From Categories, Stereotypes and Roles to Intersectionality

The most recent Global Gender Gap report states that due to the pandemic we have taken a step back in Economic Participation and Opportunity for women. If we continue on our current trajectory, it will now take 257 years to close this gap[i]!

We need to take action NOW to speed up the process and move closer to achieving gender equality in our lifetimes. During our first annual Inclusive Leadership Forum we asked our speakers and panellists to address the challenges associated with reaching gender equality. This article is based on comments from senior leaders at Keppel Data Centres and Google, our guest speaker Juliet Bourke, and from ourselves at Developing Global Leaders Asia.

Stereotypes – How do you see people?

We asked Wai Meng Wong, Chief Executive Officer at Keppel Data Centres about the challenges the tech industry faces. He stated that the largest problem with creating a pipeline of female leaders is the small number of women who opt to pursue careers in these fields in the first place. He also added, “I think most parents today will tell a little girl, ‘No, let’s not go into the engineering industry because it’s for men’. I think the narrative that we use to describe engineering and tech fields needs to change.”

We recently wrote another article on how gender stereotyping prevents us from achieving gender equality in leadership roles. Gender equality requires cultural change, and this culture change needs to take place not only in the workplace, but also in the home. The challenge is both encouraging little girls to take up careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and also to dispel the stereotypes associated with STEM and gender.

Wai Meng then continued, “One of the biggest challenges we see is the mindset of parents. We lose half the battle before we even start. Think about the toys little baby girls play with and little baby boys play with. Media publicity and education need to change so that the perceptions can change.” While we do have a great deal more STEM related toys that cater to little girls now, anecdotal evidence suggests that only parents who already question traditional roles buy these toys. But what about other parents? It’s likely that these stereotypes will continue to be prevalent regardless of the types of toys we produce. We need to think about them at a deeper level.

Categories – Making sense of the world

Why are these stereotypes and roles so deeply entrenched in our cultures? Jean Illyria, Growth Manager at Google explained, “I think it’s partially connected to our desire as humans to categorise everything. Sometimes we ask these questions, on surveys and forms, what is your gender, male, female? And then, of course, now we have that extra field that says others, trans, non-binary and all that. But really, the question is, why are we even asking this?”

Categories help people make sense of the world. But do our current ways of categorising people make sense? Do we need to add more categories to the idea of gender or to completely rethink how we view gender? Echoing what Wai Meng mentioned in his panel, Jean reiterated that the need to categorise can often do more harm than good in the workplace. She suggested that instead of asking these questions and forcing people to identify as one or the other, companies need to create policies and practices that don’t require categorisation at all e.g. gender neutral toilets, equal parental leave etc.

We need to encourage all genders to take up roles in engineering and physics. Let’s think about what prompts us to have these perceptions and categories in the first place. Most likely we learnt them from our parents, schools, wider environment and the media. It’s time to question these perceptions and categories, therefore we all need to shift our mindset for the future. Only then can we truly encourage girls to pursue careers in any field they choose. The same goes for little boys, instead of discouraging boys from pursuing traditionally feminine careers, perhaps allow children to select toys and activities based on interest instead of conservative or traditional gender expectations.

Intersectionality – Embracing people for who they are

Our need to categorise people based on gender, race or other identities prevents us from knowing and supporting people for who they are. It can also prevent us from having happy and motivated employees. When talking about the future of inclusion, Juliet Bourke, speaker, author and expert in Inclusive Leadership said “one of the things that is becoming increasingly important into the future is people self-defining their own diversity. So, I can define what aspect of me is important.”

As we all move through the world, we have different experiences that define us and therefore we may have different values and needs compared to others of the same gender, race, age etc.. As mentioned earlier, instead of companies creating categories, companies need to focus on how people see themselves and recognise that all people have different life experiences and needs.

We already know that the business case for diversity and inclusion is stronger than ever [ii] with inclusive teams outperforming other teams. A company culture cannot be truly inclusive unless all employees feel respected, which, in turn, is not possible if companies continue to attempt to categorise employees based on labels that do not fit the individual. Intersectionality, or embracing each person for who they are, thus further improves a team’s performance and a company’s brand as a desirable employer.

 

In companies as well as societies, we need to start seeing people for who they are and not place them into boxes, categories or roles that don’t make sense for all of us as individuals and for us as communities. Perhaps the question is no longer “How can we change gender stereotypes and roles” but rather “How can we ensure that all individuals receive the support that they need to flourish and reach their full potential regardless of gender”. This could be the key not just to gender equality but also to inclusion.


[i] World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report 2020. Available at: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2020.pdf
[ii] McKinsey & Co, Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters, 2020. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/featured%20insights/diversity%20and%20inclusion/diversity%20wins%20how%20inclusion%20matters/diversity-wins-how-inclusion-matters-vf.pdf

Wanted to attend our forum but couldn’t make it? The recordings and materials from the forum are now available until 30 June here.

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