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It’s all in the subtleties March 18, 2014

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Igualtat de sexes.svgOver the years negative, hostile behaviour towards women at work is generally deemed as overt sexism and therefore unacceptable.  However the subtle and no less insidious sexism continues to fester in the background. There are comments and behaviours, whether made by men or women that devalue women.  During a recent training session, I conducted an exercise titled ‘Acceptable Continuum’, providing statements to be categorised as either ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’.  I noted with concern some participants becoming indignant that ‘I am going through a blond moment’* or referring to women as ‘girls’ was generally considered ‘unacceptable’.  This indignation was verbalised by comments along the lines of ‘This is PC gone mad’, ‘We are walking on an eggshell culture’, ‘I can’t say anything now??’ etc.

I have worked with various organisations and noted that colleagues sometimes use certain but subtly negative language patterns, either out of habit or because it has become unconsciously ingrained into office culture and banter, that it becomes acceptable.  There is a lack of awareness or a perception that, if no harm is intended by these comments, no one should be offended.  It is worth pointing out that these kinds of every day subtleties, with their ‘drip drip’ effect, are damaging and detrimental to how women are perceived and therefore treated.

In some organisations, colleagues have explained that when women have stated ‘I must have gone through a blond moment’, this seems to have given some men the freedom and permission to make disparaging comments about women, albeit in jest.  Some of these comments made by men were along the lines of ‘That was good work… for a woman’, ‘Can you be Mummy and organise lunch for the next Senior Management Team meeting? (made to a female member of the SMT), ‘I am surprised that you managed to do the project given your child care responsibilities….’, ‘here comes the handbag brigade’;  the list goes on.  It is apparent that sexist humour, which is really the denigration of women through humour, trivialises the unpleasant reality of sex discrimination behind a smokescreen of harmless banter and implies that, when sexist language is presented as humour or in jest, it is to be viewed as acceptable and considered a bonding ritual between colleagues.

I recently attended a Board meeting of a public sector organisation which was also attended by two newly appointed members.  I noted with wry interest that the Chair of the Board (a man) introduced the new female Board member with a detailed background about her family; she had three daughters, was a PTA member and attended a book club. In contrast the male Board member’s professional qualifications and professional accomplishments were highlighted.  It was also telling that the Chair even introduced the female member with ‘I would like to welcome the beautiful Jackie* to the Board’.  This type of subtle sexism leaves some observers feeling uncomfortable but not entirely sure about what. However, the real danger lies in it being possible to see the comment as normal and acceptable. Further, the Chair could even argue that he was complimenting Jackie.  I later learned that Jackie had similar professional qualifications and accomplishments to those of her male counterpart; this was not mentioned at the meeting.

Various studies* reveals that sexist jokes and gender stereotype are some of the main factors in holding women back from thriving at work.  The hard-to-detect comments can have an insidious effect, which over time is profound enough for women to start conforming to the stereotypes instead of focusing on their career advancement.  Research findings show some common subtle incidents occurring on average 2-5 times a week.  These include:

  • Comments that women are not as good as men at certain activities (maths, sports, leadership).
  • Comments that women are too easily offended or that they exaggerate problems.
  • Seemingly benign comments about women, that they are naturally better at cooking, shopping or child care.
  • Choosing women for stereotypical assignments or tasks.
  • Making comments about women’s clothing.  

The studies show that, in response to the subtle sexist comments and attitudes, women have been known to perform poorly on cognitive tests.  Further, they express feelings of incompetence and even greater dissatisfaction with their work-related performance.

Fundamentally, it is important for all of us to be aware that, whilst we have made huge strides in moving away from explicitly negative and sexually inappropriate behaviour, subtle comments and remarks considered to be innocuous, are damaging and help maintain the ripple-like effect of discrimination against women.  As we celebrate International Women’s Day in March, we need to be more aware of subtle sexism in the workplace, the need to move away from stereotypes and to place a greater focus on treating people as individuals and not labelling them with the group that they represent.

The United Nations theme for International Women’s Day 2014 is Equality for Women is Progress for All’.

