Representing the Successful Managerial Body
Kate Kenny and Emma Bell
In: Jeanes, E. Knights, D. and Yancey Martin, P. (2011) (eds.) Handbook of Gender, Work and
Organization. pp. 163-176. Chichester: Wiley.
You will, in a real sense, be embodying the job you perform… (Pogrebin,
What should the successful woman manager look like? What clothes, make-up,
hairstyle ought she to wear; how should she stand, sit, speak and act? In this
chapter we draw on our analysis of self-help books written between 1970 and 2007
to illustrate some recurring themes in the way that women managers are encouraged
to perform their bodies. We show how these issues have been interpreted by
researchers in the fields of gender, embodiment and organization and offer some
suggestions as to how these norms might be questioned.
Many researchers of organization observe that the managerial body is inherently
masculine (Pringle, 1989; Marshall, 1984; Collinson and Hearn, 1996; McDowell
1997). Fitting in with such a norm is therefore a difficult, if not impossible task for
female managers who tend to exhibit different bodily traits. In such contexts, female
managers often feel they are required to prove themselves in a setting that perceives
them as abnormal from the start (McDowell, 1997). To cope with this dilemma,
women managers often turn to self-help books which promise to help them be taken
seriously and to get ahead by learning how to conform. These books offer advice on
many aspects of being a woman manager but in particular they advise on how to
manage and mould the female body in order to be taken seriously as a manager,
without one’s femininity undermining this impression.
In the first part of this chapter we explore the role of self-help books in constructing
women managers’ sense of self and identity. Next, we focus on how such texts
advise women to use their bodies to survive as managers. Our analysis focuses on
four major themes: the masculine bodily norm, the injunction for women managers to
actively manage and mould their bodies, the requirement to package one’s femininity
as a career resource, and the ambiguity and contradiction that surrounds the body of
the woman manager. Each theme is related to key ideas emerging from the study of
gender, embodiment and organization.
Managing the Female Body
Authors in the social sciences have traditionally seen the mind and body as separate
entities. Hence the body is often portrayed as something of an object that can be
actively manipulated and controlled by the sovereign mind (Dale, 2005). Despite
authors’ efforts to problematize such dualisms (see, for example, Borgerson and
Rehn, 2004), dichotomies like these tend to persist in academic research and writing
(Kenny, 2008). However, this separation does not correspond to the way we
experience the world: our bodies and our minds are caught up with each other in
complex ways. For example, as you read this, perhaps your foot is itchy, or you have
a headache, and it is through these experiences that your mind is accessing these
words. Consequently, for some authors, the mind and the body are seen to be
inextricably interlinked (Ball, 2005; Sinclair, 2005). Grosz (1994), for example, uses
the analogy of the Möbius strip (see also Hope, this volume) to theorize the lived
experience of body and materiality and its intersection with the mind. Grosz argues
that first, the subject’s exterior is psychically constructed and, second, the exterior
physicality of the body is socially constructed by discursive norms. For her,
dismissing the traditional boundary between interior and exterior helps us to see the
subject as a series of flows between inside and out. If this is the case, then our
bodies are central to our constitution of self-identity. Consequently, what our bodies
do affects our sense of self (Hancock and Tyler, 2001); we construct our bodies in
relation to particular norms and language and, in so doing we find that we are
subjected to these norms: they come to constitute our subjectivity and our sense of
place in the world (Butler, 1993; Dale, 2005).
In the period since the 1970s self-help books have become a major means through
which individuals are encouraged to work on their selves, to cope with problems they
face and to improve their situation (McGee, 2005). For women in particular, these
books exert a significant influence on the individual’s embodied identity, through
proposing to help her to find out about herself and teaching her effective ways of
being (Simonds, 1992; Hochschild, 1994). A feature of such texts is that they offer
advice on how readers might actively ‘develop a self-identity they feel they lack’
(Simonds, 1992: 6). The reader is encouraged to manipulate characteristics of her
self, including her body, that need to be changed. In what follows, we explore how
self-help books encourage women managers to embody particular norms in their
construction of an appropriate self-identity.
