 2008,
20 January 2009,
School of Business, Economics and Public Policy, University of New England,
25 February 2009 Armidale, Australia, and
Accepted 1 March 2009 Sue-Ellen Kjeldal
Guangzhou Cornell University Vocational Technical Institute,
Private College of the University of Queensland, Guangdong, China
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to present personal experiences of using storytelling as a
‘‘sensemaking’’ tool, to argue for the benefits of this method as a process of better understanding the
gendered academy and the role storytelling can play in effecting change.
Design/methodology/approach – Drawing on personal experiences of storytelling within
workplaces, the paper explores how stories between colleagues can lead to positive change
through the co-construction of new worlds of meaning which are spontaneously revised through
Findings – The paper demonstrates how storytelling between individuals experiencing inequality
makes visible the gendered practices in academic workplaces and can lead to a change in those
experiences of the workplace. Also, such stories can be a means for prompting change through
negotiation. Theoretically, a triple-loop learning environment within an organization could provide
the agora required for stories about inequality to be heard continually and change to come about
through negotiation.
Research limitations/implications – The paper uses a method that serves as a heuristic device
and as such cannot be generalized for all organizational settings. The findings offer a new but partial
solution for negotiating gender inequity in academia by suggesting that there must be more
storytelling in openly public spaces between colleagues to challenge and negotiate the gendered
organizational cultures of academia.
Practical implications – The application of the method of triple-loop learning in academic
organizational settings can assist in challenging and changing gender inequity through the consistent
use of narratives.
Originality/value – The paper is unique in that it argues for the value of a self-reflexive narrative
form of method which favours stories being shared in public spaces – the agora – as a way of
addressing gender inequity within complex, male dominated professions such as academia.
Keywords Storytelling, Gender, Organizational structures, Organizational culture
Paper type Conceptual paper

We are three academic women who have had an ongoing research interest in women’s
experiences in the workplace. This research interest is not only confined to the
experiences of others, but it also has a very personal dimension. Our own experiences
in an academic institution, and our perceptions of the gendered culture in which we
Equal Opportunities International work, have been of considerable interest to us and deeply affected our working lives.
Vol. 28 No. 6, 2009
pp. 486-499 While we have been concerned with the lack of representation of women in senior
# Emerald Group Publishing Limited
positions in our faculty for many years, our efforts in the mid to late 1990s to draw
DOI 10.1108/02610150910980783 women together in our faculty to consider how to improve women’s positions were
largely unsuccessful. These efforts did not lead to cultural change. Instead, from our Creating an
perspective, inequities continued to be played out in the workplace. Over a period of
time, how inequity was manifested in our work environment became more obvious as
‘‘agora’’ for
we three women shared our stories. What was happening to one, we found replicated in storytelling
the others’ experiences. This realization prompted us to write about our perceptions of
the internal conflicts we were experiencing and how these perceptions related to the
formal policies of equal opportunity in our workplace and the tension between our
‘‘lived experiences’’ and these policies. As one of us has a background in psychology,
she was able to identify the processes we were experiencing as cognitive dissonance
(Festinger, 1957), and pointed out that such dissonance could be relieved through
reflection and writing. As organizational scholars our understanding of the construct
of psychological contracts (Robinson and Morrison, 2000) also helped us to make sense
of our stories, as did our reading of the literature surrounding narratives in
organizational studies (Czarniawska, 1997, 2004).
According to Shaw (1997, p. 179) if individuals share their stories in various
contexts, they ‘‘provoke conditions in which people’s co-constructed worlds of meaning
are spontaneously revised in interaction’’. In this case, rather than the three of us
continuing to perceive the inequities being confined to an individual (and seen as ‘‘our
fault’’), we were able to revise our thinking to recognize the systemic nature of our
experiences. In particular, we came to understand how our perceptions of inequity
related to the recognition that the ‘‘grand narrative’’ of equity in our workplace could
not accommodate the events we were recounting to each other. Furthermore, this
realization highlighted that our psychological contracts were being violated (Robinson
and Morrison, 2000) because of the incongruence between our experiences and the
rhetoric of the equitable work environment. Through the process of storytelling, we
came to see there was a mismatching between our expectations and those of the
hegemonic decision makers (Martin et al., 1983) about how an equitable work
environment would operate. Creating the space in which we were able to share these
stories was an important means by which we were able to resist the pervasive
gendered practices and exercise some agency through our writing.
