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Gender, Work and Organization. Vol. 10 No.

5 November 2003

Analysing Competence:
Gender and Identity at Work
Bronwen Rees* and Elizabeth Garnsey

Competence approaches are among the techniques that claim to measure

the behaviour, skills, knowledge and understanding crucial to effective
managerial performance. It is claimed that competence approaches
empower and develop managers while enabling them to meet organiza-
tional objectives. Since the bases for the techniques are avowedly scien-
tific, they are said to provide organizations with a gender neutral form of
assessment. In this paper we construct a theoretical framework in terms of
which these claims can be analysed and assessed. Using this framework,
we examine the competence approach as it has been implemented in six
organizations in relation to the claim to objectivity.

Keywords: competence, gender, identity, women in management, power,



T here has been a widespread introduction of competence methods as fea-

tures of human resource management in today’s organizations.1 Compe-
tence methods involve a concerted effort to align individual behaviour with
the aims of the organization. On first appearances, competence methods rep-
resent an objective application of a neutral technique. In this paper we ques-
tion this understanding, in particular in relation to women managers. We
show why the qualities many women bring to work may not gain recogni-
tion on the basis of current methods of selection and promotion underpinned
by the competence approaches, which are increasingly becoming the norm.
However, used with awareness, the competence assessment process can be
a useful basis for debate and inquiry into the development and reward of
management skills.
We attempt to build a theoretical framework that can identify how appar-
ently objective organizational practices may lead to inequalities. Drawing on

Address for correspondence: *Bronwen Rees, 28 Cattell’s Lane, Waterbeach, Cambridge, CB5
9NH, 01223 571264, e-mail:

© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2003, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK
and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

critical theory, Foucault’s understanding of power and feminist insights into

gender relations, we attempt to explore how managerial practices associated
with a technical competence approach operate to endorse a particular type
of managerial behaviour. We see why women continue to be less likely to
engage in this kind of behaviour. We begin by exploring the notion of the
competent manager.

Section 1: The birth of the competent manager

Throughout the 20th century understanding of the ‘manager’ has been a

matter for debate and calls for action, though managerial performance
has been notoriously difficult to evaluate (Child, 1969; Anthony, 1986). The
measurement of management performance has in the past been over-
whelmingly assessed in a results-oriented approach. The competence
approach marks a new development. Its focus lies in endorsing and pro-
moting types of managerial behaviour rather than measuring managerial
outcomes. There has been, however, an enormous diversity of interpretation
of the meaning of the term, ‘competence’, and no agreed definition (Rees,
The term ‘competence’ was first used in a managerial context in the
research of the McBer Consultancy in the late 1970s in the USA as part of the
initiative by the American Management Association to identify the charac-
teristics which distinguish superior from average managerial performance
(Iles, 1993). The work was encapsulated in The Competent Manager (Boyatzis,
Boyatzis defined the term ‘competency’ as an ‘underlying characteristic of
the person’.2 It could be a motive, trait, skill, aspect of one’s self-image or
social role, or a body of knowledge which he or she uses (Boyatzis, 1982).
However, as Woodruffe (1993) pointed out, defining the word in this way
leaves the term open to a multitude of interpretations. To avoid unresolved
debates about ‘motives’ and ‘traits’ and so on, the term ‘competence’ can be
used to refer to a ‘set of behaviours, skills, knowledge and understanding
which are crucial to the effective performance of a position’ (p. 29).
The term and its related concepts have been adapted in number of ways.
It has been extended to cover the training of a select group of managers
and to the total change of an entire organization. Despite Boyatzis’ original
intention to provide a model of competence that could be validated against
organizational criteria, competences have also been taken up at a national
level and provide the framework for example, for developing general man-
agement competences (Townley, 1999). We are concerned here, however, with
an analysis of the frameworks that are arrived at within, and are specific to,

Volume 10 Number 5 November 2003 © Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2003


Despite a burgeoning literature on how to develop competences in or-

ganizations (for example, Boam and Sparrow, 1992), the methods of the
competence approach are fairly uniform. The basic process is as follows:
Stage 1 Select level of analysis (management strata, specialist functions,
whole organization)
Stage 2 Conduct behavioural event interviews across selected sample
Stage 3 Analyse interviews, cluster characteristics of competences
Stage 4 Feedback competences to relevant personnel
Stage 5 Draw up framework of competences to characterize behaviour
required across the management strata, function or organization
Central to this type of model is the behavioural event or critical incident
interview. In this type of interview, job holders and ‘significant others’ who
regularly see a person perform a job, are interviewed to generate accounts
of observed behaviour or activity that can be shown to be crucial to the effec-
tive or less effective performance of the job in question. The process elicits a
list of behavioural characteristics that can then be translated into competence
clusters of critical behaviours underlying the effective performance of the
job. The difference between this and traditional methods of job specification
are twofold: firstly, the interview focuses on the ‘behaviour’ needed to carry
out the specific task and not the task itself and secondly, the ‘behaviour’ is
elicited from the individuals themselves.
Competence frameworks and methods vary considerably from organiza-
tion to organization and the extent and depth to which they become part of
human resource technologies can also differ. There is an expectation that they
will provide a guide for recruitment, selection and promotion choices. Jobs
are to be profiled on the basis of roles (formerly job descriptions) using
competence techniques. A job is held to comprise both what is to be done
(job description) and how this is to be done (behaviours required in a role).
Further, through assessment in relation to required competences, the gaps in
people’s competences can be identified and training and development built
around this need. In theory, it is the business plan that drives job roles and
profiles, so that the whole becomes a tightly knit nexus of performance man-
agement. In its fullest expression, a competence-based system of human
resource management (HRM) will be closely integrated into the payment
The competence approach itself implies a greater level of self-management
and some competence programmes have workshops built in so that man-
agers are trained in profiling other people in relation to jobs and also them-
selves in relation to their own jobs. There has also been a growing use of
360 degree feedback, or upward appraisal, whereby feedback is collected ‘all
around’ an employee, from his or her supervisors, subordinates, peers and
customers (Fletcher, 1993; Novack, 1993).

© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2003 Volume 10 Number 5 November 2003


Assessment may be an ongoing process between subordinate and boss, or

it may well take place, in addition, at an assessment centre. An assessment
centre is a procedure that uses multiple assessment techniques to evaluate
employees for a variety of manpower purposes and decisions (Thornton and
Byham, 1982). What is particularly important is the focus on relevant behav-
iours displayed in simulations (Seegers, 1987). Such methods of assessment
are underpinned by a growing literature relating to psychological methods
of assessing competence (for example, Arnold and Davey, 1992; Kinder and
Robertson, 1994; Lewis, 1993).

