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#BreakTheBias on International Women’s Day and Beyond

March 7, 2022

On International Women’s Day, we’re prompting one another to start conversations that help expose and challenge the biases we hold.

International Women’s Day (IWD) takes place on March 8. This is a global day to celebrate the social, political, cultural, and economic achievements of women. It is also a call to action for accelerating women’s equality. The first IWD gathering in 1911 was supported by over a million people throughout Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. Today, IWD belongs to all groups collectively everywhere. IWD is not country, group or organization specific.

Challenge Your Beliefs

The theme of IWD 2022 is #BreakTheBias, and on March 8 and the days that follow, DIALOGers will be taking part in sessions intended to educate, spur reflection, and create discourse between colleagues, family, and friends. We’ll be challenging one another to take note of the biases we hold.

Why is this important? Cognitive biases create irrational judgements. These shortcuts in our thinking have evolved to allow for rapid processing of information, which is often useful. But a cognitive bias means there’s a kind of misfiring going on causing us to lose objectivity. The impacts of this are damaging and far-reaching.

How DIALOGers Are Helping to Break the Bias

Biases can often be nuanced and complex to unpack and unlearn. We sat down with four DIALOGers helping to promote gender equity, to better understand how bias shows up for them. Key themes of accountability and mentorship emerged and the importance of representation for women and minorities was underscored. Keep reading to hear from these changemakers, in their own words.

Nadine Atkinson, Technologist

When we talk about bias, what does it mean to you personally?

When I first left home and moved to Edmonton for school, my roommate and I had joined a study group with some friends in our psychology class. A few weeks in someone asked me what my background was. I told him I was Métis and he looked at me weird and said “Oh, well what are you doing here in school? Don’t you people just stay on the rez and collect your money from the government?”

This was the first time anyone had ever had the gall to, in short, call me a “lazy Indian” to my face. It is something that replays in my mind, and I often wonder if that is something many people believe. When I say I am Indigenous, do people automatically presume I am not a hard worker and magically get free money? Do people presume I got the job to check off that diversity box and not because I earned it and deserve it? Do I have so few Indigenous co-workers because they are being looked over in the hiring process due to this innate prejudice?

Did this moment become a catalyst in your life? How did this awareness of the prejudices held against you manifest in understanding your own identity? 

I started learning more about what it meant to be Métis. In my past career I decided to take a job working and traveling in the Western Arctic as a dental assistant. Setting up mobile dental clinics throughout these tiny little Indigenous communities allowed me to see firsthand the state of these communities, and the hand they had been dealt. That trip prompted me to go back to school to become a technologist and pursue a career where I could help shape our community.

At DIALOG we’ve won Indigenous contracts and I express my passion for my culture and desire to work on these types of projects. I’ve learned so much from those projects, but it wasn’t until I had my first daughter that I realized I needed to raise her to be proud of her heritage. To know where she came from and what her roots are, and to as a family reclaim some of the traditions that we’ve lost over the years. I started my journey of learning more about my culture and almost a path of reconciliation with my own identity and I’m not hiding from it anymore.

You and the other members of DIALOG’s Indigenous Storytelling Team are helping to start conversations and raise awareness of the Indigenous peoples history and path forward. How did the Team come to fruition? 

I thought – I’m doing this work, by myself for myself, but it could benefit so many other people by sharing this journey and sharing the routes that I’m taking to learn – which is what prompted me to extend it into my work at DIALOG.

With a lack of Indigenous role models in leadership positions, I personally feel there is no one like me who I can look up to. With no Indigenous voices at the decision-making table to speak up and advocate for Indigenous people, will inequities be properly addressed by the allies who the burden then falls on?

The Indigenous Storytelling Team’s goal is to help define what reconciliation means to DIALOG. This overarching theme involves improving allyship, sharing knowledge, celebrating culture, and increasing awareness on the biases Indigenous people face to help them break through these unfair tendencies.

When we talk about improving allyship, what does that look like?

I think a lot of time allies think it’s enough to say “I’m an ally and I support you. How can I help?” But the biggest way to be an ally is to leverage your position. To take your advantages and see how they can benefit someone else.

It’s less about asking the person how you can help, and more about putting yourself out there and doing the work yourself. The best way to be an ally is to stop asking for permission, or the proper way to do it, and just stick your neck out there and be willing to make mistakes until you find out the best way you can lend a hand.

How do you work to challenge biases you may hold?

I’m really fortunate because I have two daughters and there is so much I want to teach them about being strong women that is more widely accepted today vs. the times I grew up in. For me the place to start is by being a good example and walking the walk. Modelling in myself the changes I wish to see in them.

