Connecting gender and facilitation – why, when, how?

Next to my collaboration and facilitation practice I also work a lot on gender issues as part of the CGIAR Collaborative Platform for Gender Research hosted by KIT Royal Tropical Institute (my half-time employer thus).

Working in the gender domain has been a wonderful experience so far. The scientists I’m working with are all experts of social inclusion – so they have a natural sensitivity for the unheard/unseen/unrespected (be it women, youths or others). And they are also natural listeners. In other words, they have been a great community to reflect on fertile grounds for better collaborative practices.

This leads me to today’s post: how can one combine facilitation with a bit of a gender lens?

BMGF empowerment framework (detail)

BMGF empowerment framework (detail)

And if I were to use a mini ‘gender framework’, as it were, to this issue, I would emphasise issues of ‘voice and choice’, ‘resources and structures’ centered around ‘agency’ (with elements of decision making, collective action and leadership) all borrowed from the empowerment framework from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Voice here is how women and men are taken into account in conversations and are visible, respected and put to an equal pedestal. Choice would be how men and women have access to ‘engagement’ resources and are able to engage in various ways as they see fit, and as much as possible, equally.

Bearing this in mind, here are some of the ways that I’m thinking about ‘genderising’ our facilitation practices:

Gender-focused attention to process design

Are you planning interactions that allow both men and women and just all participants to express themselves and co-create their future? (photo credit: European Institute for Gender Equality)

These are all the key opportunities you have ahead of people’s interactions to ensure that your process is as equitable as possible. And there are many many opportunities here…

  • Voice: Ensure there is as much as possible a gender/equity-balanced group of participants. How can you encourage more diversity in the group? Who is not there that should be? How clear are the organisers about the value of having diverse viewpoints and experiences in the room?
  • Choice: Think about processes that engage participants in different ways and certainly in other ways than just the typically old Caucasian male-dominated formats such as keynote presentations and panel (or manel) discussions. Buzz groups, break out group conversations, escalating conversations a la 1-2-4-all are all good options.
  • Resources: What engagement artifacts, tokens and props are you making available to your participants that could actually encourage more attention to diversity and equity? If you’re using pictures, do you have an eye for the kind of visuals you’re using? I was rightly blamed for relying too much on pictures of (active) males in my presentation on giving presentations for instance.
  • Structures: What participation formats are you going to use? Are they diverse enough and encouraging diverse connections, diverse ‘ways of knowing’, diverse knowledges etc.? How is even your venue set up? Does it reinforce participation formats that particularly (old) white males feel used to and comfortable with e.g. pulpits and lecterns, U-shaped rooms, inviting the (male) sage on the stage? And talking about key decisions etc., if you’re working with a (group of) ‘person(s)-in-charge’ in designing the process, how do you ensure that they respect and honour different points of views?
  • Agency: How diverse is the set of sessions and segments of your event or process? To what extent does it allow different decision-making dynamics that, as per Community At Work‘s typology of ‘informative, consultative and collaborative meetings’? Are there going to be moments when everyone in the room (men and women, young and old, tall and short, black and white, I mean EVERYONE) will be invited to co-create a decision together?  Or will it just be a pouring of information on participants? On that note, my friend Nadia von Holzen recently quoted Johnny Moore and Viv McWaters on Twitter with much sense and inspiration:

If you go to the trouble of getting people into a room together, you need to create emotional connection. If you’re simply going to push information at them, you could do that online

Gender-focused attention to process facilitation

Now that your design is in place, are you sure that in the moment you are doing everything you can to ensure equity among all participants, including women as much as men and all people generally?

How can you encourage balanced interactions (photo credit: Gender 2 & Interventions – ALa, Galway, FETAC Theatre of the Oppressed Facilitation Skills Training)

  • Voice: The Facilitator’s guide to participatory decision-making emphasises a number of active listening skills that prove really essential to create
    Heard Seen Respected (image credit: Liberating Structures)

    Heard Seen Respected (image credit: Liberating Structures)

    space for people that may not be encouraged to speak: encouraging, balancing, making space for the quiet person etc. Participation formats like ‘Heard / Seen / Respected‘ can also be pulled out in order to point to the lack of attention put on some people’s voices. Sometimes simple tricks such as ‘making space for the ladies’ (in one of my last posts on ‘a daily dose of process literacy‘ is a good thing to bear in mind at all times).

  • Choice: When specific decisions are being made, are women (or other non typically dominant participants) able to effectively choose what is happening? I’m thinking about when responsibilities need to be taken about taking notes in a group (usually a woman is pointed to doing it), or chairing (usually a man suggests taking it up) etc. Is there a conscious option available for both men and women to make decisions? Or does decision-making seem one-sided?
  • Resources: Are you putting in place some elements that allow also women and others to express themselves fully and uninterruptedly? Do you use a talking stick? Do you allow people to reflect and share their individual thinking at times? Do you decide to involve other resources that are bending the potential one-sidedness of your participants’ engagement? e.g. different ways of expressing oneself through music, dance, drawing, a camera or otherwise?
  • Structures: Do you reflect on how the structure of engagement and decision-making might be playing out differently than planned, and not necessarily in a way that advantages women or other participants that are typically not dominant in the group? What can you do (together with the people in charge) about it? Can you establish checks and balances along the way?
  • Agency: Are you checking generally how different participants feel ’empowered’ to discuss, decide and act or not? Or are you just assuming it’s all going fine and that’s ok? Are you checking in and seeing what else you can do to “support everyone to do their best thinking” (the Community At Work definition of being a ‘facilitator’).

You see, there are lots of ways to think about inclusive and equal participation. Again a lot of it as at the core of the Community At Work philosophy (and of other facilitation approaches) not because of gender issues but because it’s about including everyone in interactions that aim at tackling complex issues together or (not so) ‘simply’ collaborating.

But it takes a mindset, and a conscious set of options and decisions to turn that philosophy into a practice that redresses inequity.

What are your additional ideas?

Image result for nozomi kawarazuka gender platform

I’m now thinking that it would be great to entertain a conversation with all these gender specialists who end up facilitating a fair number of events and processes themselves, and are also very often the victims of poorly designed processes as women and gender specialists (read this interview to understand more about this).

I’m sure you also have some great ideas and tips and different ‘structures’ to go about inclusion and attention to gender and other issues of equity… What are they? I want to take this to the next level…

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2 thoughts on “Connecting gender and facilitation – why, when, how?

  1. [Comment by Arwen Bailey (LinkedIn)]: nice article. I would have responded on your wordpress but couldn’t find a Respond option, so posting here. I am a pretty inclusive facilitator it has been said and i do make deliberate efforts to make sure that panels and participants are diverse and we get engagement from all participants. One nice tip is to make sure that in any Q&A situation, you fix things so you take a question from a woman first: https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/how-to-stop-men-asking-all-the-questions-in-seminars-its-really-easy/. Another is to give time for people to discuss in groups before asking a question, as some cultures are so concerned about hierarchy and saving face that it is hard just to throw a question out there.

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