Everyday Interactions: How We Create (and Improve) the Culture and Climate

As noted in the first Reflection from the Director, one of the most important things we can do as a community is learn to recognize how and when we all participate in creating the culture and climate around gender at Colorado State University.

Then we can use what we learn to shape how we are as people – our behaviors and how we interact with each other in a way that follows Maya Angelou’s famous quote:

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

First, some good news.

My sense is that there are a lot of people who see value in the University’s mission to make CSU the best place for women to work and learn. What’s strange, though, is that even among sympathetic supporters, there’s a tendency to ask, “So, what do we need to do to make it better?”

On one hand, this is good insofar as people aren’t denying that there’s room to improve or assuming they already know the “answer.” On the other hand, when it turns out that there isn’t a simple checklist of easy answers, this question could turn into an underlying sense of confusion or desperation, which if left unaddressed, might even grow into a deep, profound frustration.

If we want to productively work together, frustration is something we must try to avoid, whether in the form of frustration towards the “boat rockers” who continue to demand and press for culture change, or frustration with those who don’t yet seem to understand the need for those changes or how to help facilitate them.

I’m not saying anything earth shattering right now, but if we aren’t careful, we may become so frustrated that we stop being willing to speak to one other, to listen to one another.

Perhaps the worst thing we could do is become so frustrated that we give up on even asking the question about what to do, let alone working together to answer it.

Here’s the big takeaway:

Our culture and climate are continuously created and consistently reinforced every day in more subtle and less tangible ways. Verbal and nonverbal interactions, implicit biases and assumptions, and everyday behaviors communicate specific values, priorities, and gendered norms and expectations.

Because these “more subtle, less tangible” aspects of our campus culture can seem abstract, or may even be unconscious and unintentional, they can also be more difficult to identify, discuss, understand, and address, which can easily lead into that profound sense of frustration.

Part of why the more subtle, less tangible things are hard to bring up is because – especially to an unsympathetic ear – they could seem so insignificant that they are just dismissed. To a defensive ear, they could be outright rejected as “overly sensitive, whiny complaints.” 

From the other perspective, for the person who recognizes room to improve in these subtle, everyday interactions, the potential risks and costs of bringing it up might outweigh the presumable benefits.

(This, by the way, is not an unfounded fear – Harvard Business Review just came out with a study that shows those who point out problems around diversity and inclusion are often subsequently treated and evaluated as problems themselves, unless it is white men who bring up these issues.)

In other words, the level of worry, anxiety, and self-doubt that one experiences when deciding whether and how one might discuss such seemingly small, insignificant things with another person, especially a person with more positional power, is a pretty good indicator of the culture and climate we have around gender.

In an ideal situation, there wouldn’t be a need for the conversation at all. But, given where we are right now as a campus, I think we want the sort of culture where one doesn’t have to worry about potentially damaging repercussions should they bring up that someone’s selective attention in a meeting can be taken as a sign of disrespect.

A healthier culture would be one where such conversations are invited, not shut down, so that people feel empowered to note that passive aggressive (or outwardly aggressive) responses are not appropriate ways to handle staff miscommunications; that a comment about someone’s appearance is offensive, suggestive, or otherwise uncomfortable; that what is meant to be a benign “compliment” may actually be implicitly racist or sexist; that asking the same people to serve as token representatives is not a good way to practice inclusion; that assuming “gender” refers only to women’s issues and doesn’t concern trans folks or men ignores how everyone is gendered in some way and that gender-related concerns are for everyone to grapple with; etc.

(Here’s a clever little video that gets at the point.)

These small realities – simultaneously – reflect and shape our culture around gender.

 And while they are small, they are also everyday sorts of things, which make them just as significant as something like pay equity when it comes to affecting what it is like for different people to learn and work at CSU.

For those who struggle to deal with the more subtle, less tangible pieces of our culture, it can feel like death by a thousand cuts.

Our everyday interactions, habits, assumptions, and behaviors that create our culture become like the air between us – we may not always be fully aware of them, but they are present in everything we do.