Section 2: Finding an integrative theoretical framework

Competence frameworks have gained great ascendancy throughout the

1990s (Rees, 2003). This research set out to build a theoretical framework
from which we can examine their impact on the progress of women in
Gender issues have largely been ignored in the body of literature that has
grown up to describe management. Thus, discourses about scientific man-
agement, human relations, organization theories, systems and contingency
theory and so on, treat the managerial function as a gender-free construct,
ignoring the fact that historically managers have more generally been pre-
dominantly men. There are women working in the field of management
research, but with few exceptions (such as Kanter, 1977; Woodward, 1958)
the subsidiary role of women researchers is in evidence (Tancred-Sheriff and
Campbell, 1992). Where there has been an explicit focus on ‘men as men’ and
‘women as women’ it is in the largely marginalized ‘women in management’
literature. When the focus on women marks them out as the problem it is
their inability or ability to fit into the norms of organizational life that
becomes the focus of the problem, not a questioning of the basis on which
these norms are constructed (for example, Donnell and Hall, 1980; Ragins,
1989; Schein, 1973, 1975). But this is to ignore issues of masculinity which
some critical theorists have shown to be central to the analysis of behaviour
in organizations (Collinson and Hearn, 1994; Roper, 1993).
Thus the story of management has been largely told in gender-free
accounts that ignore the realities of organizational life by assuming a uni-
versal worker. But critical organizational theorists have highlighted the way
that men in organizations tend to be engaged in the creation and mainte-
nance of various identities which include the expression of power and status
in the workplace that relates to gender (such as Collinson et al., 1990;
Kerfoots and Knights, 1996; Knights, 1990). They show how masculine iden-
tities constantly have to be constructed, negotiated and reconstructed in
routine social interaction, both in the workplace and elsewhere. Studies have

Volume 10 Number 5 November 2003 © Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2003


shown how masculine identities are threatened by social and economic forces
such as new technology (Cockburn, 1983) and equal opportunity initiatives
(Cockburn, 1991). Typically, men’s gender identities are constructed, com-
pared and evaluated according to a whole variety of criteria indicating
personal success in the workplace. In the process of construction and main-
tenance of masculine identities, there is evidence that feminine identities
become a kind of residual.
What is problematic is the fact that, while organizational realities are struc-
tured around gender, among other issues, this is not made explicit and the
concept of gender neutrality prevails. Over the past few years a growing
body of critical feminist literature has developed alongside mainstream man-
agement studies that explores these realities (for example, Acker, 1998; Calas
and Smircich, 1992; Ely, 1995; Hearn and Parkin, 1992; Lamsa and Sintonen,
2001; Martin, 1990; Rubin, 1997). The break between the reality of gender
issues and the pretence of gender neutrality is, as Acker (1992) points out,
‘. . . maintained through the impersonal, objectifying practices of organizing,
managing, and controlling large organizations’ (p. 256).
In these circumstances, it seemed possible that competence frameworks
may in practice maintain or even reinforce current imbalances in manage-
ment, despite or because of their claims to gender neutrality. To investigate
this question we needed a robust theoretical framework that could capture
the complexity of gender relations, yet move beyond the polarization of an
exclusively feminist perspective. As feminist scholarship has pointed out,
when gender patterning leading to inequality ‘. . . is hidden, it is easier to
deny, harder to detect, more difficult to study, more difficult to address’.
(Martin, 1990).

Building a framework for empirical study

There are many theoretical choices for examining gender issues in the femi-
nist literature.3 The problem of ‘difference’, however, besets them all. If we
treat gender entirely as a social construction, then it may appear logical to
remove gender ascriptions and move towards notions of a level playing field
as much liberal ‘women in management’ theory has done. This apparently
avoids treating women as ‘other’ and marginalizing them. However, this also
overlooks the possibility that women may be different as a result either of
their particular social or biological conditioning. Equally, if we suggest that
women’s experience arises out of an essential difference, then emphasizing
such a difference may be taken as a reason for denying them equal treatment,
when they already have limited access to political resources. It is often, para-
doxically, in the denial or advocacy of gender difference that power relations
may be operating. Cockburn (1991) makes the point that: ‘Men will say when
difference is relevant.’

© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2003 Volume 10 Number 5 November 2003


Some of the ideas of critical theory may help us with this problem. Criti-
cal theory argues that, whenever knowledge is deemed to be purely objec-
tive, there are power relations at work, sanctioning certain ideas, methods
and findings as authoritative. It is only by making this process explicit that
it is possible to develop fuller and richer constructions of reality. This can
provide us with: ‘working hypotheses, ways of looking at the world which
we might find useful in explaining some, but not all of the things we want
to study’. (Craib, 1992). Thus, there may be broad gender patterns that
produce a spectrum of behaviours, but that are also open to change. Within
the framework of critical theory we can identify that a social identity is ‘knit
from a plurality of different descriptions arising from a plurality of different
signifying practices’ (Fraser, 1991, p. 99). Some practices, for example, moth-
ering, are more deeply embedded in the social fabric than others. These
ingrained practices are likely to produce a collective set of ascribed behav-
iours that we take for granted and that provide the assumptions underlying
gender as an issue.4 Socio-historical conditions give rise to ingrained dif-
ferences between behaviour deemed masculine and feminine, but there is
obvious evidence that this is open to change.
Among the forces at work that can be overlooked are the way language
and discourse relate to the production of knowledge and are implicated in
relations of power. Discourse refers to the language used for talking about a
topic and for producing a particular kind of knowledge about that topic (Du
Gay, 1996). Far from reflecting an already given social reality, language which
is taken for granted constitutes reality as it appears to us. Thus, for example,
what is termed work in one environment (the home) may not be termed work
in another; what is determined as a ‘skilled job’ in one organization may not
be termed so in another (Garnsey and Rees, 1996). Meaning is not constant
across discourses (for example, between feminist or management discourses)
and is subject to historical change.
Just as language defines and constructs the subjective outlook, so too do
the discursive practices that constitute institutions. Institutions comprise sets
of practices, everyday routines and procedures in which a pre-given set of
values exist, and in which people, as subjects, feel they are making sense
of the word and creating meanings. But the individual is subject to a range
of discourses, some of which conflict. Subjects are apparently free to define
themselves in their everyday life. The social construction of reality is not self-
evident and can leave people unaware of ways of representing reality, and
the forms of control this exerts are difficult to detect.
The subject’s world appears to be normal and unproblematic, but it has
been produced in its current form with differential benefits and costs as
consequences. To see how such processes take place in the world of man-
agement, we need to identify potential areas of conflict, even where these do
not eventuate. This can be done by highlighting discursive practices which
block discussion about values and close off avenues for exploring differences.

