Talking Gender

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A blog about gender, culture and organizational change


By Gender at Work Media / April 23, 2015 / Loading Disqus...

The World YWCA is organizing a Twitter Chat for World YWCA Day tomorrow. Each World YWCA day has a special theme and this year, they are looking to the future to develop their new strategic framework and envision what the world will look like in 2035 for  women, young women and girls. Gender at Work will be participating in the Twitter Chat tomorrow. Stay tuned!


By Gender at Work Media / August 23, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

This toolkit developed by Srilatha Batliwala and Michel Friedman helps build the capacities of women in leadership positions. Based on the work done for CREA’s Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation—Clearing the Conceptual Cloud, the toolkit has been developed in collaboration with Oxfam. You can download it here. We chatted with Srilatha about what it covers—gender, power, deep structures and what it takes to create safe spaces.  

1. What are some of the most important tools you have talked about in this toolkit? 

I think each one is useful in a particular way, in a particular context and what each individual experiences with each tool is highly subjective and varied. Each exercise does something different, at a different level, or works for understanding different aspects of one’s internal life or organizational environment. But there are probably some that have a greater potential to create “AHA” moments—the deep structure mapping, for instance, or the personal histories with power, or the “I'm Okay You’re Okay” grid. 

2. Some of the exercises in this toolkit are intense and challenging such as the one which requires introspection on one’s own relationship/ experience of power. What kind of mindset or attitude is important for participants coming into it? What must they be prepared for? 

I think all the exercises require a considerable degree of openness, honesty and self awareness. But it is difficult to be totally self-aware unless one is also quite mature. People who feel easily threatened and insecure, who always need to be in control, may not get much out of them, especially the “SELF” exercises. For instance, in order to locate yourself in the “I'm okay you’re okay” quadrants, you have to be prepared to admit—even if it is only to yourself—that you’re primary position is “I'm not okay, you’re not okay”. Fortunately, a lot of the SELF exercises don’t demand that you share your insights with other people but they do expect you to act on the insights they give you, or to begin to explore how you can change negative patterns. 

3. What about the other side of it? What is important in a facilitator? What kind of attitudes or openness must the facilitator bring into this? 

Because of the sensitive issues and emotions that most of the toolkit exercises will inevitably throw up, we have emphasized the importance of the facilitator’s role and skill in managing these. The facilitator’s guide was added to the toolkit precisely for this reason. But the most important factor is the need for the facilitator to create a safe environment for the process, which means establishing and sustaining norms of respectfulness, honesty, non-judgement, dealing constructively with negative emotions or conflict that may emerge. This means the facilitator herself must be careful to keep an open mind, to remain non-judgemental even when opinions or attitudes are expressed that conflict with her own. At times, however, the facilitator will also have to have the courage and capacity to name and visibilize the dynamic that is causing problems, and manage the anger or hurt this might cause. The larger purpose of each exercise, and of the process as a whole, must remain the overriding priority for the facilitator, and individual sensitivities and reactions have to be balanced with this. THIS IS HARD WORK!! Which is why we have pointed facilitators to several resources that can help them do this, especially if they are not experienced facilitators – in situations, for instance, where a staff member may play the facilitator’s role. Nevertheless, we realise that even the most excellent facilitation may not work with leaders or organizations that are deeply threatened and resistant to change. 

4. The tookit talks about creating safe spaces for participants. What are “safe spaces” and why are they important? 

The kind of openness, honesty, and deep interrogation of the SELF, of organizational systems and practices that the toolkit demands, cannot be conducted or completed in an environment where people are afraid, tense, anxious. They may fear reprisal for speaking up, for naming the “elephant in the room”, or simply for sharing their real feelings honestly. So it is critical for the atmosphere to feel safe—meaning a space where there will not be judgement, reprisal, counter-attack, or blame—where each person is treated with respect and as an equal, where everyone is given the benefit of the doubt and the right to articulate their opinions and feelings, and who is trusted about wanting to contribute to the collective goal. It is difficult to describe a safe space in words. It is something we feel in our gut, something experienced. It is being in unsafe spaces that makes one realize the quality of a safe space. 

5. What are some of the ways in which safe spaces can be created? 

This is a complex process and cannot be described in a few words. The toolkit provides some ideas on this in the facilitator’s guide, as well as links to other resources that provide guidelines for creating safe spaces. Michel, in particular, has shared some of her practices in creating safe spaces for groups riven with conflict, anger, and even violence against each other.

6. In the toolkit, you have a section on why articulating Values and Principles (as an organization) matters. What are some of the challenges that organizations may face while doing this? 

