How to "do" Gender Equity: 5 Tips to Reframe Ourselves and the World Around us

What is Gender Equity and Why do we Need to 'do' it?

The UNFPA defines ‘gender equality’ as when people’s “access to opportunities and life changes is neither dependent on, nor constrained by, their sex”; and ‘gender equity’ as “the process of being fair to women and men.” Simplified, equity is the pathway and equality is the goal.

Gender equity has become particularly en vogue of late. There are economic forecasts like the recent McKinsey report noting the vast gains to be had from women’s economic parity; international policy initiatives like the UN’s He for She Campaign and the Secretary General’s new High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment; conferences focused on women entrepreneurs; think tanks focused on increasing female representation on boards or in media…Talk of ‘women’ is everywhere.

Rightly so. Increasing women’s global economic participation will bring trillions into the global economy. Reducing barriers to women’s political and social participation increases political and social stability and GDP. Boards with even one woman outperform male only boards. And so on.

And yet, it remains the case that at least 150 countries have laws expressly curtailing women’s participation in public life and choices in private life, women remain underrepresented in leadership positions, and we need not look far to see the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which individuals undermine women’s equality through various aspects of public and private life across the globe.

Much progress has been made in legal protections and private sector policies. While structural approaches such as laws, policies, and procedures can create the framework for gender equality, we need cultural shift to get the equity part in place. Without that, the bridge from principle to practice will remain unfinished. So...

How do we ‘Do’ Equity?

Thinking about gender equity at the individual level is important for our own well being, for social stability, and for ensuring that it can actually get done when individuals come together at work. It’s no secret that one person can have a big impact – sometimes positive, sometimes not so much.

There is a prolific body of research on unconscious bias, and endless tips for businesses to try to hedge it off at the pass: blind CVs, bias-busting initiatives in team building and performance reviews, standardized pay scales and so on. Much like the benefits of law and policy, such procedural steps are important and have been shown to move equity forward. But what of the final, cultural piece: putting these policies and procedures into practice as people in the day-to-day?

Here are five tips that can help in reframing ourselves and the world around us with a view to ‘doing equity’. At the very least, these three ideas are important starting points for moving forward a conversation in need of momentum.

1. Hit the Sameness Switch.

One of the great intellectual revolutions still underway (though perhaps currently backsliding) is the realization that humans are alike before we are different. This is revolutionary because human history has been defined by our identifying and using differences to justify a creatively enormous spectrum of mistreatment of one another. Skin colour, eye shape, foot size, reproductive organs, and many other characteristics have been used to define and justify a startling breadth of injustice, inequality and worse.

While laws and other advances have made strides in eroding some of these practices, we are every day reminded of the persistence of bias – implicit and explicit – and the breadth of what that bias informs/allows.

So here’s the switch: the epiphany of sameness allows respect for difference.

It’s one thing to recognize fundamental physical sameness – the need for food, water, shelter, etc. But the important conscious realization is recognizing the sameness of the human drive to seek value, security, freedom, meaning and so on. If we start with the premise that each person is an individual striving to be free, safe, and valued – and striving to define for themselves what those things mean - we have a stable viewpoint from which to see the ways in which the world curtails that pursuit for so many people. A starting point of sameness in this way allows one to see how some people are treated differently and to examine why that is.

Using sameness as a starting point allows empathy to flourish.

Empathy is important. It creates connection; it creates context; and it builds understanding of what may be driving the person in front of you. Why is that important? It can help you understand how something will be perceived. It can help you diffuse or resolve a conflict (better yet it head one off). It can help you identify needs and solutions.

Effective empathy can also help us understand difference, moving us from “that’s not such a big deal” to “I wouldn’t like that at all”. This is important in a world where so many women are told to have a sense of humor over jokes that reinforce their marginalization, or where there is a need for a campaign like Black Lives Matter, for example.

For businesses, effective empathy goes a long way in building and maintaining the interpersonal and even interdepartmental relationships on which daily operations rely. But even beyond keeping things functional (and mitigating risk) internally, this kind of effective empathy can help you avoid product development flops, marketing snafus, and other costly missteps. For example, understanding “the female consumer” as an enormous group of individual whole people may help in making better products instead of just turning bad ones pink.

2. Start from the Common Denominator

Flowing nicely from the sameness switch is the idea of starting from the common human denominator. Too often – particularly in conversations around gender equity – we don’t. Example? “Working mothers”.

Parenthood is a fundamental human experience for those who embark on that pathway. Parenthood is something that both men and women can embark upon. Why, then, are we so obsessed with the idea of the working mother? The phrase itself is illustrative in the absence of a common usage of ‘working father’. It is in many ways a natural byproduct of the evolution of women’s entrance into the public sphere, whereby the ‘working mother’ was for a time exceptional. But this is no longer the case.

Gender equity, remember, is about fairness. To continue making progress in opening the public sphere to women, we must also open the private sphere to men. Discussions of work/life balance (though I argue we’ve now moved into the age of work/life integration) – be it in the office crafting HR policies or around the table at lunch – must start with the common human denominator.