Our qualitative content analysis focuses on eighteen books published between 1970
and 2007. Nearly all of the books are written by female authors, many of whom have
built successful careers in business. They typically adopt an informal, conversational
tone towards the reader, acting as a friend rather than a professional expert and
conveying inspirational ideas and images through telling parable-like stories (Bate
and Self, 1983; Hochschild, 1994). These authors assert that the issues women
confront in building a successful managerial career are different or exceptional and
therefore require separate consideration. Advice is often geared towards helping the
woman manager to survive in a hostile environment and get to the top of the
organizational hierarchy through her own individual efforts (McGee, 2005). In the
following section we examine this advice; each section is introduced with an overview
of relevant themes from the field of gender and embodiment, followed by illustrations
from the self-help texts.
The Masculine Norm and its Feminine Other
Many researchers have argued that the concept of the ‘normal’ organizational body is
implicitly masculine. The female body is thereby stigmatized or seen as ‘other’ –
defined as inherently sexual, dangerous, suspicious, volatile and disruptive (Acker,
1990; Cockburn, 1991; Burrell, 1992; also Brewis, Hope, Sinclair, Thanem,
Wolkowitz this volume). Moreover, bodily processes associated with womanhood,
including menstruation, lactation, pregnancy and childbirth are seen as threats to the
normal operation of the contemporary workplace (Sheppard, 1989). Tretheway’s
(1999) study of female professionals in a US City Chamber of Commerce focuses on
experiences of the body at work. She uses the metaphor of overflow to theorize
these tendencies which include emotional display and acts that contravene the tacit
rules and aesthetics of being a professional manager. Tretheway notes that women
may not even know when their bodies are overflowing: displaying ‘messages and
meanings that were not intended’ (1999: 436). In addition to being defined as
abnormal, the feminine other at work is often presented as inferior to the masculine.
As Cockburn notes in her two-year study of men’s responses to positive action for
sex equality at work, the female body is frequently perceived as weaker, smaller and
less authoritative (Cockburn, 1991).
These themes resonate in our analysis of self-help books where the female body is
defined as out of place in organizational contexts due to the persistence of the
Because men dominate the workplace, the status quo suits them well. They
got there first and set the patterns and rules according to what pleases them.
It’s up to women to take the initiative in learning to understand men’s ways.
Through articulating their awareness of these norms, the authors reconfirm Kanter’s
account of the persistent male power bias in large organizations (1977). The female
body is defined as exceptional and highly visible in this context. Sinclair (this volume)
emphasises the ways in which women leaders are frequently held up for scrutiny
based on their appearances in a way that is not experienced by men. Furthermore,
the female body is seen to be upsetting and distracting in organizations.
Consequently, it has the potential to undermine the woman manager’s possibilities of
success. ‘Learning to understand men’s ways’ therefore involves moulding the
female body so that it goes unnoticed within this masculine regime of power.
The female voice also places the woman manager outside the masculine norm:
When a woman’s voice reverts to sounding high and thin, it becomes like a
little girl’s voice. What does a little girl’s voice sound like? Coy, demure,
sweet and not at all authoritative. Which is probably the effect some women
want their voices to have. Again, people respond not only to the content of
your message, but the sound of it as well… as voices go up in pitch,
credibility goes down. (Frankel, 2004)
Similarly, the ideal size of the managerial body is modelled on the male norm, many
authors suggesting that being tall is an advantage in commanding attention and
exercising power over others. They recommend that women overcome their height
disadvantage by making themselves appear taller, for example by wearing shoes
with heels (Heim, 2005; Macdonald, 1986; Stechert, 1986).