In this paper, we have drawn on our experiences of using storytelling as a
‘‘sensemaking’’ tool (Boje, 1991) to argue for the benefits of sharing personal stories as a
process of better understanding the gendered academy and the role storytelling can
play in effecting change. As Bruner (1990, p. 67) argues, stories are ‘‘especially viable
instruments for social negotiation’’. One of the aims of this paper is to discuss how the
process of storytelling helped make visible the gendered practices in our workplace
and to describe how this led to a change in our experiences of our workplace. A further
aim is to argue for ensuring that such stories are not confined to ‘‘safe’’ spaces, but are
heard in the open public space (agora) of the workplace, as a means for prompting
change through negotiation. The paper is therefore conceptual in nature, however, like
Martin (2003, p. 344) we ‘‘assume that harmful practices can be, if made visible and
named, challenged’’ and argue that, theoretically, a triple-loop learning environment
could provide such an open public space or agora. We explore the barriers to creating
such an environment when gender is the ‘‘problem’’, and give some suggestions for
addressing these constraints. While we are yet unable to map out the ideal solution, we
believe there is some scope for greater reflection and communication between
colleagues to challenge the gendered organizational cultures of academia. More stories
need to be heard in openly public spaces for there to be some recognition of the ongoing
disadvantage women experience in academia. Indeed, to make the stories plausible to
EOI those in the hegemony, we argue that management needs to be committed to creating
and monitoring such an agora, where multiple authors contribute. It will only be
28,6 through such processes that the need for change can be recognized and acted on.

Women’s stories of academia as mechanisms for change

There is a growing literature on women’s experiences within academic institutions
(Morley, 2005). While many studies map the terrain through describing women’s
488 representation in academia (Lund, 1998; Singh, 2002; Chesterman, 2002), others take
the form of statistical analyses of women’s positions within the academic hierarchy
(McDowell et al., 2001, 1999; Morley, 2005), or consider the salary differentials of
women and men (Blackaby et al., 2005; Ginther and Hayes, 2003). A number have also
taken the form of storytelling – in many different ways (Czarniawska, 2004) – as a
means of shedding light on women’s experiences in academia (David and Woodward,
1998; O’Connor, 2000; Sinclair, 2000; Bell and Gordon, 1999; Shain, 2000; Martin, 1996;
Morley, 1994). It is these latter studies we wish to build on in this paper to demonstrate
how storytelling can be a potent means by which women academics acknowledge their
feelings of marginalization, powerlessness and estrangement within academia, and
from this be motivated to effect change (O’Connor, 2000). We maintain that such
writing can be ‘‘healing’’ (Ellis, 1997, p. 128) and more importantly, may be able to be
used to prompt change within the workplace. Stories can generate, as well as reflect,
changes in organizations (Martin et al., 1983; Jabri and Pounder, 2001; Kanter, 1977)
and as such can be powerful mechanisms for change.