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As regards competence frameworks, are they objective and value-free? Are

the behaviours captured in competence frameworks open to discussion?
Have people discussed them? Do the frameworks take into account ‘differ-
ences’ in the workforce?
In order to frame these questions, we need to reconsider the notion of
power in organizations. Most conceptions of power in organizations are
based on the Weberian notion that ‘A’ is exercising power over ‘B’ when ‘A’
can make ‘B’ act against his or her overt inclinations. But there are multiple,
sometimes conflicting discourses in use that affect the way people see pos-
sibilities. Gender issues are interwoven in a series of sense-making practices,
such as stories, jokes, dress codes and managerial classifications which are
taken for granted and do not surface for recognition and assessment. Rela-
tions of power here may not be overt and visible, but diffuse and hard to
Power relations here do not take the form of the overt economic or social
exploitation. They are constructed in processes of social interaction. Through
his notion of disciplinary practices Foucault opened up the analysis of pro-
cesses whereby power relations are maintained through methods for docu-
menting and depicting behaviour in specific spheres of activity. Foucault’s
notion of disciplinary power represents the tensions between potentially
enabling and constraining features of power relations. This provides us with
the framework for this research. Foucauldian studies have become more
prevalent in organization studies over the past decade (for example, Du Gay
et al., 1996; Hollway, 1991; Rees, 2003; Rose, 1990; Townley, 1993a, 1993b, 1994).
Governance, in a Foucauldian sense, is not simply about the ordering of
activities and processes; it is intimately concerned with the internalization of
discipline — governance operates through subjects. Discipline is rendered
most effective and least visible through the internalization of norms and
the construction of a subjective outlook in keeping with a desired conduct.
Thus, in the workplace, powerful interests may promote the construction
or concept of the ‘competent’ manager in line with organizational aims.
Employees are encouraged to take responsibility for their own self-
fulfilment, which is to be achieved through behaving in particular
‘competent’ ways that also fulfil the aims of the organization.
Disciplinary practices encompass relations between power and knowl-
edge with which Foucault was closely concerned: ‘Power and knowledge
directly imply each other; . . . there is no power relation without the correla-
tive constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not
presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations’ (1977, p. 27).
Power works through the multiplicity of ways in which knowledge is clas-
sified, codified, recorded and inscribed. Foucault’s notion of governance
emphasizes regulatory processes and methods of thinking about or perceiv-
ing a domain, especially where specific forms of documentation have the
authority to depict this sphere of activity.

© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2003 Volume 10 Number 5 November 2003


Foucault (1977) identified three primary methods or ‘dividing practices’

which make it possible to manage people en masse: enclosure (the creation of
a space which includes others); partitioning (when each individual has her
own place and each place an individual; and ranking (the hierarchical order-
ing of individuals). Such procedures establish relations of equality and dif-
ference. Dividing practices are carried out on the space which individuals
occupy (the work space), on the individual’s body (the way he or she is
expected to comport herself) and in terms of a division of the working week
into hours and quarters (such as allocated schedules).
However, governance also acts on agents as subjects. Within dividing
practices lie further disciplining processes that alternatively ‘objectify’ and
‘subjectify’ the individual. These Foucault called ‘examination’ and ‘confes-
sion’. The examination provides a mechanism by which individuals can be
measured, codified and classified within these procedures. This constant vis-
ibility keeps individuals ‘arranged’ like objects. This has two consequences;
the ‘constitution of the individual as a ‘knowable’, describable object and the
possibility of building up records to arrive at generalizations about popula-
tions averages, norms and so on.
Just as examination objectifies individuals, so the process of ‘confession’
subjectifies them: ‘L’homme, en Occident, est devenue une bete d’aveu’ (Foucault,
1976, p. 80). Although, superficially, the capacity to ‘know oneself’ through
confession promises liberation, Foucault believes this can be an illusion: con-
fession can draw more of the person into the domain of power. The confes-
sion is characterized by the power relations implied by the confessional
relationship, where the interlocutor acts as judge, forgiver, counsellor. It
appears that confession has a special capacity to change the person who con-
fesses. It exonerates and purifies her: ‘The value of the confession is increased
by the obstacles and resistance one has to overcome to make it’ (Fairclough,
1992, p. 53).

Theorizing difference
As we have already shown, although we may understand that, to a certain
degree, gender is socially constructed, we cannot explore how this happens
unless we begin with a provisional notion of difference. There are evolu-
tionary reasons for gender differences but these are remote and unobserv-
able. They are overlaid by current and demonstrable social influences. It is
these social patterns of construction with which we are concerned here. The
sense of gender identity is constructed in each generation through the inter-
nalization of norms and assumptions about how people of each gender are
expected to behave. By exploring the relationship between manifest differ-
ences and the processes that reinforce or change these differences we seek to
achieve a better understanding of the construction of the sense of self in rela-
tion to gender.

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For the purposes of our analysis, and drawing on evidence from outside
and inside the workplace, we would divide male and female behaviours
along a ‘nurturing’ and ‘directive’ continuum. This is not to say that posi-
tions on the continuum are predetermined solely by sex, as evidently,
they are subject to change. Gender is not simply imposed: at all points of
development, human beings are actively constructing for themselves what it
means to be male or female, just as they are actively constructing what it
means to be, for example, a manager or an administrator.5
At the observable level of behaviour, there is a substantial body of empir-
ical evidence both from childhood and workplace studies, showing that
nurturing behaviour is more common among girls and directive behaviour
more common among boys (for example, Eakins, 1976; Heatherington et al.,
1993; Holmes, 1989; James and Drakich, 1993; Leaper, 1991; Maccoby, 1990;
Tracy and Eisenberg, 1990/91. For a fuller summary, see Rees, 2003).
Tannen’s work on sociolinguistics (1994) cites conversational styles that char-
acterize feminine and masculine behaviour. She finds that women and girls
place emphasis on the equality of relationship, take into account the effect of
an exchange on the other person and tend to ask questions and seek infor-
mation. Talk among men, her studies report, is characterized by joking,
teasing, banter and playful put-down and men typically expend efforts
to avoid a disadvantageous position. Holmes (1989) shows how women
apologize more frequently than men and offer compliments more readily.
Relational factors affect women’s presentation of themselves. For example,
Nadler and Nadler (1987) demonstrate significant gender-related differences
between men and women in negotiating pay.
Numerous studies present empirical evidence for differences between the
genders in how they perceive and present themselves. The psychologist,
Gilligan, identifies differences in girls’ moral approach to the world
(Gilligan, 1982, Gilligan et al., 1990). Gilligan demonstrates how women view
autonomy rather than attachment as the illusory and dangerous quest: ‘. . .
women’s development points towards a different history of human attach-
ment, stressing continuity and change in configuration, rather than replace-
ment and separation, elucidating a different response to loss, and changing
the metaphor of growth’ (1982, p. 48). In her work, based on three studies
encompassing all age groups, she explores conceptions of self and morality
and experiences of conflict and choice. She discovers that:

