Kanter's concern was with what happened to people in the company's offices and why it happened. Her conclusion in 1977 was that it was the job and the valuation of that job, rather than the individual, that determined what happened.
Many employees, particularly women, were trapped in a cycle of disadvantage revolving around their powerlessness. Their lack of opportunity for interesting work, for power over resources or for promotion made them indifferent.
They were manifestly unsuccessful because success is judged by promotion. Many employees, and nearly all women, had little or no opportunity for promotion. Kanter's theory of opportunity echoed the Biblical observation: 'Unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.'
Kanter mainly concentrated on the problems of women. There were the women who worked for the corporation, such as secretaries, and those, like managers' wives, whose lives were shaped by it. The isolated women who achieved management posts suffered all the disadvantages of tokenism, which offers the dilemma of being simultaneously a representative and an exception. When she fumbles, a token woman is taken as representative of all women, but when she succeeds she is identified as being exceptional.
One way that men coped with token women was to give them a familiar role. Kanter identified three: the mother who is told all about personal problems; the seductress whose sexual attractiveness arouses competition and jealousy among the men, even without collusion on her part, and blots out her other characteristics; and the pet, taken along as a mascot to group events to cheer on masculine displays from the sidelines. Women who did not respond to being stereotyped risked being seen as tough and dangerous.
Men and Women of the Corporation has now been reissued with a new chapter that compares Kanter's 1977 findings with the present day.
Two decades ago nearly all the women in the company worked in low-status 'female' occupations. These occupations remain predominantly female, but more women can now be found in higher-level posts. Career opportunities for women are much better in the early 1990s than in the 1970s. But women are still a small minority in senior posts. The main opportunities for women have opened up outside the large companies: in the professions and in building up their own businesses.
In 1977 Kanter concluded that changes in personnel policies were essential to reduce the ills that she diagnosed, but was pessimistic about how much change was really possible in large organisations. She did not foresee the radical changes that have transformed these mastodons.
The successful can no longer take opportunity for granted. Now that corporations cannot guarantee life-long careers, individuals have to invest in themselves.
The key is individual employability and continuous striving to preserve it. Companies should help employees to do so, Kanter believes, in order to avoid the dangerous situation where the 'bond between person and company is cracking at every seam'.
Her proposal for coping with this danger is to outline an imaginary agreement to be offered to each person in the company, which she calls the employability security contract. It includes: 'Retrain employees as soon as jobs become obsolete'; 'Provide challenging jobs and rotating assignments that allow growth in skills without promotion to higher jobs'; and 'Provide three-month educational sabbaticals, external internships, or personal time-out every five years'.
So is working life in the large corporation better today than in the 1970s? Clearly Kanter thinks it is better for women, in large part because there are more opportunities outside the large corporations.
But corporate change, like all social change, both gives and takes away.
Many jobs, particularly middle- management ones, have become more demanding and consequently more fulfilling. Many in slimmer, less centralised organisations find themselves more empowered.
These are the pluses of the changes of the past two decades. The minuses are the excessive work demands, with their effects on family life and pervading job insecurity. Ironically, the corporation has simultaneously become a more human and satisfying workplace and a more testing and precarious one.