As you know, the leadership toolkit is based on the concept paper that I wrote much earlier for CREA: Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation – Clearing the Conceptual Cloud, in which I proposed the idea of the feminist leadership “Diamond” comprising the four Ps of Power, Politics (purpose), Principles and Practice. I theorized that only when the four Ps are in alignment, when the power that leaders have is tempered by and accountable to the purpose for which they are leading (the politics of the organization or movement), and the principles and values they must uphold and promote, that their practices will reflect feminist ideology. But usually, organizations and leaders don't bother to spell out their politics / purpose or the principles and values of the organization / movement, or believe they are obvious or implicit, and so they don’t create any clear mechanisms for checking whether the organization’s internal and external practices are in sync with these values or not. So an important first step is to articulate values, and then to figure out how you are going to monitor the implementation / practice of these values. 

The main challenge in this process, though, is the temptation to put down a lot of high-sounding values and principles with no corresponding set of measures or indicators of what these will look like in practice. Which is why the toolkit offers an example of how you translate values into what we call “operating principles”, which are much more amenable to assessment. 

7. You have talked about power in different contexts and forms including ‘hidden power’ or ‘invisible power’. Can you briefly tell our readers a bit about that? Are these concepts that are recognised and acknowledged among feminist organizations or is it a challenge for organizations to look within? 

I would say that hidden and invisible power are not widely recognized or acknowledged in most organizations, leave aside feminist organizations. Most organizations—private companies, government departments, NGOs—would rather not deal with these dimensions of power, because they are uncomfortable realities. In rural districts of India, for instance, I have seen senior government civil servants send their wives to represent them at various events (like the inauguration of a women’s income generation program, for instance) and these women think nothing of introducing themselves by their husband’s designation (I am the District Magistrate, said one, I am the Superintendent of Police said another). This is a highly normalized form of hidden power in rural India. 

In feminist organizations, there is even greater resistance, sometimes, to recognizing or dealing with these forms of power because of all the myths and assumptions embedded there. For example, the belief that they should avoid all hierarchies and create “flat” organizations (often resulting in hidden or invisible hierarchies), the sense of discomfort with power and formal leadership and the mythology that is created that power is distributed equally, the delusion that women can’t behave oppressively to other women (or anyone else), the assumption that feminists will inevitably lead differently, fairly. For more information and an appreciation of the importance of hidden and invisible power—especially in organizational contexts—I would refer readers again to the Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation concept paper on which the toolkit is based, and particularly to pages 32 - 45. 

8. The toolkit talks about organizational ‘deep culture’ , the hidden sites and processes of power and influence in an organisation that construct its actual culture. It includes informal or unstated values and systems of reward and recognition like gossip, rumours or the culture of staying late or working on weekends. In some countries where these are ingrained ways of working (where there is no recognition of ‘overtime’ for example), how hard is it for organizations to break out of these systems? Have you frequently seen a commitment to do so on the part of management?

Personally I have seen very few organizations in my context in India and South Asia, willing to acknowledge the existence of a deep structure, let alone tackle the dynamics that operate within it. Even some of our most famous NGOs have revolting gender-biased or caste-based practices (like dress codes for women staff even in their offices, or subtly ensuring that people of certain castes do not handle food) that continue to this day. Part of the problem is that most people don’t challenge these unquestioned norms for fear of losing their jobs, or being penalized or stigmatized in other ways. There is a culture of silence and acceptance that gets constructed, a mirror image of the silence and acceptance of our culture as a whole. I have seen change happen only in contexts where there were leadership changes, or leaders themselves recognized the destructive power of what was happening in the deep culture, and decided to address it. But this is very, very rare. The need to tackle deep cultures is only now being recognized. And frankly, even when this happens, it’s not as though we have a vast number of people who can help organizations work on this. There are very few skilled people who can walk organizations through the process of unearthing their deep cultures and resolving some of the more problematic dynamics hidden there. So the whole area of organizational deep culture / deep structure is a huge challenge.


By Tanya Beer

This is part 2 of a blog about an experiment with strategic learning by a Gender at Work team of facilitators working on gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa. To see part 1, click here.

The team’s long-term strategic learning approach focuses on observing and collecting data that signals whether these propositions are, in fact, holding true. Are they seeing signals that stakeholders feel an increased level of ownership and inspiration due to the participatory nature of the collaborative design? Does the presence of a broader and more diverse group of participants seem to create a context where people see beneath program-level treatment of GBV to the underlying cultural norms that drive it? Do the breadth and size of the convening seem to be generating momentum for a different way of working together across silos in the Vaal? And for all of these questions–what seems to be driving the results that we see, positive or negative? 

