Judges in the UK have received an updated version of their “Equal Treatment Bench Book”, 422 pages of guidance that aims to “enable effective communication and suggest steps which should increase participation by all parties” including those “who might be uncertain, fearful or feel unable to participate”. Inevitably, there’s a backlash from those who think it’s “political correctness gone mad” to avoid referring to people as “immigrant” or “transsexual”, or to avoid gender-specific terms like “businessman” or “postman”. Others, meanwhile, simply think that it’s overkill and that instructing judges to “be aware and courteous” should be enough (lancsmarsbar comment). Which seems like a pretty common sense point of view – except that “courteousness” is a shifting concept shaped by time and place, and “awareness” can only exist within the boundaries of your own experience and imagination; Miles’ Law (“where you stand depends on where you sit”) can make it hard to understand the deep nuances of someone else’s experience, however good your intentions, however empathetic and aware you aim to be. You don’t know what you don’t know.
I’m writing about this here because I see this challenge also arising among members of the scholarly community, grappling with the focus on diversity and inclusivity, making missteps and finding themselves baffled as to why they are being called out for inappropriate language or behavior. Times are changing; behaviors that used to be “accepted”, or at least ignored / suffered in silence, are now being challenged. Because we know most of the people involved don’t intend to offend or diminish, it can be hard to call these behaviors out face to face, so I’m sharing some examples here along with an explanation – from my point of view, at least — as to why certain behaviors or comments are inappropriate, and what an alternative phrasing or approach might be. I am not positioning men as offenders and women as offended; this is about education and healing, rather than denunciation, blaming or shaming. Please bear that in mind as you read and if you comment.
- Calling it out: When you make too much of a big deal of your diversity and inclusivity efforts, you risk undermining the confidence and credibility of those who you’ve brought in under that banner. Who wants to be on a stage only because they are the token young person / woman / non-white person / non-straight person? Who wants to be introduced thus: “And, not only for the sake of diversity, Charlie Rapple joins us.” (True story). Would you joke that local strip clubs will benefit from the many male conference delegates you’ve brought to town? If not, why would you joke that local shoe shops will be delighted that your diversity efforts have brought so many more women? (True story #2).
- Spelling it out: Yes, it’s great that conference organizers are taking care to diversify their speakers. But over-signalling that effort diminishes the value of a speaker and her content, implying that at least part of the reason she’s there is because the organizers have a quota to meet. I’m all for quotas and leveling the playing field in that way, but do it subtly: public speaking can be a daunting experience. You’re already being singled out, you’re already having to win the attention and support of an audience. Opening a session by drawing attention to someone’s diversity undermines any sense of belonging, and reinforces the very barriers we’re trying to break down.
- Stamping it out: Do continue to diversify your speakers (or editorial board members, or employees, or, or, or); don’t put an individual in the position of feeling that such efforts are the only reason they have got the gig. There’s a time and a place for jokes based on stereotypes: they’re probably better avoided when you’re otherwise trying to indicate that you value diversity.
Being behind the curve when it comes to manners
- Calling it out: I propose our metaphorical etiquette guides need updating in three areas: Ladies, Kissing, and Commenting On Appearance.
- Spelling it out:
- First, let’s talk about “ladies” as a term to refer to women. This is a generational one, I think, and possibly a US—UK thing. You might think it’s polite. I think it’s patronizing. True story #3: when a friend joined an otherwise all-male company board, one of the board members began apologizing “to the ladies present” whenever letting loose a swear word. When you treat women differently in this way, you imply that they shouldn’t be present, as if they should be in the drawing room not the board room. I genuinely can’t think of a single scholarly information world context in which it’s necessary to treat women differently, or to specify their gender when referring to them. (And oh, my, in case it’s really necessary to say this, too, “girl” is really, really off limits for describing a grown woman. Another friend describes a senior colleague greeting her, after the faculty meeting to vote on her tenure and promotion, with “There’s the girl I just gave tenure!” Diminishing her and reiterating his own power in seven hasty words.)
- Kissing: I appreciate that this one is a matter of individual taste, so I’m not so much proscribing kissing, as just mentioning that I am not a fan of the business kiss. Having a different way of greeting women and men reinforces a distinction. A distinction that implies the women are there for a different purpose than the men, and that ultimately harks back to a world where women were only invited into business contexts for decoration and entertainment.
- Commenting on appearance: By the same token, telling women how attractive they look is at best unnecessary and at worst inappropriate in a business context. Your intention is most likely to be kind rather than creepy, but many women feel awkward and at a disadvantage to have their appearance be the topic of conversation in a business setting.
- Stamping it out:
- Ladies: A friend drew my attention to this excellent guidance: “There are three times when the use of “lady” is unobjectionable: when referring to a female member of the House of Lords; when you want to convey a sense of breeding, delicacy, or graciousness (“she’s a real lady”); when it is paired with “gentleman” (“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen”). According to the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, “Except in wry contexts, lady is obsolete for woman, just as gentleman is obsolete for man.” The National Public Radio Style Guide is more curt: “Do not use as a synonym for woman.” On a related note, I’d suggest generally avoiding terms that emphasize gender differences, or are unnecessarily gender-specific (“manpower” is pretty much interchangeable with “capacity”; you can “staff” your exhibition booth rather than “manning” it; a meeting or company can just have a “chair”; it’s not particularly unwieldy to say “he or she”, or just “they” — I’m a grammar pedant myself, but perfectly happy to sacrifice pedantry in the cause of equality). I’m no saint here — it’s only within the last couple of years that I’ve stopped saying that I “manned up” to a difficult challenge (I’m back to “stepping up”). But I’m trying to pay more attention to my vocabulary and idioms. They may seem harmless, they may in the moment hold no particular intent, but they are factors in the unconscious bias against women and the conditioning of women to see men as better or more important.