While the use of stories can be a means of representing the lived and subjective
experiences of women (Armstead, 1995), the format that stories can take, and how they
are reported can vary considerably among writers. A characteristic of feminist research
is the legitimacy that it grants such research techniques as ‘‘inner reflection, self-
questioning and narration (especially testimony and anecdote)’’ (Sefcovic and Bifano,
2004, p. 56). In the literature we reviewed concerning women’s experiences in academia,
we found that some writers collect stories through interviewing women and reporting
these (Shain, 2000; O’Connor, 2000; Granleese and Sayer, 2005), others use self-
reflection (Bell and Gordon, 1999; Sinclair, 2004; Pini, 2004) while others have used
descriptive histories of the women studies movement to represent women’s experiences
(Jackson, 2000). For the purposes of this paper we are focusing on the self-reflective
stories we have used in our own writing, not to privilege one form of storytelling over
another, but simply to expand on our own use of stories and to demonstrate how they
led to enhanced agency for us as the storytellers. We believe others’ agency can be
enhanced through storytelling and the more stories that are told (and listened to) about
the gendered structures, the more plausible they will be to those in positions to effect
change. We believe this is relevant, not just to women, but to all those who are
‘‘othered’’ by organizational structures.

Storytelling as a sensemaking device

That people put their own lives into narrative form to better understand them, reflects
the broader phenomenon that ‘‘actions acquire meaning by gaining a place in the
narrative of life’’ (Czarniawska, 2004, p. 5). In our own case, we used storytelling as a
sensemaking device in our own workplace to understand the ‘‘micropolitics, networks
and homosociality’’ of universities to which Morley (2005, p. 116) refers. As Maitlis
(2005, p. 21) notes ‘‘sensemaking occurs in organizations when members confront
events, issues and actions that are somehow surprising or confusing’’. For instance, in
describing how women’s scholarship has been devalued, Bell and Gordon (1999) Creating an
recounted their own efforts in seeking promotion to demonstrate how judgements were
made about the value of their research. They cite their experience in the context of a
‘‘agora’’ for
‘‘myriad of other painfully documented experiences’’ as evidence of the continuing storytelling
‘‘devaluing and discrediting of women’s work’’ (Bell and Gordon, 1999, p. 656).
In our case, we were grappling with our observations of inequitable practices within
our workplace which had won many awards for its equity policies. Researchers have
previously described how the reality of continuing gender inequity within
organizations can be obscured by using ‘‘awards’’ and ‘‘equality audits’’ as ways of
focusing on how the organization has ‘‘already’’ or ‘‘nearly’’ achieved equality (Ahmed
et al., 2006; Hunter and Swann, 2007). Our sensemaking was through the process of
telling each other stories about our experiences, which did not align themselves with
the award winning status of our organization. As such, we were more concerned with
‘‘facts-as-experience’’ than ‘‘facts-as-information’’ (Gabriel, 2000, p. 31). That we were
making sense after the events is consistent with the view of Weick (1995) that
sensemaking is retrospective. In our recounting of the stories to each other, we are also
cognizant that there was a certain relishing of the stories, and as such we were
probably ‘‘moulding them, twisting them and embellishing them for effect’’ (Gabriel,
2000, p. 29). From a post-modern perspective, life is taken as heterogenous, made up of
a plurality of interpretations, making knowledge and ‘‘truth’’ unfixed. Individually
then, as Bruner (1991, p. 619) argues, ‘‘we organize our experience and our memory of
human happenings mainly in the form of narrative’’.
In terms of the criticism that there is no way to confirm a story’s ‘‘truth’’, we
acknowledge that there would be many different stories to be told about our workplace.
The responses invited by such stories are not to counter the ‘‘facts’’ they contain, but to
engage with their meanings (Gabriel, 2000). As recognized by Czarniawska (1997, p. 20)
it is not possible to decide among them, except through negotiation. Negotiation
requires more than one participant and it is this process which we are promoting as an
important means of change management. In the early stages of our sensemaking we
told our stories in a ‘‘safe space’’ – sharing our stories over coffee in our offices, and then
writing them together as a journal article. On reflection, we can see that while the
stories were being published in that ‘‘space’’, there was little likelihood of them being
countered by our male colleagues.

