The January 2016 cover of Vanity Fair features a stunning photo of Megyn Kelly, the Fox anchor. Smart, successful, funny, beautiful and, wait for it, a woman.
Oops, shouldn't have said that. Megyn wants her gender to be irrelevant.
Irrelevant? Uh? Since when is being a woman irrelevant?
Not so fast. She adds "every so often, as all (women) know, you have to stop and slap somebody around a little bit who doesn't understand that we are actually equals and not second-class citizens.
Wait! What? I'm confused.
If every now and again Megyn has to remind someone that being a woman doesn't make her a second-class citizen, doesn't that make her gender relevant? Doesn't the whole discussion make her gender relevant?
Baffled? I am.
At a time when transgender individuals are fighting for the right to be recognised, should women be trying to brush their gender under the carpet?
So here's a thing. I've heard many (many!) women say "I want to be seen as 'great', not as a 'great woman'" or a variation on the theme. To date, I have NEVER heard a man say "I want to be seen as 'great', not as a 'great man'".
Why is that? What makes a woman so conscious of her gender? To the point of wanting to be ungendered?
So, let's wake up and take a sniff of that cappuccino, shall we?
Q: When you meet someone new, your brain, in a flash of a second, involuntarily, automatically and immediately registers two characteristics. Which ones?
Take a guess. Go on, give it a go.
A: In under 0.2 seconds our brains registers race and gender. It happens so quickly that we don't even notice it happening.
The truth of the matter is, that it is impossible NOT to notice someone's sex. According to Harvard PhD. Juan Manuel Contreras there's even a specific part of the brain, the fusiform face area (FFA), that does this. (and the issue of recognizing race? let's tackle that gem another time).
So we can't be gender-blind? Or is it sex-blind? But what's the difference? What is gender anyway? Do I care? Does it matter?
Apparently so. According to the Oxford Dictionary Gender is The state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones). In other words, our sex is biological, our gender is a social construct. Sounds like quite an important distinction to me. And I suspect that our discomfort in using the "dot dot dot" word lends nicely to using the very complex "gender" word.
So why would Megyn, and many other women, want to make their socially constructed gender irrelevant at work?
This got me thinking. Not so long ago I was at a writer's workshop on how to find your voice (let me know if you think I've found it). The first step was to self-identify. Of course we shared our 'self-identification' with the group. A clear pattern emerged. The women always self-identified as a woman, the men never self-identified as a man. Gay participants self-identified as such, heterosexuals did not. Race/ethnicity was self-identified only by those of a "less-dominant" race/ethnicity. This reminded me of Imefelu a character in Americanah a wonderful novel by gifted author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Imefelu only realises she is "Black" when she arrives in the US from her homeland, Nigeria.
The point? A minority characteristic is a salient self-identifier. Did you get that? If not read it again slowly, it'll make sense eventually.
So is it being part of the minority in the workplace, and especially in leadership, that makes women's gender so salient. So salient in fact that we feel the need to say "My gender is irrelevant?".
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, of Harvard, has done fascinating work on "critical mass theory". She suggests that any cohort that accounts for 35% or less of a group constitutes a minority.
As a member of the minority group you inherently:
• stick out
• represent your entire social category and
• suffer (and therefore fight against) stereotyping.
All of which has significant impact on performance as you either push to overachieve, limit visibility, fight against stereotype or all three.
It also means that you either become one of them or remain an outsider - so you can't change the culture. The culture, and the membership, is self-perpetuating.
Hit 36% and you win the lottery. You are no longer a dreaded minority. You no longer have that constant spotlight shining on you, you no longer represent your entire group. Bye, bye stereotypes.
Once you hit 36% you become YOU. You can BE you. You are seen as an individual. You are suddenly Jane, Aisha, Immaculada not The Woman in the room.
Phew, Bliss! I can be a woman again! Regender me, please!