Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Gender Dynamics Redux

Following my post of Nov 30 (Gender Dynamics in Cooperative Groups) I received three comments. They were so interesting that I've decided to keep the dialog going...

Anonymous wrote:
It might be interesting to look at the research 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.

While I'm not an anthropologist (and therefore don't know jack—or jill, for that matter—about the evolutionary explanation for different gendered responses to arguments), I can build a picture about why relational people (who may be women) tend to hang onto disagreements that results-oriented people (who may be men) claimed to have moved beyond. If the argument ends without an energetic resolution, the dynamics persist. Relational people know this, and therefore attempt to engage in a holistic way (even if they're not particularly distinguished as problem-solvers). However, if the other person isn't emotionally articulate (or even available), this may not go well. In such cases, all parties may reach an acceptable rational solution, but everyone doesn't feel heard or "done." Those aware of the unfinished business are likely to cycle back to it.

All of that said, in the community context it has not been my experience that women tend to hold on to hurts any longer than men, or, for that matter, that women are any less quick to be ready to move on.

Abe wrote:
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 it 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.

I wrote the original piece because I believe there are important differences in the way that boys and girls are conditioned in the mainstream culture. It was not my aim to encourage stereotyping or to promote the assumption that all feminine-presenting people act one way and all masculine-presenting people act another; it was to describe a gulf that I see played out repeatedly in cooperative group dynamics and which I believe we must learn to recognize and develop the capacity to bridge between.

The most important part for me is the ways in which cooperative culture differs from competitive culture with respect to how it solves problems. In the wider culture, we venerate rational problem solvers and systems thinking. In cooperative culture those qualities are still an asset, yet so is the ability to work relationally and empathetically.

What was intriguing for me about my friend's observation (which was the inspiration for my Nov 30 blog) was: a) that both styles persisted in his well-established community; and b) that the clash between the styles was the major impediment to peaceable resolution of conflict. I was not so interested in the analysis that women were never strident, or consistently did a better job of setting aside their egos to think of the whole, yet I was interested in how gendered cultural conditioning could explain what my friend observed. That's exciting because it means that there is every reason to believe that if all children were trained to be skilled at human relations, then we could all be better cooperative problem solvers.

MoonRaven wrote:
I hear your [Abe's] 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—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.

I'm wholly in agreement with MoonRaven's concluding paragraph. However, I want to comment on the admonition that those who are quick to speak up should step back, and the idea that groups may be better off with fewer strong men.

I believe what we need are groups where all members are strong—by which I mean articulate, unafraid to voice their views (even if unpopular), able to take full responsibility for their feelings and their actions, and possessing a strong enough sense of self that they do not feel unworthy or damaged as a consequence of others disliking their words or behavior. (Note that I am not equating strength with stridency or obstinacy.) The meek or insecure do not, in my view, get strong as a result of shackling others. That's coddling.

As a professional facilitator, here's the way I prefer to handle the dynamic where air space is unevenly distributed in open discussion (which only happens all the time). I have two main strategies. First, if I notice that a minority is dominating the conversation (or that there are a number of people who have not yet spoken), I will often offer an observation along the lines of, "We have had an animated conversation the last 15 minutes and a number of useful ideas and concerns have surfaced. I notice though that a few people have spoken a number of times while others have not spoken at all. For the next while I'd like to make room to hear from those who have not yet contributed to the conversation."

This does a number of things all at the same time:
o  It honors the contributions received so far, which means those who are quick to speak or are less daunted by speaking in front of the whole group are not punished or made to feel bad. (While I don't want to celebrate being rash, it's fine to be quick.)

o  It expressly encourages those who have spoken a lot to sit on their hands. It's now other people's turns.

o  It creates an explicit opening for the shy or the more deliberate thinkers to step up. Don't come back later with the complaint that there was no opening.

Note that this approach does limit the quick for a time, but only after they have already contributed, not before.

The second strategy I employ to equalize participation is to mix up formats. Instead of relying solely on open discussion—which is often the quickest way to get at things—I intentionally use a variety of other approaches. Here are three:
—Go Rounds (where no one speaks twice until everyone who cares to has had a chance to speak once).
—Small group breakouts (where it's easier for people to test out their ideas).
—Individual writing before sharing in the whole group (some are more articulate that way than orally—why not occasionally give them a format at which they excel?).

All together, these are strategies for getting everyone into the conversation without gagging the strong, which, by the way, has nothing to do with gender, yet has everything to do with getting everyone's wisdom into consideration—all the while encouraging all participants to get stronger without pretending that we're all alike.

1 comment:

MoonRaven said...

Thank you, Laird. That's really useful feedback. I stand corrected on everything.

As someone who is trying to build community and develop relational skills, the idea of encouraging everyone to be strong is very appealing. I liked how you found ways to honor those who have spoken while creating space and encouragement for quieter folks to speak up. I also liked the notion of using different formats to open participation from those who might not find it easy to simply speak up in a whole group discussion.

I also wanted to say that I found your bullet points on relational skills in the last post so useful, that I've copied it so I can use it later.

I appreciate the enormous amount of clear, concise information you've put in this blog. Reading your posts on group process has been very helpful to me.