Increased agency through storytelling

It has been interesting to follow our behaviour since writing the initial article, because
the process of sharing stories seems to have prompted action on our part. When we
wrote about the sorts of everyday occurrences of inclusion/exclusion in our workplace,
we had a number of stories we had told each other which we could have drawn on. For
the sake of brevity, we had to agree to include only a few stories. This process reduced
our stories to ‘‘terse’’ versions. Outside of this specific workplace, these would hardly
rate as ‘‘good’’ stories, but they were meaningful to those of us involved in constructing
them. They were dialogical, too, in that the value of the stories lay in the process of
exchange through which they emerged (Gabriel, 2000). In exploring the relationship
between the practice of management consulting and story-making Johansson (2004)
also envisages ‘‘story-making as a reflective act that moves between enhancing
reflection and preparing for action’’. For us, it was this dynamic character of
storytelling that held promise in terms of challenging the gendered structures of
EOI The process of refining the article and moving it through the publication process
made us revisit the stories time and time again. In doing so, we seem to have moved
28,6 from passive compliers with the practices, to more active resisters. While we never
framed ourselves as victims – the sociologist amongst us kept us honest on that front
by reminding us of our many dimensions of privilege; white, middle class, professional,
educated women – we began to recognize our own compliance with the hegemony. We
became more questioning of the decisions being taken relating to our work
490 environment and more vocal in our challenging of these. Through this process, our
sense of agency was significantly enhanced.
The vignettes we have used in our writing can be understood from a variety of
theoretical perspectives. Each of them related to experiences where we felt there was a
discrepancy between our expectations of what should happen and what was actually
happening. The literature on psychological contracts recognizes the negative fallout
to organizations of the non-fulfilment of psychological contracts (Robinson and
Rousseau, 1994). Also equity theory points to the problems associated with employees
perceiving inequities between their efforts and the rewards received (De Cieri and
Kramar, 2005), or other colleagues getting away with not pulling their weight. As well,
in the literature surrounding narratives in organizations the problem is raised of an
event not being able to be integrated into a plot whereby it becomes understandable
in the context of what has happened (Czarniawska, 1997). This latter literature on
events being placed in the context of narratives relates to the psychological construct
of cognitive dissonance. Rather than the stories being part of the folklore, in this
paper we are considering the power of stories that do not conform with the
metanarrative of an equitable workplace and therefore can be seen as the ‘‘rule
breaking’’ type (Martin et al., 1983).
As the workload allocations for academics in our school were being revised in the
year following our discussions, one of us took on a leading role in formulating an
equitable workload allocation, to be consistent with the University’s overall policy. In
so doing, we all became more confident that the actual loads were consistent with the
planned loads because more accountability about casual labour expenditures was built
into this new system. The deals would be harder to ‘‘hide’’ with these new ‘‘rules’’. With
each other, we then started extending the story to include how we had acted in
response to the previous inequities. As such, our new story also fitted the ‘‘rule
breaking’’ type (Martin et al., 1983), but in this case we believed this was a positive
development as we had sought to challenge the rule breaking. Furthermore, our stories
began to include reference to us not having to be silent (seething) observers in our
workplace and as such increased our sense of agency. As Katila and Merilainen (1999)
describe in their reflections on the construction of identities in a business school, we are
all discursively producing and reproducing gender divisions. Through the process of
our storytelling, we were discursively producing a change in our identities.
The extension of our stories suggests we are somewhat closer to a ‘‘serial’’ mode or
process (Czarniawska, 1997, pp. 78-9), as it has become clearer that the ‘‘episodes’’ we
are recounting to each other ‘‘can continue forever’’. This recounting of the events that
followed our writing reflects our experiences of the change to workload allocation, but
no doubt there are others’’ versions. If managers are to more fully engage with the
structural changes required to address gender inequity, then there need to be active
encouragement of all the stories, and in doing so, making a contestable space for the
stories. One possible way in which the stories of ‘‘others’’ can be included in a
workplace culture is through a process described as triple-loop learning.
