Organizational theory from the bottom up: Gender and horizontal coordination in the workplace

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Marjorie DeVault


Womens studies, Labor relations, Public administration, Business community, Social research, Gender, Organization theory

Subject Categories

Gender and Sexuality | Organizational Behavior and Theory | Women's Studies


Classical organizational theory assumes hierarchical structure and the vertical coordination of work. Conventional definitions of "work" assume physical work that is divisible into units performed by individuals. These long-held assumptions exclude the concept of horizontal coordination of work between organizational participants who do not have supervisor/subordinate relationships. Organizational theorists, researchers and practitioners have become aware of horizontal coordination over time but currently recognize it only at upper and middle organizational levels.

This qualitative study based on interviews with workers at the lowest rungs of an organizational hierarchy finds that they do engage in horizontal coordination by working together, which I categorize into four approaches: (1) pulling one's own weight; (2) coordinating each other's work; (3) temporarily performing another's work; (4) routinely doing others' work by rearranging individual work assignments within a group of equals, which I label as "caring/sharing." The first approach closely aligns with the definition of work in classical organizational theory. The latter three are examples of horizontal coordination and are invisible, both in our language and in organizational theory.

The second finding in this study is that of differences between same sex work groups in how they perceive working together. It was only men in all-male work groups who define "working together" as every person pulling his own weight. It was only women in all-female work groups who undertake caring/sharing, routinely doing each other's work in a context of close personal relationships.

In the organization in this study, as well as in organizational environments nationwide, women and men are largely segregated into different types of work: men work in jobs focusing on the manipulation of physical objects, while women perform work with information and service work. These different kinds of work both require and enable different kinds of horizontal coordination.

The work cultures of same sex work groups also differ, reflecting distinctive aspects of culturally constructed gender behaviors at the same time that they enable different types of work to be performed. The work cultures of women performing secretarial work enable a more extensive implementation of horizontal coordination than do the work cultures of men doing physical work.


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