Amy Cowan

June 26 2023


Under capitalism, work is how we are able to sustain ourselves and it is how we spend most of our time. Therefore, how workplaces are organised has a huge impact on our wellbeing and on the social norms that govern society as a whole. It does not require much analysis to realise that work, as it is currently organised, is neither gender neutral nor asexual as it reflects more general social structures. As the sociologist Joan Acker puts it, “organisations are one arena in which widely disseminated cultural images of gender are invented and reproduced”, and form gendered organisational logics, which assume material form in job evaluations justifying hierarchy of jobs and their corresponding wages.


For Acker, this is particularly problematic given that “the gender-neutral status of ‘a job’ and of the organisational theories of which it is a part depend upon the assumption that the worker is abstract, disembodied, although in actuality both the concept of ‘a job’; and real workers are deeply gendered and ‘bodied’”. For an ‘abstract’ job to take material form, a ‘worker’ is required, the closest example of which is often male, given that the female worker is always assumed to have other legitimate obligations outside of the workplace. In this way, feminist concern with organisation of work goes beyond particular instances of the gendered division of labour, to an investigation of how this patriarchal logic is built into the hierarchy that maintains the division.


In this post, I argue that a sufficiently feminist form of workplace democracy requires workers’ self-management. This form of organisation can help remove unjust power dynamics, ensure the voices of minority groups are included, and allow for more trusting inter-employee relationships. ‘Representation’ within hierarchy is not enough – as is more common in many forms of workplace democracy – instead, a complete rejection of hierarchical organisation is required.

Hierarchy and workplace democracy

When we discuss workplace democracy, we typically think of workplaces which have implemented some form of democratic voting into their decision-making framework. Many organisations now include some form of democratic structure in their management styles, and this certainly comes with advantages to the workers. For example, employees may be encouraged to vote on decisions that impact upon how the company is run, giving them the sense of greater control over their working conditions. This, in turn, can lead to greater productivity for the company. Google is a well-known company which claims to be “incorporating internal and external voices that challenge and enrich” the workplace. It has implemented what has been called a ‘matrix’ corporate structure which is largely democratic, and which they claim increases creativity and productivity in the workplace.


These democratic policies can be cautiously celebrated as they can offer employees more autonomy and control over their working environment. In this way, they reconcile the compulsion to work with individual liberty, allowing people to “earn a livelihood in a manner consistent with these expressed values”. Similarly, in democratic society more broadly, giving more control over how society is run to its participants allows them to live more closely in accordance with rules and policies that they themselves have voted for. This is a popular and prominent understanding of consent that we can trace all the way back to Rousseau’s social contract theory but continues to inform the operation of many democratic political systems. Therefore, it would make sense that this account of democracy would be replicated in workplaces operating in a similar way.


Even within feminist circles, these policies have often been supported in light of their perceived positive implications for feminist epistemology. Given that organisation within a workplace is gendered, women will tend to occupy particular positions and thus have access to a particular vantage point. The same can also be said for minority groups, both within and beyond the waged workplace; where we stand will affect what we see. These ideas are central to ‘standpoint feminism’, as exemplified by the work of the Marxist Feminist Nancy Hartsock. Hartsock clearly recognises the importance of work for standpoint epistemology and feminist politics. She argues that “the vantage point available to women on the basis of their contribution to subsistence represents an intensification and deepening of the materialist worldview and consciousness available to the producers of commodities in capitalism, an intensification of class consciousness”. Therefore, it is important that at every level within the hierarchy of a workplace the voices of people from minority groups are represented and heard. This could be achieved by implementing affirmative action policies when it comes to hiring even if the hierarchical structure is maintained. Affirmative action policies ensure diversity among employees by aiming to include particular people within the organisation to rectify prior discrimination that may have occurred. These affirmative action policies alongside democratic voting could do justice to feminist epistemology.