Menstruation at work is also seen as dangerous and threatening because many men
perceive it to be so:
Many men perceive menstruation as an alien thing that invades our bodies
and controls us. For instance, one fellow asked me, “Well, what if the
president had a period?” as if the leader of the free world had never seen a
bad day. Having never experienced it, they imbue the menstrual cycle with
meaning and power it doesn’t have. In fact, menstruation is a deeply
mysterious process for men. And to add to its mystery, it’s somehow tied to
the phases of the moon. (Heim, 2005)
As a warning, Williams has the following story, taken from an interview with a
manager on the US west coast:
I had one terrible situation with my period. It was particularly heavy, but I had
cocktails after work with some of the people from the office. We’d been sitting
there for an hour, and suddenly I felt the need to go to the ladies room and
change. Well, I was about halfway across the restaurant when the whole
world dropped out and was running down my legs. (Williams, 1977)
In telling this story, Williams warns her readers about the dangers of allowing such an
incident to occur. Her colleagues and companions could not fathom what had
happened. The solution for the woman in question was to ignore the incident
completely and pretend that nothing had happened. This story illustrates the radical
otherness of menstruation in the context of the workplace thereby reconfirming
Tretheway’s (1999) analysis, which includes similar stories. She argues that
menstruation is one way in which the female body is rendered out of control and
antithetical to the workplace (Tretheway, 1999).
Another way in which women’s physicality is defined in opposition to the masculine
norm is by crying in public. As Cockburn notes, displays of emotion imply a lack of
control, and this in turn means that women are seen as incapable of exercising
authority (Cockburn, 1991). Crying is widely seen as out of place in the workplace
and self-help authors regard the greater tendency of women to cry as a common
problem because it implies that the woman manager is ‘not in control, not competent
and weak’ (Frankel, 2004):
Emotional displays in a business setting are offensive to men because of the
high value they place on control. Crying is the ultimate transgression and can
cost women a lot… (Stechert, 1986)
The message put forward in these books is clear: men rarely cry at work and
therefore, crying is unacceptable.
Crying has no place in business; it is one manifestation of our femaleness
that is not tolerated by the business society. (Williams, 1977)
Collinson and Knights’ (1986) empirical study of women crying at work shows how
exclusionary patriarchal discourses can persist in workplaces in ways that are often
invisible. The authors found that such displays of emotion were frequently the result
of stress caused by pressure from management and excessive workloads. However,
male managers saw them as a sign of weakness and irrational behaviour, rather than
an understandable response to a difficult situation. This research shows how ‘crying
as weakness’ is perpetuated through managerial discourse and practice in a way
which renders the crying person illogical and ‘other’ and signals the difference of
women’s bodies from the masculine organizational norm (Mumby and Putnam, 1992;
In addition to crying and menstruation, women’s bodies transgress organizational
norms through their perceived sexuality (Hearn et al., 1989). As Cockburn notes,
women’s sexuality is always present in the workplace, whether it is seen as a ‘threat
to organizational discipline’ or a welcome distraction from it (1991: 27). The female
body is seen as bringing a level of sexuality to the workplace which it is her
responsibility to control:
To be effective on the job, a woman has to know a great deal about how her
sexual attractiveness affects her work and the men she works with. She must
take care regarding the sexual signals she sends to men… (Stechert, 1986)
One author reports a woman whose tight outfits, although showing off an excellent
figure, were ‘inappropriate - so much so that her male associates feel uncomfortable
around her. One colleague told me he was reluctant to have business dinners with
her alone because he worried about what his wife would think.’ (Evans, 2000) Even
the smallest detail can be interpreted as sexual, such as long hair or noisy jewellery.
