The development of an approach to public service management more
closely matched to private sector business models of management
(the “new public management agenda”) has been an issue for several
years now and shows little sign of declining in influence. This
research, by Annette Davies and Robyn Thomas of Cardiff Business
School, explores how this new management ethos relates to gender
Based on a questionnaire and follow-up interviews, the study
examined three public sector domains: the police, social services
and secondary schools. The conclusions included the following.
- Some respondents welcomed the reforms and the shift of emphasis
towards more competitive, business-oriented styles of management,
while others had reservations.
- There were mixed messages about equality issues. Some
respondents felt that the changes represented a move away from
traditional, patriarchal approaches, while many women experienced
tensions in taking on what they saw as strongly masculine
- Women continue to be disadvantaged relative to men, and women
with dependants experienced particular pressures.
- Increased workload, longer hours and greater stress were
reported by more women than men.
- Some of the women in the sample felt that their lifestyles were
not compatible with having children.
- More men than women had partners who worked part-time or were
not in paid employment at all.
- Some women felt that challenging masculine styles of management
gave them opportunities to develop more feminine management styles,
with an emphasis on co-operation and partnership rather than
As the researchers acknowledge, the situation is complex and
dynamic. It is dangerous to make simplistic comparisons between old
and new styles of public sector management.
It is unfortunate that much of what passes for management theory
has often tended to provide simplistic solutions to complex
problems, based more on “guru speak” and clever mnemonics, rather
than on rigorous critical analysis and empirical research. It is
therefore good to see that this study does not fall into that trap
and steers clear of simplistic sweeping statements.
Managerialism has come in for considerable criticism in recent
years,2 and rightly so, given its undermining of
participative approaches. But what this research shows is that,
even within such a masculine ethos, there is scope for challenging
gender stereotypes and power relations. Professional identities are
fluid and to an extent negotiable. But they operate within social
and organisational structures and cultural formations – in other
words, they do not exist in a vacuum.
This research plays a part in developing a more sophisticated
understanding of the relationship between management and gender
inequality. It draws attention to some of the complex dynamics
involved and thereby helps us to move away from simple notions of
“inefficient” public sector management and “efficient” business
management. As Charles Handy points out,3 the worlds of
public service and private commerce are very different indeed. We
should therefore be wary of assuming that ideas from one domain can
neatly fit into the other.
Neil Thompson is director, Avenue Consulting, (www.avenueconsulting.co.uk)
and visiting professor at the University of Liverpool. He
is co-author, with Peter Gilbert, of the training pack,
Supervision and Leadership Skills, Learning Curve
1 A Davies and R Thomas, Gender and
Restructuring: Managerial Roles and Identities in the Public
Sector, Economic and Social Research
2 R Adams, Quality Social Work,
Palgrave Macmillan, 1998
3 C Handy, The Hungry Spirit, Hutchison,