Devary et al. 1993

Is Gender Bias in the Workplace Related to Environmental Toxicology?

#InternationalWomensDay #ChooseToChallenge

International Women’s Day on March 8, 2021, with the theme of Choose to Challenge, encouraged us to call out gender bias and inequality. Social media displayed confidently-posed women in boss lady suits, earnest male homages to female colleagues and mentors, inspiring videos of enthusiastic young women pledging, with raised hand, to #ChooseToChallenge.

Looking a little deeper, past the photos of women on social media with #ChooseToChallenge selfie cards, what does choosing to challenge gender bias and inequality look like?

• One engineering firm committed to increasing the proportion of women employees.
• One nice lady pointed out that the word challenge can be an aggressive term, then role-played some gentle strategies for boundary-setting and calling out behaviour instead of the person.
• Other women said be bold, be proud, be loud, be yourself.
• A female fund manager said challenge the system.
• Another woman called for me to challenge myself.

Instead of getting into a spirit of celebration, I chose to challenge by picking apart every one of these solutions, except for the last one, which was the impetus for writing all of this. I thought about the progression of my life, from insecure transience as a teenager, to earning a civil engineering degree, to working abroad, being a mom, to a career in engineering consulting firms, then starting a specialized environmental consulting company. I should be some paragon of something, right? All the boxes checked? Bust out the boss lady suit and ring lights!

Not so fast. The reality is not so glamorous.

The Inscrutability of Thoughts and Beliefs

What happens when gender-biased sentiment in hiring managers, procurement officers and managers cannot be overcome by merit, experience or performance, resulting in poorer outcomes for women than men? Usually nothing, because unspoken thoughts and beliefs are inscrutable. Actions are more readily investigated and analyzed than motives.

When motives are inscrutable, gender bias and inequality are thus unprovable, by design and execution. Cloaked in secrecy, rooted in insecurity, hidden in denial, or coated in a superficial patina of legitimacy, gender bias is malevolent. It is not always perpetrated by men.

How does one #ChooseToChallenge, when there is nothing factual to call out, no overt inappropriate behaviour — just unexpected subpar outcomes for women? Or gaslighting in the form of others dismissing our intuition about what is really going on? #ChooseToChallenge at work is difficult. To challenge decisions and outcomes without factual proof of gender bias can backfire in terrible ways, from self-doubt to job loss.

Rarely do I examine the effects of gender bias on my own life because it drains my energy and serves no productive purpose. It distracts from my goals. After nearly 30 years devoted to science, engineering and the environment, including the last five as an owner of a consulting company, some incidents of gender bias have been laughable or annoying, but others have been painful, detrimental and cumulatively harmful over the long term.

That I would have to be more tireless, dogged, competitive, ambitious and dedicated to excellence than male colleagues were always givens — a challenge willingly accepted. Work lots, fraternize little. It’s a marathon not a sprint. Pick up and carry the biggest metaphorical rock that I can, after the fashion of that well-known Canadian psychologist. But do I #ChooseToChallenge? Yes, but not in the way you might expect.

A few things happened last week that I chose to challenge. I confronted a male employee at a service supplier about unethical billing practices of his company, and immediately after our conversation he created an anonymous Google profile for the sole purpose of leaving a one-star rating on my own company, I suppose forgetting that I am the client. The ongoing futility of arguing with Google to get the fake rating removed has just added to the aggravation. Then I was consulted for a second opinion on an ill-conceived radon gas mitigation design. Through this client, I provided the original engineering company a rationale for the critique, references, and practical design alternatives, all of which, along with my very existence, were ignored by the male engineers of the other company in the equally poor redesign. To round out the week, my company was lowest price bid on an environmental project we were absolutely qualified to win; however, I was not even contacted before the project was summarily awarded to a less qualified company, at many thousands of dollars more. Behind the scenes, the winning company was also provided the opportunity to adjust their bid, and I was not. The reason for not being selected eventually provided to me by the man deciding the procurement was non-material to the work.

Were any of these instances related to gender bias? Maybe, but I cannot prove it. Defeat and rejection are not uncommon or unexpected in business but there is a constant ringing tone to certain events, similar to tinnitus, that one must adapt to or ignore, or else be at risk of becoming completely unhinged. Nothing felt particularly pernicious last week, but the difference was that it was International Women’s Day, and March is National Engineering Month, and it got me thinking. Last week was just one more week added to over 1,500 other weeks of lived anecdotes of unprovable gender bias and harm. It is a pall that diminishes the joy I have for my profession and for running a business. In moments of weariness, I thought about changing my given name. I thought about adding a male partner to the company for the sole purpose of taking my name off it, so I can simply go back to doing what I love to do.

Toxics in the Workplace

Almost exactly 15 years ago, (now Cancelled) CBC reporter Wendy Mesley wondered if persistent environmental toxics detected in her blood contributed to her developing breast cancer. Hundreds of persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals end up in the blood, bone and tissue of humans and wildlife. In asking why there was not greater regulation in the chemical industry, Ms. Mesley found the legal issue was thus: that proof of presence was not proof of harm. The presence of toxic chemicals in her blood was not proof that her cancer was caused by these chemicals. Indeed, the legal burden of a plaintiff wanting to prove causation in the case of alleged chemically-induced disease and illness is enormous. Her feelings of helplessness in the face of a cancer diagnosis and a bloodstream full of chemicals, including known carcinogens, was pivotal in shaping my mindset, and realizing the importance of environmental remediation work, especially in protecting unborn babies and women’s reproductive health.

What is it like to live in a gender-biased world? I find it analogous to Wendy Mesley’s ubiquitous exposure to environmental toxics. Gender bias and inequality in the workplace has a unique toxicological profile. Some poisons are readily metabolized while others, over time, accumulate in the blood and bone, making one fatigued and unwell. Maybe one needs to move away from the one-way freeway to a less toxic environment, or one needs the dialysis of a vacation. Maybe a transfusion of unpolluted blood through a workplace or supply chain policy. Sometimes the harm is immediate, and sometimes the harm is long term, but the cause is unprovable in almost all cases. Some workplaces are BPA-free, and to drink of this cup is refreshing. Other times, that corner-office trinket of pure cadmium honestly should be recalled, but more often these nuggets are instead given special protections.

I lack wider perspective, and I fail to gain wisdom because pushing back has become routine habit when it should perhaps be selective. I cannot say whether choosing to challenge helps my fellow women out there. Maybe I can help women by cleaning up the environment, and of course men and the wider world too, but I do dedicate to women, and the future generations they bear, all I have learned and done in my profession and career.

What’s Hope Got to Do With It?

Confronting outcomes of suspected but unprovable gender bias and gaslighting feels lonely and futile, and recently it has made me angry. It never gets easier. So, what to do when struggle scrapes away at the bottom of the soul?

In 2010, Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, author, and tireless advocate of justice, peace and equality, was interviewed on the topic of hope. Her words have buttressed my own hope through times of despair and loss over the years, and perhaps can help you too, if that is what you need in these COVID times. Sister Joan says that hope is not an antidote to struggle; hope is what comes out of struggle. Any great struggle changes us. The character hardening in me over the decades did not always make me popular in my work life, but it has helped me cope in my personal one. Such is one outcome of gender bias and inequality in the workplace: one copes instead of thrives.

Mustering hope and righteous indignation in the face of injustice, I will keep on challenging even more overtly in the future than in the past, mainly because I am closer to the end of my career than the start of it. I do have this to report: if you bring all your strength to the struggle for gender equality, you will be different afterwards and there is no going back. Sister Joan’s message of hope is that you can become what tomorrow demands because of what you have been through today. #ChooseToChallenge.