From the different dynamics of separation and attachment in their gender

identity formation through the divergence of identity and intimacy that
marks their experience in the adolescent years, male and female voices typ-
ically speak of the importance of different truths, the former of the role of
separation as it defines and empowers the self, the latter as the ongoing
process of attachment that creates and sustains the human community.
(Gilligan, 1982, p. 156)

© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2003 Volume 10 Number 5 November 2003


Biological drives apart, such differences appear to be reinforced by pat-

terns of parenting. Chodorow (1978), in The Reproduction of Mothering,
provides an interpretation that has not yet been theoretically superseded of
how gender differences arise and are perpetuated. She shows how the social
system of mothering creates and reinforces different patterns of behaviour in
boys and girls. Where the dominant role of women is to be mothers, they
bring up daughters in their own image. Because women take primary
responsibility for the welfare of infants and children, boys are cared for by a
primary care-giver of a different gender. As boys develop their sense of iden-
tity in their earliest years, this emerges as separate from and other than the
mother who is their central care-giver. The need to come to terms with this
separation very early was conceived by Freud as arousing Oedipal anxiety.
Girls, in contrast, Chodorow shows, cared for by a same gender care-giver,
separate less early and typically grow up to value closeness to others and to
experience care and dependence as less anxiety-inducing than do boys. Girls,
however, are more likely to be anxious in situations where independence is
called for.
The way in which such differences are perpetuated may be connected with
different modes of cognition. Bruner (1986, 1990), building on work such as
that which Gilligan carried out on adolescent girls (1982) identified two
modes of cognition. He termed these paradigmatic (or categorical) and nar-
rative. In the paradigmatic mode, cognition is viewed as an information-
processing phenomenon in which concepts are coded and manipulated by
cognitive operators. Situations are represented as presenting problems to be
‘solved’ by rational analysis, through computations, comparisons and sub-
stitutions akin to scientific reasoning. This model dominates cognitive psy-
chology, as it dominates other social sciences and, indeed, our everyday
understanding of cognition (Boland and Schultze, 1996).
Despite contributing to the establishment of this mode in his own disci-
pline of cognitive psychology, Bruner (1986, 1990) has now suggested that
the dominance of this conception has suppressed the recognition of another,
more powerful and universal mode of cognition: the narrative mode. Here
events are selected and populated with actors with their own histories and
motivation. Stories are told by setting the actors and events in a meaningful
sequence. This mode, Bruner argues, is ubiquitous as a means of making
sense of ourselves and the world we live in, but is consistently overlooked
in authoritative discourse. A further characteristic of the narrative mode is
that the narrator more often uses her own voice. Narrative is less distant
and impersonal than in the paradigmatic mode of cognition (Boland and
Schultze, 1996).
This rediscovery of the strengths of the narrative mode emerged as the
‘masculine bias’ in the analysis of psychological categories such as ‘identity’
and ‘morality’ and important concepts such as relationships, intimacy and

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so on began to emerge in evidence from cognitive psychology. Gilligan (1982)

illustrated this with the case of an adolescent girl, who, when rated on
Kohlberg’s measurement instrument for moral development, was unwilling
to reply in the paradigmatic mode within which it was constructed. Despite
this low rating, she was able to give a sophisticated contextualization of the
problem in narrative form.
There is a spectrum of cognitive preferences. However, there is consider-
able evidence to show that girls feel more at ease with the narrative mode,
while boys are encouraged to follow sporting scores and other rankings
which are rudimentary features of the paradigmatic mode. Further, the dis-
tancing process that boys go through when separating their identity from
their mother’s is more likely to lead to the paradigmatic self ‘characterized
by separation from others, segmentation and calculation’ (Boland and
Schultze, 1996). The narrative approach of looking for connections, following
through processes and taking into account relationships, bears a greater
resemblance to women’s psychological development, as explored by
Chodorow (1978) and Gilligan (1982, Gilligan et al., 1990). Differences
between the sense of identity of men and women, their ways of relating to
others and their cognitive preferences are widespread in many spheres of life
and manifest themselves also in the world of paid work. Occupational seg-
regation indices show women consistently preferring nurturing occupations
and that they are less commonly found in professions where rational and
analytical tasks predominate.
We are evidently dealing with a continuum of outlook and behaviour, not
with a clear-cut dichotomy. Undoubtedly, there are considerable differences
within gender groups. Some men are more nurturing than some women.
There are women who are more distant or directive than men who are at the
nurturing end of the continuum. Moreover, the manifestation of difference
is continually open to change. The conditioning that affects the sense of
gender identity undergoes change over time and has changed in many
respects. Nevertheless, these variations and shifts have not replaced the still
powerful conditioning factors experienced by men and women, the impli-
cations of which have been obscured by more prominent concerns in
organizational study.

Section 3: Assessing the theory —

objectivity and competence

In this section we draw together the theoretical strands by applying them to

empirical evidence derived from fieldwork in organizations.
Competence methodologies were observed in six different organizations:
a university that was the instigator of ‘open learning’ techniques in the early

© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2003 Volume 10 Number 5 November 2003


1970s; a major multinational company in the oil industry; a multinational

construction company; a semi-privatized national utility; a health and social
services trust and a cosmetics retailer and manufacturer. The research took
place in two stages. The first stage was conducted in all organizations and
consisted of in-depth exploratory interviews with those responsible for
implementing and driving through the competence initiative. The second
stage consisted of a more detailed case study in the cosmetics retailer. This
consisted of in-depth interviews with senior managers, participation in com-
petence workshops and interviews with middle managers about their under-
standings of the competence framework. This company was selected because
its ethos and the employee profile differs significantly from the others. They
employ significantly higher numbers of women in senior positions than the
national average, and their ethos is underpinned by an explicit set of values
seeking to promote ethical working conditions and trading values. We draw
on observations of all six organizations. In the light of our theoretical frame-
work, we ask the following questions:

• how objectively were the competence frameworks drawn up?

• to what extent do the frameworks resemble disciplinary practices?
• is there room for women’s voices?

The interviews were open-ended and aimed to elicit the managers’ percep-
tions of the competence implementation process and their hopes and expec-
tations; as well as to ascertain if there were any conscious resistance to
implementation. We analysed the sense they made of the competence frame-
works, drawing on our interview and participant material, from our obser-
vations about the practices associated with the implementation of the
frameworks and from detailed analyses of the particular language in which
competences were framed.
In particular, we wanted to ascertain to what extent the claims for objec-
tivity were met and how the competence frameworks or categories were
drawn up. Was there was any discussion or room for further discussion or
change in the future? Finally, we examined the competence frameworks and
associated practices in the light of ‘women’s voices’.

