We can work it out

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 36, Winter 1997/98.

Whether by their own choice or because of the way the labour market is structured, large numbers of women work in all-women environments. Here Thangam Debbonaire investigates what goes on in a variety of women-only workplaces, ranging from massage parlours to feminist collectives. She suggests that if your aim is to create woman-friendly working conditions, it is not enough to say ‘let’s do things differently’. There are issues of structure which feminists need to address.

 Tess: It’s just, it’s so exciting, I mean she takes me seriously. And I think it’s because, and I know you hate when I say this, but I think it’s because she’s a woman, there’s none of that chasing around the desk crap, and it’s like, she wants to be my mentor, which is exactly what I needed, I mean I feel like I’m finally getting somewhere, Mick.
Working Girl, Mike Nichols (1988)

Ever since I have been working in women-only organisations I have often heard phrases such as ‘I thought things would be different in a women’s organisation’ or ‘well of course we’ve sorted that issue out — we’re a women’s organisation’. The assumption that there was something different and positive about working in this way was not new to me. However, it was clear that the expectations that went along with this vary enormously.

Looking around where I live, the nursery, the primary school, the health clinic, many local shops, the small local charities such as PlayBus or the local Scrapstore for recycling waste — a significant proportion is run by women. But the literature on women in the workforce confirmed what I had unscientifically observed — that women are still concentrated in particular professions and levels of workforces. Gender segregation of the workforce is nothing new of course. However, as recently as 1995, available statistics show that there has been little overall reduction of segregation of jobs based on gender over the years. A glass ceiling on women in senior posts in most professions still apparently exists: at most 4% of middle and senior managers are women and the proportions are on the decline. For black women, according to M Davidson, the ceiling ‘seems to made of concrete rather than glass’ although the lack of ethnic monitoring of management posts means that there is less evidence for this.

The low pay in jobs traditionally held by women (such as cleaning) may have helped to keep them single sex. Other organisations, such as retail firms, changed the responsibility and pay associated with various middle management posts as women began to climb the career ladder, re-imposing gender segregation. It is therefore not surprising that as much as 50% of the workforce or more may be spending most of their working life in single sex work groups. The area of greatest mixing is in middle management, with few women in senior management and manual trades still divided into women’s and men’s. For example, there are still very few women working on building sites as builders — those that are, are more likely to be either engineers or architects (middle manage­ment or perhaps middle class professionals) or administrative posts (from author’s commu­nication with building contractors).

Despite the evidence that a significant proportion, perhaps even a majority, of the workforce remains in single sex work groups all their working lives, there is almost no literature or research available on the subject of what is going on in those work groups. Katherine Iannello’s insightful book Feminist Interven­tions in Organisation containing detailed case studies and analysis of three US women’s organisations (two of which were working in structures that could be described as collectives of some form), is the only publication I could find that was directly concerned with women-only workplaces

Katherine Iannello’s analysis of the Boston Women’s Health Collective (BWHC) has a great deal to offer women’s organisations who want to maintain collective principles, but for need other structures in order to organise the vast amount of work they now do. Iannello calls this ‘modified consensus’. The BWHC is divided into work groups with different areas of responsibility (personnel, medical, business and outreach). Each has a co-ordinator and the co-ordinators meet weekly. A personnel committee team, including members of the board of management establishes criteria for decisions about terms and conditions. The whole group then participates in such decisions, including staff recruitment, pay and holidays. Katherine Iannello says the group describes this structure as a ‘modified collective’. The principles of consultation and involvement in decision making are retained, but co-ordinators have responsibility to ensure work in each sub-group is carried out as agreed by the whole collective. Decisions are divided into ‘routine’ and ‘critical’, so that routine decisions can be made by work groups or in some cases co-ordinators, but critical decisions, including changes in organisational policy, still have to be discussed and agreed by the whole organisation. The collective has a ‘co-ordinator at large’ to ensure communication among work groups and an overview of the whole organisation. This role rotates among members.

Many staff and clients of the health centre had come to the group specifically because it was a service run by women for women. Although some staff felt they had not had their expectations met, interviews with clients describe how nervousness about whether it was ‘a real operation’ disappeared, ‘dispelled by their immediate professionalism’. ‘I had a feeling it was a much more co-operative working situation… I felt totally comfortable there’. This description is very similar to comments made to me by ex-residents of refuges in the UK.

