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Why we need to speak up.

Last week I called out a gesture that could, on first glance, be considered supportive of the plight of gender equity. I’m not one to usually call out gender or racial biases so publicly, so I’ve caught myself wondering, why now? Here’s what happened.

A post that was written by and for women urged us to not see ourselves under the titles that are placed upon us: Aggressive rather than Assertive, Bossy rather than a Leader, you see the pattern. It ended with the plead to “Be yourself…you’re beautiful that way.” My usual reaction to such things is to ignore them as superficial nonsense that do nothing for cause or solution however, the thing that bothered me this time was that the post was shared by a white man. So, I called a respectful and constructive BS.

Here’s why.

Appropriation of the gendered voice

When a woman tells another that she’s beautiful as she is, the association isn’t just on physicality but of the person as a whole. When a man does the same, whether intended or not, and particularly given the context, it can come off as at worst, sexual, at best patronising, particularly in the professional setting. Tone and voice do matter, particularly for underrepresented communities. From a woman, the message may be considered to be one of empathy, understanding and of support, from a man, it comes across as “buck up dear”. It would not have felt like appropriation if the sharer had reflected on the content, spoken about how he’d seen the issue come up in his workplace/ career, and what needs to be done to combat it. To just forward it without reflection felt like taking away women’s voices and the opportunity to champion themselves.

It's time for men to show up/ Lean in/ Be conscious

There’s a need for men to have a role in pushing the agenda of gender equity forward. Acknowledging the role in perpetuating these stereotypes and perceptions of women, calling it out when they see it happening around them, engaging in action to promote or champion women and talking honestly about the issues in a nuanced and effective way are all far more meaningful manifestations of how a man can, not just demonstrate his support, but be proactive in changing things.

Race does matter

I’ve asked myself whether had this post been shared by a man of colour, would I have been as incensed. The answer is Yes, because the first two points here still stand. But there’s no denying that race does matter. We have to acknowledge the societal disparities that exist and the privilege bestowed on some over others. We know them, we see it every day, we’ve just had a summer of global protests calling it out, but it’s always something that happens elsewhere. As a community of sustainability/ social change professionals we expect ourselves to be above all that. Yet, it happens all the time.

Reflections

It’s no picnic being called out. A seemingly innocent decision to show support for a topic / cause/ issue can be like stepping onto a minefield that could potentially explode across social media. So I respect the man who used it as an opportunity to reach out, reflect and take stock of how he uses his position, voice and platform and reflected on these publicly, it's not an easy thing to do. Rather than wishing for people to stop sharing content or ideas, my hope is for considered and conscious thinking on what we say and do and checking ourselves each and every time on the bigger implications. It's harder than it sounds.

It’s hard to call out and challenge the white male lens in such a way – mainly because you’re inevitably going to be called all the words that the post was trying to get you not to see yourself as in the first place and frankly, there are many other battles to fight where traction for change and impact may well be greater. Not anymore. What I’ve learnt in the last few months is that enough’s enough; whether that’s greenwash from brands, disingenuous platitudes for lack of diversity and/ or inclusion in workplaces; institutional racism; environmental degradation; or the bloke in the post office who refuses to wear a mask. Whatever your particular issue, it’s time to speak up because by not doing so, we know that we will never make the progress that we need at the scale or pace that we need it. It's a crucial uphill climb, it needs to be done right and we do a disservice to those that want to engage by not being cogent in the way that we do it.

Over the last week, I’ve also been thinking about own role; was I constructive enough, was the use of my language considered enough, how can I think about and use non-violent communication methods, especially when I’m annoyed and I'm typing rather than speaking? I tried to be as articulate as possible in my response, but I’m a work in progress, I know it wasn’t perfect.

I know that it’s important to find commonality in the first place – I don’t believe the sharer to be sexist per se nor racist – how would he possibly know that something is offensive unless it’s pointed out, particularly if the supposed intent was well meaning? All we can hope for is that we are all open to listening, it’s only then that we can take the blinkers off – whether we knew we had them on or not. By opening up the space to call out, challenge and reflect will we move forward and through incredibly uncomfortable coversations that may well expose both our prejudices and vulnerabilities. My hope for myself is that I get better at doing it by listening, reflecting and by stepping up to have and enable those conversations.

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