* ‘I am going through a blond moment’.  Term usually made by a woman to imply that she had forgotten to do something, is a scatterbrain or is being silly or stupid.  The term is used as a get out clause, a public persona of how ‘vulnerably dumb’ a woman is.  1990s: from the stereotypical perception of blonde-haired women as unintelligent.

** Melbourne Business School, Australia, Pennsylvania State UniversityUSA and Philipps UniversityGermany


LGBT History Month (UK) February 23, 2014

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Throughout history, lesbian, gay and bisexual people have made highly influential contributions to all aspects of public life. All too often, however, these contributions have not been acknowledged. This not only ignores a vital part of our history, but has also left LGBT people feeling invisible and without role models.

Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans History Month takes place in UK every year during February. Its purpose is to raise awareness of, and combat prejudice against, an otherwise substantial invisible minority group. The LGBT History Month marks a series of events which recognises and celebrates the lives, achievements and contributions, whether to society or in history of the LGBT community.

These events create an opportunity for learning, discussion and debate about some of the issues faced by the community. Each year the LGBT History Month is dedicated to a particular theme, this year’s theme is Music, more specifically combating homophobia through music.LGBT

The LGBT History Month, now in it 9th year  was initiated to coincide with a significant event which took place in February 2005, the repealing of Section 28 in England and Wales. Section 28 was a UK law from 1988 to 2003 (2000 in Scotland) which prevented schools from discussing LGBT issues, prevented teachers in offering advice to LGBT people and prevented the portrayal of same sex relationships as an acceptable family relationship.

Taking into account that education is considered paramount in eliminating prejudice against all minority groups, LGBT History Month stated aim is to “educate out prejudice” while “celebrating the diversity of society as a whole”. Schools, colleges and universities needed to be free to divulge information, offer help and advice, and promote equal treatment of LGBT students.

The idea of celebrating diversity of LGBT people stemmed from the ‘School’s Out’ campaign. School’s Out founded in 1974, to work on the visibility and safety of LGBT people in Education is now a registered charity which strives ‘to provide a formal and informal support network for people who want to raise the issues of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and heterosexist in education’.

The LGBT History Month initiative in 2005 received government backing, in particular from Jacqui Smith who was the deputy Department of Education and Skills (DfES) and Equalities Minister at the time. The DfES allocated a two year funding for LGBT History Month as a start up measure. The event is now widely publicised, acknowledged and celebrated by public sectors, charities and private organisations. Long standing sponsors include Metropolitan Police Service, Amnesty International and Crown Prosecution Service. The prelaunch events have been held at key venues, Tate Modern, TUC Congress House, Royal Courts of Justice and Downing Street.

In the US, LGBT History Month, initiated in 1994 is celebrated in October, to included National Coming Out Day (October 11). Both in UK and US, there is a respectful acknowledgment to the example of Black History Month.

With the badge ‘Claiming our history, celebrating our present and creating our future’  LGBT History Month will continue to press for equality and visibility of LGBT people around the globe all year round.

At least 260 species of animal have been noted exhibiting homosexual behaviour but only one species of animal ever, so far as we know, has exhibited homophobic behaviour – and that’s the human being. Stephen Fry

“I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you…And you…And you…Gotta give em hope.” Harvey Milk  – first openly gay person to be elected to public office in US 

Where is the Love? February 22, 2012

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The name ‘Valentine’ is derived from Valens which means worthy, strong and powerful. It has been said that, on Valentine’s day, when people show their affection to others with messages of love, there is generally more care and consideration outside the boundaries of the ‘true love’ declaration towards each other.

So what would it take to maintain Valentine Day’s type of consideration, even affection for each other (whether work colleagues or strangers), on other days of the year? There would certainly be more harmony, creativity and better relationships. However, have we become so dismissive of other people’s feelings that what we say or how we respond either becomes a joke or a drama?

I recently attended a professional networking event. I introduced my business as supporting organisations in maintaining ‘Dignity at Work’ and explained that I conduct investigations into allegations of bullying and harassment in the workplace. Another participant during the introduction round laughed and said ‘I would love some harassment’. I have heard these types of comments more than a few times. Although I could spend time analysing the reasons behind an individual making this sort of comment, the manner in which the individual made the comment seemed to indicate that they were negating and minimising the effects of being harassed. By using humour as a mechanism to build rapport, the individual actually did not do himself any favours leaving others with the impression that he did not care.

