How to Create More Inclusive Conversations about Gender Inequality and Men's Role as Allies
Over the last week or so I've actively engaged with conversations on LinkedIn and elsewhere about gender inequality and, in particular, the role of men in standing up against gender inequality.
As a men's coach these conversations are part of my work. But that doesn't make them easy to have. They're important conversations, but they can take a toll on my emotional energy levels, particularly when they are not inclusive.
Here are three ways in which I have seen these conversations be exclusive, rather than inclusive. Alongside each is a tip to help make these conversations more inclusive; applying these ideas will help people like me take part in these conversations more wholeheartedly.
So you are aware, I make reference to sexual violence and gender dysphoria in this article.
1) Conversations about gender that only talk about "men and women" are not inclusive.
Gender is a social and cultural construct. There are more than two genders. People conflate sex and gender, but they are different (and there are more than two biological sexes as well, which occur as frequently as red hair in the human population). A more inclusive understanding of gender means more diverse voices contributing to the discussion.
For example, people who were assigned female at birth but whose gender is different to that (like me, as a non-binary person) may have experienced many of the problems that are discussed in relation to sexism against women. That's because we 'look like', or are perceived to be, women and are therefore treated as such. But we're not.
So conversations about gender that only talk about "men and women" are not inclusive. I am not a woman. So can I take part in these conversations? I want to, because I have experiences and wisdom that could be valuable to those conversations. But it doesn't feel inclusive - so I don't.
Tip: Read up on gender-inclusive language that you can use while still highlighting the disparate experiences that people of different genders have. LSE has a simple short guide here but there's lots more online (search "gender inclusive language"). I generally use the following language:
Women and those who have been raised as women
Men and those who have been raised as men
Both of these refer to the social construct of gender and how someone is encouraged to behave because of their perceived gender identity
Femme-presenting or masc-presenting people
This refers to the way in which someone may 'tick the box' of a particular gender presentation, and are treated as such, but that is not who they are
2) Conversations about gender which do not make provision for supportively hearing the stories of survivors of abuse or violence tied to gender are not inclusive.
I am a rape survivor. Every time I engage with conversations about gender inequality, particularly when those conversations highlight the prevalence of violence against women and those raised as women, I remember that. I have valuable insight to add to these conversations, so I want to contribute, but the process takes an emotional toll; it 'costs' me to participate.
If provision isn't there to support survivors in telling their story then the likelihood is they will not tell their story, because it feels too much of a 'cost'. Greater support reduces the emotional 'cost'. This is one of the reasons why #MeToo snowballed; women and those raised as women became aware that there was support for their stories to be heard (mostly from others with similar experiences), and so the 'cost' of telling those stories was lowered.
I saw a survey this week which encouraged women to talk about experiences of sexualisation in the workplace. But it said "Bear in mind this might be triggering so if you think you might be triggered, don't complete it." People like me, who may find the content of that survey triggering - or know that completing it may 'cost' us - have a lot of wisdom to share on this topic. But we will be turned off and choose not to participate by this lack of provision for our stories to be heard.
Alternatively, we will do it anyway, absorbing that emotional 'cost' and then feeling depleted.
Tip: If you really want to include survivors of abuse or violence tied to gender in these conversations then I believe expectations, personalisation and boundaries are key:
Expectations: What should someone expect to see, hear or read in your writing? This could be shared via a content 'warning' at the start (like the one near the top of this article) or even just mentioning the topics covered clearly in the first line.
Personalisation: Survivors might not want to speak publicly about their experience. Can you provide a private, personal space for them to do that instead? Open up your DMs or arrange 1:1 discussions?
Boundaries: You are responsible for maintaining the 'space' in which your conversation lives. Set clear boundaries about repercussions of behaviour e.g. "If your comment is violent or sexist, you will be blocked and reported" as well as boundaries for who you want to contribute to the conversation e.g. "This space is specifically for ... ". Follow through on maintaining these boundaries.
3) Conversations which lack nuance are not inclusive.
This is a big one for me, even bigger than the others. Albert Maysles, a documentary filmmaker, said "Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance". Social media encourages a tyrannical approach to ideas, if only because of the short character count and outrage-fuelled algorithm make it hard, even undesirable, to retain nuance.
But if we want to have proper, profound discussions and make meaningful behavioural change around gendered issues (in fact, all issues), nuance must be sovereign in these conversations.
Because aside from their gender, these are people we are talking about: flawed, fantastic, gorgeous people who do unpleasant things, magical things, who hurt others and terrify themselves, who grope around in the dark doing either what they were taught to do but hate, or what they think they should do but don't feel equipped for (or something else entirely).
As I have said many times - even in print when asked to contribute to the Indeed 2022 Diversity and Belonging in the Workplace report - someone's gender is just one aspect of who they are. Yes I am non-binary. Yes I am a rape survivor. Yes I am a men's coach. But I am also an astrology lover who has two degrees, was raised in a tiny village, lives with ADHD, and makes my way through the world as a polyamorous partner who loves microwave chocolate mug cakes, watching Star Trek and can hula hoop surprisingly well.
I am a person and so is everyone that is referred to, or participating in, conversations about gender inequality. They've got their demons, just like me, but we don't need to make each other demons to know that.
I want my human experience to be heard, understood and respected; who doesn't? But until we see beyond these bodies that we are travelling in through this lifetime we will never come to a place where our conversations about these bodies are truly inclusive.
Tip: Take a hot second and consider what you wish to share with the world. Is there space for more nuance, more subtlety? Is there an opportunity for you to think with more nuance, to see not just 'the other side' but the multiple facets of this particular issue?
An important note: being able to see other perspectives or even understand someone's behaviour does not make you complicit in their perspective or behaviour. It just means you are thinking with nuance.
If the deliberate removal of nuance is tyranny, then perhaps the deliberate inclusion of nuance is freedom.
In engaging with conversations about gender equality on LinkedIn, I identified three ways in which these conversations can be exclusive, rather than inclusive. Exclusive conversations take an emotional toll for participants, and turn away potentially valuable participants.
Conversations about gender that only talk about "men and women" are not inclusive.
Conversations about gender which do not make provision for supportively hearing the stories of survivors of abuse or violence tied to gender are not inclusive.
Conversations which lack nuance are not inclusive.
I also provided three tips to help make these conversations more inclusive and therefore reduce the emotional 'cost' that participating might have:
Use gender-inclusive language that still allows you to describe the disparate experiences of people of different genders.
Give clear expectations, personalised options and boundaries in your conversations to supportively hear stories of survivors.
Take a hot second and consider whether there is space in what you are describing for more nuance, recognising the importance of seeing multiple sides and reaching for freedom, rather than tyranny (especially on social media).
These topics I feel deeply about, but more than that I feel confident that these inclusive and nuanced conversations can happen - are, in fact, already happening.
I bring many of my life experiences I have mentioned here into my corporate speaking services on emotional resilience and emotional literacy, highlighting how greater emotional awareness and Presence of Self have helped me to overcome these challenges, form strong relationships, and create sustainable success in my life.