In the above example, parents should be the starting category, with consideration therein for the unique aspects of motherhood (and, arguably, fatherhood). But it comes up in other places too. If parents are the starting point, the bias around a female candidate’s prospective motherhood may lose some steam; businesses may craft better, more sensible, truly people-friendly flexible work policies that can be used by people in need of them (ideally, perhaps someday, without stigma or penalty); and we open the door for a more modern and functional understanding of the human reality of work.

Of course, parenthood is not the only area where we skip the common human denominator. Another example could be programs geared toward getting women Board-ready. How is this a problem? Well, men aren't born Board-ready. By focusing on offering women certain skills in this context we imply that women are inherently less equipped than men; we ignore barriers such as access to networks and the role of bias; and we lose out on a great opportunity to bring men and women together in Board-mentorship programs that directly address these issues.

3. Choose (and Listen to) Your Language

There’s a reason why lawyers and legislators belabor every “and” and/or “or” in a document. Language matters. Language – what we name and how we name it, the words we use to contextualize it – defines, scopes, frames and colors what we value and how we interpret our world. Think for example about how in French you go “with” the train rather than “on” it; how German has a single word to express the pain one feels from comparing the actual state of the world to what it could be (“weltschmerz”). Language offers a perspective on the world and frames our interactions with it. It matters, then, what we call things and how we use language to shape them.

There are a few persistent language traps on the path to gender equity. Chief among them is the use of passive voice. For example, “women are paid less than men”. Speaking of issues in this way has the dual effects of implying inevitability and shifting the onus of responsibility.

Active voice is as a matter of course action driven. When “women are underrepresented on boards”, what can we do about it (we all ask, wringing our hands worriedly)? When “companies are under-appointing women to boards”, the onus very clearly shifts, bringing with it both pathways and calls to action. Passive voice implies that phenomena like women ‘being paid less’, female entrepreneurs ‘getting funded less’, and so on are things that, like weather, ‘happen’. It also, however, shifts the onus away from the active subject and implies that women themselves carry the burden of addressing these issues. As a thought experiment, try becoming more alert to the use of passive voice in these contexts – and beyond the gender equity conversation – and consider the impact of reframing the issue. It can really get creative ideas flowing.

4. Stop Fixing Women

The focus on “empowering women” over “removing barriers” implies that there is something inherently in need of fixing with women themselves, obscuring systemic barriers. On one hand, by rendering the different, discriminatory, and disproportionate impacts of policies and practices on women across spheres as “women’s issues”, “women” remain an exceptional group while the default remains male. On the other hand, doesn’t it tacitly give men a free pass for non-engagement? The UN’s “He for She” campaign is embracing this very concern, but we should all be a little taken aback by the fact this idea is novel.

This is not to discredit or disparage the excellent and important work being done by the myriad of empowerment initiatives. Indeed, there is need and there is room for equipping women in this way. It seems however that framing solutions to gender inequity in the language of empowerment has become the focus and this creates a counterproductive imbalance.

It is important that in working to make women feel ‘empowered’ we are in fact equipping women with opportunities to exercise real power. As much as that may require women pushing through doors it may also require men sometimes stepping out of the way. We need to stop fixing women and start identifying the actual barriers.

What if instead of telling women to speak more deeply, negotiate more aggressively, use more confident body language, and so on we told men to listen more openly, to speak more softly, to use smaller body language? There are two aspects to this thought experiment. When reading, hearing or saying something about empowering women or giving them business tips, first swap out woman for man and see if it still sounds sane. Second, flip it on its head and see if you can identify the actual barrier(s) the advice or program is trying to overcome. Does the empowerment approach still work?

When you scratch a bit at the ‘empowerment’ veneer, you may be surprised to find it takes some work to identify the barrier it’s supposed to overcome, but once you do you may also find that problems you’d never considered before become visible – as do novel solutions.

5. Empowerment is for Everyone

In the context of gender equity, there is a need for spaces where women can share their specific experiences with each other and perhaps get some breathing room from predominately male arenas. But are we approaching the moment when the proliferation of “women’s” conferences, initiatives, programs, and so on is beginning to have the effect of entrenching certain inequities as status quo?

It’s time to make room for men in this process in two respects: by engaging them and by empowering them.

Engaging men brings together each of the earlier points including, of course, starting at the common human denominator. But it may also help shape the discourse around this topic away from treating women as an exceptional class, allow men to productively examine their own behavior and role, and open the door for some more robust approaches to progress.

The idea of empowering men is always something that raises eyebrows, which is why it’s important. It is undeniable that males still enjoy more power in most regards globally, but power and empowerment are not the same. As has been revealed by the recent excellent work deconstructing “masculinity” models, the social power enjoyed by men as a group can actually disempower boys and men by paralyzing them from standing up against gender inequity. In a world where a man’s identity as a masculine being depends on his disproportionate social power, is he self-emasculating by standing against the system in which he has been told he is winning?

Despite enormous strides toward making every aspect of human life accessible for women, we have been much slower to do the same for men – just ask a stay at home dad for an anecdote. Empowering men means equipping them with the motivation and the tools to recognize and address gender inequity whether in the form of an unfair policy or a male colleague who keeps talking over all the women at the table.

To move this forward in a real way, we have to have everyone in the conversation, and we have to give everyone the tools they need.