I catch myself or my husband jumping to the “bossy” label when my daughter is telling us what to do. She’s not being bossy, she’s showing leadership. She knows what she wants and we need to stop using those old narratives and start spinning things in a more positive light, for her. We’re also teaching her to make herself proud – versus pleasing other people. I think that’s a traditional way for women to be a “good woman” – to listen, be accommodating, helps others, and put others before yourself.

I’m trying to instill in my daughters a sense of pride and happiness in their actions and achievements. I want their motivations to be driven not by external validation but by their internal compass and valuation. I’m trying to change the narrative for the next generation.

Nicole Moyo, Intern Architect, Urban Designer

How do we challenge our own biases, and help others to do the same?

What makes us truly different as human beings are our personal journeys. We cannot make assumptions by grouping people into physical and socioeconomic traits, especially in this day and age where we have the tools to inform ourselves about the truth. We should all be challenging ourselves by going beyond engrained social narratives, to actually start listening and learning each individual’s story. We all have one, but you also have to respect others, so they are given an opportunity to be heard. Get uncomfortable so we are all comfortable!

Conversations around gender equity can often fall to the delineation between men and women. How do you approach this topic in your own life?

If I think about the hierarchy of things that I need to deal with, the first one is being a POC- and I even hate to label myself as that, to be categorized – but rather see me as the individual that I am and the contributions I’m able to make to society. Some of these contributions include realizing that there are gaps in representation and opportunities to increase diversity. The gaps in our industry are large to fill not only in the work force but how we represent cultures in the built environment.  I’m very grateful for those advocating for gender delineation, so I can make myself present where I’m needed in the conversation of intersectionality.

How is advocacy or representation realized?

Through VISIBILITY. There is a reason why some professions are more saturated than others. I think of professions as generational wealth. If you know someone, especially one that you are able to relate to who has taken that path you are able to inherit their knowledge, networks and enterprises. I learn more and more everyday that although I am nowhere close to where I want to be, that I still need to communicate my personal story so that I can help others as well as be helped. I am here because many individuals helped me along the way.  I will continue communicating my personal story – because my story is a different story – so that creates a variety or diversity that challenges assumptions.

You’re active in DIALOG’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Open Forum as well as the Community Outreach group. What’s your hope for how these initiatives can enact change and challenge biases?

With the DEI Open Forum I wanted to be very intentional with the conversations and make sure that all voices are heard. That means having some very uncomfortable conversations and daring to say a lot of things, on behalf of other people, and it means being authentic and honest. The focus is how can we enlighten people to the realities many people are facing.

The Community Outreach is really an opportunity to inspire youth to become aware of what’s possible for them, see representation, understand the variety of professions that are out there, and what the path to that profession may be.

I have also had to listen, in conversation I have learnt from close friends who grew up in Canada that the education system was one of the first obstacles many POC individuals had to face. From a young age they were put into a certain academic streams that didn’t give them the option or opportunity to go to university. Later in life if they want to go back there are time and financial implications. It is systemic and there is a huge need to raise awareness of these gaps. This will result in more diversity in our professions. That’s why we’re specifically targeting young people in our outreach.

I’m glad that there is that opportunity through DIALOG to push that agenda. We’re working to understand how we can be proper allies in this area. It’s very complicated, but it’s very exciting, because it’s a time when we have people’s attention.

What advice would you give to young women who are trying to navigate these pathways?

Find your advocates. Find your allies. That will help you get to where you need to go, and you can get there. Your allies will change along the way. There’s one person that will help you get out of high school, there’s another that will help you learn how to save money, and there’s another person that will help you build your career. Rely on your talents, rely on your gut, be a good person, and be vocal about what you want to do. If you’re not vocal no one’s going to know that they can help you. BUT, when you get to your destination, make yourself a light, which means make yourself visible so you can help others navigate their journeys to success.

Georg Josi, Partner, Structural Engineer

You’ve been a strong champion for women at DIALOG. What informed your understanding of how gender equity can and should be realized? 

It really happened organically. I had – and continue to have – strong female role models in my life: my grandma, my mother, and my wife Monika. This shaped the basis of my understanding of what women are capable of. I never felt there was any disparity between the abilities of men and women.

My grandma has been the most influential person in my life, who during World War Two ran the farm while her husband was at the border to Germany protecting Switzerland. She did it very successfully, all while raising two kids. She was not afraid to learn new things, and always had an open mind. She made everyone around her better.

