Organizational Levels Promote Equal Opportunities

Breaking down complexity with the model of organizational levels promotes equal opportunities

By Gabriele Schambach
October 31, 2019


Realizing equal opportunities in corporate practice is a highly complex issue. It is easy to lose track of where is the best place to start. Or you become entangled in individual measures without keeping an eye on the overall strategy. The model of organizational levels may help you to see the wood for the trees.

Starting point
There is no company that is "neutral" at a meta-level. This statement does not refer to the question of whether there are "female" organizations. Rather, it is a question of perceiving and highlighting aspects of gender inequalities in companies – and of changing them.

In organizations and companies, a number of individual women and men get involved and put their competences and qualities to work. Together with managers, colleagues and employees, they shape the self-image in areas of responsibility, within their departments, activities, etc. And all that is not gender-neutral!

Organizations and companies are generally not objective entities, as they are formed by people. Gender is a central category that manifests and (re)produces itself in people and cultures as well as in structures and content.

The general concept
I developed the model of organizational levels on the basis of my many years of experience in advising companies and organizations. The concept is based on the idea that organizations and companies are characterized by different levels:

  • The level of the person = the individual
  • The level of culture= working together
  • The level of structure = general conditions and measurements
  • The level of content = offers and products

These are not to be understood as a rigid framework, they are rather intertwined and boundaries can become blurred. While each level has its own inner logic, the levels are at the same time mutually dependent. In order to create equal opportunities, changes at all levels are required – in other words, an overall strategy. It is helpful to first look at the individual levels separately and develop suitable measures. They are then considered in their interaction and reassembled in their dependencies. This enables a sorted, clear and structured procedure – which is why I chose the presentation as a puzzle.

The interdependency between the levels is illustrated by the following example; the goal of increasing the proportion of women in management positions: on the individual level of the person, presumably every person has an opinion, expectations or fears. At the level of culture, the "togetherness" of the individuals becomes clear: Is the goal rather rejected? Are devaluations of "alibi women" or "quota women" common among the group? Is the goal supported? For example, is there an open discussion about leadership styles? The level of structure essentially reflects how the other two levels were implemented in the environment: here the conditions become apparent that promote an increase in the proportion of women in management positions. 

The model also works the other way around: If the environmental conditions in the firm are arranged to be compatible for all involved, for example, meetings are generally finished by 4 p.m., then on the cultural level this represents firm-wide acceptance that people with family responsibilities may end their work day – without judgmental jokes, remarks or the likes being made, such as "You're probably working only half a day today!” On the individual level, these conditions and cultures then attract people who want to pursue a career without "giving up" their family.

These interdependencies also exist in a less diverse environment: having exclusively full-time working conditions, no flexitime, and requiring physical presence creates a culture, in which only those who "fully sacrifice" themselves to be at the service of the company are regarded as high performers and high potentials, regardless of their (personal) losses. People, who are interested or who wish to pursue a career in these firms, share these common values and arrange their (family) lives accordingly.

These interdependencies also illustrate why some companies offer "the right" framework conditions to, for example, encourage the advancement of women, but at the same time the proportion of women in management positions does not increase: the company's culture lags well behind the (adapted) firm environment. On the level of the person, there are (occasionally) managers, who formally agree with the goals, but do not (or refuse) to understand the meaning behind them. Their mindset makes achieving equal opportunities more difficult, since they may only "wait and see", may not act proactively or even hope that the issue will disappear again.

Each level therefore has its own objective in promoting equal opportunities:

  • The level of the person → awareness, knowledge and training
  • The level of culture → dismantling of dominant cultures
  • The level of structure → Changing the environment
  • The level of content → Consideration of gender aspects within offers and products 

The level of the person
This level focuses on individuals as actors and (re-)producers of (un)equal opportunities. Every person in a company has his or her own biography, reality, background, educational and professional profession, idea of a happy life, of good work, of a successful career and of equal opportunities.
What each individual person thinks and does in private is none of a company's business. But if the organization has set itself the goal of equal opportunities, then it needs managers and employees who promote this goal in their work environment. Under the rubric "sensitization and qualification", it is about

  • informing about the effects of social conditions on individual life realities
  • raising awareness on (structural) discrimination and disadvantages as well as privileges 
  • addressing personal (dis)interest
  • the (self-)reflection of stereotypes, prejudices, unconscious bias, role perceptions
  • addressing doubts, fears and anxieties
  • acquiring gender diversity competences as part of one's professional and social competences
  • knowing and learning about appropriate activities and tools to promote equal opportunities.

Experience has shown that each person has his or her own private opinion on the subject of gender diversity and it is good to let them have this opinion. The idea is not to missionize or "re-educate" people – this leads to resistance and defense. A promising approach is to address people in their capacity as managers or employees. Managers in particular have a duty to ensure equal opportunities, amongst other things. By focusing on the professional environment and the task at hand, personal aspects tend to fade into the background. In my opinion, this makes it easier to get involved with gender issues and actively promote measurements, particularly for men.