However, breasts are the most consistent signifier of the woman manager’s inherent
sexuality and disruptive potential:
Whether or not you have a big bust, never, never, never go to work without a
bra. Jiggly breasts and protuberant nipples embarrass most men…
In addition to being perceived as inferior (Cockburn, 1991), dangerous (Acker, 1990)
and overflowing (Tretheway, 1999), these texts identify the female body as a source
of discomfort and embarrassment in the workplace, both for the woman who inhabits
this body and the other people she comes into contact with. Given this presentation
of women’s bodies, what are women managers supposed to do about their bodies to
progress in their careers? The advice of many self-help authors is that the female
manager’s body can be made to fit into the masculine norm of the workplace but in
order to achieve this it must be moulded, manipulated and managed.
Sinclair (this volume) shows how leadership, for example, is performed, and argues
that leaders’ bodies play a key role in this (see also Butler, 1993). Bartky (1988)
notes that women are encouraged by particular class and gender discourses to
actively mould their bodies, through processes of diet and exercise, as a way of
attaining the ‘ideal’ (middle-class) female body. Similarly, Acker (1990) finds that the
otherness of female bodies is used as ‘grounds for control’ through such injunctions
(Acker, 1990: 152). This kind of self-work is suggested to depoliticize women
because they become so focused on manipulating their bodies they tend to overlook
the wider structural inequalities that might impact upon their lives. In the context of
the workplace, Tretheway (1999) finds that city professionals share the view that self-
work is vital in striving to attain the ideal professional body, one that is fit,
appropriately sexual and above all, controlled. These studies adopt a Foucauldian
perspective, seeing the body as a social object which is written upon and penetrated
by institutional regimes of power-knowledge. Consequently, the body is not
completely one’s own, but rather is subject to the particular meanings that
organizational discourses inscribe upon it.
Returning to the representation of these issues in self-help books, women are
encouraged to see their bodies as an object that, left unchecked, may undermine
their conscious will, and their careers. They are therefore advised to control and
manage its excessive tendencies through the adoption of various techniques of
concealment and suppression. This includes suppressing and concealing bodily
processes such as menstruation and pregnancy. For example, one author tells the
story of a pregnant woman who dealt with her clients by telephone rather than face-
to-face and instructed staff to keep her pregnancy a secret (Bryce, 1989). Another
technique involves translating inappropriate forms of embodied expression into
modes that are more suitable in a managerial setting. Instead of crying, women are
encouraged to get angry.
It is important that you learn to show anger. Most executive women have
learned how to channel their feelings toward anger rather than tears.
Express the anger outward: tears are frequently preceded by repressed
anger. Let out that anger at the appropriate party, and you may avoid crying
altogether. (Heim, 2005)
As these excerpts illustrate, displays of certain kinds of embodied emotionality are
acceptable in the workplace but only those that conform to a masculine norm: in this
case, anger rather than tears. Other techniques recommended to control crying
include going for a walk (Heim, 2005), or even inflicting pain on oneself to distract
from the situation:
Several women have told me that when they feel like crying they inflict pain
on themselves by digging their fingernails into their wrists. This takes their
focus of the situation at hand. (Heim, 2005)
The most important thing is a demonstration of control:
Sharing your emotions in a business setting isn’t wrong, but depending on the
situation some people will think that you don’t have control. (Flett, 2007)
Related to this, another way of managing the disruptive body is to control one’s
period. Several authors recommend that the reader becomes aware of hormonal
changes associated with her menstrual cycle that may increase her propensity
towards unwise displays of emotion. Some recommend elaborate strategies for
managing this aspect of the female body. These include taking time out of annual
holidays or taking the pill in order to be absent from work during one’s period:
Or you could go to your doctor or family planning clinic and ask to go on the
Pill…It gives you the option of deciding exactly when you have your period. If
it isn’t convenient you just keep taking the Pill for another couple of days to
postpone it. You can do what a lot of people believe the high-fliers amongst
us do naturally – have your periods at weekends. (Macdonald, 1986)
Self-help books also recommend ways in which women can desexualise themselves
through concealing markers of difference. It is seen as particularly important that
women continually self-regulate their bodies to ensure that they do not communicate
Be careful not to come across as a “sexpot” because of the way you dress
and behave (Carr-Rufino, 1982)
To ensure a ‘competent, businesslike managerial image, not a feminine frivolous
sexy one’ (Macdonald, 1986), a women manager must be careful to: keep her hair
relatively short, avoid frills, make-up that is ‘too heavy or too light’, false eyelashes,
clanking bangles, mini skirts, low necks, bare arms, and ‘overly tight’ clothes (Bryce,
1989; Evans, 2000; Frankel, 2004; Friedman and Yorio, 2004; Jordan and Weir,
2006; Macdonald, 1986; Williams, 1977). ‘Skirts that rustle or swish – are out,
because they have sexy connotations’ (Macdonald, 1986). Given that long hair can
be viewed as ‘sexy’, women managers are generally advised to maintain hair ‘above
shoulder length, or pin it up out of the way’ (Macdonald, 1986). Through these
practices women managers are encouraged to desexualize their bodies.