1: Claims for objectivity

In all organizations studied, save the beauty and cosmetics retailer, senior
management respondents stressed the objectivity of the competence
approaches. However, the focus in all these organizations lay in the ‘techni-
cal’ issues of identification and application, rather than in questioning the
validity and strategy of the competence initiative itself. The competence
approach is said to unearth and discover the qualities underlying the suc-

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cessful incumbency of the management role under changing conditions:

it does not construct them, nor does it question the underlying change in
strategy or structure. In the interviews competence programmes were largely
viewed as objective: managers rarely seriously questioned the basis of the
competences or disagreed with their intentions. Indeed, these were praised
for their objective nature. As the Head of Human Resources at the Univer-
sity pointed out: ‘It is clearing up their blind spots, and people will do objec-
tive assessing’.
In the trust in Northern Ireland, the objective nature of the competence
process was stressed, together with the tightness of the equal opportunity
system. As one of the project implementers noted: ‘I would say our system
is so stringent that there really is no discrimination.’ It was felt that as the
competences were derived from the incumbents themselves, they would
automatically be neutral. At the trust again: ‘Basically the competence frame-
work is the words of the staff . . . a framework that has not been imposed
from the outside, in fact, it is our own framework.’
Further, because the competences were apparently derived in this objec-
tive manner, there was an underlying but unstated assumption that they
were gender-free. When asked, all respondents said they considered that the
competence approach would provide an excellent system to make sure that
equal opportunity issues were fully addressed. The HR Director in the multi-
national construction company explained how they gave: ‘higher levels of
accuracy than more traditional methods of assessment’.
Despite these claims of objectivity, we found that there were several key
parts of the ‘technical process’ where explicit subjectivity appeared to be
operating. One of the most important areas where this took place was at the
point at which competences were clustered when interviews with staff had
taken place. Firstly, there was variation as to whom and how many people
were interviewed. Secondly, when the results of the interviews were gath-
ered together and clustered into competences, changes were made to the
competences as they were drawn up. In the trust, for example, which made
the greatest claim to objectivity, and despite an extensive period of critical
incident interviewing (over the period of a year and a half), it was the con-
sultant who examined, clustered and drew up the 34 competences at six
levels. One of us, in fact, witnessed her front room with several plastic bags
full of written statements which she was in the process of cutting up and
clustering. When asked what criteria she was using for the clustering, she
said it was her ‘knowledge, experience and learning’ that was making the
choices. Here, it would seem, though the process is presented as totally sci-
entific and claimed to be written in the words of the interviewees, at the criti-
cal point of clustering, objectivity is replaced by subjective judgement. In the
multinational oil company, where top and poor performers were identified,
discussion took place later and changes made in the competences as the
framework was developed. In the university where the competences were

© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2003 Volume 10 Number 5 November 2003


derived by a consultant from eight interviewees, the Dean of Social Science

noted that:
From the initial interviews we ended up with however many headings
there were. Now, I don’t remember suggesting any of these headings. I
may have mentioned some, I don’t remember . . . For a social scientist it
really drives you mad, because you think this is so unscientific in a basic
way . . . to actually draw that conclusion [about some of competences] is
completely misleading.
Further, there was a lack of clarity in most organizations about what ‘com-
petences’ really are. There was a conceptual confusion about what is a
‘behaviour’ ‘or a trait’ or simply an ‘outlook’ and ‘attitude’. If there is lack
of clarity about what a ‘competence’ is, then there will be even less clarity
about how this can be objectively measured.
On the surface critical incident interviewing techniques are used to
capture the ‘voices’ of the employees on their competence. These accounts
are then carefully analysed and incorporated into lists of behaviours that
are ‘observable’ and hence ‘measurable’ and quantifiable. However, without
clear and unambiguous understanding of ‘competence’, the aim of measur-
ing such behaviour scientifically and objectively is open to question. What is
happening here, it seems, is that, despite the superficial attempts at render-
ing the competence process objective, the competence framework reflects
constructs and categories that are already defined in the minds of senior
managers or consultants. Unless there is a great deal of awareness, people
are confined within the frameworks (including structures and language) of
the process itself. The language of such discourses tends to reproduce itself
and draw on existing categories, rather than bringing in anything new.
The second major claim to objectivity that frames the competence process
is the perceived benefits of the processes of assessment and appraisal used.
The emphasis on appraisal that forms part of the competence process was
assumed to lead to greater objectivity in promotion and selection. This,
however, is to ignore the past decade of research into the process of assess-
ment which shows that appraisal is not a straightforward tool, as we see
below (Alimo-Metcalfe, 1994; Rubin, 1997). Those going through the process
can highlight positive aspects of their behaviour and will do so on the basis
of what they view as acceptable to their superiors. The organizations here
showed little awareness that this was potentially a problem. Given that, in
the competence process, responsibility is increasingly devolved to line man-
agers to assess their subordinates, this was a surprising omission. Only two
organizations, the trust and the beauty manufacturer and retailer, ran work-
shops to familiarize managers with appraisal techniques. It seemed that or-
ganizations had simply not taken this into account when introducing their
competence programmes.

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2: Disciplinary practices

Appraisal: examination and confession?

One of the key practices associated with competence is that of appraisal or

assessment. However, the type, frequency and depth of the appraisal system
differs between organizations, as does the extent to which appraisal systems
represent forms of ‘examination’ or ‘confession’. Where there is extensive
documentation reflecting codifying and classifying processes, there is room
for disciplinary techniques. Often the information encoded on the appraisal
sheets is backed up by ‘psychometric indicators’ which serve to reinforce the
disciplinary nature of the appraisal. A further manifestation of examination
is the setting up of assessment and development centres. Although ‘assess-
ment’ is the term more frequently used, the term ‘development’ may be used
as a euphemistic alternative, emphasizing the benefits accruing to the person
assessed. The reification of the term ‘centre’ also implies a certain ‘fixing’ and
codification of competences, whereas the centre is, in fact, a process, not a
The appraisal process also incorporates elements of Foucauldian confes-
sion. In the appraisal process, both appraiser and appraisee prepare them-
selves by filling in a competence profile or questionnaire related to the
competences. They then meet to discuss the issue, match profiles of the job
and the role-holder and agree a development plan for the individual. In some
cases the examination may not just be from above, but may take the form of
360 degree appraisal, where the appraisee’s peers, subordinates and, some-
times, customers are asked to make judgements about the appraisee. After
the appraisal, individuals are expected to draw up individual development
plans, providing the foundation for the annual examination. In this way
the examination renders the individual responsible for his or her own
Though in principle, as we showed above, the competence approach is
now fairly standard, the way in which the approach is implemented varies
from organization to organization and will depend on the culture in which
the approach is operating. In some of the organizations studied, the purpose
of the appraisal was as a focus of discussion. Perceptions about appraisal
were varied. Some viewed it as a type of ‘examination’ where one’s perfor-
mance was under scrutiny. Yet others viewed it as an opportunity for open
and fruitful discussion with a superior. Perceptions varied depending on the
individual’s prior experience of appraisal and on the culture in which their
current organization was operating. For example, in the health and social
services trust, managers were introduced in a one-day workshop to the
appraisal process and shown the forms that accompanied the appraisal, with
guidance on how to use them. However, when asked what happened if the

© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2003 Volume 10 Number 5 November 2003


two participants in the process failed to come to an agreement on the

appraisal, the human resource director said that dismissal would follow:
there was no further arbiter. In the cosmetics retailer however, there were
avenues for the discussion to be taken to a higher level.
Whatever the types of frameworks, at the heart of the competence
approach is the assessment by individuals of their own competences. Indi-
viduals are drawn into their own self-development process by filling in the
appraisal before the actual appraisal interview takes place. At the interview,
the manager and subordinate discuss the appraisal, find the gaps and ‘con-
tract’ to ‘develop’ the person appraised through the achievement of the new
‘competence’. Such contracts usually manifest as ‘personal development
plans’ which individuals may keep, but which are usually also deposited
centrally with the human resources department.
Thus aspects of individual subjectivity are incorporated into selection pro-
cedures and filed away in the human resource department. In this manner
the individual is a focus of surveillance and discipline. The degree to which
this reflected a disciplinary practice varied from organization to organiza-
tion. At one end of the continuum was the semi-privatized utility, with its
list of competences backed up by psychometric testing and with the entire
appraisal system driving recruitment, selection and promotion. At the other
was the beauty and cosmetics retailer where, though there was extensive doc-
umentation, the whole process was accompanied by extensive discussion
throughout the company, with constant challenging of the notion of appraisal
and where everyone was constantly encouraged to comment on and ques-
tion the competence categories used.

Dividing practices
Once the information from the appraisal process is filed in the human
resource department it can be used as an on-going source for the practices
of promotion, selection and recruitment. Such practices do, to a greater or
lesser extent, resemble the dividing practices that we discussed earlier. We
noted that Foucault’s notions of enclosure, partitioning and ranking have the
effect of positioning individuals in time and space. The individual can be
measured and codified within or outside the organization. The first form of
enclosure operating through competence methodologies is in the division
between paid and unpaid work. Here, part-time or peripheral workers are
often viewed as failing to meet the ‘commitment’ that was stressed in five
out of the six organizations and which was measured through the individ-
ual’s ability to cope with stress and sometimes is written into the com-
petencies. For example, ‘Late in the day, or late in the week, maintains
constantly high levels of activity’; ‘Shows willingness to take on extra
work/projects beyond scope of current job’. Further, since the part-time or
peripheral worker is not present for the ‘full’ number of hours, he or she may

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find it difficult to internalize the types of behaviours required. A large body

of research has shown how the effects of occupational segregation and part-
time working have contributed to a picture of inequality in pay that has
remained little changed since the beginning of the century (Rothwell, 1991).
Within the sphere of the workplace itself, the competence approach works
at several levels in ‘partitioning’ individuals. At a fundamental level, the
initial repertory grid methodology serves to identify with favour those who
are perceived to behave in ‘effective’ ways. Inevitably, those ‘effective’ ways
will reflect current ways of working. Splitting up the behaviours into mea-
surable parts further renders the individual ‘knowable’ and ‘measurable’, as
Foucault conceives, in both in temporal and physical forms. The integrated
pattern of behaviour of one individual who is perceived to be effective is
dissected, whose fragmented attributes are used as a basis for building up
the components of the ‘ideal’ person for the job.
Some groups of workers are rewarded over others. Thus, for example, in
the Trust, of the 34 competences identified at six different levels, only one
related to that of ‘professionalism’. The occupational profile of the trust is
that of social workers, paramedics and nurses whose authority is derived
from their professional standing, as opposed to managerial functions. Cate-
gories that prioritize administrative functions can undervalue professional
expertise. This was equally true in the university, where some of the acade-
mics felt that the managerial competences prioritized in the methodology
could threaten their professional academic status. One academic interviewed
expressed his concerns: ‘Competences could . . . reflect an attempt to get
rid of the academic manager . . . and rather to make them part of an overar-
ching framework . . . with loyalty towards management . . . rather than to
professional routes.’
The competence process has strong elements of ranking. Some of the
organizations had incorporated competences, either formally or informally,
into recruitment, selection and promotion processes. All were using them as
methods of training and developing senior managers and expecting at some
time to cascade the competences down the organization. In the competence
methodology, ranking can take place in two ways. Either different compe-
tences can be developed for different tiers of the organizations, or they can
be developed at top level and then ranked, according to the different levels
of jobs for which they are required.
The rigour of ‘disciplinary’ techniques can be detected in the way the com-
petences themselves are constructed; in the way in which they are imple-
mented and in the way in which they combine with other human resource
methodologies. Table 1 summarizes the results of our interviews.
Although using the language of empowerment, devolution and anti-
bureaucracy, the competence framework can result in an increase in control
and an increase in surveillance. Monitoring and assessment are built into
procedures. In some organizations, the competence approach resembles a

© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2003 Volume 10 Number 5 November 2003


Table 1: Competence frameworks on a paradigmatic/narrative continuum

Use as training
Use in and development,
recruitment, organizational
selection, restructuring,
Reason for appraisal and performance
Organization implementation pay management

Semi- Privatization, Recruitment, Training and

privatized downsizing, selection, development,
national utility flatter appraisal organizational
organization, restructuring,
change in performance
culture management

National Break down Recruitment, Training and

Health and ‘traditional selection, development,
Social Services demarcations’ appraisal organizational
Trust between social restructuring,
services and performance
health services, management
create culture
change and
Multinational Need for culture Not formally, but Training and
oil company change, recruitment development,
downsizing models aligned performance
with it. Selection management
at lower levels.
360 appraisal
Multinational Recession As guidelines Training and
construction created need development
company for new
University Change in higher Hope to use it for Training and
education, need recruitment and development
for academics to selection. 360
be ‘managers’ appraisal

Beauty goods Need to become Recruitment, Training and

manufacturer more selection, development,
and retailer systematized appraisal, organizational
with growth possibly pay restructuring.

