VIEWPOINT: EVERY LABEL MASKS US

This issue, a male view on the gender debate: how can we move past masculine/feminine expectations in organisations?

By Neil Scotton

Complex issues rarely have simple, singular answers. There are many causes, forces, players and implications. It is, by definition, complicated.

Our culture doesn’t like complicated. It wants simple. Digital. Good guys, bad guys. It asks: are you for or against, in or out, guilty or not guilty? It’s divisive.

Often at the heart of a complex issue is a paradox; opposing perspectives that somehow are both true. For example: “We’re all different, and we’re all the same.”

When the truth of both sides is seen, appreciated and accepted, the way forward becomes more easily discerned.

In wanting to find a way forward with the gender gap, and better support our female clients, it’s almost inevitable that things fall into a male/female, masculine/feminine discussion. It’s simple. Familiar.

After all, isn’t that what is at the heart of this?

 

We’re all different…

From the perspective of ‘we’re different’, the answer is yes. From the earliest age we’ve learnt to associate certain qualities with certain genders.

From my own experience, growing up male leaves you in no doubt about what ‘being a man’ should be. Consider, for example, what comes to mind when you hear: ‘Man up’?

Maybe: “Get focused, be decisive, be brave, don’t moan about any pain, be harsh if you need to, compete, go get it”. That sort of thing. Curiously, I sense it means the same pretty much globally.

Double curiously, I’ve heard women say it to themselves and to other women (more about that later).

Triple curiously, what might the alternative ‘Woman up’ be taken as meaning? (I tried this out on a very small sample – it didn’t go down well.)

The trouble is, it’s also rubbish. For many men, this is not their whole nature. And it’s impossible. You can’t win everything. In fact, you don’t always want to. You can’t always be decisive, there’s always going to be times of doubt. You still feel pain even if you can’t let on.

What do we men do to get rid of the pain, guilt and shame of fearing we’re not being the men we’re supposed to be? Quite often we project the pain onto others, blame and subjugate, get depressed and beat ourselves up, pretend to be endlessly youthfully virile, get power over something (anything) and constantly strive.

This can explain how many men are driven to compete, over-work themselves, be opportunistic, get ‘clubby’ etc, which can lead to the gender gap. But it doesn’t help us out of it.

 

…we’re all the same too

To achieve that we also need to embrace the other side of the paradox – that we’re all the same.

Indian activist Satish Kumar, when talking of his peace walk to the leaders of every nuclear power in 1962, wrote: “If I had gone as an Indian, I would have met a Pakistani or a Russian. If I had gone as a Hindu I would have met a Muslim or a Christian. But I went as a human being and met human beings everywhere.”

Any label we put on ourselves limits us. Any label we put on others limits them. The label never tells the whole story. Every label creates a division, a separation. Whenever there is an ‘us’, we create a ‘them’. And that’s true for male/female as much as anything.

As a final year engineering student, I chose my thesis to be about ‘Women in Engineering’. I was curious as to why, on a course of 75 people, only five were female. It became clear that man/woman, masculine/feminine and male brain/female brain were not the same thing.

It also became clear that statistics could both reveal and lie – so, for example, when looking at what were seen to be qualities required of an outstanding engineer, sometimes women scored better than men, sometimes men better than women – but this was looking at the median of two widely distributed curves – for any attribute where ‘men were better than women’ there would be a whole load of women scoring way above most men.

And vice versa. The statistics told you nothing about the individual. It was also clear that the women became engineers because they had made a choice and really wanted to do it. Most of the men had fallen into it. Some follow stories, some write them.

As humans, we all seek the same things: happiness, recognition, respect, belonging, achievement, growth, reward, purpose, etc. We all have dreams, wishes and needs. We’ve all been through difficulties. We are all learning about ourselves, and each other, and life.

Underneath whatever wobbles when we jump up and down naked, we’re pretty damn similar.

 

The way forward

The yin/yang symbol is insightful; wholeness requires both sides. In the heart of the white is a black dot; in the heart of the black, a white dot. To be fully masculine you need to embrace the care, nurture and more, of the feminine. To be fully feminine includes embracing the heat of the masculine – the ‘lioness’ if you will.

Instead of one side facing off against the other, it’s about being shoulder to shoulder and stepping towards the future we want.

We should be asking: What leads to organisational health and success? What do the many stakeholders wish and require?

And so… What does that mean for the human qualities that are needed? Do we have the people with those qualities, in the right balances, in the right places, when we need them?

I hope that, as coaches, we are able to do our own inner work – on how we see our gender and sexuality and other labels, and how we view others.

I hope we can notice and name discrimination and bigotry wherever we are, and whoever we are with. Perhaps it ought to be in our
codes of ethics.

I hope that more guys can do ‘He’ for ‘She’. And indeed that more women can do ‘She’ for ‘She’.

I hope that our work enables clients to recognise and release themselves from any labels, and support the people (regardless of label) best suited to help achieve organisational flourishing

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