Business Cases for Diversity Bring New Opportunities to Gender Mainstreaming

Gender training was the subject of a conference I spoke at this week in Vilnius, organized by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). Practitioners, professors and government representatives participated in the event that was intended as a networking event where people could exchange knowledge or find people with the knowledge and ideas they are looking for.

I was asked to speak in the workshop on Accommodating Diversity in Gender training programmes. This is a great subject for me, allowing me to follow through on inquires I have been involved in over the past dozen years. I have a long history in pushing the envelope in women’s empowerment and more recently in understanding how businesses and institutions benefit from taking into account that people with whom they interact – clients, employees, other stakeholders - are more than one of two things, Man or Woman.  People are clients and they are sources of information and they have multiple skills, multiple identities and multiple sources of engagement. In any group of people, the way Men are perceived and the way Women are perceived varies greatly. I notice this in simple interactions. I often hear women experiencing me as powerful and men experiencing me as scary. My identity, in the eyes of others, is fluid. How wild is that!

In my contribution, I brought in the concept of living from a future in which we all live in dignity and respect. If you think that is a new concept, think again. It is actually Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I find it incredibly compelling to work from that vision and to see what strategies we could implement now that could forward the action. Any one of us can think of something that can forward the action, depending on what our starting point is. In Sweden, for example, a kindergarten has chosen to change the language it uses with little ones. They no longer use the pronouns He or She and instead refer to Friends.  Imagine the impact this will have on kids. They will not be forced into gender stereotypical behaviours by the implicit assumptions of the kindergarten staff. Hopefully they will learn that playing with dolls and bashing boxes can be behaviours enjoyed by one and the same person, depending on the mood. 

As I was researching my presentation I came across an article on how 50% of the kids in craft classes in UK primary schools are boys. One of them was a football player who loves knitting because it gives him peaceful time. He is not required to run around and push and kick at all times and he loves it. The simple strategy of having knitting clubs at schools can contribute to developing a new notion of what being Boy is. 

In the end, the notion of who belongs in a boardroom will change.

I am grateful to Helga Christian and Landmark Education for the outstanding training session I recently attended, called Transforming Yesterdays Strategies, where we explored sex stereotypes and how they affect our reality. As children we develop strategies around being boy, or being girl. We tend to keep and strengthen the strategies, mostly because no-one ever tells us that we can choose to keep them or get rid of them and take on different strategies. We have, certainly as adults, the ability to reject strategies that don’t work for us and our communities, and bringing this element of choice into gender training is powerful.

More and more companies are inquiring into and developing the business case for diversity. It is taking the discussion on mainstreaming gender to a new level. In today’s wrap-up of the conference, the moderator noted that the issue of diversity was one of two "Hot Issues" of debate during the conference and added that he expected it to be a source of change in how companies, public institutions and civil society organisations reconstruct their relationship to gender.

I have every hope that this is the pathway to a world where all of us live in dignity and respect.

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