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Paradigmatic here

Characteristics Depth of
of current dividing History of
organizational practices and trades
culture, and disciplinary union
desired change Time scales techniques disputes

Formal, bureaucratic, 4 years Extensive and Extensive

status conscious, rigorous
move to first name documentation.
terms. Need to start 18 carefully
‘behaving broken down
differently’ competences,
combined with
Bureaucratic. 3 years, still Extensive and With
Desired ‘fast, fluid on-going rigorous. 34 various
and enterprising competences at 6 professional
culture’ levels groupings

Fairly fluid, wants to 4 years, More as

be peopled by evolving guidelines
‘enterprising selves’ process

Currently formal. No 2 years Guidelines, use Recession

plans for change of development created need
through competences and assessment for new
centres management
Fragmented: 18 months Not yet None
academic, (still on- incorporated into
administration, going) HR strategies.
technical. Need to Greater appraisal
create ‘senior
management ethos’
Fluid, political and 2 years (still Yes, in terms of None
open. No desire to on-going) documentation.
change Much greater
room for
discussion and
debate. More
attention to


© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2003 Volume 10 Number 5 November 2003


contemporary form of managerial Taylorism. Monitoring and evaluation are

now a normal part of the manager’s role. They are not only facilitated by the
competence approach, but are usually elements of the management compe-
tences identified. As the chief executive of the trust noted:
Start to talk about people’s behaviours, and up goes the barriers, and the
skin gets thicker and the resentment, and there is a lack of ease. This
(Behavioural Anchored Rating Scales) provides a tool, where people could
look at the BARS, and where they felt they fitted into the skills . . . and then
when we sat down to talk about it, they had already subjected themselves to
the process. [our italics]
The use here of ‘subjected themselves to’ by the chief executive officer is close
to the Foucauldian concept of ‘subjectification’. Competence approaches
offer organizations the opportunity to tailor behaviour to meet the organi-
zation’s ends. Unless care is taken to build in flexibility, questioning and
intelligence, competence approaches can encourage behaviour fitting a par-
ticular mould, stifling innovation and creativity.

3: Implications for women managers

Using a Foucauldian framework, we have identified ways in which compe-

tence approaches can be likened to disciplinary practices. They encourage
particular types of behaviour that may come more naturally to members of
some groups than of others. We found that the claims to objectivity made for
these approaches were often not supported.
Let us now examine those claims in the light of our understanding of dif-
ference along a ‘nurturing’ and ‘directive’ continuum. We will analyse these
firstly in the light of the competence categories themselves and secondly in
the light of the associated practices. On the whole, the type of behaviours
advocated are predominantly in ‘directive’ mode. Thus, for example, in the
semi-privatized utility, the list of competences were as follows:

Strategic perspective/thinking ability/quality of judgement/commercial

orientation/external awareness/technical depth/technical excellence/management
control/development of human resources/communications/delivery focus/
tenacity/stress tolerance/motivation and drive

These reflect a range of ‘directive’ behaviours. The prime component of

management is assumed to be one of ‘control’ and the three ‘personal char-
acteristics’ stress qualities of independence rather than co-operation and con-
nectedness. This finding was repeated in all organizations save one. In the
beauty and cosmetics retailer, there was considerable emphasis on the skills
of listening, sharing and being democratic; all more clearly aligned with

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those behaviours which women are more likely to possess on entering the
Not only do the competences reflect and reinforce the ‘directive’ behav-
iours, but they can embed expectations that those with domestic responsi-
bilities are unable to meet. Expectations about the desirability of long
working hours affect how employees with family commitments are valued.6
Disparate emphasis on home and work as an index of commitment reflects
the practice of ‘enclosure’ which, by denying the claims of life outside the
workplace, strictly separates paid work from the rest of life. The bulk of
workers with one foot in each world are women working part-time (Rees
and Brewster, 1995). A whole set of assumptions is based around the divide
between work and home. The discourse of competence can confirm and rein-
force the failure to value skills and abilities gained outside paid employment.
But the many skills developed through running a home and bringing up chil-
dren do not come into the reckoning in competence analysis of this kind.
With few exceptions (for example, ‘externally aware’, ‘delivery of customer
care’ and so on), the language of the competence discourse would not be
applied to skills developed in the household. It was only in the beauty and
cosmetics retailer that attention was paid to the structural and linguistic
assumptions that can be embedded in competence categories. Let us compare
some of the competences from the semi-privatized industry and the retailer.
Semi-privatized industry — a selection of positive indicators:
Stress tolerance
Thrives on pressure and significance of work
In a debate maintains logic and persuasiveness of argument despite heavy oppo-
sition from others
Employs stress reduction techniques (Relaxation, Humour, Exercise, Leisure
A contra-indicator is:
Reports problems in home relationships
In the unusual case of the cosmetics retailer:
Employee motivation
Open door policy — will take time to make themselves approachable to others to
deal with their requests and queries and anxieties
Takes an interest in employees’ lives outside e.g. has some knowledge of family life
and circumstances
Has concern for well-being of individuals, is aware of factors which will affect
well-being — stress/ill-health/occupational health issues
In the first organization the competence categories could serve to reinforce
manager’s behaviours that reflect the social world experienced by boys and
men. In the second organization, there is an unusual recognition of the

© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2003 Volume 10 Number 5 November 2003


work–life balance. This is explicit in the competence categories and also

implied in the more nurturing elements of the indicators.
However, it is not simply the language of the ‘competences’ themselves
that may disadvantage women. The associated discursive practices may also
have this effect. Competence strategies are invariably accompanied by an
increase in ongoing assessment and appraisal which are assumed to be
objective. However, research has clearly indicated that appraisal and assess-
ment are not the objective and scientific exercise that is assumed. Many or-
ganizational researchers argue that widespread assumptions about gender
difference are embedded in beliefs about personal skills and traits (Alimo-
Metcalfe, 1994, 1995; Collinson et al., 1990; Rubin 1997). Even where women
are behaving in ways that match the organizational norm for success, such
behaviour may be negatively perceived in a woman. Evidence of this kind is:
. . . a warning to those who seek to teach women simply to ‘fit in’ to exist-
ing organizational arrangements . . . Behaviours important for men’s
success are not directly transferable to women because identical behaviour
is not perceived or treated in the same way. Success is not defined in sex-
neutral terms. (Burton, 1992, p. 195)
For example, in the semi-privatized national utility the ‘constructive loss
of temper’ was included in the competence schedule as appropriate man-
agerial behaviour under certain circumstances. But the expression of anger
is often viewed differently in men and women.
In ostensibly gender-neutral assessment, the desire to focus on correct
procedure draws attention away from more subtle forms of stereotyping.
Because the competence frameworks are deemed to be ‘scientific’ and ‘tech-
nical’, even where people recognize the inherent subjectivity of the process,
the use of formal techniques may reduce vigilance about inequalities. As the
methods are moved down the organization, the flaws in the appraisal process
are likely to be magnified when the process is carried out by people who may
not be aware of the ongoing debates about the dangers inherent in the process.
In the type of appraisal associated with ‘competence’ frameworks,
employees are encouraged to ‘confess’ their failures in order to improve
themselves. We have reviewed evidence that shows that women engage less
in self-promotion and are prone to concede to others rather than risk dam-
aging a relationship through conflict. This evidence suggests that women are
likely to ‘confess’ to perceived weakness than are men, possibly putting pro-
motion at risk. Both women and men are indirectly encouraged to highlight
those aspects of their own behaviour which they perceive as compatible with
the organizational norm and to exclude others (Rubin, 1997). These norms
are likely to favour behaviour at the masculine end of the spectrum.
Evidence from five of the six organizations suggested that the competence
frameworks and methods of implementation are more likely to disadvantage
the forms of behaviour associated with women than men. The competence

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methodologies, building as they do on the individual’s sense of identity, are

likely to create dissonance for women as they struggle to reconcile different
‘ways of being’ in the workplace and home.