Creating an ‘‘agora’’ using triple-loop learning Creating an
Our aim of proposing triple-loop learning be introduced into the workplace culture of
academia is to create the public space, or agora, so that more narratives can be told
‘‘agora’’ for
about workplace experiences. Continuous storytelling would allow for an storytelling
understanding of the different interpretations of equity that exist among staff members
in order to work towards ‘‘non-repetition’’ of inequity and ‘‘healing and healthy
coexistence’’ (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 1996). Following Jabri (2004),
we argue that differences in perceptions between individuals in a workplace can be
used to create a greater awareness of issues affecting those individuals’ experiences
of their work.
We argue for triple-loop learning because single- and double-loop learning are not
sophisticated enough to address the complexities of gender inequity required to bring
about cultural change in organizations. Single-loop learning is the lowest form of
learning whereby individuals merely respond to changes in their internal and external
environments by detecting errors and modifying strategies to deal with these errors.
However, single-loop learning occurs within the confines of the existing norms of the
organization and as such would not have the capacity to challenge the existing
organizational norms that reproduce gender inequity.
Double-loop learning is concerned with individuals learning to learn. Individuals
have the ability to learn to learn by reflecting and inquiring into previous contexts for
learning (i.e. existing organizational cultural learning norms and boundaries),
assessing whether learning has occurred or failed to occur, and questioning the
appropriateness of their learning behaviours. It is then possible to devise alternative
approaches based on new assumptions and norms of learning to correct learning
behaviour. However, because this type of learning happens mostly on an individual
level, the structural barriers to gender equity inherent in organizational cultures are
less able to be challenged.
Triple-loop learning is the form of learning concerned with learning at an
organizational level. While some authors focus on the strength of triple-loop learning to
actually alter the environment in which it operates, for example, by stabilizing the
environment in which it operates and/or its relation to it, for our purposes we adopt a
more culturally oriented view of triple-loop learning. This more culturally oriented
view is a process whereby double-loop learning can spread throughout an entire
organization, so that a continuous process of reflection and inquiry of learning
assumptions, evaluation of these, and, where appropriate, altering existing learning
patterns will enable a more healthy organizational culture to emerge (Burnes et al.,
2003; Yeo, 2002).
Coopey and Burgoyne (2000, p. 875) argue that normalizing pressures in
organizations that are partially a result of concern over financial and capital markets,
and a short-term view of maximizing profits, lead to the denial of space wherein
‘‘people can learn and, through that learning, the organization can evolve further’’.
Mirvis (1996, pp. 18-9; cited in Coopey and Burgoyne, 2000) suggests that a way of
creating space would be to use the dialogue that arises from negotiation between
groups within organizations, where dialogue is ‘‘a sustained collective inquiry into the
processes, assumptions and certainties that comprise everyday experience’’ (Bronn and
Bronn, 2003, p. 299). The organization then becomes the context for stimulating
constructive conflict (Coopey and Burgoyne, 2000) whereby individuals can participate
in double- and even triple-loop learning through a process that allows for both
reflection on the assumptions underlying their own behaviour and awareness raising of
EOI the world-views of others within their organization. It is via this process that
organizational learning as shared learning, can occur. It is about people in systems
28,6 learning together, developing together and helping to effect change together. The
linking of stories into a serial, in this sense, represents an example of how people can,
as Shaw (1997) describes, co-construct a world of meaning through their reflections on
their own assumptions. Importantly, they must become aware of others’ assumptions,
and participate in communication competence at a very deep level, that of developing
492 shared (but not necessarily similar) knowledge about the culture of the workplace as
perceived by ourselves and others. Conflict then becomes included as an important
part of the narrative of change management and not the point at which organizational
cultures are divided and split asunder.
