Notes from a group dynamic gender, sex and power workshop in 2005

 Bristol 2005

Group dynamic work is a great way to explore gender relations… and here was an opportunity for a whole weekend of it.  What a pity for all of us that there were so few men there. But just like in all work on gender, and arguably very often in our relationships it is women who do the work. As the gender that is least privileged it is obvious that we want change more than men. How many events have I spoken at or attended when I think – I wish more men were interested in this.

I do understand how difficult it is for men to participate and be ‘themselves’ in this pro feminist environment. It is as if they too are quite unsure as to what constitutes a man or manliness apart from the body. How is a man different from a woman in a positive way – and here let’s move away from the physical. Many of the ‘masculine’ traits are deemed negative or ‘othered’ to the feminine, which is often valorized in these ‘feminist’ or woman- centred gatherings. What masculinities are useful, good, do we women like /love?  What aspects of masculinity or being a man do men like? What tends to happen is that there is an expectation that the ‘good’ men will display all the feminine traits but what happens to the masculine ones?

What was interesting in this weekend was that whilst on the surface men were empathising with women, some stereotypical masculine traits still emerged through this dialogue with women. There were some difficulties and differences in how ideas were communicated… the men still fought shy of the personal whereas the old feminist adage of the personal is the political still resounded for most of the women. In this context men will often be quiet rather than risk displaying too controlling a role in the debate and being called out for it.

It must be hard to be a pro feminist man when it is men who are mostly responsible for so much violation and violence in the world. But men must speak out about it. Just as women are having to work out what parts of the traditional feminine they own or not so men need to do the same. No man or woman is the same as anyone else but the weekend showed me that there is still a long way to go before we understand each other. Women’s anger has been quite subdued in the past fifteen or so years as social theories have focused on the individual and emphasis has been on self improvement and indeed other disenfranchised groups in society. But it is still there and somehow has to be faced by men.

I see this repressed anger _ there is a feeling that we should not feel it, life is so much better for us than it was for our mothers – in organizations. But I am also seeing resignation, an acceptance that perhaps this is as good as it gets and that at least we have entry into the public world of work and can sniff the scent of power. Many women are even harbouring the possibility that perhaps there is a natural order of things and men will always dominate. This would be a dangerous conclusion leading to a social impasse plus a betrayal of the thousands of women who fought hard at great personal cost to give us this ‘freedom’ to still come second.

Although awkward at times the group succeeded in maintaining a consensus until the second day when one woman talked about an incident involving a man following her on her way home the previous night.  She was telling us about it and became really angry about the ‘normality’ of this fear of being followed at night and this resonated with most of the other women in the group. This then was the opportunity for the men present to discuss what if felt like to be linked to the ‘predatory’ male either in reality or symbolically. However what happened instead was that all the men in the room felt attacked and got extremely defensive and aggressive – indeed one stormed out of the room, saying he felt victimized. This left everyone left behind rather shaken and I do not think I am alone in feeling that familiar mixture of anger and guilt (shame) that we (women)  had done something wrong and we should have contained the situation. Oh how often do we women do that, taking responsibility for and managing men’s feelings. These feelings run deep. We owe it to one another to explore them.

Sarah Rutherford