Asking questions

There are many factors  keeping women in single sex work groups or organisations. However, my experience led me to believe that many women were either choosing to work mainly with women, or, having found them­selves in that work situation, made a positive choice to stay. I began to explore the different ways women were formally or informally organising themselves, including the structure and management of work groups and organi­sations. I also wanted to find out how the experiences varied between lesbians and heterosexual/bisexual women, Black and white women, working and middle class women, parents and childless women.

I interviewed seven women who between them had worked in over 30 women only work groups or organisations. Their experience included: typing pools, a psychiatric ward, health and counselling services, various women’s centres, refuge and rape crisis groups, a firm of legal practitioners, women’s develop­ment organisations in Uganda and Kenya, massage parlours providing sexual services for men, cleaning. All of them also had experience of working for or with men. Their ages ranged from early twenties to early fifties. Three were single parents, four identified as lesbian, one as Black African and the rest white. All were to varying degrees known to me before the interviews. Since the original interviews I have talked to all seven several times informally and also discussed and analysed what I’d found out with other women.

Much has been said but little written down about the mysterious inner world of collectives. In the experience of many women I talked to, what is said informally is rarely discussed formally, unless and until the collective is about to fall apart. At this point, a facilitator is then brought in to try to stick it all back together again or re-structure. This is a pity, because what is said in the kitchen over coffee is often full of useful insight and good ideas. I have therefore included a lot of quotes from women I interviewed originally and from those I talked to in the kitchen.

One all female legal firm with a collective structure for legal and non-legal posts had the same pay and status:

we were all….[on] equal pay and equal decision making power and equal liability. We decided to call the secretaries co-workers and looked at differences to make a new role. [Lily]

The co-workers had greater opportunities for career development than they might have had otherwise and the solicitors did learn to consider the needs of secretaries.

some co-workers took on client work and saw clients themselves. Co-workers and solicitors paired up in mini-teams in specific work areas and took joint responsibility for the management of case files. With the solicitors there seemed no way of getting away from the giving of instructions to the secretaries, but in giving instructions there was discussion about decisions and they tried to share knowledge.

In another case, Kate said that the nursing sister in charge of her ward had been the ideal boss:

I had a good mentor, she was excellent and an excellent nurse, she loved her patients and she loved her nurses and she made everyone feel cared for…. the sister was also very dynamic, get up and go type, not afraid to tell people what to do, she was aware of what we were doing, showed a lot of appreciation and a lot of care, she looked after her staff.

Having someone more experienced to supervise and train other staff as well as take charge of their work is something that some women working in collectives note the lack of. Where this person is supportive, though clearly not accepting poor standards of work, staff get appreciation of their work, again something that interviewees working in collectives feel is missing:

One of the most important things for support is feedback and validation of work and I think we’re bad at that — I get it from people outside the organisation. [Daisy]

Where no-one has responsibility to set work targets and give feedback and appreciation when work is done, then workers fail to provide this for each other. Re-interviewing several women and interviewing some more for this article, most were absolutely certain that they had nowhere to go at work for formal advice or help for work or related problems. ‘I go to my friends — but that isn’t how I want to do it’, one said.

External supervision was a source of appreciation and feedback, but did not substitute for appreciation from colleagues. Some women found regular group facilitation to be a useful way of getting this critical feedback and also appreciation in a safe way. One organisation had this three times a year for the whole organi­sation, including once with Management Committee as well as staff; another had facilitation once a month.

In the massage parlours Claire worked in (‘too many to count!’), the structure is clear: there is a boss, usually a prostitute or former prostitute, and then a rota of women who work shifts on a self-employed basis. The whole operation is usually owned by someone else again (not always a man, but often) who may own several parlours and not spend a great deal of time in them. Women working in the same parlour generally ‘looked out’ for each other if there was any trouble and women were hardly ever on their own in the building with clients. However, if clients were violent or troublesome, police help was not usually available and women had to rely on the strength of parlour owners to deal with these situations. Claire’s immediate bosses in parlours were not usually pleasant to work for but she said that the best boss she had was also the toughest:

She was an absolute bitch to us all, and our training for the job consisted of being taken upstairs by her man, but she could control the punters and she’s the longest running parlour boss in the area… another boss was much nicer, taught me more about the job and took a real interest in me and my children, but she wasn’t much use when there was trouble and she didn’t last. As I need money from work more than a social life, I usually prefer the other sort, though it isn’t easy.’

