In the smallest, most internalised of gestures, you can be inclusive – or exclusionary.
“It is as simple as opening an event with ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen’,” says University of Canberra PhD student Robin Ladwig.
“It is meant as a welcoming gesture – but in that moment, there are people left behind.”
Robin – who identifies as genderqueer, and uses the pronouns ‘they/them’ – has found their life and work driven by a belief that a world in which no one is left behind, is a real possibility.
To that end, Robin’s research is focused on exploring the experiences and career development of gender-diverse individuals, and their interrelation to workplace cultures and organisational structures.
“We have anti-discrimination laws in place here in Australia – which is great – but have they truly become integrated into workplace cultures and employee attitudes?” Robin asks.
And therefore: in a world still dominated by ones and zeroes, can anyone not fitting neatly into a binary box be their authentic selves at work?
Authenticity and equity have always compelled Robin.
In their native Germany, Robin completed a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work and worked as a registered nurse. They conducted educational sessions on sexuality and gender identity for schoolchildren and adults, started a group for non-cisgender individuals and lead an awareness team for a safe queer nightlife scene.
As part of their Master of Arts in Gender Studies from Germany’s University of Freiburg, Robin ended up in the Australian National University as an exchange student – and returned to Canberra again in 2017 to do a Business Certificate at the Canberra Institute of Technology.
“This was when I realised that a lot of aspects of the business course were influenced by gender, but it was not being applied or taught in a critical way,” they said.
“A lot of business and management theory is based in the binary, and anchored in pop culture rather than science,” they added. “Even when you consider something as innocuous-seeming as the theory that people are left-brained, or right-brained, which can inform management practices.”
The theory, which dates back to psychobiologist Roger W. Sperry’s work in the 60s, categorises people as either left-brained (more analytical and methodical) or right-brained (creative, artistic), according to which hemisphere of the brain is more dominant – and is unsupported by medical evidence.
“Binary, ‘either/or’ thinking is particularly relevant to and can impact gender diverse individuals, because we do not live in the binary,” Robin says.
A workplace culture and practices that assume that everyone fits into binary roles is flawed from the start; such assumptions then filter into marketing and advertising, building a false – and exclusionary – reality.
Currently in the literature review and methodology-building phase of their research, Robin will investigate from two perspectives – that of gender diverse individuals, their day-to-day experiences and career trajectories in the workplace, and that of organisations, which may have a gender policy in place, with levels of exposure and bias.
“I think UC has been the best place for me to do this research, because it is a young university, more open to edgy, innovative research,” Robin says. “My research also has strong practical applications, which tie in nicely with UC’s solid industry links.”
“Ultimately, I just want my research to help push for greater equality and openness for everyone.”
Importantly, Robin says that being inclusionary is not about making other people comfortable at one’s own expense.
“Being inclusionary is not a state which is fixed and static, it is a constant process of growing so that everyone can be comfortable – everyone, including yourself.
“That’s why this is not about erasing the binary, or taking away the experiences of those who do identify within it – but simply acknowledging that there is more.”
From an organisational perspective, greater flexibility in aspects like the dress code and email signatures can create a more equitable work culture.
“And to shift on a personal level, it begins with being open,” Robin says. “Open to the fact that there may be things you do not know, that people’s experiences may fall outside the frame you would like to put around them.
“Being open to changing and shifting your use of language, especially the pronouns that you use – certainly, open to asking someone what pronouns they would prefer. Because rather than imposing your own norms and expectations on someone else, you can simply give them the space to let you know who they are.”
Robin says that such a conversation in the workplace could be sparked by simply stating your own preferred pronoun, regardless of whether you live in the binary, because this “creates a comfortable space, and acknowledges that people have the choice of how they would like to be referred to”.
In these small beginnings, great changes can come about – and we can all move into the future together.
Robin will be discussing inclusion, equity and moving beyond the binary as a panelist at the UnCover Event: The Other Colours Of The Rainbow, Hosted by Benjamin Law.
Words by Suzanne Lazaroo, photo by Madeleine Wood