Women are half of the population of the world, however, we become aware of what being a woman means one by one, in unique, personal and untransferable ways. Days like 8th of March weave all these ways together as part of one and the same story. This post is based on my own path to this awareness in the context of action research for territorial development, a research methodology that we have developed in Orkestra-Basque Institute of Competitiveness for more than a decade. The full story is in a chapter published recently in an open access book about the roots & wings of this approach.
My awareness of being a woman in action research is an ongoing process that I have not developed alone. Knowing who we are might seem self-evident. However, strangely enough, we cannot always reach there on our own. In my case, it took self-inquiry facilitated by Hilary Bradbury
Before I met Hilary, I had read in Annemarie E. Groot’s PhD that “women in particular are attracted to the art of facilitation”
and I had written a book with Pablo Costamagna on facilitative actors of territorial development
, where invisibility of facilitators emerged as a major unsolved challenge
. However, I was not connecting these two dots in my mind.
When addressing invisibility with Hilary, she invited me to think about it in terms of gender. I did not follow her advice at once, I was afraid of developing a discourse I felt could hurt some of my colleagues. However, I started counting men and women playing the roles of territorial actors and facilitators in our main action research project. Territorial actors are those who reflect, decide and act on territorial development. Facilitators are those who take on the role of creating the conditions that enable actors to reflect, decide and act. Let me simplify by saying that actors do territorial development, facilitators take care of actors. Our research team is today composed of eight members, five of whom directly facilitate policy makers’ processes. All five are women. Since 2009, we have worked with thirteen policy makers as main territorial actors. All of them are men.
I saw that it might be interesting to continue exploring gender, after all. So, I started to read about it. I discovered in the literature feminine and masculine types of behaviour categorized after analysing how men and women tend to behave. The relationship between feminine and women (or masculine and men) was statistical. This means that women tend more to have a feminine style and men a masculine one, but not always. At the core of the feminine style, I found emotions and care, and the search for self-growth through the wellbeing of others. At the core of the masculine style, I found rationalism and objectivity, and a search for growth through separation.
We might think these sound quite complementary roles if freely chosen and equally valued. But are they? I continued my inquiry with this new question in mind. I could easily relate territorial actors to masculine style and facilitators to feminine. Our statistics confirmed what I had read too, five women with feminine roles and thirteen men with masculine roles. Why did this make me feel uneasy? Because these two styles do not co-exist in equal terms. In our research processes they operate in two environments, university and governments, where masculine values prevail. Here I could connect the dots: in environments where rationalism and objectivity represent professionalism and emotions and care are just considered as features of character, the feminine work becomes invisible. Strategy and leadership are usually recognized in the realm of reason, and when developed in a feminine style, they are often considered just nice gestures. Connecting the dots helped me understand the subtle and still systematic way the feminine becomes invisible.
There was one book that specially helped me elaborate on the connection of the dots. It is a book by Joyce K. Fletcher entitled Disappearing Acts. In her book she describes a cyclical process where women use a feminine approach because they believe it is the most efficient way to solve the organization’s problems. As their strategy and leadership are interpreted in terms of politeness, niceties and even weakness, they get tired and give up. However, they still see the feminine style as the most efficient, and when they recover energy they try again. They remain trapped in this cyclical process of trying and giving up.
In my reflection process with Hilary, I discovered in myself both the feminine and masculine styles. The masculine had developed in my academic work, where, after years publishing with other authors, I decided to do it alone. An example of growth through individuation. I became visible in ways that I had not experienced before. I was invited to participate in two editorial boards of journals in our field and I joined international networks where I could share my perspective on action research. However, like the women in Fetcher’s book, in my work as a facilitator (which I consider my most relevant contribution to the development of our territory), I am still trapped in ongoing cycles of trying and giving up.
I believe the complex problems we face as humanity require an approach where the masculine and feminine styles reinforce each other. This mutual reinforcement requires, first, that feminine styles are recognized as strategic too. It also requires the recognition of feminine leadership as a strong and necessary style of leadership, that cannot be undervalued by relating it to niceties and weakness. In this path, today 8th of March, is a day to remember that most persons trapped in the ongoing cycles of trying and giving up described by Fletcher are women.
Miren Larrea is Senior Researcher at Orkestra. She began her professional career as a research assistant at the University of Deusto, where she wrote her doctoral thesis on the local production systems of the Basque Country. After a decade dedicated to teaching and research, she worked for six years at a local development agency, where she combined her experience as a regional development professional with her work as a university researcher.
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