If a man tried to negotiate the price, ‘I’d ask him if he would try to negotiate on the price of a drink in the pub’ but as a self-employed worker it was up to her, and if a customer left without paying, she would still have to pay the door charge to her boss, even if this left her with nothing: ‘It’s a business and what we’re selling makes no difference — I know the score, even if it is a friend I’m working for I know it’s my problem not hers.’

Despite all of this, Claire was unhesitating in her assessment of what she valued about the job, which seems to me to be strongly associated with the group of women she worked with:

At its best it’s the greatest job in the world and I definitely don’t go because I enjoy the actual work part. You spend all day with your friends having a laugh and ordering pizzas and talking about clothes and makeup; you’re away from the kids and if you’ve got a good baby-sitter you don’t need to worry about them; you can have a shower and wash your hair in private, and you only spend about an hour or so in total actually doing customers, which can bring you home several hundred pounds. Of course at its worst it is an awful job…

Collectives: continuity and change

Many of the women I talked to had worked in collectives or were still doing so. Some felt that the collective had had its day:

I’m not sure what it [collective] means… I think that it means different things to different people, for some it’s a way of getting out of things, for others it means everybody should do everything which I think is quite dangerous.

Several women felt that being in a collective shouldn’t mean that individual skills aren’t recognised, simply that they are all equally valued. In practice, it seems that individual skills aren’t always acknowledged in collectives. This led some to question the collective structure itself, and others to try to develop a collective structure that did welcome and value individual skill and knowledge. Some involved the use of sub-groups as in Katherine Iannello’s ‘modified collective’. This seems to be the only way that a work team can hope to remain close to collective principles once it has about eight or more members.

Power differences other than gender mean that other forms of inequality are still present in women only teams, and in fact may be thrown into even sharper relief. Lesbians, Black women and women working in traditionally female roles (cleaner, receptionist) all had criticisms of the way the promotion of equality, even in organi­sations explicitly committed to it, seemed to be working less well for them than for heterosexual or white women or those working in more powerful posts.

Daisy commented that the workplace had initially helped her to come out:

It was also very good for me…  it gave me the opportunity to say ‘right I am a lesbian’ and I think that this was to do with the organisation, people were very supportive and helped me personally.

However, she said that as time went by and the organisation grew:

It’s supposed to be a safe place to be out and I am sort of out at work but not all the lesbians there are out to everybody — in fact one lesbian there I know thinks that another woman who is actually lesbian is straight as she’s got all sorts of assumptions about what it is to be a lesbian so even from other lesbians there are problems. I do feel as if we are tolerated or treated as a factor of ‘right-on-ness’ for being there rather than being equal.

Susan said of the place where she worked: ‘It’s the safest place I’ve ever worked in to be lesbian, in fact I sometimes think the hetero­sexual women are not really in the gang.’

A heterosexual woman commented that this was sometimes the case where she worked, but that she did not feel this was a problem as it was better than excluding lesbians.

In some organisations the contribution of lesbians is of fundamental importance and not recognised enough. This woman was speaking about Women’s Aid:

The organisation largely is built on the labour of lesbians who wanted to do something for women with women, the irony is that the majority of users are heterosexual… they get patched up and go home to abusive men.. and this is sort of hidden.

It seems ironic that despite the high expectations of care from other women, despite the high level of care given by staff to clients, and despite complaints from some women that they were expected to give more attention to colleagues’ personal needs than they wanted to, most women I talked to found the lack of appreciation for individual effort at work one of the biggest frustrations with women only teams. Is this because women as a group place more emphasis on personal than professional issues? Do we still really feel that professional success is ‘un-female’? Why do so many all-women organisations pay little attention to career development? The organisations and staff in them are often highly successful at providing a good service (such as a well-run safe refuge) but could not acknowledge this explicitly to each other.

The absence of men

Although men may be absent from the work teams, their influence is still felt. Refuges and Rape Crisis groups, for example, would not exist without male violence. Massage parlours provide services for men. Most of the psychi­atric patients cared for by nurses interviewed were men. Funders of voluntary women’s organisations were often men. Clearly men still have a strong influence on the way work is done, the nature of the work, and even if there is any work at all.