The team used the emergent learning (EL) process immediately after their first large group convening to examine what happened and generate fresh insights about what drives results. Then they refined their hypotheses about what success requires and identified concrete, upcoming opportunities to test the new hypotheses.

I’d like to give you an insight into the way it works. Very briefly, the contents of the team’s first EL table included: 

Ground truths: Data, observations and stories from the past from which we can learn 

  • Participants reported a high level of trust and a sense of safety because of the physical decor of the room, the open design of the process, a focus on individual experience, pre-existing trusting relationships among a core group of participants and the facilitators, and a lack of formality that helped break down traditional hierarchies.
  • Despite extensive formal invitations, we didn’t get the kind of diversity in participants that we wanted. We particularly lacked people occupying formal positions of authority in government agencies. 
  • Participants observed that they believed their work was addressing norms. After using the G@W framework to examine change, they realized this was not so. A non-judgmental conversation helped people think about how they might deepen their work to address norms. 
  • Some new ideas for addressing norms emerged spontaneously, but beyond a creative radio program aimed at discussing gender-based violence (GBV) with men, we have limited evidence of continued action. 
  • Some participants are now linking their GBV work to one another, but many who attended do not have the decision-making authority to redesign programs or to make decisions about new partnerships. 
Insights: What we’ve learned from what has already happened                                                     
  • Having a core group who had worked with us before and already trusted our methodology was crucial to creating an atmosphere that brought the others on board and created a non-competitive environment and agenda. 
  • The feel of the space was an important driver of our initial positive results—the welcoming and homey environment invited individual sharing and candor which is rare in work-related meetings in South Africa. 
  • A sense of co-ownership was driven by the co-creation of the approach by the group. It remains unclear whether this early feeling will translate into ongoing action and what kind of support would help people carry it forward. 
  • Formal invitations—even when issued to invitees by people they already know—were insufficient motivation for busy people in positions of power to participate in full-day, multi-stakeholder meetings on GBV, particularly if it’s not a priority issue for their professional work. 
  • Expectations about what types of new or different strategies, connections, or actions to address GBV will be catalyzed by multi-stakeholder GAL processes are limited in part by who attends the meetings, what kind of institutional resources they can bring to bear, and what authority they have to make decisions on behalf of their organizations.

Hypotheses: Given what we’ve learned, what we think will make us successful next time


  • If we can get people reflecting together on what each of us individually can do every single day, then we begin to tap into what’s normative in society, and participants will begin to have a sense that they can change it. 
  • If we ask participants to reflect on the practice of open-space meeting design and Gender Action Learning, explicitly identify what has been different about this way of interacting, and identify where they could apply it in their own work, then they will be more likely to carry it forward and spread the approach. 
  • If participants from the core group bring additional people from their own organizations to participate in the next collaborative, then they won’t feel like lone rangers within their own organization and it will be easier for them to keep it alive if they don’t have to do it alone. 
  • If we approach “official” participants (e.g., government officials, leaders of influential organizations) by asking one or two people to talk to them, listen hard to what would make participation valuable for them, and make sure we can pitch it as a win-win, then we can get more officials to attend. 
  • If after the next world cafe we can conduct an emergent learning table on the whole process with the core planning group, then we can learn more about what’s driving this increased sense of ownership and energy and apply it going forward. 
Opportunities: Upcoming opportunities to test our thinking in action  

  • We will test our hypotheses about how to attract more diverse attendees, including government officials, to the next world café session by redesigning our outreach strategy. 
  • The next world café will be designed to re-create the conditions of safety and trust that seemed to crucial to the first session, and will include reflection on the explicit ways the process is different from “business as usual” to test whether this helps participants apply the approach in their own settings. 
  • The debrief after the next world cafe will focus on exploring lessons that need to be carried forward, understanding what really caused the increased sense of ownership and energy, and exploring what it will take to support participants to continue action going forward. 

After the team had the opportunity to test the hypotheses above, they engaged in a second EL table, with observations and data about what happened serving as the “ground truths” for another round of insights and refinements to strategy. As the initiative progresses, the team will also collect data and insights on the bigger outcomes embedded in its theory to feed into an on-going EL process to generate hypotheses that Gender at Work and other participants can apply to multi-stakeholder Gender Action Learning processes in other settings.                                                     

By applying this cycle in different settings and for different efforts, we’re hoping to sharpen our ability to pose the right strategic questions, train our evaluative lens on the most actionable data, generate meaningful insights and create and test new hypotheses about how to accelerate change. We’d love the opportunity to test this approach out with our partners and friends who are learning from their work as well. 

Tanya Beer is an Associate with Gender at Work. This post was previously published in Fem2pt0.


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