Work is also required on other, culturally learned habits associated with female
corporeality. This includes avoiding the following: tilting one’s head to the side, lack
of eye contact, excessive smiling, offering a limp handshake, fidgeting or grooming
gestures like playing with one’s hair (Brown and Brady, 1991; Frankel, 2004;
Macdonald, 1986; Morrow and Lebov, 1984). The list goes on:
Avoid folding your arms in a figure-hugging, submissive way, or folding them
in a matronly way, accompanied by a dominant stance and a glare. (Brown
and Brady, 1991)
Several books recommend that women unlearn these behaviours. They are also
advised to modify their voices: the female manager should lower the pitch of her
voice in order to ‘avoid shrill tones’ (Brown and Brady, 1991; Frankel, 2004). A
diminutive voice can be compensated for, with careful practice and training:
Record your voice on a tape cassette and play it back… When you listen…
be alert for voice tones that are apologetic, tentative, meek, imploring,
whining, prissy, nagging, or schoolmarmish. (Carr-Rufino, 1982)
To overcome her deficiency in size, a woman manager might ‘elevate her body by
standing to make a point or standing when others are seated; she can seem taller if
she keeps her chin up and occasionally puts her hands behind her back so that she
appears to be looking down on others’ (Stechert, 1986). Macdonald suggests to the
reader ‘you can use your hairstyle to give you extra height and your clothes to give
you bulk if you are particularly tiny. Big lapels and padded shoulders are helpful…’
In sum, women are encouraged to actively work on their bodies, dressing, walking,
talking, medicating, and even hurting themselves, in pursuit of the ideal managerial
body. This bodily work is self disciplinary; the female manager is encouraged to
internalize these injunctions and engage in them voluntarily, even if she is unaware
of the threat her body poses.
Ask yourself these questions: Are you being unconsciously seductive? (or
consciously) Are you wearing inappropriate, revealing clothes to the office?
Self-help books suggest that a woman manager’s career is suggested to be
determined to a high degree by her ability to manage her own body; if she fails to
attain career success, this is partly attributed to her failure to control her body.
Responsibility thus lies firmly with the individual. Warnings like ‘dress like a sex
object and you’ll be treated like one’ (Macdonald, 1986) convey the expectation on
the individual to take responsibility for workplace norms.
The commodification of the body, where the body is treated as an object with a
marketable value that can be bought and sold, is a common theme in feminist and
organizational research. Hochschild’s (1983) landmark book details how female
airhostesses are frequently required to package their femininity by the airline
companies they work for. This has given rise to a number of studies of aesthetic
labour, which focus on the increasing pressures faced by female and male service
workers to actively present themselves and their bodies, in ways that suit the
aesthetic identity of the organization (Hancock and Tyler, 2000; Witz et al., 2003).