Dialogue that is geared towards developing a learning organization involves
reflection, inquiry and advocacy (Bronn and Bronn, 2003). Reflection, an internally
focused skill, involves an individual becoming more aware of the manner in which they
think and reason. Inquiry is a process whereby individuals make each other aware of
their reasoning process, and also attempt to understand those of others. When we
engage in advocacy, we communicate our reasoning to others in a manner which
makes our thought processes, and the assumptions underlying our mental models,
visible for others to see. These skills allow us to work with our mental models, a task
that is difficult as we need to be able to ‘‘work consciously with mental models and their
underlying assumptions’ (Bronn and Bronn, 2003, p. 299). Mutual suspicion and game
playing for the purposes of individual advantage are just some of the issues that
hamper the process of constructing an organization wherein active dialogue can occur
(Bronn and Bronn, 2003).
An important part of this process is gaining an understanding of the ‘‘shadow side’’
of the organization so that potential barriers to organizational learning can be detected
and actively managed. Multi-directional feedback (invoking the communication
management competencies of active listening, assertiveness, storytelling and
storylistening) and double-loop learning processes (facilitated by systems and creative
thinking) in the context of living a learning culture are vital tools to achieve this state
of affairs (Kaye, 1995). However, so often these ‘‘theoretical positions’’ are not translated
into everyday practices that can enact change, especially in an environment such as
academia where electronic communication has become so pervasive. The convergence
of our stories into the realization of the same ‘‘lived experiences’’ of cognitive
dissonance became a ‘‘co-constructed world of meaning’’ that was spontaneously
revised through our interaction. The initial cognitive dissonance we experienced
ultimately led to our insight that the experience of being an ‘‘other’’ can have triple-loop
learning outcomes in the wider organizational sense of change.
Concrete examples of the use an agora as a process to work through and challenge
chronic social barriers to equity are difficult to find due, mostly we believe, to the fact
that the idea we propose here is innovative. One broad example is that in June 2008 the
European Parliament organized its second ‘‘Citizen’s Agora’’ on the topic of climate
change in order to get input civil society stakeholders on the different topics discussed.
That input came in the form of five conclusion papers which were the result of face-to-
face workshops on environmental, health, security, peace and economy impacts of
climate change. These conclusion papers were then to be integrated into the work of
the European Parliament’s temporary committee on climate change (European Youth
Forum, 2008). This example is obviously transnational in character and sets out to
address a different social issue to gender inequity. It also occurs outside of a specific
organizational setting. Another example is the EUREKA project developed over more Creating an
than a decade in Canada and continues to this day in the USA. A project developed to ‘‘agora’’ for
provide an agora for discussions about work practices between Xerox technicians and
Xerox managers (Duguid, 2006). Although organizationally specific, such a project storytelling
shows how trust can be engendered between traditionally and hierarchically divided
employees in an organization which in turn can result in the generation of new
knowledge and an increase in organizational value. 493
Barriers to learning
Katila and Merilainen (1999, p. 171) note that ‘‘it takes courage, effort and willingness to
reflect upon and learn from one’s own activities’’. Recognizing this, but at the same time
wanting to identify how to promote such reflection, we are grappling with how to
ensure that the process of exchanging stories between different group members is done
in a manner which respects the different views and promotes reflection. Questions such
as does it need to be facilitated? Can it occur spontaneously? Is it too idealistic to think
that those benefiting from the hegemony will see any need to listen to the stories of
‘‘others’’? How do we get our male colleagues to be more reflexive? These are all
questions we need to consider further if we are to be able to fulfil our goal of using
stories to challenge inequity in academia.
Ely et al. (2006, p. 80) argue for the need for ‘‘constructive engagement of
differences’’ in order to develop more meaningful relationships in workplaces with
diverse profiles, where relationships often have to cross ‘‘boundaries’’ such as race,
gender, religion. Specifically they detail five principles – pause; connect with others;
question yourself; get genuine support; and being open to a shifting mind-set – as steps
to create more inclusive workspaces. The principle of ‘‘questioning yourself’’, we see as
another term for self-reflection, a fundamental tenet of many strands of feminism
(Jackson and Jones, 1998). Yet it is one that is often difficult for individuals to engage in,
especially those from positions of privilege and those in professional occupations such
as academia.
