“We need to reclaim ourselves as authentic human beings first. This is how we can redefine the meaning of gender and identity from the bottom up, instead of being subjugated to the outdated social and cultural perceptions of what gender means.”
Last week, we recorded another episode of Pass The Mic podcast on a very important topic which has been on my mind for many years: Gender & Identity in The Age Of Fluidity. Gender affects our perceptions of being and becoming who we are, the ways we show up in the world and the things that we create in our lives. So understanding what gender means and how it relates to our identity is crucial to the future of our culture and society.
Some great guests joined us for this conversation, including Professor Mark Sherman (Emeritus psychology professor with PhD from Harvard who has been exploring gender issues for more than 40 years), Jennifer Brown (Diversity & Inclusion Speaker, Consultant and Author of How to Be an Inclusive Leader), Jason Rosario (Multicultural strategist and brand builder with expertise in Modern Masculinity, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. Host of the original series “Dear Men” and Founder of The Lives Of Men), Dr. Michael Flood (Researcher on men, masculinities, gender, and violence prevention. Educator & activist) and Lea Glaenzer (Junior in Political Science working at the office for Gender Equity at Bard College). All of this put together by the great host Virginie Glaenzer.
You can see the full video here.
Since I was asked to start the conversation by answering a couple of questions on the state of gender and identity in our culture & society today to set the context for our discussion, I put a couple of ideas on the paper. Here is the full uncut version of my opening speech.
My interest in Gender & Identity has three main reasons:
The first reason is personal.
Ever since I was a little girl, I knew that something was quite off. Not inside me, but in the way that the society looked at me. What I was told to do and more importantly not to do – I felt that my identity as a girl was very socially restrictive. Which is why the traditional image of a woman and the female role never quite fit me. Since I was a child, I was wayward: I knew what I wanted, I didn’t want to listen to authorities and naysayers because I heard my own inner voice loud and clear. It’s been guiding me my whole life and very well. The biggest mistakes I’ve ever made were only when I didn’t listen to it and instead let what other people wanted to guide me. I was always ambitious, driven and determined to achieve whatever I wanted and I knew I could. No one told me. I knew it because I felt it deep down – it came from the inside of my own being. I don’t believe in limitations and I never did. The only limits that exist in life are those that we impose on ourselves. To this day, I listen to my hunches, my intuition is very strong. I have my own internal guidance system.
This makes me very unlikely to be a woman in society because women have been encultured and socialised to derive their value from the outside world. Their being in our society is extrinsic, while men are believed to be driven internally. Historically, the female role was to receive, not to conquer. Wait to be praised, not to praise themselves. I never waited for the outside world to meet my needs and expectations because I knew that the things I wanted didn’t exist. They were things I needed to create. Hence, I’d be waiting for a long time…
When it comes to my energy, I’ve always been more masculine than feminine. My energy is naturally very expansive – I need a lot of space to create. I mostly defy social expectations and stereotypes in this regard. They don’t fit me or apply to me for which I am generally very misunderstood and labelled incorrectly as my own sense of self and my own identity exceed the level of expectations people have about me from what they know (and perceive to be true) about women, and especially “young women”. That’s why putting myself out there and making my voice heard is crucial to me – because it helps me express my own authenticity and set an example for others that paving your own way is possible.
The second reason is academic.
I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Gender and Media in the Age of Postmodernity as I was uncovering gender stereotypes in advertising – both feminine and masculine – and asking the agelong chicken-and-egg question of what was first. Was our social reality feeding the media incorrect representations of our genders and who we are or was the media reality, in fact, responsible for distorting gender and feeding those stereotypes back to us? In my research, I realized that both were true as they affect each other in a way that cannot be separated, but inevitably that the question is much more complex than this. Which gets me to point three…
The third reason is professional.
And it is connected to what is happening with our society.
We have this growing chasm between organisations and culture & society right now that is widening and deepening every year because brands and businesses cannot represent the reality as it actually is – at its natural state as vibrant, diverse and human. And that’s why they stereotype. Stereotypes are mental shortcuts that are based on simplifications and generalisations. They are designed to help us make sense of new things quickly. But they’re also problematic because they distort our social reality and understanding of what the world is like and what’s our place in it. So, if they fail to mirror us, we fail to be who we are.
What is happening in our culture today?