The construction of the physical self as a product is also enabled by self-help books
which ensure that as they are reading, readers are continually commodifying
themselves: transforming their image and self into ‘objects of analysis and
improvement’ (Simonds, 1992: 223). The commodification of the woman manager is
an important underlying theme in self-help books. In addition to working on the
female body so that it conforms to particular norms, self help books encourage the
woman manager to package her body as a product. They suggest that, if carefully
managed, the very femininity that threatened the woman manager with exclusion can
now be harnessed for the benefit of her career. Williams, for example, argues that
femininity can be used as a product feature:
I support both the concept and use of femininity… I believe in wearing make-
up and skirts and shaving legs (Williams, 1977)
In creating the woman manager as a product, hairstyle is important:
…the most common mistake I see women make is to wear their hair too
long… longer hair tends to emphasize facial features of which we may be less
proud as we age… if your hair is graying, consider a good colorist. Whereas
grey or graying hair on men is viewed as distinguished women aren’t typically
afforded the same compliment. (Frankel, 2004)
In addition to the strategic use of femininity in make-up, shaving and hairstyle,
clothing is vital. Creating the woman-manager-as-product includes paying close
attention to colour, with most authors recommending colour analysis as a technique
that the woman can use to ‘project her femininity’ (Bryce, 1989; Frankel, 2004;
Friedman and Yorio, 2004; Jordan and Weir, 2006). In one book, the authors provide
an account of their meeting with an image consultant. The aim of the meeting was to
identify the colours that complement their natural features.
[This] involved us sitting in natural light with no make-up on, our hair scraped
back and various scarves tied around our necks. The consultant showed us
how some colours threw light back onto our faces, making us look slightly
better (bearing in mind our unadorned condition). Other colours drew colour
from our faces and made us look a lot worse. Black, one of our staples for
jackets and tops, made us instantly look terrible. (Jordan and Weir, 2006).
Ehrenreich (2006), in her account of white-collar work in twenty-first century America,
talks about her experience of make-up and colour analysis, which entailed similar
evaluations of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ colours against her face. For Ehrenreich, this ‘should
be the fun part – playing with paints and little swatches of fabric’. However, the fun
quickly dissipates as she realizes what is at stake:
I am suddenly gripped by queasiness. I understand that to make myself into a
“product” that I can market, I must first become a commodity, a thing… What I
had not understood is that to become an object, a thing, you must first go
through a kind of death. (Ehrenreich, 2006: 111).
What Ehrenreich describes is a process of intentional commodification of the body
such that it becomes a part of the service provided to the consumer. In a similar way,
the self-help books discussed here encourage the female manager to mould her
aesthetic image and package her femininity into a form that is acceptable.
Salmonsohn even parodies advertising language, joking that women managers
should think about their image in terms of ‘product repositioning’ (Salmonsohn,
Tretheway (1999) and McDowell (1997) discuss the contradictions and paradoxes
inherent to female managers’ embodied identities. These authors report how women
who present a more masculine self-presentation make their female and male
colleagues ‘uneasy’ and are likely to be seen as ‘unfemale’. The female manager
must therefore conduct a delicate ‘balancing act’ so as not to appear too masculine
or excessively feminine (Hochschild, 1994). She is thus caught in a series of
‘complex, ambiguous, and precarious “in-betweens”’ (Tretheway, 1999: 425).
Ehrenreich (2006) captures this ambiguity well through her account of an image
management consultation. She is told by the image consultant that her appearance
is ‘too authoritative’, a judgement that Ehrenreich interprets as ‘not looking feminine
The dress-for-success books all urge what I take to be a somewhat mannish
appearance, achieved through pragmatic hairstyles and curve-concealing
suits. But if you go too far in the masculine direction… you somehow err
again (Ehrenreich, 2006: 108).
Our analysis of the body in self-help books for women managers reconfirms the
contradictory nature of this identity project. In many cases, even within the same
text, a number of contradictory versions of the successful woman manager emerge.
