The Visual Portrayal of Women in IBM's 'Think': A Longitudinal Analysis

By Kuiper, Shirley; Booth, Rosemary et al. | The Journal of Business Communication, April 1998 | Go to article overview

The Visual Portrayal of Women in IBM's 'Think': A Longitudinal Analysis


Kuiper, Shirley, Booth, Rosemary, Bodkin, Charles D., The Journal of Business Communication


In recent years, the "woman-friendly" or "family-friendly" appellation has been given to companies that score high on criteria that support a woman's career development and help employees manage family responsibilities. Magazines such as Working Mother and Business Week periodically rate companies on criteria such as percent of top salaried positions held by women; number of female managers who report directly to the CEO; existence of goals and programs to improve women's standing; and benefits such as flextime, job sharing, parental leave, and child care or elder care (Schwartz, 1992; Moskowitz, 1996, 1997; "Welcome," 1990). These ratings are based on surveys of employees as well as analysis of company policies.

Recognizing the competitive edge that such ratings can give an employer in a tight labor market, companies compete to get on such lists (Fierman, 1994; Shellenbarger, 1996a; Lublin, 1996; Korry, 1997). An AT&T executive, whose company was dropped from the list for Working Mother in 1996, says that the lists separate "companies that are sincere about providing a workplace that's respectful to all employees and sensitive to employees' needs versus companies that simply have the philosophy. It validates what the company is saying" (Korry, 1997, p. 5).

However, according to Strenski (1994), "many employees are not sure they can trust the rhetoric of diversity" (p. 32). Some employees view the rating systems with a degree of cynicism. In 1996, one employee tore up a Business Week questionnaire that inquired about family-friendly policies and mailed it to the magazine in pieces. Another commented, "'All these family-friendly policies are great, but [this company] would be a lot more family-friendly if I were making more than $8 an hour'" (Shellenbarger, 1996a, p. 11). Evidence also exists that employees who avail themselves of the policies may experience nonfriendly reactions from supervisors and co-workers. Those reactions range from subtle pressure not to use flexible working hours to retaliatory transfers or work assignments (Fierman, 1994; Shellenbarger, 1996b). In some companies, family-friendly policies are applied at the discretion of the employee's immediate supervisor. However, many supervisors are not fully aware of their companies' work/family policies, and few companies base managerial performance ratings on work/family issues ("Corporate America," 1991). Among the companies achieving a place on the 1997 Working Mother list of 100 best companies, only 39 measure managers on women's advancement (Moskowitz, 1997)

Milton Moskowitz, who creates the list for Working Mother (and who coauthored the list with Carol Townsend for several years prior to her death in 1995), acknowledges that companies send him elaborate public relations materials to woo him, but he insists he is not swayed by company propaganda. Instead, he demands access to employees. He also "wants to see the company's newsletter, which reveals much about the way a company treats its people" (Korry, 1997, p. 5).

An employee newsletter or magazine has been characterized as "a tangible interpretation of abstract policy" (Waltman & Golen, 1989, p. 100) and "a means of defining or expressing [a company's] 'culture'" ("Read all about it," 1994, p. 4). James (1990) contends that corporate communications (in which he includes employee newsletters or magazines) should ideally reflect "what is in truth a positive corporate culture" (p. 29). Therefore, one might reasonably expect a company that actively promotes policies of equity and family support to use its employee publications to demonstrate that commitment.

One could argue that the pictures as well as the words used in employee publications should be expected to portray the company's culture. Goffman (1979) made the case that photographs are powerful, condensed representations of social relationships. He argued that what is seen in a posed picture is not a photographic record of an actual scene; instead, it is staged in response to a conception of what represents the particular person or event - a perception of what the social reality is or should be. …

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