- Kissing: Give me a handshake any day. If we’re feeling particularly chummy, a handshake and a clasp of the shoulder. Friendship, not gender, should be the differentiator in how you greet people. If you wouldn’t expect the men in the room to submit themselves to a kiss, why should the women?
- Appearance: If you’d say it to a man (nice haircut! new glasses! great shoes!) it’s OK, but describing the woman herself (stunning! you look wonderful! you get younger every time I see you!) is best avoided. Indeed, why not just avoid comments about anyone’s appearance? Hint from a Brit: if you’re stuck for small talk, try the weather.
Failing to question the status quo
- Calling it out: How often have you heard people defend their attitude with “I don’t see gender, color, ethnicity — I’ll judge you by what you do”?
- Spelling it out: But the framework for that judgement is defined by the status quo — by the resources, abilities and experiences of (typically) older wealthier white men. Someone from a less advantaged background may have different definitions of “success” or different objectives for “performance”; their experience / training / life skills may lend themselves to excel in ways other than what constitutes “performance” within the status quo. Personally, for example, I find it harder than some of my fellow Chefs to write on a regular schedule for the Scholarly Kitchen. I think this is partly about my different work / life circumstances (a company director, traveling one week in four, and mother of a young child; doing 10 hours in the office followed by a “second shift” of childcare, housework and / or cooking) (and doing all of this happily…just not finding the 10 hours per month I would need to blog more regularly!). It’s also about imposter syndrome (less confident putting forward my opinions on such a range of topics, more worried about finding references to back up my arguments, taking forever to write and edit each post because I’m anxious about what the response will be given the, at best, robust and, at worst, abrasive nature of many Kitchen comments). What I’m trying to illustrate is that, while diversity initiatives need to be more than just window dressing (if you bring in a more diverse range of bloggers, you want to hear those perspectives as frequently as possible), judging diversity efforts by the parameters of existing “performance” is immediately setting them up to fail. We must be ready to question the status quo and adjust our requirements if we want to diversify our workforce.
- Stamping it out: “we welcome X” is not the same as “we actively facilitate X”, if the odds are stacked against X. We could all usefully question (or at the very least, acknowledge) our “privilege” more and try to understand how it may be preventing us from understanding someone else’s challenges, and helping them confront or rise above them.
Taking personal responsibility
In summary, it is incumbent on each of us, regardless of age / gender / ethnicity and our own challenges, to take a more personal approach to inclusivity. In addition to the thoughts above, this might mean:
- Testing / exploring your gender bias: a quick YouTube video and a 10-minute survey-style test
- Challenging bias — swiftly, gently — wherever you see it, whether or not you’re involved (being careful to assume good intentions. “I’m not sure you realized, but …”; “you probably didn’t mean it that way, but …”)
- Not denying people their experience. If you don’t “agree” with all this stuff, that may say as much about you as it does about those experiencing it. Don’t tell people they “didn’t get it” or “misunderstood” or “missed the joke” or “imagined it”.
- Tracking your day-to-day use of language and your day-to-day behaviors. How often do you refer to a mixed gender team as “guys”? Do you default to male pronouns when talking generically about scientists or business leaders? Do you comment on women’s appearance more than men’s? Are you a little old-fashioned or over-familiar in your tone with women? None of these are necessarily offensive, by themselves, but they reflect a world in which male norms are dominant, and it’s worth thinking about how that makes our workplaces look from the perspective of young women joining our community.
- If you’re in publishing, fill in the Workplace Equity Project survey, which is trying to capture and build up trend data around workplace experiences, practices and opportunities in the scholarly publishing industry.
I don’t want to open up floodgates for expressing anger at people who aren’t intending their words or actions to exclude or discriminate. My goal is to encourage us all to think harder about whether we are doing the best we can to recognize and stamp out bias. As Qantas put it, when challenged on their own new guidance to employees about gender-inappropriate language, “We are simply asking people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and look at what they say from another perspective — and be open to changing what they have always thought is ‘normal’, respectful and appropriate to say.” (My emphasis).
Acknowledgements: Miles’ Law applies to me, too; I apologize to those reading this who feel frustrated that I’ve misrepresented or ignored their demographic or point of view. I’ve written this quickly, and tried not to overthink it, because I know if I tried to research and write it “properly”, I would not write it at all for fear of offending people or getting things “wrong”. I know there are other (worse) battles being fought (or not even being fought yet). But I still wanted to write about this one, because it’s still not won. Thank you to Alison Mudditt for “breaking the silence“, and to Angela Cochran, Bernie Folan, Tracy Gardner, Sîan Harris, Ginny Hendricks, Leon Heward-Mills, Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, Liz Marchant, Louise Russell, Alice Meadows, Kirsty Meddings, Ann Michael, Alison Mitchell, Karin Wulf, and others who have encouraged and inspired me. I truly hope this is a useful rather than a controversial post.