This Human Business: On Gender & Identity in Business and Society (Final Part)

Read the full transcript and listen to THB episode 7: Gender and Identity here.

Our Western civilisation is currently undergoing a social awakening. We are standing in the midst of a large-scale cultural transformation with people waking up to the social conditioning of the past, reclaiming power over defining their own identities, leaving the traditional binary cultural narratives behind and using their personal agency to take back control over their lives.

This goes hand-in-hand with the streams of diversity and inclusion in our society and in business, women standing up for the right to be seen as human beings and use their voice to speak the truth and talk openly about their authentic experiences. What does this mean for the business world in terms of humanising businesses and making society a more equal, open and accountable place?

Let’s dive deeper into the full interview Jonathan Cook and I did for the final episode of This Human Business on the complexities of Gender and Identity.

The Introduction.

Jonathan Cook: Hello, and welcome to This Human Business, a podcast exploring the growing call among business professionals to counter the dominance of digital, algorithmic technology with renewed appreciation for the human contributions to commerce. I began this podcast with an episode celebrating the House of Beautiful Business. Beautiful business is a wonderful ideal, but if we are to achieve it, we will have to confront some ugly realities about how business is often practiced.

One of the ugly sides of business has been exposed by the #MeToo movement. About a year ago, people began disclosing their experiences of sexual assault and harassment by people in positions of power, and often, those abuses of power have been enabled by a larger culture of sexism pervading the business world. This has given way to this episode on the complex nature of gender and identity in our time.

Gender, Identity And Diversity Are All Subsets Of Humanity.

Dr. Martina Olbertova, the founder of Meaning.Global, makes us see how gender & identity is a part of a much larger cultural narrative and how this narrative is currently being redefined in our society today.

She wrote her doctoral dissertation on Gender and Media in The Age of Postmodernity, where she semiotically analysed gender representation of male and female stereotyping in ads to better understand the nature and distinctions between the constitution of our social and media realities.

Jonathan Cook: Traditionally, businesses gathered data about people and categorised them as either male or female, but now we have different sexualities and genders emerging as recognised widely. So, it’s not just a transgender woman identifying as a man but gender fluidity and non-binary gender roles. You and I had a discussion about that, can you share your own reflections on how businesses ought to deal with these new gender norms?

Martina Olbertova: When navigating culture, there are usually many different angles and levels to any conversation. One of them is people feeling the increasing need to differentiate on an individual level in our current society. This signifies a broken cultural narrative where people no longer feel included and represented by what is being said in the public arena and by what is being expected of them. We have a representation problem on our hands that goes FAR BEYOND just the political representation. We are dealing with the crisis of meaning in our society.

We have outlived boxes, labels and qualifiers containing outdated and residual meanings, perceptions and ideas about what people and the world should be like. People and culture evolve much faster than the language and social norms can ever catch up with. This is why we have this disconnect and a deepening gap that people feel they can bridge by further individuation on the outside. The opposite is actually true: we need to bring the meaning up to speed with culture and create open, diverse and inclusive societies where people feel accepted as they are.

This skyrocketing urge to differentiate is emblematic of our strive for authenticity and transparency throughout the Western world, but equally of the vital need to break free from the system reducing our humanity, liberate our identities off the shackles of society and redefine the rules on our own terms. It’s all a part of a much greater cultural narrative of “taking back control”. We see it happening throughout the political landscapes — and it was this very narrative that led to the success of the wild card candidates such as Donald Trump or the victory of Brexit over United Europe — this gives you an idea of just how strong, potent and resonant the feeling of loss of control over one’s own life and social identity is in our current society.

Brands and organisations obviously need to deal with this ongoing shift in identity creation, accurately respond to it and mirror it back to people to create relevance, trust and retain and increase their brand value. This is essentially the direction in which our society is now evolving and it is becoming the new normal. For brands to be meaningful, they have to adjust how they represent reality in their campaigns: the way they speak, who they show in their ads and what these people look like.

The broader principle of this conversation is that the underlying fundamental value in business and society should still be Humanity. Diversity as a principle is already contained in this larger reservoir called Humanity: the idea that we might all look different but essentially we are all the same. So the greater goal for any brand is to explore all the points in which we all are similar and embrace these similarities to bring people closer together, rather than reflect on a million ways in which we are different. Capitalising on short-term differentiation rather than long-term value will only drive us further apart. We shouldn’t aim to increase the sense of friction and fragmentation in our already fragmented society. We should strive to create a cohesive society in which we are closer to each other and not further apart.

Liberating Gender Norms: “We witness the surfacing of the decades of toxic silence and repressed grief. This is to clear out our cultural system in preparation for a global social change. We are regaining our consciousness and rebalancing humanity.”

This is a huge historical moment, and Martina Olbertova explains that #MeToo movement is about much more than just sexual harassment.

Jonathan Cook: Within the business culture and some other aspects of it, such as entertainment, over the last year we’ve had this #MeToo movement coming out. A lot of people are expressing that business is not treating people equally in terms of gender. And that there’s been a lot of violence and abuse going on that has been directed at people in a sexual way and also in terms of gender discrimination. How do we aim for a broader understanding of everybody’s humanity when there’s been such appointed direction of abuse going on? How do you begin to navigate all of that?

