Saturday, November 30, 2013

Gender Dynamics in Cooperative Groups

I've recently been in a dialog with a thoughtful friend who has lived half his life in a consensus-based community and shared this reflection about gender dynamics (which I have lightly edited to preserve anonymity):

As I see it, there is a distinct difference between the genders that has persisted for decades, well beyond the behaviors or personalities of particular men or women. When our group experiences open conflict in arriving at consensus it almost always becomes positional/territorial "lines" between one or two men, not women. I have recently seen the group get close to agreement only to have the consensus founder because one or two males believe they have a better understanding of: a) how consensus works; or b) what the real problem is that the rest are missing. It happens repeatedly… and heatedly. 

Recently, I was standing in a circle of members when I expressed a concern that a committee had sent out a written message to a departing member that had not been cleared in plenary. When anger erupted in response to that revelation all the women took a physical step back, while the males exchanged heated words. Though we worked through the anger over the next days, it has made me look more closely at male-female dynamics during our plenary conversations—to read the body language, to observe if females are speaking out or not, and to see who is helping us move collectively and who is holding onto some "sacred" place that cannot be touched.

Lately, I've been finding a wonderful amount of courage and inner clarity to challenge these positions, yet I admit to almost wishing to be part of a community where the women's views were weighted a bit more than the men's (I know that's a big generalization, but there are threads of truth for me), because women can sense much of what is being felt in the group and what is being lost that the males often miss while proving themselves "right."

I replied:

I can certainly resonate with your observation as someone who gets to peek behind the curtain of many groups (people don't hire me to confirm that everything is going well).

The way I've made sense of the gender phenomenon you described above is that women in our culture are conditioned to be more relational than men; and men are held up to the standard of John Wayne, the archetypal rugged individualist. (To be sure, I know plenty of women who are every bit as roosterish as those men whose behavior you have highlighted in your community, but in general I think your observation is sound.) For relationally oriented people it's not so difficult to set aside personal preferences for the good of the group. For those taught to trust their inner truth above all else, it can be the very devil distinguishing between personal preference and divine inspiration. In that context, asking them to think of the whole is an insult because they believe that their inner truth is always about that. They just have trouble accepting that
other people's inner truth might be different, and just as divinely inspired.

On the whole, it's been my observation that strong women tend to run intentional communities. Not because they are naturally better leaders, but because it's essential for leaders to have developed fairly sophisticated social skills to be effective in community, and girls tend to be steered in that direction more than boys. While you want leaders to be good at both relational skills and systems thinking, it's my sense that its easier for a woman to learn systems than it is for a man to learn to see an issue from another person's perspective.

What do I mean by relational skills? It's the ability to:
o  Articulate clearly what you think.
o  Articulate clearly what you feel.
o  Hear accurately what others say (and be able to communicate that to the speaker such that they feel heard).
o  Hear critical feedback without walling up or getting defensive.
o  Function reasonably well in the presence of non-trivial distress in others.
o  Shift perspectives to see an issue through another person's lens.
o  See potential bridges between two people who are at odds with each other.
o  See the good intent underneath strident statements.
o  Distinguish clearly between a person's behavior being out of line and that person being "bad."
o  Own your own shit.
o  Reach out to others before you have been reached out to yourself.
o  Be sensitive to the ways in which you are privileged.

Intentional communities (at least the ones that don't espouse traditional gender roles, which is most, but by no means all) tend to be especially attractive to strong women for two reasons. First, communities tend to be progressive politically and are therefore likely to be committed to breaking down stereotypical gender roles. Thus, women are far less likely to encounter glass ceiling dynamics in community. That means openings for everyone without reference to their plumbing. Hallelujah!

Second, communities are committed to creating cooperative culture, and that means how things are done tends to matter as much as what gets done. This is in striking contrast with the mainstream culture and its fixation on results. In consequence, those social skills (that women have been conditioned to excel at) stand out as a big plus.

Going the other way, community can be a challenging environment for strong men because their behavior may trigger knee-jerk suspicion about whether their strength is rooted in a desire for personal aggrandizement (the mainstream tendency) instead of service to the whole. It is not enough that the strong man thinks he's clean (by which I mean not ego-driven and working on behalf of everyone); it matters more how he comes across to others, and this is all about social skills, not facility with rhetoric or branding.

