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Gender justice at TXI: learning to support one another in the workplace even when we’re uncomfortable

In the last few years, we’ve decided to focus our DEIB work on a series of “arcs,” or focus areas. Every quarter, we dedicate resources to further educate ourselves and give back to our community around one of these arcs. This year, our arcs include racial justice, environmental justice, and disability justice. We’re also engaging with gender justice, specifically in the context of how gender bias and privilege show up in the TXI workplace.

Like all of our DEIB work, our engagement with gender justice is ongoing and complex. In this blog post, our aim is to offer insight into the work we’ve done so far in the hopes that we’ll help other organizations start or move along their gender justice journeys.

Forget about action items and next steps

At TXI, we pride ourselves on being pragmatic innovators. Our client work is all about identifying problems and finding solutions that make things better. We love this work. We’re good at it.

But the work of gender justice doesn’t fit into that framework, as we were reminded by Crispin Torres of Better World Collaborative, who we’re partnering with to guide us in our gender justice work.

During one session with Crispin, he provided us with language and frameworks for talking and thinking about gender inequality. During another, we sat together and talked about gender inequality at TXI. There was a lot of silence. It was very uncomfortable. And, according to Cripsin, both of those things were pretty normal for the types of training he and Better World Collaborative provide.

As he said, “The goal is to plant the seed of thought, of framing.”

For startups and other organizations accustomed to measuring everything, that can feel really disorienting. That was certainly true for us at TXI. We were having these difficult conversations, and so many of us are programmed to act, to solve. Our instinct is to come out of a session with a list of next steps to “tackle” gender justice.

But that approach doesn’t work here. And accepting that is an important part of doing this work.

Ask: What does support look like in our workplace?

One thing we really appreciated about the Better World Collaborative approach was that it frames the work of gender justice in a really helpful way: what does support look like in our workplace?

Here’s your first bit of messiness (there will be a lot of it as you engage with gender justice): the work is long-term and ongoing and not about action items; at the same time, we’re doing it in a workplace context, and our goal is to engage with and support each other better right now.

To that end, Crispin presented us with several scenarios that we might encounter at work that involve an element of gender bias or gender privilege. He had us talk through them in pairs and as a group to understand the many forces at play and how we might behave.

One thing he emphasized was that everyone has a role to play in gender justice. It’s not just about the person who is harmed or affected most in an interaction––and it’s also not about the person who caused the harm.

“A lot of times, the framework for these issues is very litigious,” Crispin explained. “It’s around rules or laws and violating or breaking them. And in the workplace specifically, it’s often about reporting to HR, escalating, and so on. But that ignores the reality that humans are not robots programmed to follow rules.”

And because of that, he said, an approach that’s solely about punishing people who break established rules doesn’t further the work of gender justice, which is much bigger and more fluid than any one incident.

He pointed us toward a model that focuses on small interpersonal interactions and, importantly, how anyone can push toward gender justice in such interactions (see Figures 1 and 2 for an example from his presentation).

Figure 1: Scenario from Better World Collaborative session

Figure 2: Tips for responding to above scenario

If, for example, you’re in the break room and you overhear a conversation that you recognize might have made one of the people uncomfortable, what action can you take as a part of a community working toward gender justice? Or: what can you do if a coworker comes to you and says that someone else made them feel uncomfortable?

We found this framework really helpful for two reasons:

  1. First, it takes the sometimes heavy, academic world of social justice concepts and applies them in a context we all experience every day.

  2. Second, it empowers everyone to play a role in furthering gender justice, especially those who experience gender privilege.

As we talked through these scenarios, Crispin emphasized that there were not right or wrong answers for how we might deal with them. Instead, the goal was to push our thinking into unfamiliar and often uncomfortable places to engage with the complex, nuanced, messy realities of gender justice.

The work of gender justice is messy and uncomfortable

There's no getting around this: engaging in gender justice work requires us to flex muscles we’re not used to: reflection, discomfort, vulnerability.

For example, one question Crispin asked us was, “What does accountability look like?”

(Even in writing this, it’s hard for me not to offer some kind of answer.)

Another important question he pushed us to consider: What does making mistakes look like? And this is one reason engaging with gender justice is messy and uncomfortable: we’ll all make mistakes. We have to accept this and find ways of moving on and learning from them.

For example: part of the work we’re doing around gender justice is establishing an employee resource group (ERG) for women at TXI. When I was initially asking for volunteers to lead this group, I kept using the phrase “women-identifying.” A colleague asked me what that meant, which pushed me to do research: what did “women-identifying” mean? How was it different from “women”?

What I learned was that tacking the “-identifying” on is actually really othering. It implies a level of choice about one’s gender, as if gender is something people choose rather than an innate part of who they are.

That was an ah-ha moment for me. And it reinforced the value of the work Crispin has been leading us in: language matters. Frameworks matter. We have to have the building blocks before we can do anything else. Now, I’ve adopted the phrase “all women,” as in “all women who work at TXI are welcome in this ERG” and I’ve encouraged my colleagues to do the same.

Continuing the work: building an ERG framework

Our work with Crispin and Better World Collaborative is ongoing, as are our internal efforts in working toward gender justice.

One of those efforts is to create ERGs at TXI where people with various identities can sit together. Right now, two women at the company are working with a member of our advisory board to create an initial format for these groups. Our hope is that, once we have a lightweight framework, we’ll run a pilot, learn, and iterate. We’ll ultimately have a model that other people at TXI can use to establish other ERGs and continue the work.

There’s no wrong place to start on the road toward gender justice

TXI is a pretty progressive organization. And while it feels from the inside like we still have a lot of work to do (because we do!), I recognize that from the outside, to people at organizations that haven’t yet begun this work, we may seem fundamentally different. Sure, gender justice workshops may work at TXI (you may be thinking), but they’d never work at my organization.

I hear you. But I also have encouraging news: we’ve been engaging in this work since our founding 20 years ago and formally since 2016. We’ve made substantial progress––but what you’re seeing today is years in the making.

Even more encouraging: Crispin explicitly noted that he’s excited by working with organizations that aren’t as “ready” for gender justice conversations as we are. “A lot of times, people are not happy to see me,” he said. “I’m asking them to have difficult conversations, to think about things that make them uncomfortable. But I’m happy to do that work. I’m happy in those spaces. To make a better world, we need to involve as many people as possible.”

My recommendation? If you think your organization could benefit from engaging with gender justice topics, reach out to Crispin. He’s an incredible resource and can help you advocate for gender justice work at your organization.

As Better World Collaborative notes on its website: “Nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something.”

Published by Lloyd Philbrook , TXI DEIB in Justice

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