14 December 2011

male or female; masculine or feminine

Whenever I hear the phrase "the advancement of women in trades", I cringe just a little. But I appreciate that we need phrases like this to define who the organization is and what it is that they do. I believe the term is outdated and oversimplified but I continue to use it because it is simple. The reality is that I work for the advancement of the trades so that we can be meet the demands of a changing world. It really is time to have a conversation about sex, gender, and culture so that we can design programs that work for today's market.

I always enjoy telling the story of the trades. It was designed for men by men to serve the needs of that homogeneous group. Women have attempted more recently to make inroads but with limited success. Let's put this into context in our day to day lives. In my tradition, born of centuries of Newfoundland women, the woman is in charge of the care work and the cooking work and so the kitchen is designed with her in mind. I don't know about you but if you move my spices around, I might get a little irritated. We don't like change. I respect that there are men who enjoy the care work and the kitchen but traditionally it's been a woman's domain (at least from where I sit).

Sex is easy to define - if you've got the right junk, you know that you're a man or a woman with a few variations that are becoming more mainstream today. But for the ease of discussion, let's keep it at the level of male/female. I give respect to anyone who does not identify as either and appreciate your journey.

Historically, there have been men in the trades who were not of the "macho" style but they assimilated because being yourself and different than the dominant group is a challenge for people. It takes work to swim against the current and sometimes it's easier to throw in the towel. In the industry, the term men has has been narrowly defined to mean "macho" but the industry is changing and that definition is changing - it is not so narrowly defined anymore because other voices are gaining momentum and they will not be stifled.

The point is that defining people is challenging regardless of whether you are a man or a woman. GI Joe and Barbie don't quite capture my notion of what it means to be either in the modern context.

Gender on the other hand is a more complex set of characteristics. The term that is used is MASCULINE AND FEMININE. Look at the list below to see what they meant.

domination oriented

relationship oriented

These lists are not inclusive nor are they negative or positive. The masculine characteristics were often said to be seen in men and the feminine characteristics were often said to be seen in women. There is also a nature/nurture debate that begs the question of whether we are born this way or our environments shape us. Regardless of who wins, the reality is that we are more diverse as people. But are we as different as people might want to convince us?

If you are like many of us - you may say (maybe not out loud) that you fall into the other category. I know that I have tendencies that are more masculine than feminine. I know some remarkable men and emerging leaders who gladly accept that they have traits that are more feminine.

Let's treat gender like a spectrum with the masculine qualities on the left and the feminine on the right - now I will pose the question - Which gender are you? Don't peak at your vagina or penis - pretend that you are blind to your sex. Who are you really?

With this information, is it plain to see that being a woman is much more complicated than we at first thought?

So when we design programs that are intended to advance women's participation in non-traditional places, we need to ask a different question. What kind of woman are you? What kind of organization are you entering - what kind of men are there?

The word culture is another factor that shapes how we think about ourselves - often the culture does not support a distinction based on gender but only based on sex. It's important that we know about culture.

We are moving away from assimilation to a model of accommodation where we must ask the tough questions.

Are you masculine or feminine?
Is the culture one that supports gender diversity?
What supports does the organization need to adapt to a changing world?
We can't unlearn what we know about the world - it's impossible.

When people ask what it is that I do - I say I'm a Diversity Strategist who works for the advancment of the trades. The issue is larger than a woman's issue? The dialogue has changed and so the solutions must also change.