The level of culture
As I mentioned before, this level refers to how we are collaborating – and how this manifests itself. Organizational culture emerges as a dynamic (learning) process in dealing with challenges in the company’s environment as well as the internal organizing. Throughout this process, preferred orientation patterns and solutions emerge. Assessments of what is regarded as "good" or "bad" are coming up and determine what is becoming a routine. Culture is about the unspoken and unwritten laws; it is described as a "working atmosphere" or social climate and is perceived rather intuitively and emotionally. Culture is thus also difficult to comprehend, because it is already challenging to put the concept into words. Culture includes, among other things

  • norms and values
  • understanding of leadership
  • management style
  • performance and promotion criteria
  • dealing with ideas, innovations, mistakes and conflicts
  • communication
  • language

Corporate culture is regarded as the central element that determines success or failure of change processes in organizational development – unfortunately, it is also the most difficult level to change!
A single management workshop on the subject of leadership, a reflection seminar on norms and values or an exchange on the mission statement (that is to be developed) are not enough. Changing corporate culture requires continuity and repetition. Through various diverse and creative formats, the level of culture can be investigated from different points of view. It is helpful if one can connect it to tools on the structural level or if suitable formats are developed by workshop participants themselves.

To illustrate this, let us look at the example of introducing the “home office”: On a structural level, we have to aknowledge the concrete working agreements in place. On a personal level, control or trust play a central role, as does our individual attitude towards that measurement. On a cultural level, the issue is a culture of facetime and the self-conception of a manager and his/her leadership style. I cannot force a manager to "finally realize" that home office has many advantages for everyone involved. Nor can I nail the company agreement to his/her forehead so that he/she can implement it. Those who don't want to are clever at finding loopholes and ways out. Instead, for example, it would be better advised to:

  • encourage the Board of Directors or management to lead by example
  • portray role models and communicate (internally) about pilot projects 
  • communicate (internally) the advantages of Home Office for companies, executives and employees
  • illustrate in an annual presentation (e.g. in the annual report) the proportion of working time within the company spent in home office, per area and per department
  • publish an online quiz with humorous questions and possible answers – with a subsequent presentation of the results (prepared anonymously) 
  • put up information displays, posters or stickers with "Have you considered working from home today?!"
  • In the case of obligatory recurring executive meetings, put the topic on the agenda each time – with a different orientation, for example, taking up previously mentioned options

Changing the culture can only be done through habituation and making something an everyday routine. At the same time, it happens when employees realize that the issue will not "go away again". In the case of managers, companies should also use the peer effect, which works well either through role models or (healthy) competition.

The level of structure
As mentioned above, this level is at the same time prerequisite and outcome. It is embedded in the environment, which is self-evident on the other two levels. At the same time, the structures determine corporate culture and makes the company attractive for certain people and unattractive for others. Instruments and measures for achieving equal opportunities include, for example:

  • Flexible working time and space
  • Target agreements with quantitative and qualitative indicators
  • Gender-oriented job descriptions and job advertisements
  • Structured and transparent recruitment and promotion practices
  • Life-phase oriented employee development

Here we also notice the interdependency with the other two levels: at the cultural level, for example, sabbaticals or parental leave must be seen as valuable opportunities for acquiring extra-occupational skills that are useful for professional work (such as organizational talent, patience, curiosity, dealing with the unusual, getting involved in new things etc.). As a result, sabbaticals and child-raising periods are then promoted structurally, included as a performance characteristic when analyzing an employee's job potential, queried during job interviews and integrated into life-phase oriented employee development. At the same time, employees and managers must also be convinced of the positive effects so that, on the one hand, they accept and approve the offers of sabbaticals. On the other hand, this is also necessary to ensure future employees are asked about these types of development phases during, for example, job interviews – and that the aspect it not simply ignored.

The level of content 
I have neglected this level so far because it often does not play such a major role in companies. In contrast, this level is more relevant, for example, in the education and social sectors. Here we are concerned with offers for the various target groups (in the education sector) or the consideration of gender in the social sector (such as gender-oriented nursery work or intercultural care).

The question of target groups and gender aspects in professional work naturally also concerns companies. In most companies, however, only few people have a real influence on products, which is why it may be sufficient, for example, to include the target groups in (external) communication.

Over the past years this model of "organizations" has helped me a lot with falicitating  change towards equal opportunities. It allows an understanding of relations and interdependencies and serves as basis for developing and implementing structured activities and measures.

However, there is no magic formula: every company is different. Employees are different, cultures are specific, industries are diverse and (the most urgent) needs vary. Consequently, these must be taken into consideration and instruments and concepts need to be adapted accordingly. An energy supply company certainly has a different organizational culture with its tasks and employees compared to a social economy organization. But regardless of the differences, there are common principles that help to implement equal opportunities.

In addition, every organizational development project is a dynamic process. The truly relevant levels, the activities that promise the greatest possible success or the "biggest failures" may only become apparent over time and during the course of the project.

My own experience taught me a lot about the ups and downs involved : The pleasures we feel in using creative approaches in the designing the processes, and the frustrations we experience when the organization develops much slower than we previously expected and desired. In my opinion, creating pressure, for example through sanctions, only creates counter-pressure, which in most cases increases behavioural rigidity and more evasive manoeuvres. Every change process also involves resistance, and as this is where the energy is, it is important to work with that energy and not against it. Besides the absolutely essential support of management, it is viewing the organization as learning and hence diversity as a facilitator for good solutions.