Let me tell you a secret, equitable is not a finite state that can be achieved, it is a journey. A never ending, ever evolving journey where the intricacies of intersectionality and individual experience overlap in new and complex ways. We continue to learn as we meet new people and hear new perspectives of another’s lived experience. And sometimes, we get it wrong. Like any self-proclaimed perfectionist it’s very tempting to hide away and avoid the potential for that same mistake again. But in equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), that’s not a very helpful approach. In fact, the best learning is done when we have those uncomfortable, open discussions and discover a new perspective. We need to own our mistakes and share our learning with a broader community.
Author: Sophie Warwick
The point is, it’s okay to be wrong sometimes. What defines us is how we move forward, apologize for our error, and adjust for the future. That’s when we must confront that uncomfortable feeling of realizing we’ve hurt someone’s feelings or excluded them in a way we never intended. Because the reality is, I do believe that most people are inherently good, and we want to do the right thing. What really defines us, is what happens next - owning a mistake like asking the only woman in the room to take notes, or misusing a pronoun. We must recognize and acknowledge, and then correct it.
There can be this deep ingrained fear in all of us of “getting it wrong” and hurting someone’s feelings – vulnerability is scary. Or maybe it’s the fear of shame and having to confront that we’re not as aware and educated on EDI as we had thought or hoped. So much so that that fear can often drive us to further segregate and avoid. Rejecting open discussions on equity can be extremely harmful. For example, I often hear a reluctance to accept and use pronouns over a fear of getting it wrong. But is getting it wrong once a problem, or does the problem only exist if the mistake is intentionally continued? I’d argue both can be problematic, but the latter is much more harmful.
Let’s paint a metaphor. To be clear, this is a gross simplification of a behaviour that can be very damaging, and this example is not equivalent, just representative of a situation many people may be able to relate to. My legal and chosen name is Sophie. However, I often get emails addressed to me as “Sophia” or people assume that is my full first name and use it when meeting me for the first time. Sophia is a beautiful name, but it is not mine. When this happens, I politely correct them and am often confronted with an overly kind person who is profusely apologizing (maybe it’s because we’re Canadian) and actively making a mental note that my name is Sophie, not Sophia. If someone mistakenly used Sophia the first time they met me, I would typically not be upset at them for not knowing my name – they have never met me before.
However, if after correcting that person, they instead responded that Sophie was in fact not a name, they would not feel comfortable using a name that they didn’t agree with and would instead continue to call me Sophia because it made them more comfortable – I would indeed be upset and have every right to be so.
The difference has nothing to do with the mistake (within reason). It is the intent and the response afterwards. Was there malicious intent in the first place? Did you profusely apologize and are now making a concerted effort to not make the same mistake in the future? What I’m hoping to share is that it is okay to not have all the answers. Don’t be afraid to have the difficult conversations and get comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s in this space where we do our best learning, and what’s important is that we stay on this path and continue being better tomorrow.
I’m embarrassed to admit I initially did not appreciate the need for gender equity services in my life. A very big piece of this perspective is growing up in a relatively small, homogenous, liberal, and privileged world. When I first started to tell friends that I had decided to pursue engineering as I approached my high school graduation, I kept hearing that it was male dominated. I honestly had no idea until that point, which I think was a good thing. My parents, my teachers, and my guidance counselor (thank you Mr. Miller at Glebe Collegiate Institute) were very encouraging of all my interests and helped empower me to make my own decision. I never felt (explicitly at least) that my gender was an important driver in this decision.
When I started engineering that fall, I did notice that there were many more men than women in my class, but I didn’t really notice in any positive or negative light. It was more of a neutral observation. I was surrounded by peers with a similar passion for education and like-minded analytical skills – arguably too pragmatic at times. We were all the same age and had grown up in a more equitable world than our parents. We had less explicit gender stereotypes than they had, although I realize now we all had many implicit biases that I wasn’t noticing at the time.
A blessing and a curse of engineering in an academic setting is that it’s not particularly subjective. There is typically a right answer and a wrong answer. I remember hearing friends and roommates in other faculties suffer through the woes of inexplicably low or high marks on a written assignment that seemed so inconsistent with their previous work. I on the other hand, typically had very few surprises. If I did well or poorly on an assignment, it was much less disputable. There was a right answer and I either got it or not, which meant I was relatively protected from the biases of my professors. This, as I reflect now, was another driving force in not connecting with gender equity services while in university.
I’m cringing as I type this, but I really thought we were loosely equitable. At least, in an urban Canadian environment, I thought gender equity was close to being achieved. I really did not understand privilege or intersectionality at the time and was often blind to implicit bias. I was one of very few of my friends with student loans and who was not going on a post-graduation Europe or Asia trip because I needed to start working. I wasn’t seeing how much of a privilege it was that I was able to attend university at all. I wasn’t at that time recognizing how the childhood support I’d had protected me from so many biases. It also set me up to believe I deserved that education, I belonged, in a way that many women with less support are unable to achieve.
At the time, I also deeply misunderstood affirmative action. I believed that if women in engineering needed a group to support them, it instead suggested to the rest of the world that we were less deserving and needed “help”. It wasn’t until my fourth year Ethics Professor asked our class “what we thought of affirmative action” that I realized how wrong I’d been.
My hand shot up like a lightning bolt – I knew the answer! I responded with something along the lines of “affirmative action doesn’t allow us to hire the best candidate. We have to compromise, which moving forward will be more harmful, as the less successful candidates will poorly represent women in engineering.” I remember having a smug look on my face, very all knowing. But he disagreed with me and presented me with an example to consider, “if a company consisted of entirely men, they would likely hire more men like them and continue to be subject to the same bias. Without affirmative action there would never be any meaningful change. A strong correction is needed to bring in that initial diversity of background and experience.”
He really changed my opinion. I had never really considered how essential that initial push was and that, when implemented appropriately, it can be achieved without any compromise in performance. Change was needed to bring more people in the door. We need to force correct our biases because years of little change has shown we can’t do it on our own. I was wrong. I could’ve dug my heels in and brushed him off, but then no one would have won. The real “win” was an open discussion where two people shared their opinions with open minds and learned something new (maybe one of us learned more than the other).
The big take away? I was wrong and I’m going to announce that, own it, and move forward. It is never too late to start having difficult conversations and learning about equity, diversity, and inclusion. Don’t ever be afraid of having uncomfortable conversations and asking important questions. Instead, be afraid of not having those discussions. Be afraid of never having an opportunity to learn and grow, of losing the opportunity to discover. Be afraid of not opening your mind to a new perspective or experience.
Be proud of being vulnerable and learning something new. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.