We all make mistakes and have invariably used the hopefully only occasional, (politically) incorrect phrase / term. With the ongoing changes in the definition of particular words, there can be a sense of uncertainty as to what is acceptable or not. During a conversation with a stranger at a conference, within the appropriate context I used the term ‘talk about calling it a spade’ His response was to walk away, calling over his shoulder, ‘I find the term offensive’. I was left feeling incredibly uncomfortable and flabbergasted. Part of my discomfort was that I didn’t know what I had ‘done wrong’.
I discussed the scenario with trusted colleagues and it transpired that, during the 1960s and 1970s, a reference to a spade was associated with being black. I did not know this. On reflection, I wish the ‘stranger at the conference’ had explained to me why he found the term to be offensive as opposed to taking what I perceive to be the easier option of walking away.

Over time I have noted that there are a minority, somewhat vocal few, who are unwilling to adapt to the changing language patterns / meanings. One participant at a training session was rather indignant when it was brought to her attention that ‘having a ‘blonde moment’ is not considered to be an appropriate term in professional (and other) situations. She wanted to continue to use this term when she has been forgetful or not intellectual. It was explained that the ‘blond moment’ phrase relates to a misguided belief that blondes are considered to be less intelligent and continuing to use this term helps maintain the belief that it relates to blonde women in general. The participant was adamant that, if she wished to use this term, she should be allowed to do so and that other people needed to accept her use of this terminology. She added that it was her choice about the language she used and that, if other people found it offensive, this was their problem…

There are common human yearnings; respect, courtesy, good manner and ‘love’, all essential features of building strong relationships. Sadly, in these times of differing values, boundaries and acceptability criteria, it is sometimes difficult to see these traits. Archbishop Tutu says: ‘We can be human only together’. If we are to evoke kindness, intelligence, accountability and learning, it is important to promote healthy relationships. People can learn from each other, find support, create solutions and gradually discover and consensually develop new ways of thinking and behaving. This can only happen when there is trust and understanding. For me that becomes the philosophy of Valentine’s Day and epitomises the meaning of ‘Valens’; Worthy, Strong and Powerful.

Controversy of Black History Month October 29, 2011

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The African race is a rubber ball.  The harder you dash it to the ground, the higher it will rise.  ~African Proverb

Racial superiority is a mere pigment of the imagination.  ~Author Unknown  

 If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you to go on in spite of all.  And so today I still have a dream.  ~Martin Luther King, Jr. 

 Black History Month originated in 1926 when Carter G Woodson launched Negro History Week inUSA, which later became Black History Month, marked for February. Carter specifically chose February to commemorate AbrahamLincoln’s birthday, the president who ‘freed the slaves’.

Black History Month inUKwas launched in 1987 – a campaign led by Akyaaba Addai Sebbo who worked for Greater London Council at the time. GLC selected October as the Black History Month to coincide with the Marcus Garvey* celebrations and London Jubilee.

From theLondonboroughs, the interest in Black History Month soon spread to other cities.Bristol, Leeds,Manchester, Nottingham andBirminghamactively participated in promoting and publicising its philosophy.

The aims of Black History Month are to:

  • Promote knowledge of the  Black History , Cultural and Heritage
  • Disseminate information on positive Black contributions to British Society
  • Heighten the confidence and awareness of Black people to  their cultural heritage

Black History Month fundamentally highlights the history and contributions of Black communities and Black individuals, past and present. Although the debate continues whether the month should be exclusive in promoting only the African and Caribbean contributions, the celebrations inUKhave to date continued to include all ‘Black’ Minority Ethnic communities and therefore the term Black is used in the generic sense.

