How do we End Everyday Sexism in Edmonton? Speak Up and Spark Change

I didn’t know until this morning that it is Women’s Equality Day in the United States. Canadians often organically adopt days that America recognizes, so it didn’t surprise me to see #WomensEqualityDay trending for a time here.

What struck me on a personal level was the timing. I attended a business networking event last night that focused on mentoring and the power of these relationships to create change. It’s an important topic, maybe even more so as my corner of the world (Edmonton, Alberta) reacts to the shocks caused by dropping commodities prices. We’ve largely been insulated until now (and by many measurements our economy is still healthy), but we feel the effects and many people are renewing calls for economic diversification and entrepreneurship. Edmontonians seem to be taking up that call — we have a strong start-up community, amazing innovators and entrepreneurs, and several funding organizations to draw from.

So last night’s topic was relevant. We were treated to an evening of champagne, delicious food, interesting panelists, and excellent conversation. The panelists were former mayor Stephen Mandel; Hussam Tungekar of Futurepreneur; Emerson Csorba, a young man with a resume that people twice his age would be proud of; and businessman Dave Majeski. The event was hosted by Bruce Kirkland at Lexus of Edmonton. The venue is regularly donated for non-profit and charity events and is a beautiful place to spend an evening in good company. The emcee was a woman who helps people improve their public speaking skills. Unfortunately, I missed her name and can’t find it in any of the announcements about the event — even though her skill and professionalism were an important part of the evening.

Did you notice a theme with the names in the previous paragraph? People at the event did: there are no women in that list. The panelists and Mr. Kirkland all have impressive resumes. In addition to their business accomplishments, they have created important spaces for people in this wonderful city. Mr. Tungekar mentors refugees. Mr. Mandel created several programs in Edmonton that continue to benefit us. In 2015 Mr. Majeski was inducted into Edmonton’s Hall of Fame for his community service. Mr. Csorba helps foster the ambitions of young people. And it is hard to live in Edmonton without knowing of Mr. Kirkland. His passion for the city has helped it grow in ways few of us can appreciate.

Clearly it would be foolish to argue that the four panelists weren’t qualified to speak. They have all been mentored in their lives, and in turn mentor others. Their dedication to connecting people to ideas, resources, and support was clear when they spoke about their experiences. I found each of them insightful and motivating and put some of their suggestions to use before I left the event.

And they are all men. Does this even matter, especially given how qualified they are?

It matters. Women have different lived experiences than men. We have different (usually limited) access to business resources. We experience our lived space differently. We are taught to interact with the world differently. When event organizers forget these realities, the all-male panel continues to be the standard. But what is standard for men is not standard for women.

The imbalance was highlighted when an audience member mentioned it in the form of a question: I notice you have a panel made up of men. What does that tell us about women accessing mentoring relationships? (paraphrase)

I wanted to stand up and cheer. I was also curious how the panel would respond. Mr. Csorba talked about how males tend to have very casual mentoring relationships, while women prefer more formal relationships that deal with processes. It’s an interesting comment that I will think about because it may say something about how to create successful relationships. However, it says nothing about women’s access to mentors.

Mr. Mandel’s response to the question was perfect: “It (the decision to invite an all male panel) was a mistake.”

He’s absolutely right. It was a mistake. For one thing, a female panelist likely would have spoken about why it can be difficult for women to find mentors. She would have known that women are taught to nurture people, not impose on them. She might have spoken about how women who enter business face barriers that men will never face. And then she might have told us how important it is for women to push past those barriers and how doing so can help us. It would have been invaluable information for a room that appeared to have as many women as men in the audience.

It was a mistake for another reason. In short, I think the choice of gender was an accident. I don’t believe for a minute there was any intent to exclude women. It was truly a mistake.

But rather than distract from the evening, I found the episode added to it. For one thing, it highlighted the prevalence of the casual or everyday sexism that invades every aspect of our lives. This is the generally inadvertent (but no less harmful) sexism that allows men to continue to make decisions based on traditional ways of living. “We’ve always done it this way, so why change now?” is often implied in everyday sexism. It maintains social and economic imbalances that privilege men. And talking about it is good because only when we see a problem can we begin to address it. By forcing everyone in the room to see what many of the women in the audience already knew, it became visible and open to change.

A woman in the audience spoke up, and that became a catalyst for something I’ve only experienced a few times on this scale. Many of the women in the room rallied around each other. It forged instant bonds of camaraderie and friendship that might otherwise have taken much longer to develop. It gave the women common ground from which to begin new relationships. It was a fleeting moment, but an important one.

Finally, the question sparked conversations among men. Mr. Kirkland handled it with grace and humility. His apology was heartfelt and he acknowledged the oversight and promised to do better. And I believed him. I also believe that at least some of the men in the room left thinking about the question.

So, on this Women’s Equality Day, let’s celebrate the strong women who speak up and spark change. And let’s also celebrate and acknowledge the men who are allies in seeking equality for everybody.

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