It's even more nuanced than that. Given the historic privilege that men have enjoyed in the wider culture, the determination to create a more feminist culture in community (by which I mean egalitarian—not woman-centered) translates into encouraging women to step up and men to step back. In practice this can result in women being celebrated for being assertive (in the interest of encouraging their stepping up) while men taking the same action are criticized for being too aggressive (in an effort to encourage their stepping back).

While this may be demonstrably unfair, a more subtle question is whether it's an appropriate strategy for closing the gap in societal prejudice that favors men. While there's no doubt that this strategy won't work long term (because it would just reverse the inequity), it's an open question whether this brand of affirmative action is justified in an effort to accelerate getting to the promised land of equal opportunity, or for how long it should be supported.

All in all, intentional community is an incredibly potent laboratory for experimenting with gender dynamics in pursuit of the holy grail: a better life for all.


Anonymous said...

It might be interesting to look at the research (sorry, heard it on NPR in the car and couldn't get the name of the theorist but it sounded pretty settled) about how women and men resolve arguments. Men seem, according to this research, to leave an encounter where some agreement has been reached with an ability to leave it behind; women tend to come back minutes, hours, or days later with "and this is a pattern of yours" to restart a broader discussion. It's not over for them. When I heard this i was in the car with my ex-husband, who is now in a committed relationship with a man, and he was somewhat offended because he said his husband is definitely more female in that way. Of course I recognized myself and him in the examples. We were trying to think of an evolutionary advantage to the female behavior and we could come up with only the hunter vs. gatherer advantages...being able to kill and eat something differs psychologically from growing or gathering edibles...and what roles that meant "feminine" gay men and butch lesbians did in early society. But maybe it's more about creating community and resolving issues....somebody has to say "it's done" and somebody has to remember for next time.

Abe Karl-Gruswitz said...

I have had a lot of experience visiting communities and hearing this bigoted viewpoint about men being one way and women being another way. I mean, I hear outside communities as well, but I would have imagined more critique of the concept of the gender binary or the idea of gender being anything more than a concept in our heads, in communities. I have heard quite a bit of critique of these ideas of men are this and women are that in the circle of Acorn, Twin Oaks, and Living Energy Farm. Still, there is a womyn's gathering and a womyn's collective at Twin Oaks.

I remember, at an early Gaia U board meeting, there was a proposal to divide the Board by gender (just women and men, no one else). It was decided there be two heads of the board, because, you know, "you have to balance the feminine and masculine energies" and "men and women have a different way of looking at things."

What does this idea that men and women think and do things differently serve? Let's say it's not being said from a biological perspective of sex, rather than gender, and you're only talking about the cultural norms and how people were raised. Even then, what can this thought even serve? First, it is said from a cisgender perspective speaking only of women and men and no one else. It excludes intersex people. It excludes transgender people. Beyond that, what do you do with an idea like that? You apply it to the people around you and make judgments on individual people based on what your belief is about people of their gender. The problem with prejudice like that is that there is no way to take a whole classification of people and accurately apply it to any one individual within the classification.

MoonRaven said...


I hear your frustration with the division by gender raised by this article. I also realize how much I appreciate the issues raised by the article. Rather than proving the point of Laird's 'thoughtful friend' (since I'm a cisgendered male--and an old white guy at that) by drawing 'positional lines' (and I could--I still have those testosteronal reactions), I'd rather try to look at the truth of what you're saying as well as the truth of Laird's post. There is a good bit of truth in each.

First, I want to acknowledge that many individuals do not fall within the cultural norms of their gender--and many also fall outside gender norms at all. But I also think it's important to look at what is perhaps the heart of what Laird wrote here, his list of relational skills. I think that anyone using these skills, whether cisgendered, transgendered, genderqueer, or intersex, any human being using these skills will further the building of communities. I also think that we need to encourage anyone who is quick to speak up (regardless of gender) to wait and step back and encourage the quiet people to speak up so that all voices are heard.

Personally I would like to live in a community with more strong women and less strong men (I've seen what's been described too often for my liking), and definitely with more queer folk of every type, with many people who flout and challenge gender norms.

And I agree that we need to look at each individual as their own unique self. I think there is a place for looking at gender dynamics and a place for looking beyond gender dynamics.