Advice is contradictory and ambiguous, particularly in relation to clothes:
The clothes that you wear for business should fall into the category of
conservative but mildly feminine (Williams, 1977)
As Macdonald warns:
What you must never do is wear a trouser suit which apes a man’s business
suit. It does not make you look like a businessman, it makes you look rather
silly and attention-seeking. If you compound the error by wearing a man’s tie
with it, some of the men you meet will assume you are a lesbian and you’ll
have all that hassle to cope with. (Macdonald, 1986)
These tensions and contradictions expose the fundamental problem in managing the
female body in a workplace context that valorises and normalizes the masculine:
Women who try to banish sex – or worse, be sexless themselves – seldom
succeed. The solution for women is not to deny their sexuality or femininity,
but to control it and to keep men from using sex to denigrate them… Wearing
severe suits, talking tough, and rejecting every smile or hint of friendliness
from men is no more a sensible way for a woman to behave on the job than is
playing the vamp. (Stechert, 1986)
Contradictions are particularly notable in admonitions of the need to balance
sexuality against feminism. For example, Salmonsohn recommends flirting as a
In certain situations, a little cleavage can actually help to first peak a guy’s
attention to a career girl’s benefit, then later help to distract a guy’s attention
to a career girl’s benefit. (Salmonsohn, 1997)
However, she goes on to note that an attractive woman can get into trouble: while
her attractiveness guarantees attention from men, this may come with ‘fear and
resentment’. (Salmonsohn, 1997) On the one hand, femininity is presented as a
resource for the woman to use to her advantage, while on the other, sexuality
threatens to demean and render her inferior. Finding a balance between fitting in to
the masculine, and packaging the feminine, is therefore precarious, if not impossible.
Doing Bodies Differently
In this chapter we have shown how self-help authors encourage women managers to
discipline and subordinate their bodies in ways that are often subtle, and even
contradictory. One of us has argued in previous work that the body represents a
medium through which cultural norms and values are acquired (Bell and King,
forthcoming). Bodily practices constitute an important means by which the norms,
values and beliefs associated with a particular culture are enacted, and proficiency
as a cultural member is demonstrated. For women managers this presents a distinct
challenge, since their bodies are defined as inherently abnormal from the outset and
thus unsuited to managerial cultures.
The question remains as to what are the effects of self-help texts on women’s
embodied experience of managerial cultures. Are they simply tools in the ongoing
dominance of hegemonic, masculine organizational discourses or do they leave
scope for resistance? Any attempt to answer this question must engage with the
ways in which such texts are read. Hence, rather than seeing self-help books as
commodifying readers and forming part of a regulatory normative schema which acts
to discipline women at work, or alternatively as potential sites for resistance, we
suggest that there is a need for more ethnographic studies to explore how women
use these books in their everyday lives (Radway, 1987) as a means of recognising
and voicing their own interests and aspirations in a way that likely to be complex and
potentially contradictory (Bell, 2008).
Meanwhile, by way of conclusion to this chapter we draw on our own responses to
these texts, as university employees and as women, to present some tentative ideas
in a way which acknowledges how our personal, professional and intellectual lives
intersect (McRobbie, 1982). These responses affirm the nature of academic work as
not purely mental labour (McRobbie, 1982) but also an embodied project of identity
construction. Our first reaction is one of pessimism. If, before reading such books,
we were aware of our bodies as posing potential obstacles to our career progress,
this exercise has compounded this impression. By reminding us of these embodied
markers of difference, we feel even more out of place at work. Self-help books thus
contribute further to our sense of exclusion. The contradictory and mixed messages
about how to manage one’s body lead to a sense of dejection: can we ever really
manage our feminine, sexed bodies in ways that could possibly fit in contemporary
organizations? Perhaps, as Irigaray (1990) notes, there is no place for the feminine
in such discourses. For Irigaray, rather than being a separate, sovereign subject, the
category of woman is always subsumed to a position of strangeness and otherness.
