Beki Grinter

Diversity Conflicts: Religion vs Gender

In women on March 14, 2013 at 11:05 am

Lately, as you can tell I’ve been thinking about diversity. Today I want to write about diversity conflicts. I’ve worked in corporate America and Britain. All of the organizations I worked for had written statements of their commitment to diversity. But sometimes diversity becomes a set of tradeoffs, and I don’t think we talk about diversity tradeoffs as much as we talk about our commitment to diversity.

The tradeoff’s I’ve experienced most are the differences between religion and gender. I’ve been told not to touch a visitor (e.g., shake a hand in welcome or departure) to respect someone’s religious values. I’ve also been told what length skirt I should wear (over the knees), had requests for tights, and received a memo advising me to wear shirts that are to the cuff even in the middle of summer in order not to bear our arms all explained to me as being about respecting visitors preference for modesty in women’s dress.

I have to admit I found these requests very difficult. Its really awkward not shaking someone’s hand in the business context. Especially when everyone else (i.e. all your male colleagues) do shake this person’s hand. It’s a great way to amplify the isolation of being the woman in a male dominated field. My normal clothing often resembles that of my male colleagues, t-shirts and jeans/shorts. I’ve wondered whether I use my clothes as a type of camouflage, to blend into the environments in which I work. Dress like all those around you to dampen the differences. Skirts and blouses really scream yes, I’m different, especially in these male dominated environments. (Also have you ever tried to re-cable a machine under a desk wearing tights and a skirt, probably not, so here’s the word, its very easy to ruin the tights, its awkward to manage the skirt on top of everything else you’ve got going on.)

If there’s an upside to all of this, its that I’ve managed to respect all of these orders, even when they have collided with my own value system. And even, when I think they take a position within that diversity system. We mostly talk about diversity as being something that we do. It is also a set of value systems that sometimes collide and then must be chosen among. How we make those choices is not something we discuss as much (IMO).

  1. It has to be a negotiation, right? What if my culture says a deal must be consummated with a handshake. (Not endorsing the culture in Django Unchained, but it presented this culture.) If not discomfiting costs nothing at all, it’s a no-brainer. After that we all know it’s a tradeoff to be negotiated. No one expects me to wear a particular headcovering in public, why should anyone have to wear a particular sleeve length? Schools may control clothing, among adults such mores are generally negotiated. I’m reminded of haggling: If you give the seller the initial asking price, the seller may be happy, but may not respect you. So there are indeed tradeoffs.

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