Sally Hegelsen, author of the book The Web of Inclusion: Architecture for Building Great Organizations speaks to the leadership role of women and their influence in the workplace. She writes:

“The women I studied built profoundly integrated and organic organizations in which the focus was on nurturing good relationships; in which the niceties of hierarchical rank and distinction played little part; and in which lines of communication were multiple, open, and diffuse. I noted that the women tended to put themselves at the center of their organizations rather than at the top, emphasizing both accessibility and equality, and that they labored constantly to include people in their decision-making. This had the effect of undermining the boundaries so characteristic of mainstream organizations, with their strict job descriptions, categorization of people according to rank, and restrictions on the flow of information.”

After reading her book a while back, I immediate thought that the structure of a “web” is ideal for accomplishing the goals of a women’s center. Imagine each point being connected to every other point, forming a web-like pattern. I like the web as a descriptor particularly well when talking about organizational structure because it also reflects how the work women’s centers engage in can impact other parts of the campus. Just like a spider’s web, if one point is jostled or disrupted, it has an impact on the rest of the organization. In the WCenter, we worked in an interconnected manner where each of us responded to each other’s direction at certain points. Long before I arrived as the Director, the Women’s Center was embracing the principles that Hegelsen promotes. On many campuses, women’s centers as feminist organizations have a long history of rejecting traditional power and privilege-based hierarchical structures in favor of models more in line with feminist principles of inclusion, collaboration, shared decision making and empowerment. In the WCenter, a web organizational structure aligned with the feminist values and allowed for the staff to be most effective in doing the important work of promoting feminist social change.

Carol Gilligan her landmark book In a Different Voice (1982) wrote, “The images of hierarchy and web, drown from the text of men’s and women’s fantasies and thoughts, convey different ways of structuring relationships, and are associated with different ways of morality and self”. Gilligan goes on to note that hierarchies leave one person “alone at the top” where webs allow for all people to be in community and collaboration. A collaborative model is more characteristic of a women’s centers specifically, and many feminist organizations generally.

While the immediate department would have been described as a “web,” it was evident that the organizational chart of the larger institution at the University (indeed most colleges and universities) resembled a pyramid and would probably be considered a traditional hierarchy. Hegelsen notes that in traditional hierarchies, those below the positional leadership level are just given “narrow information, just enough to enable them to perform their jobs, while information available to those at the top is very broad” (p. 21). The obvious message in this being that those at the bottom are relatively unimportant in the overall organization’s functioning. As someone who was in a formal leadership role, I acknowledged that I had privilege and access to a wider perspective within the organization. Further, there is a sense that one gets that certain aspects of the organization are closed to (as opposed to open to) outside input. Hegelsen describes this as restricted access and it “serves the purpose of exclusion: the focus is on who, by virtue of rank, will not be invited to this meeting, who has no right to that information, who may not communicate directly with whom” (p. 21). This feeling of exclusion silences the voices of individuals who might otherwise contribute more directly in the organization and reinforces a “caste system that isolates people who are not in leadership positions” (p. 21).  I saw this impacting staff positions (in particular) at the University.  Within the Center and within my sphere of control, I attempted to combat this feeling by sharing information as fully and completely as I could with my colleagues. I gathered their perspectives and tried to represent their voices when (or rather if) I had a “seat at the table.” I wanted everyone with whom I worked in the Women’s Center to have a sense of the bigger picture, and feel a connection to the larger institution, versus just focusing inwardly on departmental issues. And, I encouraged my colleagues to become involved and engaged citizens of the larger campus by dedicating part of their work time to projects and committees outside of the Women’s Center. Part of working without hierarchy means that it didn’t always have to be me who represents the Women’s Center on committees, collaborative projects, and other ventures.

In describing the web of inclusion, Hegelsen says it “gives people at every level the opportunity to exercise both autonomy and self-expression. It makes citizens of an organization’s people by helping to put in place what Carlene Ellis of Intel calls ‘participatory democracy for the organization.’” (p. 276). Tech companies, actually are among those who lead the way in flattened organizational structures. In some ways, the University does embrace methods of participatory democracy. As on many campuses, there was a system of shared governance, which empowered faculty (through Faculty Senate), staff (through Staff Affairs) and students (through student government) at all levels to have a meaningful and impactful say in how the University functions. Various committees represented the interests of individuals, for example, the Benefits Advisory Committee was directly responsible for researching options and recommending solutions. I’ve found after sitting in countless committee meetings on many campuses, there exists a general feeling that if you participate in the governance of the organization you can at least express your opinion, and possibly make a difference toward progress.  An existence of shared governance structures cause me to believe that while the institutional structure may appear on paper as a hierarchical pyramid, it is evident that there are some examples across campus where webs have fostered.

Web-like organizational structures aren’t always perfect. Within the Women’s Center, day-to-day operation within a web proved challenging at times.  Many of these challenges stemmed from our socialized and ingrained perspective of power and authority, supervision and accountability, and decision making within work environments. Some of these lessons are simply too hard to let go of and this impacts our ability to fully embrace a collective and inclusive web. Nor, is it responsible as the person designated to serve in such a capacity to reject the responsibility with which one is entrusted. Further, when the organization’s purpose is so closely tied to the mission, “it also defines itself in terms of what its mission is not. Hegelsen notes that this breeds an ‘us versus them’ mentality” (Hegelsen, 1995, p. 244). These risks were certainly apparent in the Women’s Center as we sought to build consensus and act according to our values: it was inevitable that there might be points of disagreement and some are not going to see the same perspective. One of the additional challenges of operating differently within a structured organization is that other offices either envy or despise you for creating opportunities for voice and power that similar positions in other offices lack. As a leader, an additional challenge of structurelessness is the perception that one lacks authority or is weak in taking control and making tough decisions. I will undoubtedly explore these and other challenges in future posts on this blog.

In “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” originally published in 1970 to address the need for organization in the women’s liberation movement, Jo Freemen talks about organizations that have removed hierarchy and structure and suggests pathways for survival (by increasing democracy within the organization) so effective work can get done.

Freeman offers us seven suggestions for addressing some of the challenges of attempting to operate in an organization without hierarchy:

  • Delegation (and give those to whom tasks have been delegated responsibility),
  • Distribution of authority,
  • Rotation of tasks,
  • Allocation of tasks along rational criteria,
  • Diffusion of information, and
  • Equal access to resources.

How have your organizational structures and beliefs about feminism impacted your managerial tasks and leadership styles? I’m interested in hearing how others have addressed hierarchy within their organizations. Let’s continue the conversation.

Works Cited:

Gilligan, C. (1993). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.: Harvard University Press.

Helgesen, S. (1995). The web of inclusion: A new architecture for building great organizations. New York: Currency/Doubleday.