Woman can ever only be understood relative to man, as his reflection, ‘the other of
To take a contrasting position, recent theory on gender and the body proposes some
hopeful directions. The perspective adopted by many authors cited above, which
holds that women at work are inevitably trapped in a patriarchal discursive cage, has
been criticised for being overly deterministic and pessimistic. Lately, two alternative
approaches have emerged. The first is based on the idea that discourses such as
masculinity are not fixed but, as we have shown above, frequently incorporate mixed
messages. From our discussion of the body of the successful female manager we
can see how dominant hegemonic discourses surrounding the masculine bodily norm
can contradict each other and, ultimately, fail to make sense. Perhaps this
demonstrates the impossibility of the ideal body and indicates that there is little point
in striving for it. Butler (1990; 1993) argues that the instability at the heart of gender
discourses can yield potential for their undoing. Kenny (2009), for example,
highlights how this undoing can occur in the context of hegemonic representations
through the use of parody and laughter. Perhaps the resulting ‘subversive place(s)’
that open up, leave women managers space to creatively interpret the world of
gender, bodies and the workplace, in a way that suits them (Knights and Kerfoot,
2004: 450). Consequently, we also found in our reading of these texts spaces to use
them in our own ways, taking the advice they offer and using it in to enable our own
ongoing survival in, for example, interactions with male colleagues or giving lectures
A second, related position is based on a critique of approaches to discourse, gender
and embodiment that tend to treat the body as an entirely receptive phenomenon that
is compelled to be shaped, formed and manipulated by discourses. A possible
alternative involves drawing on ideas of performativity (Butler, 1990; 1993). For
Butler, the inescapable unknowingness of social life means that norms are never re-
enacted in a straightforward manner, but ‘elide, slide, alter (and) shift’ in a number of
interesting ways (Borgerson, 2005: 71). In this imperfect recitation lies the potential
for discourses to be altered and subverted (Butler, 1990). Drawing on this
perspective one could argue that even if women professionals are to actively re-cite
the bodily norms implied in the texts presented here, this recitation and performance
cannot happen in a straightforward manner. In this vein, some authors see the body
as a lived phenomenon which introduces the potential for resisting normative
injunctions (Ball, 2005; Grosz, 1994). For example, Davies et al. (2005)
conceptualize how the ‘crossing over’ between mind and body, which occurs in the
lived experiences of bodily life, leads to an incomplete, indeterminate bodily
existence. Through breaking down traditional conceptual barriers between internal
and external, the self is seen as a series of flows. For writers like Pullen (2006) the
gendered self can be understood as an ambiguous and fragmented ‘corporeal
multiplicity’ defined by its connective capabilities, rather than its physical and sexual
properties. This lived experience of body and materiality, and its intersection with
norms and power, is seen as a potential site for resistance to power (Ball, 2005).
The body is thus involved in both the construction of societal influences on identity
and in the psychic experiencing of such influences. Consequently, bodily
performances have the potential to subvert particular hegemonic norms which
influence constructions of self and identity among women managers (Butler, 1993;
see also Sinclair, this volume).
In this chapter we have shown how self-help books purport to help women
understand aspects of their selves and their situation by teaching them ‘effective
ways of being’ (Simonds, 1992: 223). In situations where women managers find
themselves ‘lone travellers’ (Marshall, 1984) in a male world, such texts may enable
them to feel connected to others in the same situation and to develop a ‘self-identity
they feel they lack’ (Simonds, 1992: 6). The ‘simple act of taking up a book’
(Radway, 1987: 12) is thus extremely complex. For the organizational researcher
engaged in exploring these issues we suggest there is a need to better understand
the historical and cultural meanings that such texts hold for their audiences and the
women who write them, as well as exploring the connection between the texts and
readers’ everyday lives. Above all, what women struggling to make sense of
hegemonic masculine organizational norms surrounding the managerial body need
most from researchers is ‘our support rather than our criticism or direction’ (Radway,
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