The world as we know it is becoming increasingly destabilised and disintegrated. The foundations that give us some frame of thought in terms of what things mean are becoming liquified which makes our identities much more fluid. We no longer positively know what things mean. The culture is shifting. This also makes our identities more volatile and unstable. The Canadian cognitive scientist Dr. John Vervaeke talks about the “cultural disembedding” which is what drives the meaning crisis in our society today.
This ongoing crisis of meaning is visible in how we represent ourselves in business and in society. We are witnessing the collapse of a grand social narrative. The traditional boxes based on binaries and dichotomies are failing us right now as our society and lived cultural realities have far surpassed these outlived classifications, developed in a more divergent sense and much faster than brands and organisations can catch up with.
What we have on our hands is a representation problem – but not just physical, but also cognitive. The physical component is about diversity and equity, but the cognitive is about the symbolic level (the abstract concepts of gender/identity and what they mean). Gender stereotypes and legacy mindsets are one of the ways in which we see this present.
What we need is to venture away from the Left-brained world of Excel spreadsheets, vertical hierarchies and top-down military style of management that all celebrate linear thinking and streamlined processes and instead lean more in the Right-brained world of context, culture, patterns, connections, collaboration, diversity and humanity as ways to create new value.
Why is the gender and identity debate becoming so prominent?
The Gender & Identity debate is becoming so prominent because we have outgrown the traditional boxes of identity. They no longer suits us and fit us – that’s why we are so desperately seeking a way out of them to break free. They are like children’s clothes – restrictive and a couple of sizes too small to contain the people we’ve become. They feel confining. Wrong and unfitting identities are like mental prisons. They enslave us because they limit our possibilities, our potential and who we can legitimately become.
This is why this debate is so important – because if we don’t see something around us, we cannot become it. Social classifications are supposed to mirror the human condition and its natural evolution. And if we lack the language to describe new social & cultural phenomena, they remain hidden, non-existent and illegitimate to exist and to be seen as real.
There are very few people in our society whose vision is so strong that they can manifest things without seeing them mirrored back to them in our physical reality. They are the visionaries, inventors and creators: those who can precede the reality with their thought and imagination. For the rest, we need examples and role models. We need to expand people’s minds to help them grow into the human beings they were and are still supposed to become.
What does our quest to self-identify against the old boxes of gender roles and social identity truly mean for our happiness, mental health and well-being?
When we cannot become who we feel we are on the inside, we struggle and wither, we become small. Our potential shrivels and dies. This takes a toll on our well-being and mental health, which then breeds the pandemics of depression, obesity, cardiac issues, addictions, escapism, delusions and suicidal thoughts.
The crisis of meaning really is the crisis of being – we no longer know how to be and live in the world that has become so sick that it contradicts our own humanity, our own essence, and still, hold onto ourselves, keep ourselves together and make ourselves happy. It’s very hard to do that when the world you used to know is crumbling around you…
Lastly, it is also the crisis of cognition – as what we don’t know, we cannot populate. We are lacking the ontological security needed to create the protective layer around our minds and beings and provide the solid foundations to fully develop into who we truly are.
These are the clear signals that our cultural narrative is broken.
The old narrative doesn’t allow us to authentically be ourselves in this world anymore without being ostracised or penalised by public shame. In response, the increasing need of people to differentiate themselves on an individual level further projects its own brokenness.
Human Individuals + Culture & Society = An Integrated Ecosystem of Being
We cannot take the individual out of the society as the cultural and social ecosystem we live in creates a wider environment that informs our well-being. This is a social question. We need to culturally liberate both men and women to be individuals, connect with their true selves and find out what makes them become truly alive.
What we need now is to find new ways to break out of this mental and social prison and de-condition our minds from the cultural conditioning and lead with our inner essence because it’s the key to becoming our true authentic selves. And when we are, we flourish!
The bottom line is:
Culture is completely malleable.
So to affect change, we need to be our own authentic selves and show the world what is possible as the true living expressions of human beings that we are. We cannot wait for society to reprogram its classifications as it’s never going to happen. And if yes, then very very slowly. Every change starts with people taking action by empowering themselves and their own personal agency to act. This is how we can rewrite the cultural narrative from the bottom up and change the society we live in for ourselves and everybody else in it.
Dr. Martina Olbertova is a social scientist interested in social and cultural change.