Disrupting Inclusion: Is Modifying Existing Structures Enough?

Logo for MPACE 2016: Innovate Create Disrupt

Last week I co-presented a workshop about gender norms at the Mountain Pacific Association of Colleges and Employers (MPACE) annual conference. This year's conference theme was "Innovate, Create, Disrupt," a message I took to heart as I co-developed an interactive presentation that sought not to share best practices or new knowledge, but to help participants uncover for themselves ideas about gender and gender roles that they may not have realized they held.

We began our workshop with an activity about gender stereotypes, asking participants to create a spectrum from femininity to masculinity using celebrity photos and to discuss why they placed each photo where they did. For many participants, placement came down to traits like hair length or clothing.

Other activities in the session asked participants to think about how gender norms appear in their own lives. Through a "Cross the Line"-style activity, we prompted consideration of questions like, do you wear makeup or perfume to work? Which parts of your body do you shave, and why? Do you find yourself often cleaning up after office parties or keeping the work kitchen tidy?

Often when we think about gender inclusion in the workplace, we think about policies that seek to remedy the statistically measured disparities in salary and leadership roles, or the egregious incidents of harassment that can take place at work. Rarely does gender inclusion in the workplace examine what gender is and what it means to us as individuals and as a society.

During this workshop, one group shared that they were now thinking about their company dress policy in a new way. This company, they shared, had one dress code for men and one for women, and while it was acceptable for an employee to choose to follow either dress code, they could not mix the two together. Therefore, should a woman who prefers to wear slacks and ties choose to follow the "men's" dress code, she would not be able to wear earrings or other jewelry, as it is not permitted within that dress code. This presented a conundrum because the policy was inclusive in that any individual could choose which dress code to follow, however, it was constraining, because once a choice was made there was no flexibility to draw from the other dress code, even if that other one was intended for your gender.

It is this example that I would like to use to discuss a difference between inclusion and, in the spirit of MPACE's theme, disruption. These ideas could have a number of labels, and therefore my use of "inclusion" and "disruption" is by no means definitive.

Inclusion, here, refers to fitting difference into an existing structure. For example, trans people and gender nonconforming people can be welcomed into an organization with a rigid dress code by allowing individuals to choose which code to follow, such as in our example, rather than dictating who must follow which code based on identity or legal designations.

Disruption refers to another solution, whereby the existing structure is changed into something new to integrate difference. This is a disruption because it can upset the status quo, and create uncertainty by removing the familiar and the normal.

Let me clarify by using another example. Consider the following image*:

In this cartoon, the existing structure already accommodates the circle. In fact, because the circle fits so easily, the circle does not appear to notice that the other shapes cannot fit easily through the wall, if at all.

In modifying this wall, inclusion would look like the hole being changed just enough for the other shapes to fit through. Perhaps it retains the shape of a circle and is simply enlarged, or perhaps the edges of the hole are cut out to perfectly fit the other shapes through. Disruption, on the other hand, would be a radical reimagining. What would the wall look like if it were built to allow all of these shapes through from the beginning? How would the wall change to accommodate shapes that do not float? Or shapes that are much bigger than those in the cartoon? What if there were no wall at all?

If the cartoon represents a company, the wall represents policies (such as the dress code example) or workplace norms that make equitable access difficult for those who do not "fit" into the existing structure. The physical wall in the cartoon brings to life the metaphorical walls that minoritized individuals may encounter when seeking employment. To imagine the dress code discussed above as a wall, perhaps it looks like two distinct windows which can be freely chosen but might still require some self-modification on the part of the individual to comfortably fit through.

These two options are not sufficient for the professional who transcends the differences between them, who must choose one that fits better than the other but still does not completely fit. Perhaps slacks and ties are the better option for an individual, but must that mean giving up the option to wear earrings?

Disruption would mean a radical change. What would it look like to combine the two dress codes into one dress code? (Or, to have no code at all?) The existing structure presupposes a gender binary, the existence of men and women and no other genders. Inclusion recognizes that sometimes men and women dress in attire meant for another gender, and sometimes men and women have a transition history of living as another gender. This is a big step for many organizations and I do not wish to minimize this. However, disruption looks further. Disruption asks, if the gender binary is not a given, then what does a nonbinary structure look like? If gender is not static, what is a flexible structure? Is there a structure at all?

Perhaps an existing structure like a dress code can be modified. I have done this myself when creating resources pertaining to professional dress for my students. Instead of listing men's and women's dress separately, I condense them into one list. Each individual can decide for themselves if slacks, earrings, makeup, or Oxfords are relevant to their gender expression or personal tastes. But beyond dress codes, beyond the visible markers of gender, is modification enough? Or does disruption mean imagining new environments, new roles, new ways of thinking?

I've reflected a lot on the theme of last week's conference recently. "Innovate, Create, Disrupt." If we look beyond the lens of inclusion and through the lens of disruption, what can we innovate? What can we create? Our limits are bound only by what we decide. And I can't wait to see what happens in a limitless future.

*Image description: A two-panel comic. The first panel shows a brick wall with a hole in the shape of a circle. A triangle, pentagon, and trapezoid are floating beside the wall, looking angry. Dialogue coming from the other side of the hole says, "I don't know what you guys are complaining about..." The second panel shows the other side of the brick wall, with a circle floating beside the hole in the wall. The circle is smiling, and says, "If you want to make it through, just be yourself."

This post originally appeared on my LinkedIn page.