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Calling "Gender”

My partner plays in a co-ed leisure football league. Each team has an equal number of women and men and there are female and male referees. Players are encouraged to pass the ball as equally as possible to both genders; the ball should be passed to a female player at least once every three passes. It is the responsibility of all players and referees to call “gender” when this did not happen. In this case, a “gender play” is required: the ball needs to be passed to a woman, so she has the opportunity to fully participate in the game.

As a notoriously clumsy individual with little hand-eye coordination when it comes to any ball game, I am an observer rather than a player. Although I should probably be cheering on my (male) partner, I find myself rooting for the female players of both teams. I want them to get opportunities to play and I love to see them succeed – or, at least have fun playing. It’s exciting to see when there is organic involvement of all team members in the game, but I’m just as happy to hear people call out “gender” when opportunities are not equally distributed. I’m especially pleased to hear men call this out, which happens often. So, although the lack of natural equity is still problematic, observant men calling out the issue is powerful and important.

Both genders willingly signed up for the league and with that, buy into the rules of the game: parity, equity and inclusion for all players. Everyone is responsible for keeping an eye out for lapses in this goal and being active allies by calling it out. The players on the field have the first level of responsibility and the referee is there to ensure accountability as needed. Many organizations have a similar aspiration in their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts. Here are some of the things they can learn from this co-ed football league:

Diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion are not an afterthought; they are the rules of the game.

  • Organizations need to communicate these values and behaviors internally and externally, so that they are inextricably intertwined with their identity and the way they work.

  • Every employee at every level should know what that means, what behaviors are expected, and what to do when they create, experience or observe a gap.

  • Prospective employees need to know what they are signing up for if they join the organization and be held accountable to follow through on these values and behaviors.

Opportunities for all

  • Opportunities are intentionally documented, rotated and monitored so everyone has a chance to participate and show the team what they can do.

  • There are a variety of large and small opportunities available that allow employees to contribute different skillsets. You may be passing the ball, running and racking up yards, stopping a player of the competing team, or scoring a touch-down; each is important and contributes to the larger goal.

  • Performance is not automatically conflated with the visibility, significance or even the outcomes of the project; this allows for a fair evaluation of the quality of someone’s engagement with the opportunity rather than the opportunity itself.

Team unity and sense of community, belonging, taking care of each other

  • Each person is clear on their role on the team, and each team is clear on their shared role in the organization.

  • Team building goes beyond the annual rope course outing, and instead is a daily and ongoing process. It shows up in the type and quality of conversations, the tendency to collaborate and support one another, how conflict or other challenges are resolved, the variety and accessibility of social activities, etc.

  • Leaders and managers model sincere interest, care and empathy for all team members, and promote this in how team members talk with and about one another and treat each other and other teams.

Require and reward visible allyship

  • Allyship requires balancing an appreciation of our shared humanity andthe unique experiences of others. Being an effective ally is a combination of observing and noticing injustices, speaking out against them, inviting and accepting feedback, stepping back and listen in order to provide space for others, and leveraging your privileges in other ways to facilitate the empowerment of others. Everyone is required to pay attention and call out a lack of participation opportunities for non-dominant players.

  • Although the core objective is to have a natural inclusion of all, our automatic human tendency to “throw the ball” to people we like or people who are like us means that we always have to be intentional and stay vigilant for lapses.

  • This is not about blame or guilt, but about responsibility, collegiality and commitment to a shared intention. I’ve heard players and referees talking to repeat offenders on the sideline 1:1 about their tendency to never throw to women, as well as commending players for “calling gender", both of which serve as good motivators for being active allies.

Framework for accountability

  • The members and captain of the team have the first level of responsibility in ensuring fairness and inclusion, but the referee is there to enforce the rules as necessary. Senior leadership buy-in and active participation as well as clear policies are critical to enforcing the rules of the game.

  • Senior leaders need to be well-trained and fully equipped with the skills and resources necessary to hold themselves, each other and their staff accountable. Referees have a whistle and a stopwatch; what do your leaders need to successfully support the organization in fulfilling the DEI objectives?

  • One of the policies of this co-ed league is that teams need to have equal men and women in order to participate, so if women feel consistently excluded in the game, they’ll stop showing up and the team won’t be able to play. Inclusion as a requirement for participation is a powerful incentive.

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