The exceptional case

The beauty manufacturer and retailer provided an important counter
example. Here the competence approach was introduced in a culture of ques-
tioning and open debate. As the general manager for company culture noted:
‘We are seeking to establish the values of “integrity, honesty, respect and
care” between ourselves but each of these has to be seen each time in context.’
In other words, problems are not solved simply by rules and regulations.
When a problem is viewed, it is set in context, its story is told, then a solu-
tion proposed. Here, there was far greater discussion, openness and desire
to change indicators should the competence categories not be helpful. In
addition to a far greater number of discussions across the company, the
message was that competence categories were not fixed. They were a ‘tool
and not a rule’. As one facilitator at a competence workshop noted about the
documentation associated with competence analysis:
Pick them out, and mix them up. Make it work for you, . . . not to put it in
boxes and say that is not my criteria . . . to some extent the discussion is
the most important thing, not the documentation and . . . if only we had
these discussions we wouldn’t have to go through this tedious exercise
There was awareness about the way in which language could ‘subjectify’ as
the Head of Product Development noted:
When you try to formulate something accurately . . . if you read it back a
day later it always sounds really formal and rigid, because you have lit-
erally tried to corner off what you are trying to say . . . and I find it a real
challenge to communicate something effectively without losing your audi-
ence, because you know you end up with political sounding language . . .
the language of politicians.
This awareness was reflected in the employment conditions at this organi-
zation. Compared with the national norm, women were significantly better
represented in terms of numbers at board, senior and middle management
level. The rates of pay for these posts were high, unlike in female-dominated
occupations such as teaching and nursing, where top levels are less well-
rewarded than in other occupations.
At a superficial level, the implementation of a competence approach was
not dissimilar from that in other organizations. However, the environment in
which the approach was implemented meant that the implications of its use
were very different for women managers. Although the competence approach
did serve to partition and rank, there was a degree of flexibility that did not

© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2003 Volume 10 Number 5 November 2003


divide staff to the same extent as in other organizations. The extensive dis-
cussions, the debate about the purpose of appraisal and the flexibility with
which the appraisal documentation was treated meant that there was less
scope for examination and confession of the disciplinary type to take place. If
influences from other organizations brought in by new employees should
come to predominate, these conditions may, however, change.


This study has responded to Willmott’s implied agenda:

The significance of gender relations has been seriously neglected in man-
agement and organization studies. Only very recently have feminist voices
been heard . . . Rarely do they address broader issues or engage in deeper
critiques of management theory and practice (Willmott, 1996 p. 6).
The competence method is celebrated as promoting equal opportunities (see
Garnsey and Rees, 1996). However, there are reasons for thinking that the
positive qualities women bring to the work of management can easily be
overlooked in approaches of this kind. In the evidence that we drew on from
different organizations it was seen that decisions about competence frame-
works were largely dominated by technical concerns to refine the means at
the expense of discussing the ends of improved performance. Relating this
to Foucault’s work, we saw that the approach can be used both to ‘objectify’
through enclosure, partitioning and ranking, and to ‘subjectify’ through
appraisal processes used for self-criticism and development. What results is
the effect, not so much of distorted decisions or ‘false consciousness’, as of
the neglect of situational complexities (Deetz, 1992). However, one organi-
zation had broken this mould. This case showed how the issue of how
women are affected by the competence procedure can be used to open debate
about appropriate management behaviour and skills.
There is growing recognition of the qualities of co-operation, empathy,
listening, nurturing, coaching and so on, often explicitly associated with
women, to enhance the performance of managers, both in the business media
and the research literature (for example, Ruderman et al., 2002; Sharpe, 2000).
But this recognition is not reflected in compensation practice or a promotion
policy towards women. The figures on the proportion of women in top man-
agement show little improvement over the past ten years (EOC Report, 2002;
Oakley, 2000). Failure to reward these qualities through competence-based
compensation schemes, even when these schemes are deemed to be gender
neutral, points to the gulf between lip-service and practice based on other
This study suggests that competence analysis is a methodology that can
be used in a variety of ways, including stimulating debate and questioning
the effective behaviour of individuals and the representation of this behav-

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iour. The competence approach has the potential to be used more creatively
under these conditions. A more open approach to competence could enhance
creativity and foster ethical values, but also improve productivity by tapping
into a richer understanding of management skills.

The financial support of the ESRC (Grant no. R000234869) is gratefully
acknowledged for part of the empirical work in this paper.


1. We are not focusing here on generic concepts of competence such as those spon-
sored by UK-government lead initiatives for vocational training. Nor are we
concerned with wider issues of strategy associated with developing ‘core
competences of the corporation’ (see, for example, Prahalad and Hamel, 1996).
2. ‘Competency’ is generally US usage. In UK usage, ‘competence’ is often taken to
be the noun equivalent of ‘competent’.
3. These can be categorized into six: liberal feminism; radical feminism; psychoan-
alytic feminism; socialist feminism; poststructuralist feminism and Third
World/(post)colonial feminism (Calas and Smirchich, 1996).
4. As Fraser (1991) points out: ‘To have a social identity, to be a woman or a man,
for example, just is to live and to act under a set of descriptions. These descrip-
tions, of course, are not simply secreted by people’s bodies, still less are they
exuded by people’s psyches. Rather they are drawn from the fund of interpretive
possibilities available to agents in specific societies. It follows that in order to
understand anyone’s feminine or masculine gender identity, it does not suffice to
study biology or psychology. Instead, one must study the historically specific
social practices through which cultural-descriptions of gender are produced and
circulated’ (p. 99).
5. Neither are we necessarily positing the ‘real’ existence of a psychoanalytic subject.
However, we are using the insights from psychoanalysis as a framework for
describing a process by which gender may be constructed, and as a tool for under-
standing how some signifying practices may have more longer-term impact than
6. It is interesting that in the beauty and cosmetics retailer, although one or two
managers had cited the ability to work long hours as a point of effective perfor-
mance, this has been hotly contested, and ‘written out’ of the company’s scheme
at a very early stage.


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