Horizontality and worker self-management

However, although these democratic voting policies may lead to happier employees and greater confidence in the organisation, they fail to address the real problems of power dynamics in the workplace. Strategies implemented from the top down are constrained by their need to ultimately comply with the profit motive. We can also question how much power this really gives the employees towards the bottom of the organisational ladder. Most significantly though, the gendered structuring which we saw Acker argue is built into a workplace’s hierarchies will still be present – even if everyone’s voice within the organisation is listened to.


With these questions in mind, what might a democratic workplace structure that confronts these power inequalities look like? One possibility is a workplace democracy in which there exists no management, although there may be an elected body. These organisations were described by Rothschild-Whitt as organisations which use a “‘consensus process’ in which all members participate in the collective formulation of problems and negotiation of decisions”. These remove the ultimate authority and redistribute authority across the whole collective as all employees work on an equal level. By adopting this non-hierarchical organisation, the gendered structure which is built into the logic of the hierarchy will be removed, and this will mean that problematic cultural images of gender will not be replicated or reproduced at work. This is because job evaluations which rest on a gendered structure will no longer justify positions in the organisational hierarchy or be used to evaluate jobs. There are existing companies which use this non-hierarchical self-management model successfully. In the United States, a material science company called W. L. Gore & Associates (Gore) has maintained a lattice structure without traditional hierarchies for the past 65 years. On their website they state that: “As Associates and shared owners in our enterprise, we are empowered to make decisions that drive our collective success. We work together in a ‘lattice’ communications structure – building connections without the constraints of traditional chains of command”. Gore believes that this creates an environment which increases creativity and cooperation which in turn leads to a more successful business – serving as proof that self-management organisations can work in practice.


Another example comes from the food processing and packing industry. The tomato processing and packing company ‘Morning Star’ uses what they call “mission focused self-management” which means that there are no titles or authority within the company. According to their website, 10% of the total tomatoes produced globally are supplied by Morning Star. The form of self-management that they use has been in place since 1970 and their company is continuing to grow, with more partnerships being developed. This is yet another example of a large self-management organisation which has been functioning successfully for 53 years and is continuing to grow.

Conclusion: the feminist case for worker self-management

In conclusion, what comes to mind when we think of workplace democracy is the idea of democratic principles being implemented into an existing hierarchical framework. Whilst this can be positive for workers and businesses, there are still some concerns from a feminist perspective that organisations are not doing enough to adequately challenge the gendered structuring within the work environment. Self-managing organisations aim to undermine the traditional hierarchies found in the workplace and instead, all employees work on the same level which undermines the problematic gender structuring. Although there are feminist arguments in favour of self-managing organisation within the workplace, more work needs to be done surrounding how we can scale up these organisations. Furthermore, a focus is required on how to reflect these principles within feminist politics when it comes to implementing changes in government and democracy and moving away from bureaucratic forms of government.

Amy Cowan is a PhD Student at the University of West London working on political universalism and feminist politics. Her other interests include Marxism and Poststructuralism.

  • Acker, J. (1990) ‘Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organisations’, Gender and Society, 4(2), pp. 139-158. Available at: (Accessed 2nd May 2023).




  • Hartsock, N. (2019) The Feminist Standpoint Revisited and Other Essays. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.


  • Morgen, S. (1994) ‘Personalizing Personnel Decisions in Feminist Organisational Theory and Practice’, Human Relations, 47(6), pp. 665-684. Available at: (Accessed 2nd May 2023).



  • Rothschild-Whitt, J. (1979) ‘The Collectivist Organisation: An Alternative to Rational-Bureaucratic Models’, American Sociological Association, 44(4), pp. 509-527. Available at: (Accessed 2nd May 2023).


  • Rothchild, J., Russell, R. (1986) ‘Alternatives to Bureaucracy: Democratic Participation in The Economy’, Annual Review of Sociology, 12(1), pp. 307-328. Available at: (Accessed 9th May 2023).


  • Rousseau, J., Walter, L. E., Harrington, M. R. (1893). The Social Contract: or, The Principles of Political Rights. 2nd edn. New York: Putnam. pp. 1-20