The Iceberg Concept of Gender

The Iceberg concept of gender:


More than two decades ago, philosopher and cultural theorist Judith Butler argued that rather than a biological concept that was based on genitals and reproductive organs, gender was a cultural construction that was performative. That is, we perform our gender in alignment, rejection, or transgression of established gender roles and norms.


While we tend to “read” or assess people’s gender performance by our senses – mainly sight, but also sound (of voice, of movement, etc.), touch and smell (unsure about taste J, given that gender is a cultural construction, much of our gendered habits, behaviours, rituals, and practices are taken-for-granted and hard to articulate.


Intercultural communication theorists use the idea of culture as an iceberg.



What if we applied gender to this iceberg? The visible part of gender awareness would be the visible, audible, sensorial aspects of our gender performance. Yet, consider the gendered dynamics of the submerged part of the iceberg. Many of these would be interest to psychologists, anthropologists, as well as managers, leaders, educators, as well as those involved in facilitated learning and leadership in workplaces and organizations, as I’ve adapted below. The “outward personal appearance” corresponds to the visible part of gender, while the lower two parts of the pyramid – including notions of leadership, patterns of group decision making, conversational patterns across social contexts, body language, are largely aspects of gendered elements that are out of usual awareness.

Gender pyramid


Yet these aspects are highly relevant to deepening ongoing conversations about gender, learning and organizational performance. There is a lot of attention to remedy the general gender inequality in today’s workplaces, from glass ceilings, “mommy tracks,” pay rates, networking and mentoring opportunities, to name just a few. However, a more expansive notion of “gender intelligence” applied to workplaces and organizations needs to consider the submerged elements of gendered performances which, as the pyramid suggests, are deeply embedded in how key aspects of communication, leadership, hierarchy, status and problem solving – all routine activities of any organization – reflected the work of gender. Gender intelligence, at the very least, means taking steps to examine how gender permeates your key organizational processes and structures and executive, managerial and leader educational programs. Taken further, it means a commitment to building and communicating awareness about gender – and accepting and respecting gendered differences – to your organization’s approaches to leadership, communication styles, hierarchical organization, problem solving, among other things. Otherwise, your commitment to gender inclusivity and equity is only responding to the tip of the iceberg.

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