Society for the Anthropology of Work




Ethnography of Women in US Businesses

By Keri Brondo and Marietta L. Baba (Michigan State U)


At the 2005 AAA conference we were invited to contribute to COSWA’s four-field session on “women and work.”  Our task was to discuss contributions from the subfield of organizational or business anthropology, and in particular, to highlight research focused on women in US businesses.  The following summarizes aspects of our paper and reflections on the degree to which gender is analyzed within business anthropology.

There are ample publications discussing female factory labor and women in the global economy, from the work conducted by our panel discussants (Louise Lamphere, Helen Safa, and Sarah Nelson), to the new wave of feminist anthropologists like Carla Freeman.  There is also research on “women’s occupations,” such as Spradley and Mann’s famous ethnography, The Cocktail Waitress.  Yet the sources are not so plentiful when it comes to “business anthropology.”  Some studies of organizations have considered gender, such as Tomaka Hamada’s 1995 article analyzing a sexual harassment case in an American subsidiary of a Japanese multi-national firm.  There is also Melissa Fisher’s recent work on Wall Street women, which examines changes both within and outside of the women’s community, including the feminist movement, the globalization of markets, the temporality of work and the influence these factors have had upon women’s organizational identity.  Yet while we could locate some studies of women in business, we still seemed to be staring into a huge lacuna.

It has been noted throughout the academy that organizational theory has been theoretically constructed as non-gendered, and lacking in its attention to race, class, and other forms of power differential.  Recognizing this problem, management programs created a new school of thought known as critical management theory (exemplified in the work of Joanne Martin).  While we know that anthropologists also recognize the need for gender analysis in business research, our discipline (unlike others) has yet to undertake this project.  Why?

Could this be evidence of anthropology’s lingering epistemological tradition of not studying ones’ own culture?  If anthropological studies of major corporations in the US were to focus on gender, they would be looking at white, middle-class women.  Maybe our difficulty in locating published sources in business anthropology has something to do with the fact that those who work in this field are largely white women themselves.  In surveying our colleagues at the 2005 Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC), we compiled a list of female anthropologists working either for industry or as academics focused on US industries.  This list reached nearly thirty and included many top corporations, such as IBM, GM, Microsoft, Intel, Xerox PARC, and Motorola, yet virtually all of these anthropologists were white women (and so are we).

Or perhaps this deficiency in our field reflects another reality - that female “business anthropologists” are concerned with legitimizing anthropology outside of the academy and believe that speaking of gender inequities would counteract any advancement they made to bringing anthropology into the mainstream.  In personal (and anonymous) communications with our female colleagues at EPIC, some shared with us that they struggled to enter what they called “a man’s world.”  They said they were struggling not just to move into the business arena, but also to become respected beyond anthropology and other social sciences and gain respect and recognition by the “hard sciences” and management traditions.  They said that they purposefully avoided “seeing gender,” noting that they did not want to be put in the politicized “women’s studies camp,” and ostracized from their peers.  If this is a significant phenomenon, it could have led to self-censorship.

Finally, none of the studies discussed by our EPIC colleagues had a gender focus.  Many of our female colleagues, however, had important things to say about gender within their own organizations, as well as how gender figures into (or is ignored) in project or product design.  In the end, what our experience and the discussion at the session showed was not a lack of interest in critical gender analysis, but more a lack of access, support, willingness and ability to raise these important questions.  It is incredibly difficult to get access to a major corporation for ‘pure research.’  And those who do have access usually must enter into a contract with industry that defines (and limits) the scope of their inquiry, a delicate negotiation through which the ethics of our discipline must be balanced with the interest of business.


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