Thursday, January 8, 2015

Feminism in Community

I was recently in a discussion at home where about eight of us were shining our collective light on the topic of feminism. While there was ready agreement that Dancing Rabbit aspired to be a feminist community, it wasn't so easy defining what that meant, and even some resistance to making the attempt.

Actually some parts were easy. We want the community to be a place where:
a)  Objectifying, sexist humor is discouraged.
b)  Opportunities for members are not limited by gender or sexual orientation.
c)  It's encouraged to call out sexist statements or behaviors when you encountered them.

Less solidly—though probably strongly supported, at least as a near-term strategy—it's a place where:
d)  We're willing to selectively practice reverse discrimination in a thoughtful (as opposed to knee-jerk) attempt to level the playing field for the discrimination that women typically encounter relative to men in the mainstream (such as glass ceilings, or unequal pay for equal work).

Thinking more broadly, to me it means a place where:
e)  We purposefully create and nurture cooperative (relational) culture, in contrast with competitive (adversarial) culture. 
f)  The ultimate aim is gender blind engagement.

When it comes down to what we've actually created and support, it gets complicated. While I think there would be wide acceptance with the general notion that we do not intend a commitment to feminism to translate into pro-women attitudes (as in women being favored over men as policy), in reality we tolerate—even celebrate— a degree of assertiveness in women that would be labeled aggressive and intimidating if done by a man. This is an example of support for d) above, and is, in my observation, so pervasive in community culture (not just DR culture) that women tend to fill a majority of leadership positions (because they're given more latitude to do their jobs).

Mind you, I'm not saying good or bad; I'm just calling it the way I see it.

My sense is that in the mainstream culture girls tend to be conditioned to be more relational and boys conditioned to be more problem solvers. Yes, I'm shamelessly stereotyping and it's easy to think of counterexamples, but this difference is significant. In the mainstream culture, problem solving tends to be more revered (and paid better) than relationship building. In cooperative culture though, both qualities are deemed valuable, and what women bring to the table tends to be every bit as honored—so long as it's functional. That is, if a person can prove themselves to be reasonably competent then communitarians don't care what their gender is, and communities are more likely to be gender blind when making manager assignments.

(When I think back over my 27 years as a process consultant, and all the challenging folks I've wrestled with in group settings, I don't see a pattern of one gender being more difficult than another. That is, women, men and queers are equally likely to be jerks and no one gender monopolizes assholery.)

Where It Gets Hard
One of the (mostly) hidden aspects of this consideration is whether the people comprising feminist-identified groups are willing to do the personal work needed to understand their own conditioning, which tends to operate below the level of consciousness. That is, the fact that you don't think of yourself as gender discriminating has only a casual relationship to whether you are. This is going to be especially true of men—the segment of mainstream society that is the beneficiary of most gender discrimination. The haves are far more likely to be oblivious to their advantages than the have-nots. 

Thus, women (as well as those who identify as LGBTQ) tend to be significantly more sensitive to gender discrimination than men, and it can be delicate work sorting out what's happening when the group seems to respond much more enthusiastically to something said by a man than to a similar suggestion made earlier by a woman.

•  How much is this unconscious gender discrimination?
•  How much are women projecting gender discrimination when there's resistance to their ideas (perhaps because at the point that the woman spoke the group was not ready to come to agreement; perhaps because the two statements were similar, yet different in crucial ways)?•  How much of this is the group simply coming to agreement at its own pace and the fact that a man spoke last isn't significant (the last speaker is going to have a gender, but that doesn't mean that's significant)?

This is very murky territory, where the observations of any party can be discounted as biased. All can have a piece of the truth; some can be off base.

I think the most hopeful thing to strive for is an atmosphere where you can hit the pause button and frankly discuss the dynamics—where everyone gets a chance to weigh in. If it's dangerous to bring this out in the open, it'll be damn hard to get to the deeper levels of gender dynamics—making it that much harder to establish a solid foundation for feminist culture, however you define it.

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