Working for equality in the workplace is not just about helping women gain a voice – it’s about allowing everyone to have a voice and a choice.
My dad was the first of his five siblings to move away from his home and community. Fifty-six years ago, he left his family farm to go to what was at the time called Teacher’s College. His father did not think education was necessary; after all, my father was needed on the farm. Some in his community even thought education was dangerous because it would lead him away from his religious roots.
After he graduated from Teacher’s College, my dad accepted a teaching position in a small, remote community in Canada’s north. Eleven years later, his brother called him to ask if he would come back home – the farm needed him. As a result, he returned home with my mom, my brother, and myself.
During busier times, my mom and auntie would help out with milking the cows so the men could do the field work. Field work meant driving trucks and farming implements – and this was the “man’s world.”
My uncle and dad told my mom and auntie that cows “milked better for the ladies.” I am not sure if they said this to get out of milking, or if it was their understated way of offering their thanks for their partners’ support. Whatever the case, the delineation of responsibilities was clear: men worked in the world beyond the home, and women stayed home to do the more nurturing work. Taking care of children and milking cows apparently both fell into that category.
Challenging our biases is about allowing everyone, regardless of gender, race, religion, or age, to express who they are.
After my father retired from the farm, he and my mom took several assignments with not-for-profit organizations. They travelled around the world, and my father’s restless, adventurous nature was finally satiated. In these later years, my mom and dad took positions that allowed them to contribute in ways that were meaningful to them both.
I remember one conversation my father and I had as we sat outside on our deck one cool summer evening. He was smoking his pipe and reminiscing. I took advantage of the time to ask him questions about his past. We covered a lot of ground, but one part of the conversation in particular stayed with me.
He told me that he felt like he never quite lived up to expectations on the farm. He couldn’t fix machinery like his brother could, and he did not enjoy the long hours on the tractor. He had always felt somewhat guilty that he had left the farm and enjoyed his time away as much as he did. He never told anyone about these feelings, because for many years he almost felt ashamed – that somehow he fell short of what it meant to be a son, brother, husband, and father.
My dad was a kind, gentle man. He enjoyed his life and gave much to his family and the many communities he entered, but he was constrained by the gender expectations of his generation. It is easy to focus on the ways that gender bias restricts women, and it does – but it also restricts men.
Striving to reduce gender bias and questioning the roles we think are appropriate for specific genders is a worthy aspiration. Challenging our biases is about allowing everyone, regardless of gender, race, religion, or age, to express who they are, and to have access to roles regardless of who they are. It is about creating a society in which everyone can explore their interests and aptitudes, unconstrained by gender.
Much has changed in the half-century since my father was growing up and, though gender biases and restrictions have changed, they have not been eliminated. It is all of our responsibility to work for a world free of gender bias.
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