That sharing ‘‘personally meaningful insights’’ in an occupational setting does not
come easily to some men, is revealed by David Knight’s admission of his ‘‘masculine
reluctance to open up my own subjectivity to scrutiny for fear of exposing the
weaknesses that inevitably lurk within’’ (Knights, 2006, p. 700). As Knights (2006,
p. 715) observes, if even he who has spent a large part of his academic career seeking to
challenge ‘‘the dominance of mainstream and maelstream approaches in organization
studies’ finds it uncomfortable to engage in self-reflection, how much more difficult is it
for those ‘‘less inclined to break with tradition?’’.
In their review of the barriers to learning from experience, Boud and Walker (1993)
elaborate on the difficulties that some learners, and they admit themselves included,
have in working with experience. Specifically they note that ‘‘not being in touch with
one’s own assumptions and what one is able to do’’, ‘‘threats to oneself, one’s world-view
or to ways of behaving’’, and ‘‘lack of self-awareness of one’s place in the world’’ (Boud
and Walker, 1993, p. 79) can all contribute to blocking the sort of self-reflection required
for learning to occur. It is just these sorts of barriers that we see as almost impermeable
when issues relating to gender are raised in workplaces. For many men in positions of
privilege, they are unable to see their privilege, and not having been in the position of
the ‘‘other’’, lack a fundamental ‘‘self-awareness of one’s place in the world’’ (Boud and
Walker, 1993, p. 79). Knights (2006, p. 715) goes on to explain that his account of his
EOI own effort to engage in self-reflection made him ‘‘more aware of how devious the
28,6 intellect can be in suffocating the faintest sense of intimate disclosure’’.
From our experience, Ely et al. (2006) suggested principles for change do not
adequately engage with the strategies for facilitating the self-reflection that are
essential to the triple-loop learning we see as ideal. The questioning required of oneself
by those in positions of power becomes a barrier to openness that we believe remains
494 the major impediment to creating more inclusive workplaces. While Ely et al. (2006)
make the claim that workplaces will be more inclusive if the leaders are able to
model the five principles – with a particular emphasis on the leader questioning him/
herself – at the same time they acknowledge that such questioning is the most difficult
principle, especially given the commonly understood image of the ‘‘confident, decisive
leader’’ (Ely et al., 2006, p. 87), which of course is highly correlated to masculinity
(Sinclair, 2005).
In their writing, Ely et al. (2006) underestimate the social dynamics involved in
being open to learning and the dominance of hegemonic masculinity currently
underpinning the most commonly held notions of leadership, which undermines their
idealized approach to creating more inclusive workplaces. Much more attention needs
to be paid to understanding the barriers to self-reflection, before they can be
surmounted. An alternative approach to generating change can be garnered from Boud
and Walker’s (1993, p. 85) argument that learning from experience may ‘‘be prompted
by systemic reflection, but it can also be powerfully prompted by discrepancies or
dilemmas which we are ‘‘forced’’ to confront’’. Boud and Walker (1993) maintain that
others’ stories may be the means by which individuals learn from experience, through
the ‘‘naming’’ of a process that may be otherwise ‘‘invisible’’ to the person.
Much of the gendering of organizational norms continues to be invisible to those
who benefit from them (Benokraitis, 1998), so there needs to be a more rigorous
collating of the perceptions of privilege by those who do not benefit. From Westrum’s
(1982) description of social policy making concerning ‘‘hidden’’ events, it seems an
event may remain invisible because it seems implausible (or socially unacceptable).
