2019, Volume 3, Issue 4 - Spring 2019

just ask… Gender dynamics

By Kimberley Puhach

As promised in the last issue of Prairie Manufacturer Magazine, let’s start another conversation that explores diversity and inclusion — specifically, gender dynamics. It is only a starting point to continue the dialogue. Hopefully, you will find some value in the information and continue your own learning journey with a few new thoughts and ideas on how to engage respectfully.

No matter what your level of knowledge or understanding in the area of gender dynamics and its role in our workplaces and society at-large, I am sure you already have thoughts, ideas, or firm opinions. You may even be confused and full of questions. How you view gender roles, how you have been socialized, and your beliefs on what the interaction and relationship between genders should be are factors.

The progress in gender dynamics came about through changing ideas on gender roles. It is not a new topic. Modern feminism and every aspect of the spectrum has been alive and well since the early 1800s and is at the core of what is still evolving. It started as a rights-based movement and, yes, it was about the balance of power between men and women. It was about how men and women interact and the relationships that society entrenched as what was ‘appropriate.’

Fast-forward two centuries and where are we now? The answer is your own; but, what we can all agree on is that it is an important subject. It’s on the agenda locally, nationally, and globally — fueled by world events like the #MeToo and #NoMore movements. It can be sensitive and challenging to discuss outside a safe space, and with those that will listen earnestly and have open conversation without judgement. 

With that as the backdrop, here are some things to consider as we talk about women, men, equality, and how we can respectfully engage, support, and advance the opportunity for all of us:

First, one must understand the overarching concept of gender roles. While there are many definitions, the World Health Organization describes them as “socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.” In other words, they are established expectations of social inequality.

That in itself should be cause for reflection. Why wouldn’t we want to be a part of a society where everyone is equal?

The truth is: We all have — to some degree — unconscious biases. Project Implicit, a not-for-profit organization located within Harvard University, has a free online tool you can use to assess how rooted they are in your own psyche. By learning more about yourself, your thoughts, and ideas that shape how you interact with other genders, you may begin to answer the question about what gender dynamics means to you and why you ought to care.

The next question revolves around what we should know about appropriate interaction. For this topic, I went to an expert, Dr. Lew Bayer, CEO of Manitoba-based consulting firm, Civility Experts. Dr. Bayer remarked:

“From a civility perspective, the general guideline is avoid labels of any kind where possible and, instead, focus on the person and simply use the person’s name. Gender, generation, age, and cultural background should not be the first thing we note or highlight.

“Words like gals, guys, chicks, old men, ladies, boys, and so on are not appropriate. Instead of saying, ‘hey ladies,’ you would say something like, ‘good morning, friends.’ Use building and bridging terms. One specific example of references we now teach people not to use is honorifics such as Miss, Misses, and Mister altogether. Using the honorific is contrary to labour law and, in some cases, creates divisions or supports stereotyping.

“As an example, when I say ‘Miss Bayer,’ I have implied the person is a young, unmarried female. When I say ‘Mrs.  Bayer,’ I have implied the person is an older (likely at least 30, which is the average marrying age in North America), married, straight, and a woman — and the next assumption is that a 30-plus-year-old married woman likely has kids or will have them soon.

“Now, if I say ‘Mr. Bayer,’ there is a clear double standard, as I have only implied the person is a man, but not given any hint at age, marital status, or whether he has children. Given that employers are not allowed to ask about age and marital status, and given that the options for honorifics do not include LGBTQ2S titles, makes it inappropriate to use them altogether.”

Do you still address people in this way or use these terms? Does this perspective compel you to question your own approach?

So, how might we advance together? This was where I asked colleagues for their thoughts on what our opportunities are and what must happen to support success. I could feel the passion in their remarks and, if this is a sample of the interest and enthusiasm, the projections for gender parity are entirely possible.

Beverlie Stuart, associate vice president, business development and strategic initiatives at the Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology, reinforced the importance of gender parity. Stuart said, “Young women, as well as the parents and teachers who guide them, need to recognize that gender-neutral learning paves the way for careers in all sectors and positions, from the front lines to leadership roles.” 

Kathy Knight, CEO of the Information Communication and Technologies Association of Manitoba, agreed. “Achieving gender parity is good for everyone,” she exclaimed. “From every perspective — societal, economic, and cultural, removing barriers to women’s economic success will elevate our country on many levels. This is our time. Let’s use it to make a difference.”

Mark Alexiuk, meanwhile, chief technology officer at Sightline Innovation, added, “Creating and maintaining psychological safety in the workplace is a key enabler to increase diversity and will promote gender parity. Problem-solving is a creative process that involves calculated risk-taking. To allow yourself to be vulnerable, you must be safe.”

This is quite the value proposition and certainly supports why we need to continue efforts to advance collectively.

As we conclude and examine what respectful engagement looks like as the recipe for success, what else do we need consider? Is it appropriate to hug, or should you shake hands only when greeting? When it is appropriate to do one or the other — or is it appropriate at all? Does the setting play a role — for instance, professional versus social? What about compliments?

When I asked one senior leader’s advice, he responded only on the condition of anonymity, which may very well be an indicator of the risk he felt he was taking by voicing his position on the issue. He replied, “I am not confused about any of the behaviours appropriate in a professional setting. I would never compliment or make any suggestive comments to avoid any risk in misinterpretation. In a social setting, I let the situation dictate [the approach], especially if it excludes any work-related gatherings. Consent is a minimum standard.” 

I followed it up by asking if, conversely, a woman is not showing the same reciprocal standard, if his approach would change. He chimed, “I don’t think a man’s behaviour or conduct should be dictated by a woman’s individuality. Men need to be accountable for their conduct and need to know where those lines are and not have women draw it for them. If the conversation is focused on what appropriate communication between us is, then conduct, like genders, must be equal.” 

What do you think? Do these parameters for appropriate communication and conduct between genders seem reasonable and actionable? 

This is just the start of the conversation. I hope you are full of curiosity — the possibilities are exciting! Let’s keep the dialogue going by exploring more together and remember: When in doubt, just ask! 

Kimberley Puhach is the director of human resources and Indigenous inclusion at the Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology. She also serves as chair of the Mayor’s Indigenous Advisory Circle in Winnipeg, and was recently appointed to the MAVEN Leadership Council, which aims to address gender equality in the tech sector.

Have a question? Just ask.

Conversation is a powerful tool. It has the potential to break down barriers, dispel stereotypes, build understanding, and strengthen relationships.

Sometimes, however, the sensitivity around a particular topic can result in those conversations not taking place, regardless of how important they really are. That’s why, in 2019, we here at Prairie Manufacturer Magazine are committing to steps to improve the dialogue.

Each of our four issues this year will feature a Just Ask column that explores diversity and inclusion, and the terms we use in our everyday lives. The next three editorials will focus on Indigenous inclusion (Summer 2019), LGBTQ2S (Fall 2019), and workplace diversity (Winter 2019).

I hope you will join us and be a part of the conversation.

Ronda Landygo
Publisher, Prairie Manufacturer Magazine

 Kimberley Puhach
Just Ask Guest Columnist