Handling the inevitable resistance to Gender Equality

Working for and towards gender equality – in academia as elsewhere – generates resistance. This is hardly a surprise. Nevertheless, the endless variety in form, intensity, and manner in which resistance shows up has the capacity to take us, individually, very much by surprise.

Handling the inevitable resistance to Gender Equality

Resistance as an unavoidable phenomenon in Gender work – and how to handle it – is a staple element in any comprehensive gender training, and is therefore also on the agenda in SPEAR’s Community of Learning. We have timed it to be now, when we are getting our hands into the very practical implementation of our Gender Equality Plans.

Ever since being part of the FESTA project (FP7 GE-implementation-project 2012-2017), we at SDU have been working as gender practitioners in a university context. In our work we have encountered all sorts of responses – and in this, our experiences are similar to all other Gender practitioners’ experience. In FESTA, we had had the informed foresight to focus on resistance to gender equality as a topic in its own right – a work that resulted in a handbook and webtool on how to handle resistance. The experience we gathered from this has been invaluable ever since – not least in making us fully realize that whereas resistance feels personal, it is rarely purely so. Rather, precisely because it so reliably is bound to turn up at any one point, it can be seen as a general phenomenon. With the ability to recognize resistance as a general and inevitable phenomenon, agents are freed to act anyway and respond constructively and effectively.

With this experience and approach to resistance at the forefront of our minds, we designed a workshop where precisely this way of recognizing resistance would enable the participants to find effective actions that could work in their particular contexts.

The workshop format

Due to the existing COVID-19 restrictions, the workshop was held online and designed to be interactive and draw in experiential exercises to link theory to the participants’ daily practice and experience of obstacles to implementing GEPs and other GE measures. The practice-based theoretical presentation of the concept and consequences of different types of responses to gender equality in academia, including resistance, was informed by the FESTA handbook. It was divided into three chapters: A) What is resistance? (presentation of FESTA’s categorization of resistance; B) Underlying psychological and social mechanisms (norms and stereotypes); C) Strategies to handle resistance.

The practice-based presentation

In the practice-based presentation, a number of perspectives on gender equality were offered – with a view to making the understanding operable.

The first was understanding gender equality as a ‘wicked problem’ in Keith Grint’s understanding. That is, as distinct from, on the one hand, a ‘tamed problem’ - and with it, a set of tried and true solutions and procedures to deal with the issue(s). And on the other a heightened situation or ‘crisis’ and with it a strong-arm approach and severe measures. In contrast, ‘wicked problems’ are notorious for their high degree of complexity along many dimensions simultaneously. Wicked problems have no ready solutions but an abundance of unforeseeable implications for multiple actors across a wide spread of sectors and interests. Take, for example, the refugee or climate situations. Wicked problems also often have the peculiar characteristic that a seeming solution at one point turns up as an added or novel problem somewhere else along the line. Consequently, wicked problems require long term collaboration and a commitment to working through trial and error, often involving collaboration between people and functions that do not customarily interact.

The second perspective was that gender is inextricably linked to privilege, power and, conversely, impotence. For this reason alone, Gender Equality work always takes place in a politicized and contentious field characterized by high tension, a high degree of emotional charging, and much at stake. Gender Equality can, therefore, never be reduced to procedural adjustments alone.

The third perspective offered some of the underlying psychological and group dynamics at work in defining, maintaining, and conforming to norms (and stereotypes) that we all partake in – but which we in our GE commitment are also required to challenge in order to be able to offer alternative solutions and actions.

In order to make these insights operable, a matrix for categorizing resistance was offered, based on the categories offered in the FESTA handbook. This matrix includes five dimensions:

 

 

Striving to understand responses to gender equality along these different dimensions emphasizes the perspective that resistance is more often part of a pattern; that is, resistance is more often likely to be a systematic, systemic response, rather than an individual, personal one. In making such careful analyses, ways to respond effectively and constructively can come to light. Due to the complex nature of the macro- and micropolitical landscape in which GE work plays out, and is deeply intermixed with resistance, the dimensions often interact and coexist, making it necessary to design and define careful strategies to counter resistance and move diligently and constructively ahead.

Turning theory into practice

At the start of the workshop, several ambiguous real-life cases formed the basis of interactive exercises in order to make the reality of resistance stand out. These exercises enabled immediate recognition that any situation can be seen from a number of different perspectives simultaneously; it also facilitated a wider recognition of daily experiences of the participants as instances of resistance. And that it is possible to meet and respond to such situations constructively.

In between and following the three chapters of practice-based theory, participants were asked to reflect whether the workshop had given rise to new thoughts or perspectives on understanding or tackling specific situations at home. These reflections were then brought into group sessions, where the groups were asked to choose one or more ‘cases’ to work over in more depth, carefully considering together the following questions: 

  • In order to understand the situation, is it useful and necessary to think in terms of resistance?
  • If yes – how may the resistance be overcome?
  • What possible avenues for action can we identify together?

The short debriefing after the group-work showed remarkable creativity, intelligence, and responsivity to the very complex situations at the home institutions across all the groups. It also demonstrated how ready and hungry the participants were to deal with tough knots – and how competently they could apply the tools and perspectives offered. Notably, the solutions and responsive actions demonstrated the truth beautifully that GE work requires a multitude of tools, responses, actions, and approaches.