Try as we might, there is also very little room to be neutral – how we move and act will either perfume or pollute this air, thereby affecting those with whom we share it. Thus, while it is important to identify and address concrete things like policies and procedures, we also have to look at people – not just others, but people like ourselves – and recognize how and when we can do better.

The funny thing is that when it comes to how we can improve our culture and climate around gender, there are many people who have strong suggestions. 

However, as I hope is becoming quite clear, they may not feel like they have a voice, or that their voice is often heard, or that that there is too much risk involved in using their voice, so they hold it in, or speak only amongst themselves rather than speaking directly to the people who most need to hear their input.

At the same time, I know sometimes those who are in positions to do better, who want to learn about gender so they can get involved and influence progressive change also feel moments when they are afraid to speak up because they may not say the right things.

Perhaps they have a fear of criticism, fear of judgment, fear of risking their own reputation or just sounding ignorant and being called out in ways that don’t call them in to be a part of the change.

There are often important difference between the people who occupy these two positions, particularly in terms of relative power, privilege, and the sort of “risks” they have to consider, but my point is that both sides of this phenomenon of quieting dialogue indicate part of the problem.

So, what can we do to improve?

First, recognize that despite your best intentions, if you are in a position of power, authority, or influence, it may not be enough to simply announce, “I’m here and ready to listen. Does anyone have problems they’d like to bring to my attention?”

Don’t be surprised if people are reluctant to note specific instances where they felt undermined, disrespected, frustrated, or offended by something you or someone else did. Remember, there are legitimate reasons why people will feel it is too risky, too tenuous, to actually speak directly about these issues, especially to a person who might admittedly still have room to grow in their understanding.

Second, here’s a helpful tip: Rather than trying to jump right into the conversation of gender and inclusion itself, it may be more effective to begin with a conversation about whether or not people feel comfortable having a conversation.

By first exploring the conditions that support or undermine the possibility of such a conversation, you may begin to ask different questions.

Are there known and available channels for communicating about these issues? Are there clear expectations that they could be raised through anonymous letters, email, or during staff meetings? Is there confidence that those who need to hear something will genuinely listen? Can people trust there won’t be gossip or talking behind closed doors if someone does risk speaking up?

Is there a sense of responsibility and accountability, a clear commitment to do things differently, as necessary, that would make it worthwhile to speak up?

I mention that last piece because my emphasis on dialogue is not just about being exposed to various issues, identities, and ideas. I’ve been trying to highlight how the more subtle less tangible things complement concrete things like policies and programs.

We need to feel empowered and sufficiently equipped to put our awareness and understanding of issues, identities, and ideas into practice. To integrate. To incorporate. To become competent with our inclusion so that we can change our processes.

Rather than asking, “What do we need to do to improve our campus culture and climate around gender?” I encourage us to start asking other questions: Have we fostered a culture of critical, open dialogue? Do we seek to listen to others, not simply to make ourselves feel like better people, but to really understand how and why another person’s experience differs from our own? Do we seek to learn from one another? And, when appropriate, do we offer to teach each other?

Finally, one last point.

Many people might think the key to education is teaching. Sure, it often helps to have others teach us how to do and be better. But I would encourage us to think differently about this, too, such that the key to education isn’t so much in teaching as it is in learning.

Learning doesn’t result just from asking other people to educate you or explain something to you. Learning happens when we pay closer attention and listen more carefully to what is already being said, when we seek out resources on our own and take responsibility for our learning by, say, Googling things for ourselves.

In other words, we don’t just need to learn about something abstract, like theories of gender. We need to learn how we – no matter who we are or our role on campus – can do and learn better.

Furthermore, for all of us, the things we can do to improve our culture and climate will have to be learned on a continuous, ongoing basis. So that will also require a good deal of humility and patience, as well as support and cooperation, as we work and learn to be better together.

– Dr. Cori Wong, Director of the Women & Gender Collaborative at Colorado State University