How did your grandmother’s strength and leadership impact your mother?

My mom is very similar, but perhaps even more driven and intentional in setting and realizing goals.

When I was about six years old, she became the first woman to run for Council in our town. This was especially notable because this was in the 70s  and women in Switzerland had only recently won the right to vote. She won the election and I saw all these people come to the house and congratulate her. I was awfully proud of my mom. It was really something that changed my life. She then went on to become the first woman Mayor of our town and was highly successful in her endeavours.

Has this deeply rooted understanding that women possess limitless potential directly informed your operations in leadership?

My approach has always been the more diversity we have in a team, the better. I never felt that women needed to prove themselves. It was never a question that they should have a seat at the table. So I had to work to understand that there are real barriers for women. Often times they are required to prove themselves every step of the way.

I realized I needed to focus on sponsorship, because I can do that, and I want to do that. This is important for DIALOG but also for society as a whole, in order to get to where we want to be. I’m very grateful through this effort to see how sponsorship creates tangible change for those we champion. We need to challenge biases in order to level the playing field.

While being an effective advocate you’ve surely had to challenge biases held by your contemporaries – those also in positions of influence and leadership. How do you approach this?  

I point out the value that individual adds. The proof is there and the results speak for themselves.

By challenging how we’ve made conclusions about someone’s aptitude you come to realize that when you shift the focus to the concrete evidence of their achievements, preconceived notions that hinder your ability to fairly evaluate them are exposed.

The biggest step is being aware of these biases, which requires concerted effort. We need to help each other challenge our biases because they most likely run in our subconscious. It takes someone pointing it out for you and holding you accountable. It has helped me see some of mine, but there are unfortunately many more to be made aware of.

Kate Gerson, Associate, Architect

In your career has there been an obvious presence of bias? 

In terms of my experience, and I think the experience of probably most women in the profession, it shows up in having to work much harder to gain respect and credibility.

I think that would be even more difficult for younger women. Ageism works against women twofold, but in this case I tend to think that my gray hair probably contributes to establishing credibility. We’re required to prove ourselves above and beyond our male counterparts. In doing so, by displaying our confidence or insistence, you’re also met with negative labels.

How then would you advise young women who are navigating these obstacles?

Be certain of yourself, be confident, and trust that you know what you’re doing. Show that you wish to be heard by leading with that generosity to others. Diplomacy and establishing mutual respect go a long way.

You helped establish Women in Architecture (WIA) Vancouver. What is it and how has it made a difference in the industry? 

It’s a Vancouver based group and it started around 30 years ago, partly out of frustration. For a lot of women in the process of becoming a registered architect there was a five year window where your experience in internship was invalid after five years. For women that graduated and wanted to take time out to start a family, they were penalized. They would work for a couple of years, have a family, take a few years out, and the experience they had gained prior had to be repeated. So we sought to change that.

We saw there was a lack of representation for women in Council at the Architectural Institute of British Columbia (AIBC), and there were hiring biases – it was harder for women to be hired into certain firms.

WIA Vancouver was formed to change these structures, and to create a sense of belonging for women in the industry. We facilitate networking amongst the community, help to create representation for those on the outside, and aid women in establishing their footing along the way.

How has WIA and your involvement evolved over the years in response to changing circumstances and needs?

I was very involved early on and then 10 years ago there was a call from young members looking to revive the group as it had largely been the same individuals pushing the momentum for a long time. I felt this resurgence was needed and it gave me a fresh approach to involvement, while also encouraging our younger members to take more active leadership roles.

Since then it has expanded considerably. While still very much a grassroots initiative, we now have more structure. In needing to pivot networking events from in-person to virtual we’ve expanded our outreach.

Every year I organize our Career Paths event which helps to create visibility for students and new graduates as to the numerous jobs that exist within the world of architecture. I’ve always felt a little bit frustrated that while in architecture school, you might be made to feel as though if you’re not a hotshot designer this not the career for you.

The event brings together four or five women that have architectural degrees and have followed different career paths. Maybe one or two are practicing architecture, but others may be project managers or work for a municipality. Maybe they’re teaching or doing unconventional things with their degrees. It is important to make students more aware of all the many things they could do with an architectural education.

Mentorship in one form or another seems to have been a constant fixture throughout your career.

For the last 15 or 20 years mentoring has been a big part of who I am and how I work. Through WIA Vancouver and also within DIALOG. My advice to younger people would be to find somebody that you can relate to as a mentor, but also reach out and become a mentor yourself. Provide that opportunity to others. Pay it forward.