Challenging Male Domination in Activist Meeting Spaces

I recently went to an interesting discussion on gender roles around work in the Men Confronting Patriarchy group I attend. (I hope to write my notes up about that at some point soon.) Also I jus read the zine “Gender Roles in Conversation” by Corrine Monet (1997), a summarised excerpt from her thesis.

At some points during reading the zine I felt a bit defensive, as Monet repeatedly asserts that men’s behaviour in mixed gender conversation is about domination and critiques others who present other – agreeably marginal – reasons for men’s conversational characteristics causing “glitches” in the theoretical conversational model. I felt like Monet’s text generalised that men not only dominate conversations (which I readily agree with) and that this is intentional (with which I mainly agree), but also that this is a conscious decision. Maybe this was just my defensive male reading of the text, so this is definitely an area I’d like to discuss more.

Monet however does clearly describe the range of behaviours exhibited by men to perpetuate dominance and patriarchy. These can easily and readily be applied to anarchist meetings, which is where I want to concentrate.

I’ve found reading up on this subject eye-opening, and I hope that passing on this information will help out in the process of dealing with male domination of activist meeting spaces, but also conversations and interactions as a whole. In this article I will describe a number of recognisable behaviours used in radical activist meetings to perpetuate male domination, which I have witnessed or experienced over the years. Then I hope to look at some options for challenging these in both others and ourselves. Much of the material covered here is from the article “Shut the Fuck up – Or, how the act better in meetings” by Dan Spalding (2001)

I feel is goes without question, that men in the anarchist movement reproduce patriarchy, and benefit from it. Though to varying degrees we believe, say, and even actively practice that we are working towards a world free of any form of oppression; we must be aware that we are the products of a society that has patriarchy and privilege as cornerstones of its existence. This is supported by almost every aspect of our culture. Many of us are born in to privilege, it is also learned and cemented throughout our lives and cannot be erased overnight. We must consciously and continuously take steps to unlearn patriarchal behaviours, self criticise, and create spaces and relationships free of the influence of gendered roles and male domination. I hope the issues covered here will highlight some of these areas to make taking these steps a little easier.

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Male Contributions – It is a commonly held assumption that women speak more than men. Paradoxically, not one study has ever confirmed this (Monet 1997). Recent urban myths originating from a book written in 2006 that women talk three times longer than men was widely discredited by the scinetific community as “guess work” (Liberman, 2006). So much so that future editions of the book (The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine ) has this apparent fact, and major selling point of the book deleted.

Consensus decision making is a model of the society we want to live in, and a tool we use to get there. Men often dominate consensus at the expense of everyone else (Spalding 2001).

Spalding goes on to list a number of (predominantly) male behaviours exhibited in meetings:

  • Speaking longest, loud and often
  • Offers his opinion immediately whenever someone makes a proposal, asks a question, or if there is a lull in discussion.
  • Speaks with too much authority
  • Can’t amend a proposal or idea he disagrees with, so trashes it instead
  • Makes a face every time someone says something he disagrees with.
  • Rephrases everything a woman says.
  • Makes a proposal, then responds to each and every qiestion or critisism – thus speaking as often as everyone else put together.

I couldn’t help but smile when reading Spalding’s list as I can recognise all of them. I could even match up certain names to some of them, likely including my own I should add. A simple way to deal with all these “should be” good facilitation. And it is true that a well facilitated meeting will not experience these issues so readily. Unfortunately it is often the facilitator that displays these behaviours. From this Spalding goes on to describe the male facilitator who:

  • Always puts himself first on stack.
  • Somehow never sees the women with their hands up and never encourages people who haven’t spoken.

This reminds me of an anti-cuts meeting I was at where the chair would finish up every topic of discussion by saying “Well, as chairman, I think…” and would then close the debate. Apart from this domineering abuse of power his use of the word “chairMAN” was quite telling.

Interrupting & Silencing Behaviour – There are (at least) three “tactics” that men use to control conversations: Overlaps, interruptions and late minimal responses.

Overlaps happen at a moment of possible transition, and are when an individual who wants to speak times their contribution as close as possible to when the previous speaker stops speaking. This is very common in un-facilitated meetings and informal group conversations. This tactic benefits the most domineering characters (mainly men) and prevents others from utilising their right to speak and have their point heard.

Where overlaps are rife, people need to spend so much effort on timing their contribution that they do not actually listen to what any other speakers are saying and instead simply prep their entry into the debate. Further, those who do not feel able to use this tactic themselves are shut out of the conversation and are likely to lose interest in what is happening. As a result we fail to have the opportunity to listen to a wider range of opinions necessary to reach any kind of realistic consensus.