All the women I spoke to found plenty to say about what they liked about not having men actually in the work group:

I like the fact that I’m not going to have to deal with male egos at work all day and feel that there is a certain understanding between us that helps the job get done… I also value tremendously things that might seem little but aren’t, like having Tampax in the loo and at [a women-only firm] we always had toys around and nappy changing gear… I like not having to worry about how a man will interpret a joke or flippant remark. [Lily]

I think that women-only organisations can be creative but in a strange way, like stretching the budget, making things work out of nothing. [Nyakecho]

When it was all women together on the shift, most women just get on and do it, you don’t bicker about who helps with a lift or who deals with some shit, you just get on and do it, you do each other favours, you compromise and you just sort of slot in together… when M [a male nurse] was there, whenever a senior wasn’t around he just used to sit in the office and order us around which wasn’t really his job, even sister does shit work. [Kate]

Kate also had a part time cleaning job with a women’s counselling service, who tried to make a conscious effort to employ her on good conditions, such as a decent rate of pay set at a level which allowed her to keep the money without losing benefits. The reality has been rather different. She has never been paid on time or in cash, has had tremendous difficulty in communicating with members of staff, has never had contact again with the women who inter­viewed her, has an open-ended job description, has to work on her own and enter the building by an unlit doorway at the back of the building and is expected to pay for cleaning materials out of her Income Support and claim the money back.

Kate was careful not to lay blame on the women who worked in the project. She felt that they were trying hard to provide a crisis service for women without the funds to do it and that she was the first part of the service to get neglected when times were difficult. However, ‘because they don’t see me it’s easy for them not to think about what I’m doing’.

The project concerned has obviously made an effort to think about how to provide decent employment conditions for a cleaner and the conditions she was initially promised were indeed an improvement on most cleaning work. However, the women working there as staff in the team (Kate says quite clearly that she is not on the team) do not seem to be able to consider her position or the working needs of a cleaner. She cannot find a way to communicate basic information to them, and therefore, although she feels she is trying to change the unequal power position she is in, her resistance is being negated by the rest of the staff, even though they are not being overly controlling or threatening. By not hearing or seeing what Kate is trying to communicate, staff are exercising the power to keep issues off the agenda, an effective tool for silencing women. Kate’s experiences were very similar to those described by women working in clerical and reception posts in women’s organisations.

Managing well

Many women are making active choices to work in women only groups. They are doing so for reasons such as the style of working, new ways of organising and carrying out work to meet personal as well as organisational needs, the way the building is arranged and equipped. Some women, of course, welcome working without the presence of men.

Some women’s organisations, although committed to equality of opportunity and providing good working conditions for tradi­tionally badly treated workers such as cleaners, fail in spite of themselves. Less powerful posts often remain so when colleagues or managers forget to ask certain members of staff what they need or frustrate their attempts to voice their own concerns.

Some women found that although the emphasis on team-working between women was welcome after isolation or competition in mixed or mainly male teams, this stifled their individu­ality and they were afraid to go for promotion as this was seen as being too pushy. More confident women who are prepared to risk losing friends subsequently miss the support they found in their teams, others left behind would rather remain within a good working environment than take the uncertainty and loneliness of posts higher up the hierarchy.

It is not enough to say ‘let’s do things differently’; successful organisations have given thought to their structures and seem to have at least one and usually more of the following characteristics:

  • they use principles of ‘modified consensus’ with distinctions between routine and critical decisions;
  • they have actively developed their structure as the organisation grew, and even considered moving to a more hierarchical one, but reviewed their commitment to consensus and strengthened it;
  • they have acknowledged individual skill, and provided individual training, supervision or other forms of career development;
  • they are either still fewer than eight women or are working in sub-groups, similar to the ‘modified collective’ model.

There is much more to learn from women working in all-women teams. Left to our own devices, women are managing very well.


M Davidson ‘Women in Management: Why the Glass Ceiling’s Not Cracking’ (1995)

MJ Davidson RJ and Burke (eds) Women in Management — Current Research Issues (Paul Chapman, 1994)

KP Iannello Decisions Without Hierarchy: Feminist Interventions in Organization, Theory and Practice (Routledge, 1992)

A. MacEwan Scott and B Burchell ‘“And never the twain shall meet”? Gender Segregation and Work Histories’ in A MacEwan Scott (ed) Gender Segregation and Social Change (Oxford University Press, 1994)