Posted by: Stefan Spiess | April 2, 2009

Socio-Cultural Perspectives: Gender and Network Structures

by Fabian Meissner & Stefan Spiess

Does it matter whether you are a man or a woman when it comes to learning at your workplace? How does your popularity influence the process? And: Who really is the person in your company that passes on the important knowledge? These Questions are all asked under one basic premise: Learning is a process of social interaction, and so it is subject to multiple social factors. Workplace Learning is no exception to that, so our task was to take a closer look on how social reality is constructed at a workplace. Since we were especially interested in the questions mentioned above, we decided to focus on two main issues: gender and network structures. At first, however, we want to explain our concept of the term “socio-cultural” in order to prevent misunderstandings and shed a little light on our idea of the social construction of knowledge.

The “socio” in “socio-cultural”

Social refers to a characteristic of actors. It always refers to the interaction of organisms with other organisms or artifacts and to their collective co-existence, irrespective of whether they are aware of it or not, and irrespective of whether the interaction is voluntary or involuntary. (Referring to: Wiki[en])

Based on this very common definition of “social” we have worked out four major aspects :

  • Interaction
  • Collective Coexistence
  • Awareness
  • Voluntary or Involuntary

Interaction is interpreted by every actor, and this can be very different. Since most workplaces are populated by more than one person, learning at workplaces takes place as a collective process. People are not necessarily aware of this. The question whether an interaction is voluntary or involuntary determines the amount of intrinsic motivation a learner might have.

The “cultural” in “socio-cultural”

Culture generally refers to patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activities significance and importance. Cultures can be “understood as systems of symbols and meanings that even their creators contest, that lack fixed boundaries, that are constantly in flux, and that interact and compete with one another”. (Referring to: Wiki[en])

Again, we tried to work out the main points based on this definition. We found that the following are relevant to the issue of Workplace Learning:

  • Patterns and Symbolic Structures
  • Significance and Importance of Activities
  • Ever Changing Systems (Social Construction)

By knowing some generally accepted patterns and symbolic structures actors are able to plan their social interaction. Even communication is easier while recognizing these patterns. Every actor interprets the importance and significance of activities in a different way, because the understanding of actions always depends on the specific cultural setting. The construction of social reality by the actors (and their individual backgrounds) is ever changing and makes it very difficult to introduce one workplace culture.

Keeping this in mind, we wanted to gain a better insight on how gender issues and network structures influence the learning process at a workplace.

Gender Issues in Workplace Learning

Inspired by a swedish study byLena Abrahamson, a researcher at the Lulea university of technology, we want to keep the perspective on the gender issue in Workplace Learning and gender-based learning dilemmas.

In that study, the questions is raised, what links exist between between gender and organizational changes on the one hand, and gender and learning at work on the other hand. Precisely, the aim is to discuss how gender-based organizational patterns can be obstacles to both individual learning and organizational learning in the company.
The study focuses the attention on gender-related issues, e.g. what occurred in the organizations when organizational changes were implemented, or only discussed, in the companies. So we want look closer to this relationship between gender and organizational change.

Abrahamson performed a lot of qualitative interviews in eight companies of different industries. She then divided them into three gender-dominated types

  • male-dominated workplaces
  • gender-segregated workplaces
  • gender-balanced workplaces

One initial point in the gender question at the workplace is that the impulse of organizational change is not initated because of the selflessness and altruism of the companies. The change is much more started because the companies want to reach more flexibility and productivity – and therefore learning at the workplace is unavoidable!

Very optimistic expectations can be found in research on the gender question, through the implementation of organizational change instruments like a flatter hierarchy, job rotation or a more decentralized organization mode.

But the sucess of organizational change is strictly limited. One problem is that often high aims were declared, but while implementing the companies often reverted to the old structures. One reason for that could be that there is a high inconsistency between the managment discourse and the real practice. So there are a lot of restoring and restraining mechanism shown by Abrahamson. One of that mechanisms is the gender-order in the participating companies.

What could these mechanisms be? Baude frames five very important gender-based mechanisms, why organizations rest in their old structures:

  • Clear segregation of the sexes within the companies in a functional, physical and hierarchical way
  • Gender-labeling of work, competencies, places and things
  • Stereotypical ideas of gender-specific attributes and stereotypical myths and conceptions of male and female
  • Myths of women’s work and men’s work
  • Taboo, silence on these questions and the labeling of phenomena as personal problems or individual choices

Summarizing we can say, that gender segregation and stereotypical gender-coding is a huge obstacle to reach organizational change and leads to enormous problems for both individual and organizational change. Change, however, is a neccessary prerequisite for learning: Only persons that are willing and able to change their old views if they are an obstacle for development and learning can learn effecitvely. The Question about social factors that influence our development and effecitveness of learning poses a second question – How do the structures of our social environment influence our proceedings? At this point, another methodological perspective comes in useful: The social network analysis.

Network Structures and the Flow of Knowledge

Another very interesting paradigm for WPL research is that of social network analysis. The main idea is that groups of people can not only be seen as individuals interacting with one another – you can also focus your interest on the flow of information in this group of people. That changes many things.

First, you kind of reverse your point of view. While you normally try to find out which key criteria an expert or other important persons have, you now try to find out where there are persons that moderate the flow of information in a group. And more importantly: persons that moderate the flow of knowledge.