Now in its 24th year, the Black History Month includes 6,000 events and celebrations. Most local authorities regard it as a mark of pride to sponsor events and even the areas with a sparse black population will delve deep to unearth their own black histories. For instance: the 18th century abolitionist and former slave Olaudah Equiano appears in a municipal account of the black history of Devon, a rural county in the south west of England, because he spent time there, alongside John Hawkins, a local grandee who became England’s first slave trader in 1562. Similarly Glasgow Museums staged an exhibition around the portrait of wealthy tobacco merchant John Glassford and his family to reveal the city’s little known links with the slave trade, while in 2008 the British Library in London hosted a talk by Tommie Smith, the US Olympic sprint champion famous for making the black power salute on the medal podium in the 1968 Mexico City games.

School especially take part in Black History Month, in fact October was allocated to coincide with the start of the academic year.  ‘I really love Black History Month,’ enthused 15-year-old Isaac Kwasi whoseLondonschool put on a special concert to mark the event. ‘To me it’s like [Notting Hill] carnival when you are on the centre stage and can be proud to be black.

However, it has been argued that Black History Month has become a ready made excuse to ignore African history for the other 11 months of the year. Further Journalists argue that by dedicating only a single month of the year, it provokes a tendency to assume that black history is separate from American/British History. Joseph Wayne states that “One month out of every year, Americans are given permission to commemorate the achievements of black people. This rather condescending view fails to acknowledge that a people and a country’s past should be nurtured and revered; instead, at this time, the past of black Americans is handled in an expedient and cavalier fashion denigrating the very people it seeks to honour”

Prominent actor Morgan Freeman has publicly condemned Black History Month asking ‘why would you relegate my history to a single month?’ I don’t want a Black History Month – Black History is American History.

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots – Marcus Garvey

  Acknowledgement with thanks to:Sandra Fullerton – Watford CVS and Black History Month Website

A managers’ diversity dilemma – should employees refrain from eating in the presence of a fasting colleague and whether an employee’s name can be a matter of concern? Read to find out what Snéha advises. August 26, 2011

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I recently had a meeting with a manager who leads a team of 18 staff members; the staff is a rich array of different cultures and religions. The manager discussed some of her personal issues with cultural diversity and inclusion:

  • Should staff members eat in front of a Muslim person who is fasting?
  • What do I do if my manager insists on calling my PA Mandakini as ‘Mary‘; he says he cannot pronounce her name? I have raised my discomfort with him several times and he just laughs.  Mandakini says she does not mind, though she did mention that by calling her Mary, he is inadvertently changing her religion.

The concept of working well together in a culturally diverse environment is relatively new.   However, different communication styles can possibly cause misunderstanding and confusion, potentially leading to ineffective team dynamics and stereotyping.

We sometimes create impressions of a person through not just what they say, but also our perceptions, possible preconceived idea of them, including their body language and their manners. For example, our ideas on what constitutes good manners are based on our own cultural norms, and may be considered differently in other cultures. An understanding of where a person comes from, not just geographically, but culturally, can help to smooth our interactions and forge better connections with each other.

As business increasingly becomes global, small misunderstandings become more frequent and can be dangerous if unresolved. It is vital that when we are meeting and working with people from different backgrounds, we take into account what we say to each other, and also how we say it.

Mandakini has said that she doesn’t mind her name being changed but feels strongly that this has implications on her religion being changed, which clearly is very important to her.  She is over time going to become more resentful that the manager does not appear to bother learning her name. This could have a detrimental effect on their working relationship.

To the custom of eating in front of colleagues who are fasting, essentially, most people following a particular religious practice do not necessarily expect the lives of other people with different beliefs to be affected within a work context. Some Muslim colleagues have appreciated being invited to a ‘Working Lunch’ whilst fasting and equally value their colleagues’ sensitivity of simply asking ‘ do you mind if I eat my lunch in front of you?’  It is all about showing due care, consideration and sensitivity.

Cultural Diversity is about dialogue, asking questions and sharing dilemmas within a frame that respects differences. Through this process, the channels of learning and showing consideration toward each other become open, resulting in an acknowledgement and value of diversity. Even small changes can lead to vast improvements in working relationship, bringing us all a little closer together.

As Martin Luther King once said, “Men hate each other because they fear each other, and they fear each other because they don’t know each other.”