Martina Olbertova: We need to look at all of the individual instances in a broader context to identify patterns and narratives. It’s not a random event that we now hear about #MeToo, it’s been brewing underneath the surface for many many years and decades even. The fact that we can now see it is signalling a much larger macro-trend happening on a much higher level which is all about striving for transparency and authenticity: for the free speech, where women are finally reclaiming their voice and feel empowered to talk about their own authentic experience of business in order to give way to making it better in the future.

All of these things that we see now with the #MeToo movement, the sexual discrimination and even the sex assaults is…

[Hm, I don’t know how to say it without saying the word I don’t want to say… This is just a classic thing! It’s so hilarious actually because I am talking about authenticity and transparency, and women reclaiming their voice, and yet I’m at a loss of words because I don’t want to sound impolite. So there’s still this fundamental way in which women keep self-censoring themselves to not come across as bossy or bitchy or vulgar or something.]

But basically, what I wanted to say is it’s emblematic of the ‘shit leaving the system’ because the abuse has been a part of our system for many decades and women are now feeling empowered and safe to talk about what actually has been happening to them. They’re starting to realise that they are not the victims in this narrative — because it is a cultural narrative that we live in, it has a form of a story — the fact that you are a victim of some incident and you keep silent about it, and that’s the way it is, which only gives more power to the perpetrator, because no one will believe you. Women are now realising that this is a narrative, and if we want to shake this narrative down and open it up and give it transparency and start talking, that we absolutely have all the power that we want. But it’s up to women to stand up and decide for their own, and I think that this is exactly what’s happening now.

Redefining The Meaning Of Gender In Business And Society.

Martina Olbertova urges us to work together on creating a business world in which gender doesn’t matter. Martina wants to shake down the traditional narrative of gender in business and society, open it up, and make something new in its place.

Jonathan Cook: What do you think men in business should be doing other than just saying: “Gosh, this is wrong and I promise I won’t be engaging in any of this behaviour.” What is there to do beyond that? Is there something to do beyond that? What is your perspective, do you have any thoughts on that area? I know it is not your responsibility to have an answer to this question, but I’m curious because it is a perspective that I’m struggling with…

Martina Olbertova: This is something that we will need to do together. Obviously, we need men who condemn this kind of behaviour to make women feel safe because the last thing that should possibly happen is for this to create an even bigger divide between men and women in business and society. For women to fear men, and for men to think that all women are possibly going to call them out for something they may or may not have done. It cannot breed the culture of distrust.

The first instance is obviously active compassion: showing empathy. That means listening and making sure that I am not doing anything harmful as a man. But at the same time, it needs to go way beyond that. We need to create a culture together — men and women — where we can collaborate and almost make gender much less visible, less of an issue or a topic. I honestly don’t understand why gender is such a prominent topic in business today. I don’t understand why women in business is a standalone thing because men in business isn’t. I don’t understand why you have female entrepreneurs when male entrepreneurs are just entrepreneurs. There isn’t any reason why we should genderify women more than we genderify men.

By doing this, we are actually reinforcing the idea that business is male because women are the exception to the rule, and therefore need to invent their own category. This segregates women and dilutes their potential to be recognised as leaders in their fields. It creates two business worlds: one male-dominated as a norm and another one women-specific that entertains different norms and rules of operation. By celebrating ‘female entrepreneurs’, SHEO’s, boss bitches and other similar nonsense, we are actually driving women and men in business further apart and creating a gender divide of epic proportions. No wonder women-led enterprises have a tougher time getting funded: they are not a part of the mainstream cultural discourse, which then creates a faulty illusion that the ROI won’t be as profitable as in case of a man-led business that caters to mainstream market needs. What we really need is to create an inclusive business culture that harnesses the human potential of everyone disregarding what gender they are.

Being a woman is not an identity. It is a gender which is a subset of an identity. By pushing the agenda of “women in business” as a standalone thing in our society — as an identity in itself — we are hurting women everywhere. Dividing and categorising people to later on include them is a very bad and ineffective diversity strategy. You have a voice as a person because you have something important or meaningful to say and have a female gender because that’s how nature had created you (it’s not really our conscious choice, is it?), which is completely different and infinitely more powerful than being a “woman with a voice”. Being this gender-specific about people reinforces the preconceived notion that women are not supposed to have a voice because the very pushing against the mainstream narrative makes women look like a diversion from the norm. Creating new labels and categories is actually perpetrating and deepening this hole of division, instead of promoting unity.

I’d say stop overly identifying as women and just be who you are — as individuals, as people. Reclaim your own identity as a person and a human being, who exists independently of your gender. Then you can actively recreate what that gender means to you. If everybody does this on an individual level, it can bounce back on the collective/cultural level, too. This is how we can rewrite the cultural narrative of gender and what it means in our society and finally give it some room to breathe, instead of being prescriptive and deterministic about it. In reality, we all have our own combination of both male and female qualities. We all are both of male and female origin, the question is to what extent and what the ratio is. When I say rewrite gender, I don’t mean by aspiring to be something other than who we are, but by a radical acceptance of who we are beyond gender, as human beings.

