Let’s start with the question: What is Gender? Gender is way more than what we are assigned at birth, it constitutes more than biological sex, and I strongly feel that Gender Identity goes beyond the binary and non-binary constructs we have available to us and intersects with sexuality to form Gender Identities. We’re just discovering the breadth of Gender Identity while working toward solving for truly inclusive gender equality.
Gender inequality is driven by socialisation, exacerbated by intersectionality, and reinforced through time-long, learned-behaviours – reinforced sub-consciously to form, with other deep learned oppressions, what’s referred to as deep structure (things that feel natural, but shouldn’t be). How society defines the norms and behaviours of any specific gender leaves us needing to conform to stereotypes to fit in with, and deviation opens us up to even more inequality. This socialisation plays out in the workplace and is seen in the organisations culture through social norms, gender dynamics, social and workplace roles, status, rank and resulting power and gender stereotypes.
Overlapping oppressions add weight to gender inequality when issues of race, ethnicity, sexuality, up-bringing and standing in society are added to gender inequality, this intersectionality means that Gender Equality is not possible without considering overall equality.
Patriarchy, in my view, is the deep structure result of gender and intersectional inequality, and impacts culture, gender and openness about true gender identities. Gender-based discrimination is alive in the deep structure of organisations and mirrors inequalities in society. This leaves us with unequal gendered policies and practices and gender dynamics that force women and non-binary to fit with the ‘norm’ at the cost of their own identity, opportunities and economic empowerment.
With the weight and complexity of these issues put in perspective, we must respect the important role of feminists and feminism as they continue to work for equality and justice and highlight intersectional oppression.
Addressing issues of inequality in the workplace must start with a deep reflection of an organisation’s culture, deep structure gender issues, and then defining what the organisation’s inclusive culture should look like in future. Addressing Gender Equality must also start with expanding ideas and solutions from the narrow lenses of ‘equal opportunity’ to reparation through empowerment, lifting-up and prioritising those discriminated against (Equity over Equality).
Two of the things that changed me
I’m proud today to be certified as one of the first 30 Certified Gender Equality Changemakers. Now that I have the language given to me by this programme, I could probably write a book on my lifelong discovery of my own gender identity and sexuality but let me focus on two transformative ‘events’ during this last year on the programme, and how that has improved my capacity to act.
A profound learning for me was around the root causes of Gender Inequality in Africa. Inequality in Africa reflects indigenous, pre-colonial, colonial, and postcolonial influences and values. However, my entire life I’ve seen inequality in Africa as rooted in African cultures. Learning about pre-colonial women leaders, acceptance of same sex relations and co-parenting, and, profoundly, the universal use of the pronoun ‘they’ in some (all?) African languages left me with an even greater love for Africa and inspired me to support bravery and call out patriarchy as a modern cultural condition, urging all to go back to our root values.
Another profound learning and transformation for me was around masculinity. The masculine ideal is no-less than hegemonic, and that’s because of the deep learned social norms I spoke of before. As I learnt the spectrums of masculinity, I realised how I play the spectrum to my benefit, leaning on hegemony and asserting my powers in my role as CEO and in my role as primary bread winner at home. Switching easily to subordinate and playing my ‘gay’ card to seek social capital with female friends and colleagues, sitting on the fence when I need to be marginal or appear to have limited access to power, and, sometimes actually just needing to be complacent and have someone else have power and status (a sense of reprieve).
My learning journeys empowered me to act by diversifying the leadership team at our company to bring balance. It caused me to reflect on the organisational culture I valued and whether clan, hierarchical, market or adhocracy fit the brief.
From the perspective of my organisation, these with other learnings, led me to realise that what I saw as a leading equitable organisation, with gender equality mainstreamed in our product review processes and forward-thinking policies around flexible working, parental and menstrual leave, equal pay, etc. was only the start. I’m excited to further the process of mainstreaming the respect of individual gender identities, re-looking at our equal pay policy to weight work rather than title, holding everyone accountable to our values to prevent the re-entry of toxic masculinity, blending social capital well enough to help everyone feel truly included and safe – being a sherpa for the non-binary to move from the shadows to the fore – and I am sure we will soon discover many more ways in which our organisation is gendered and can be made more inclusive.
Personal change: We need a new pronoun!
I’ve come to accept that my sexuality and my gender are intricately intertwined and that my current gender identity and expression is less about me and more about what society needs me to be. But the many gender identities I’ve found also don’t seem to resonate with who I feel I am. I’m now convinced that gender is fluid, and that should be celebrated and accepted.
This leads me to a challenge and a personal mission: I was all for the use of pronouns, but after this year’s discovery I find myself against them. I feel that pronouns further reinforce rigid classifications and that by just adding ‘they’ as a catch all doesn’t do justice to the fluidity of gender. ‘They’, for me, implies plural, but I don’t feel plural does justice to the uniqueness and beauty of gender fluidity.
As part of our companies’ Gender Equity awareness initiatives, staff debated the need for a policy around the use of pronouns – the conclusion was to support any that want to use a pronoun but perhaps to use a gender-neutral African pronoun to highlight that gendered pronouns are a construct of few languages and are un-African.
Perhaps we need a new pronoun, one that avoids classifications and amplifies that regardless of gender diversity we are all human, all unique. I plan to campaign for a pronoun that better relates fluidity, perhaps even divergence, a word I don’t know yet exists in English, perhaps embracing a de-gendered African pronoun instead.
Do you have any ideas what that could be?