The invisibility of contemporary disadvantage as experienced by women in academia
is one such example that many men see as implausible. After decades of equal
opportunity, the commonly held view is that discrimination is a thing of the past. While
this may be the case for instances of direct discrimination, the more subtle barriers
academic women experience in the workplace remain hidden. Drawing from Westrum’s
work on social intelligence about hidden events (Westrum, 1982), it becomes clear that
The development of an effective agora that highlights the challenges to gender Creating an
structures in academia requires a genuine understanding at all levels of the academic ‘‘agora’’ for
profession of the need for a shared meaning regarding gender inequity and a
commitment to the co-creation of new worlds of meaning for the profession. It requires storytelling
more than the current EEO reporting requirements of counting the numbers of women
at the different levels of the hierarchy, or the realization of a critical mass of women
(Kanter, 1977) in the higher echelons of the profession. While these are important, we 495
need a multi-pronged approach. In an era when technology has largely taken over as
the common platform for all forms of communication in workplaces, perhaps an
anonymous internet blog instigated for the purpose of recounting stories amongst
academics could be one way of addressing, managing and co-creating new worlds of
meaning that become a platform for change. Such an instrument for change would
have to be assiduously monitored to identify where change could be affected, as well as
for preventing unauthorized or mischievous usage. However, other more traditional
vehicles for communication in academia could also be used; such as a yearly conference
on equity and regular seminars and workshops. While these were more common in the
1980s, in the past two decades we have seen a stepping back from equal opportunity
policies designed around specific targeted groups to the more generic managing
diversity policies (Strachan et al., 2007). It is time to refocus on the specific equity
issues women face.
Communication of all kinds is the key to bringing about change and prioritizing the
need to focus on challenging the gendered structures of academia is paramount both at
the individual and collective levels of academia. The management of the creation of an
‘‘agora’’ addressing equity issues would also require managers with high levels of
managerial competency and raised awareness of gender issues in the workplace. The
capacity to create such a space and then act on the issues that emerge are skills we are
suggesting should be selected for in academic management appointments. If these
skills are not evident, then it is unlikely that change will occur.

The process of storytelling between we three academic women became a reflexive
device that not only led to the three of us identifying with our individual perceptions of
inequity but produced the ‘‘safe’’ space for a dialogue that co-constructed a world of
meaning and allowed for a spontaneous revision of our ‘‘lived experience’’ through our
interaction. Our storytelling of internal conflict actually made visible the gendered
practices in our workplace. Once made visible these practices could be resisted and
challenged (Gabriel, 2000) with the outcome being that our agency was enhanced.
However, in order for our wider workplace culture to become more inclusive we also
realized that the stories of others within the culture must be included for healing,
‘‘sensemaking’’ and effective change to occur. As Maddock and Parkin (1994) argued
more than a decade ago, ‘‘democratic organizations will only develop when the power
of gender cultures is acknowledged and challenged by both men and women’’
(Maddock and Parkin, 1994, p. 40). In this paper we have argued that creating an agora
where the different stories of others can be heard could assist the broader aim of
achieving real cultural change in academia. In participating in these agoras,
individuals and groups could work towards new ways of experiencing their
organization based on equitable and respectful relationships between the genders.
Further research could explore how to make this happen in practice.
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‘‘agora’’ for
About the authors storytelling
Jennifer Rindfleish is currently a Senior Lecturer in the School of Business, Economics and Public
Policy at the University of New England, in Armidale, NSW, Australia. Her research interests
cover the areas of gender in organisations, consumption and self-identity and applied marketing.
Jennifer teaches in the areas of Consumer Behaviour and Marketing Communications. She is the 499
corresponding author and can be contacted at:
Alison Sheridan is currently a Professor in the School of Business, Economics and Public
Policy at the University of New England, in Armidale, NSW, Australia. Her research interests
cover the areas of gender in organisations, women on boards and human resource management.
Alison teaches in the areas of Human Resource Management and Gender Issues in Management.
Sue-Ellen Kjeldal is currently a Professor in the Guangzhou Cornell University Vocational
Technical Institute, a private college in China affiliated with the University of Queensland. Her
research interests cover the areas of communications management, gender in organisations and
organisational behaviour. Sue-Ellen teaches in the areas of organisational behaviour, consumer
behaviour and human resource management.

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