The wave of stories of pervasive sexual harassment and assault in recent weeks, from Hollywood to Parliament, have made me think about the role of culture in normalising such behaviour. We are currently researching Shifting Cultures for our upcoming Masterclass, and part of that research has centred on how cultures are formed. Are organisations aware of how much of their culture is shaped by the mindset of the dominant group?
We all have social identities, established through self-reflection from interactions with others. The sociologist Charles Horton Cooley referred to this as the ‘looking glass self’. As we grow up and are socialised, we see the way people talk and act with us, which then feeds into our self-perception. This includes stereotypes that people already have about our group identity. As a middle-class, white woman from an educated background, for example, I will have received subtle cues about how I’m expected to behave, and what I’m expected to achieve.
Yet arguably, not everyone is aware of the extent to which they have benefited from their collective identity. In his discussion on modern masculinity, the artist Grayson Perry identified a group he termed ‘Default Man’. White, middle-class, heterosexual, usually middle-aged, they are, as Perry notes, a tribe that does not think of itself as a tribe. Instead they often see themselves as individuals. Yet collectively they profoundly shape our culture.
Take the workplace. There are fewer S&P 1500 companies led by women than S&P companies led by men named John. It is clear that this impacts organisational culture, yet it is unlikely that as an individual ‘John’ feels his progress acts a role-model for other men like him, or that he is part of a community with similar experiences that shape his behaviour and mindset. Does John feel that he got where he was all by himself, with no societal support at all? Research has identified an ‘out-group’ homogeneity effect,where people believe in the uniformity of those not like them: ‘they are alike: we are diverse’. The power imbalance still prevalent in society means that the male in-group often either consciously or unconsciously defines the broader culture.
This is true for the more toxic elements discussed in recent weeks, but also for parts of culture that we are not even aware of. There is a parable that describes two young fish swimming along, who happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” How much of what we take for granted in terms of qualities of an effective leader, or criteria for progression within an organisation is subjectively biased in favour of the dominant group?
Recently, there has been a rise in the number of organisations realising that building an inclusive culture means engaging the majority group. Deloitte, for example, ended its women’s networks and affinity groups, instead involving men in the conversation and making them accountable for D&I goals. The fact that is has taken this long, highlights the extent to which men have traditionally been viewed as the default that doesn’t need to change, rather than an identity group like any other. If workplace culture is going to shift this needs to continue, as companies reckon with how much of their culture is formed by one group and the ramifications of this.
 Rousseau, N. (2002) Self, Symbols and Society, Rowman and Littlefield.
 Perry, G. (8 October 2014) The Rise and Fall of Default Man, New Statesman https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/10/grayson-perry-rise-and-fall-default-man
 FoW Power and Leadership Report 2016
 Ostrom, T.M and Sedikides, C. (1992) Out-Group Homogenity Effects in Naural and Minimal Groups, Psychological Bulletin 112(3). 536-553.
 Wittenberg-Cox, A. (3 August 2017) Deloitte’s Radical Attempt to Reframe Diversity, Harvard Bussiness Review https://hbr.org/2017/08/deloittes-radical-attempt-to-reframe-diversity