Business Is Naturally Gender Neutral, And Therefore Diverse.

The notion of business originated as a perfect symbiosis of the male and female qualities. Commerce meant a mutual progress based on the evolution of both male and female principles in a complete harmony and was signified by the symbol of Caduceus. It essentially symbolizes the fundamental duality in oneness, also known as the binary oppositions: the good and bad, the lightness and darkness, the male and female, the old and new. Everything is happening at the same time and when we create a disconnect and lose the other half or have one half exploiting and oppressing the other, things go awry and the progress stops. Commerce bears the same principles as the universe. Together we stand, divided we fall. We need to start moving together again united in the forward motion to reinstall equilibrium.

This reflects a larger principle that business in itself is a gender-neutral discipline. It is a transactional activity based on building and retaining valuable relationships with other people. It is about creating a new value and helping people achieve more together by the collective effort of combining resources, inputs and ideas.

The trouble we are trying to tackle and overcome now is that in the Western world, and especially in the American model, business was historically built on the male foundations and structured by the overtly masculine principles that began to be accepted as a status-quo and a default setting in the business world. This is why business as usual is seen as an aggressive, highly competitive and exploitative practice, where only one can win, ruled by the infinite growth and short-term profits instead of the long-term focused collaborative and creative discipline that prioritises its people and value creation, meaning and legacy over the foolish and egocentric ideas of seeing markets, people and businesses as perpetuum mobile.

However, there is no reason why business as a practice and the business culture should remain strictly masculine. If anything, building and retaining relationships is a traditionally feminine discipline. To arrive at a healthy conclusion, we need to merge these two cultures — masculine and feminine — together and create a third new entity — a New Business Culture for the 21st century — that reflects male and female principles equally to maximise value creation and engagement, create positive and meaningful experiences for people and increase their well-being.

Creating a New Business Culture For the 21st Century.

The best case scenario would be to create a business culture of consensus, which understands how women and men process their needs and priorities differently, what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are and how we can collaborate most effectively together to create best business outcomes. Maybe that is too idealistic, but honestly, what is the alternative? Toxic masculinity doesn’t work and shatters mental health of both genders equally. We are still humans — both men and women — and we have the same needs when it comes to purpose, prosperity, meaning and happiness. We might just saturate these needs in a different way.

If we make it an identity problem and create a battle of genders to further reinforce the absolutely ludicrous idea of a zero-sum game — the idea that women are gaining something at the expense of men what is rightfully theirs and what they’re entitled to without outlining the positive effects for men as well — we are creating an utter shit-storm for women and the entire society further down the road because women rights will be seen as a destabilising social force that needs to be abolished and fought tooth and nail to retain the masculine integrity (what it means ‘to be a man’).

The gender battle is not a good outcome for anyone. We need to liberate both men and women and expand our society from the inside out to offer a much greater pool of available identities, role models and possible forms of expression. We need to fuel the traditionally repressive, prescriptive and normative categories of gender with new diverse meanings to redefine both genders at the same time. Then it will be a win-win scenario for all of us because we will be able to identify with our genders in their diverse forms of self-expression without the need to deem our gender obsolete or to gain power at the expense of another gender. When being a woman or a man can mean embracing our own individuality and our own peculiar mix of both male and female characteristics, we are no longer defined by gender.

And from this newly reached common ground, we can then create the kind of society and business that we want and that allows us to put our best foot forward.

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Where to now?

👉🏻 Listen to the complete THB episode 7: Gender and Identity on Castbox

👉🏻 Download and follow This Human Business podcast series on iTunes

👉🏻 Read the full transcript of this episode with all other interviewees, including thinkers, writers and business practitioners in marketing, human business, brand consulting and ritual design, such as Aditi Khorana, Julia von Winterfeldt, Andy Akester, Gunter Wehmeyer, Tim Leberecht, Tom Maschio, Doug Grant or Mark Williams.

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PhDr. Martina Olbertova is a brand meaning expert, global brand and cultural strategist, commercial semiotician and a doctor of media studies. She’s a Founder and chief executive of Meaning.Global, a new breed of strategic brand consultancy helping global brand owners and CMOs manage brand meaning. We rebuild brands from the inside out, rejuvenate meaning and create cultural relevance to increase value & growth. She’s also a Contributing Author on brand meaning, brand management and cultural relevance to Branding Strategy Insider, the world’s most influential resource on brand strategy. Passionate about brand transformation, semiotics, cultural change, humanity, social progress and behavioural science. Based between London and Prague and helping brands find meaning around the globe.

Twitter: @MartinaOlb | Email: info@martinaolbertova | Web: meaning.global

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Humanist, thinker, writer, speaker, advisor and social scientist. I explore meaning-making, the human mind, consciousness, business and social change.

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Martina Olbert

Martina Olbert

Humanist, thinker, writer, speaker, advisor and social scientist. I explore meaning-making, the human mind, consciousness, business and social change.

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