Overlaps, if particularly deep can actually cut people off from speaking, and these are interruptions. Interruptions prevent an individual form finishing what they have to say and in fact are nothing more than a blatant refusal of equality of access to a place in the conversation (West & Zimmerman, 1975).

It should not be assumed that every overlap or interruption in a mixed gender situation is an intentional or conscious move of power and control, they may occur where two people start speaking at the same time or where (as I’m sure we all have from time to time) one person gets a bit over excited and starts speaking while someone else is talking. However, a study of this by West & Zimmerman (1983) showed that in these situations, invariably it was the woman that backed down and was silenced.

The last tactic Monet covers is “Late minimal responses”. Minimal responses are signals to the speaker that they are being listened to and understood, such as nodding, “mmm”, “yeah”, “oh right”, wavey hands etc. Late minimal responses are where vocal acknowledgements are used after the appropriate time, thus showing disinterest in what was being said and evidence the listener was not paying attention, or they can be used to break the flow of someone’s speech, thus silencing them. Further, a complete lack of minimal responses can make a speaker feel that their point is not valued or of interest.

Studies have also shown that where these tactics are used in mixed gender conversations, women are much less likely to speak up about it or otherwise assert their right to speak (Spender, 1980). In short, men dominate conversations, when women speak men employ tactics to silence the women and re-take control of the conversation.

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 What Can we Learn?

Spalding looks at what men can do to start dealing with these issues. He calls it “Shut the fuck up”. He continues, “Every time someone:

  • Says something you think it irrelevant
  • Asks a (seemingly) obvious question
  • Criticises your proposal or makes a contradictory observation
  • Makes a proposal
  • Asks a question, or
  • Asks for more input because there’s a brief lull in the discussion…

Shut the Fuck up!”

We are likely to find that in a situation where you wanted to speak, someone else will say the exact same thing, or better.

For other options on challenging male dominance in meetings we can include:

  • Monitor how much you are talking in comparison to others, and not just to the most domineering voices.
  • Don’t paraphrase. I’ve facilitated a few meetings where I categorically stated at the beginning of the meeting that I would not accept paraphrasing. It seems to be a condition that men are badly afflicted with, the need to hear the good suggestion someone just said in your own voice. It’s something I know I catch myself doing. Shut the fuck up!
  • Back down if you speak at the same time as someone else, particularly if you interrupt someone.
  • Move the conversation forward if your point is no longer relevant. This is something of a strength of women, they encourage new ideas and chains of thought, they move the conversation forward in a constructive manner. Men regularly tend to draw a conversation back to a past topic so they can make their point.
  • Wait for a speaker to fully finish, avoid overlaps and interruptions.
  • Actively listen to the speaker rather than planing what you are going to say, preping your overlap, or trying to attract the attention of the facilitator.
  • Use your privilege. This may be seen as a bit controversial to some, but I feel that men can use the very fact we live in a society that puts more value on what a man is saying to highlight problem behaviours via calling people out or “Guerilla facilitation” to open up opportunities for other voices to be heard.
  • Call people out in a constructive way.
  • Run workshops on consensus decision making and horizontal organising for new and experienced people alike.

In this article I wanted to write about women’s conversational behaviour and roles and what women themselves can do to improve equality in meeting (and other) situations. But this is long enough for today, I mainly want to address men and I think there is enough information to digest here for now. I suggest you read the pieces I’ve linked to here for more in depth information on these areas, and much more.

Seeming as I’ve pilfered so much from them to write this piece it seems sensible to leave the summing up to Dan Spalding and Corrine Monet.

As men, we’re encouraged to dominate conversations without even thinking about it. We have to confront each other and ourselves so that domination stops seeming natural. If speaking is a determining factor in the construction of reality, those who control speech also control reality. If interactions can play a part in the construction of gender and its hierarchy, they can also open the path to its deconstruction.

And the last words to a Ska-punk band:

I think that what is missing is ability to listen to what is being said, instead of blankly nodding your head, ignoring what you hear coz you’re waiting for your chance to speak.”

Take Care

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3 comments on “Challenging Male Domination in Activist Meeting Spaces

  1. […] talk about machismo attached to certain groups and scenes within activism. To get people thinking here is an article I wrote about Male domination of activist spaces and how we can maybe challenge that. We will attempt to […]

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