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feminismus.czČlánky › Gender Power Flower

Gender Power Flower

10. květen 2001  | Jan Haverkamp
The last two weeks i had two large meetings to facilitate. Centrally in the art of facilitation is the term "power". Thoughts on East-West gender power dynamics.

The last weeks circled for me around two large meetings that i had to co-facilitate. A facilitator is not a moderator, it is not a trainer, it is not the president of the meeting... a facilitator is someone who makes it possible for the participants to communicate optimally. A perfect job for a man who is inspired by the feminist and a whole score of other social movements. Very centrally in the art of facilitation is the term "power".

One of the meetings was a stakeholder meeting around the theme of sustainable mobility. It was organised by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and sponsored by Volkswagen, DaimlerChrysler, Skoda cars and Michelin - so we had to work basically for "the enemy". Aim was to get input from other stakeholders in mobility to what future developments in mobility the car industry should expect; developments that lead to sustainable mobility. There were participants from high management levels from the car industry, oil industry, government people up to vice-minister level, academics and researchers and NGOs - even radical ones. There were only ten women, including one of our facilitation team. Ages ran from as young as 22 to as old as 64. Around 40% from "the West" and 60% from Central and Eastern Europe - and two Asians. A total of almost 70 people involved.
The other one was a meeting of around 60 NGO energy experts - 70% Central and Eastern European (with a large amount from the former Soviet Union) and 30% from "the West". Just over half female, and around the same age-group of the first meeting. An important difference was that all had an NGO background.

When looking at these settings from a gender perspective, one is inclined to believe that in both settings gender plays a significant role. And i agree - it did. For us as facilitators it is very difficult, however, to find out what role exactly. Did the fact that the first question in the mobility meeting came from a woman say something about the growing self-confidence amongs women in Central Europe? Does the low amount of women in this meeting say something about their difficulty to climb in the hierarchy in the mobility sector? Again, one is inclined to believe that that may all be true.
To be prepared for the complicated power dynamics in these kind of meetings, we as ZHABA facilitators focus on some crucial differences and use for that a tool called "the Power Flower". Filling in the picture, we try to map the main power differences in the group we work in - and between the group and us as facilitators. Gender is an always appearing power issue, but it is one amongst a whole list of others: geography (where do you come from), language skills (how fluent are you in English), education (professors sometimes seem to think of themselves as more important as handworking `ignorant` youths), how comfortable you are with the unconventional methods we use...

the Power Flower - © ZHABA

But even after mapping, it is very difficult to see what exactly the role of gender is in such complicated dynamics. Today just three of the multitude of observations:

- Strength of voice - If (very often Czech ;-) ) men ask me during the preparation of a meeting, why i consider gender as a power factor at all, i very often illustrate it (out of lazyness) with "Just look at when the room is a little bit noisy. I just speak LOUD and everybody starts listening. Try to do that with a soft female voice". This is a sexist remark as such, based on the fundamental mistake of mixing large scale statistical facts with individual cases. Although it is undeniably true, that the average voice-strength of men is higher than of women, this fact does not say anything about the individual. There are also soft-voiced shy men, and they stand as little chance in the power struggle of dialogue as their female co-participants. And there are strong-voiced women that have no problem to get attention. Apart from the fact that there exist many women that learned how to use their so called `weakness` as a strength: Dutch feminist sociologist Ieteke Weeda started her lectures for sometimes over 400 students by starting to talk without microphone, nor overstretching her voice. Because she used her voice very melodiously, and because she started with two or three remarks that would put any student off balance, within a matter of 10 seconds all 400 would be as silent as a cool breeze and listen. Power and gender is a complicated issue...

- Exposed position - In the first meeting on sustainable mobility, there were only ten women. Eight of these had a rather exposed position - either as manager, researcher, NGO manager or as facilitator or organiser. That made them more assertive and stronger. Two did not have that advantage - they were trainees from one of the sponsoring firms - piling up a whole load of other disadvantagous power factors like a working atmosphere that is more secluded from general trends in society, not the possibility to show initiative and get it rewarded, a disciplinary educational past. It was not easy for them. They may have found the whole process interesting, but it took quite a bit of energy from my collegue facilitators to join their input with that of the rest, and i doubt that we completely succeeded...

- Sexism, in the more limited sense of sexuality as power factor - I have no idea in which of the two meetings the most flirting took place. I call it flirting - one of the power factors that plays a role is that of attractiveness. And it always plays a role in sexual-orientation-mixed settings, no matter where it is on the globe. It is one of the gender factors that can drive you completely crazy as facilitator because it is so difficult to manage... the male participants that first stare at the breasts of another participant before listening. This is a strong statement, but i as heterosexual man have to admit, that a first impression of female attractivity (radiated by whatever image or non-verbal or verbal communication) can be a strong distractor. Some women have overcome this problem with stronger personality, others by hiding away in a corner of brilliancy-covering shyness. I know little men that prepare themselves for this...
It seemed to me, that it must have been easier in the second meeting to deal with this phenomenon of sexism. But not only because there were more women (which gave the women a safer feeling, but also `dilluted` sexism). Also because gender issues as such are considered important within the environmental and energy movement (eventhough to a lot lesser extend within the Czech movement), and all participants are more or less aware of it. But another factor was the `dressing code` - in the first meeting there was, though unofficially, a more fashionable dressing code. This stresses female beauty more strongly, as well as provides men with a more stylish and therefore more self-confident touch... strengthening all possible forms of machismo - even within the most conscious pro-feminist men present. And what about geography and culture? Eastern European women stress their female features in fashion and make-up stronger than their Western collegues. The latter come off more business-like - and therefore slightly more serious, the first being seen as "dream-women" (with all the negative machismo annotations that can go with it: vulnarable, easy to lay, slightly dim) - especially by the Western men that are not used to such expressive appearance so much. Or take the power factor of differences in social-economic position, age and so on...

The most striking thing for me in both meetings was to see so many strong women. Even the only eight `exposed` women made a stronger impression on the entire meeting than the whole lot of very self-confident men. But also in the second meeting, where for the newer participants there were many strong women as a role-model. Gender relations are all about power - the fact that we have a gender problem has to do all with differences in power - not so much because of the biological differences attached to gender, but above all because of the role of men and women attached to all the other power factors. These power roles in very many cases have built the larger power position of men.

Jan Haverkamp is of Dutch origin and immigrated into the Czech Republic in 1997. He worked as organizational development specialist for Central and Eastern European environmental organizations and is currently Greenpeace anti-nuclear campaigner for Central Europe. Besides that he is facilitator in the ZHABA facilitators collective. He lives with his partner and daughter in Cvrcovice near Kladno and has a son in the Netherlands.

Názory z druhé strany - Thought from the other side

In this weekly column, pro-feminist men - men that are strongly influenced by the feminist movement - write their observations in daily life on the role of men and women in the Czech Republic.

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