By Melissa J. Anderson

A new Harvard Business School study reveals how external forces shape internal corporate action on gender issues. The new working paper by Lakshmi Ramarajan, Kathleen McGinn, and Deborah Kolb reveals that corporate action on gender diversity over the past two decades is the result of a reaction to cultural trends as tracked in the media.

The researchers studied the gender initiatives of one large professional services firm from 1991 to 2009. They found that the focus of initiatives responded to the predominant gender discrepancies being talked about in the media. They explain:

“Regarding timing, as each discourse peaked in the media, internal discrepancies between expectations and outcomes rose, sparking the onset of a new internal analysis phase. Analysis was the firm’s response to internal and external challenges to prevailing beliefs about gender and work. Regarding content, in each cycle, the beliefs seemingly derived through internal analysis echoed the substance of the social discourse at the onset of the analysis period, and these beliefs, formalized in Initiative mission statements and stated in internal documents, directed activities inside the firm during the following action phase.”

The study shows how cultural and media pressure on gender diversity drives change within the corporate environment.

Social Discourse and Corporate Action

The researchers observed three full phases of gender discrepancy focus in the media from 1991 to 2009. The researchers’ insight into media trends is based on an analysis of articles on gender and work in “the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, Accounting Today and CPA Journal” during the time period.

For example, the first phase – “the presentation of gender and work as an issue of Bias” peaked in 1991 – the same time frame during which executives at the firm began questioning why there were proportionally fewer female partners.

This led to a period of data collection and analysis at the firm, then a questioning of the beliefs which led to the discrepancy on the basis of that analysis, and then a lengthy period of action, in the form of the creation of a Woman’s Initiative.

“Over the next 20 years, the Women’s Initiative became an integral part of the organization, affecting internal practices, the firm’s relationships with clients, and internally and externally held beliefs about the organization,” Ramarajan, McGinn, and Kolb write.

Following each dominant media theme were internal periods of analysis, questioning of beliefs, and then action, with the action period lasting for a few years. They continued, “Activities between 1993 and 1997 included changes in organizational structure and new policies and practices designed to achieve this mission. As a result, several women were appointed to the firm’s board of directors and the firm moved ahead of its competitors in terms of number of women partners.”

As the discussion of Bias began to wane in the media (with a temporary revival between 2000 and 2001), Underrepresentation as a theme began to gain notoriety, peaking in 1998. Underrepresentation as a theme was then overtaken by the discussion of Work-family conflict in 2001, peaking in 2002, but still remaining dominant in social discourse through much of the decade.

By 2008, there was no dominant theme, with bias, underrepresentation, and work-family conflict gaining roughly equal measure in social discourse.

Media, Culture, and Action

The researchers admit that the findings of the study are only representative of the actions at one large firm. But nevertheless, the study does reveal the interesting interplay between social discourse and corporate action. They write:

“Through iterated cycles of beliefs and activities, the organization we studied integrated external pressures from the changing social institution of gender into its structure, policies, programs and practices. As the outside discourse shifted, changes in social understandings of gender and work were gradually reflected in evolving beliefs inside the firm, and those beliefs, in turn, shaped the questions the firm asked in its analyses and the policies and practices the firm enacted in response to the analyses.”

No doubt changes within the corporate space also influence the social discourse around gender and work. It is also interesting that in the most recent period the researchers studied (2008-2009) there was no dominant theme around gender and work, with all three discussions taking roughly equal shares of the media. Perhaps that means we have come to an understanding that all three issues – bias, underrepresentation, and work-life conflict – influence each other, rather than being standalone topics of discrepancy.