Why knowledge? Information is – put very simple – merely  a set of numbers, types and icons. People have to know and understand only that part of information which is crucial for their role in the group. In our case, this is their role in the workplace.

If you compare social network analysis to “traditional” approaches, you will find some unaccustomed strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand you can visualize social groups in a rather vivid way (e.g. figure one), you can pinpoint certain types of actors (moderators, bridges, brokers…) by their position in the network, and you can refocus your area of research: Is the group you think of as the one in question really the very one you need to concentrate on?

Figure 1: The social Ego-Networks of a Twitter-User

Figure 1: The social Ego-Networks of a Twitter-User (Creative Commons License; © Nimages DR; 2007. Source:

You’ll pobably have to get used to the meanings of each knot and tie in the visualization in a graph that illustrates a social network. Yet once this is no longer a problem, you can manage to integrate some factors that you find most important and then take a closer look at the person that is “behind” the knot.

This is related to the second strength of the approach. Let’s take the “broker” as an example. Normally, the term means a person working at a stock exchange. And this also applies to brokers in any other social network – the difference is only what they trade with.

Since we are looking at learning processes at a workplace, an “effective” broker would be someone who “deals” with important knowledge. A Person that passes knowledge on to other colleagues, especially to novices.

This is exactly the point, where social network analysis delivers new insights. Let’s have a look at a certain scenario to make it clear:

Let’s assume a company wants to find out which competences their trainers need. Normally you would look at the persons that work as a trainer and try to find out what characterizes them. But what if they only get payd for the job, but do not really help people in learning what they have to learn? You could – anonymised of course – just ask people about the 3 persons they would most likely ask if they have a question about a certain working field. The data you get can be visualised as seen above. And then you go back to persons, and ask some important questions: Are the persons that are employed as trainers the ones that most people would seek help from? If not: Who are the persons that most people would ask if they have a specific problem?

This gives you a very powerful tool to critically evaluate who is called an expert trainer and who is perceived as an expert trainer. Or to find out which persons are generally accepted as an expert, and what qualifies them?

At first glance this seems to be an additional effort in practice. We would nonetheless think that you should give it a try. It is a rather new approach, stemming mostly from general informational research and sociology. It is, however, a method of working with social factors influencing the development of people in groups. Learning is not only accquiring knowledge. It is also about being able to accquire knowledge, and that makes it important which persons moderate the flow of knowledge in a company or other institution, and maybe even between companies and institutions.

The social network analysis shows certain parallels to the “communities of practice” theory, is definitely linked to the situated cognition theory and can probably be effectively applied in various theoretical and practical fields of educational work.

For further reading on the roots of social network analysis, we recommend the work of the following autors:

  • Simmel, Georg – He had some early concepts on how group sizes and relationships influence the way people interact and exchange ressources.
  • Burt, Ronald S. – One of the pioneers of social network analysis. Had a great impact on the question, whether weak or strong ties between persons are good or bad for certain aims.
  • Granovetter, Mark – He also contributed heavily to issues of relationships between people. One of his most popular works is “The strength of weak ties” (American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78, Iss. 6, 1973; pp. 1360-1380; available online.)
  • Cross, Parker, Prusak and Borgatti published an Article with the title “Supporting Knowledge Creation and Sharing in Social Networks”. (Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 100-120, 2001) It is a very informative document dealing exactly with the issue of learning in a social network.


  1. Nice introduction. It was good that you explained your concept in detail so that one exactly knows what you are talking about.
    Also it was nice that you linked the article in the references.
    I was not able to open the other link for the Abrahamson study (without paying) though, do we have to write to the author and ask for the article or is it available elsewhere?
    It would have been interesting to see if she explains why she focuses on the three gender-dominated types and not mentions female-dominated workplaces; Is it difficult to find them or are they not relevant here? I think there might also be problems when men want to work in “typical” female professions such as kindergarten teacher or nurse and organizational changes and learning are disturbed.
    The picture was helpful and the broker example nicely explained, thank you for the article.

  2. Thank you for your comment.

    I am not the right person to answer your question about Abrahamssons study, that’s up to fabian.

    Concerning the problem with the link: The link in the article is a direct link to the article as it is available via Campus-Licence at Regensburg University.

    However, I can provide a list of google-scholar-hits for work done by Abrahamsson via this link.

    Maybe you have to wright her or look the “journal of workplace learning” up at the library… I hope fabia can give you a hint later on.

  3. I also paid attention to the lack of female-dominated workplaces. It would be interesting to know more about the companies she was studying. What industries did they represent?

  4. Of course, this article is only an introductory paper for your final one, but I would like to see more about why mono-gender at workplace is seen as ‘obstacles’ rather than effective for learning and organisational changes.

    I also want to know more about why the social network theory is important for the gender issues for workplace learning.

    Nevertheless, in my opinion, the topic is important for educational settings, such as schools where the female teachers are dominant or the schools where the management positions are always dominated by male and female teachers are surbodinate to the male.

  5. Really good article! I liked especially your introduction. But nevertheless one question was raised up when I read the theory about the gender-based mechanism from Baude: will these mechanisms also stay in the near future or will there be a change?

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