When the going gets tough

A few years ago, I had attended a Group Relations Conference, which basically is a learning environment for learning to sense the unconscious dynamics of a group. Over the five day duration of the programme, we learned to recognize common stereotypes, assumptions and tendencies in the group with regard to leadership. We were about 18 or so participants. All of us modern, sensitive people with greater or lesser interest in human behavior. As such, at the onset of the programme, I was fairly certain that I was not a prejudiced person. I was also fairly certain that most of us viewed genders with equal repsect, if not all.

The faculty were headed by a male and a female chairpersons who formally began the programme in the first session. Imagine my shock when within a few minutes into the programme, the male chairperson declared that the fact that we asked the woman chairperson questions about the programme but not him meant that we were prejudiced against her and wished to silence her. Frankly, I thought the man was a few paise less to the rupee. Wouldn’t the fact that we engaged more with her than him mean just the opposite? But it was the beginning of the programme.

A few minutes later another woman from the faculty observed that we were treating one of the male participants as some kind of alpha leader and another participant was competing with him in authority. The group lit up like there was a bomb under our seats. Furious questioning ensued. Accusations flew that the faculty was trying to create discord in the group, and more. A male member of the faculty intervened to explain that this was a hypothesis based on the actions of the group and things calmed enough to proceed. At that point, I was wondering if I should have attended at all. The faculty was obviously some kind of gender fanatics – I remember thinking this. What a waste of good money and five days…

It only struck me over lunch that we had so far had two women and two men speaking. Both women got questioned, the statements or explanations of both men had been accepted without question. Immediately my mind jumped to the explanation that it was a coincidence that both women spoke insanely, but that was not true. The first was simply introducing the faculty and asked us if we had questions, while the other made an observation, but didn’t force us to agree with it. Both the men had agreed with the women in the sense of upholding whatever they said, or questioning them being questioned, but we didn’t have a problem with them.

It was like being run over by a truck to realize that far from wasting my time and money, I had started learning from the word go. There were no guarantees that what I learned would only be pleasing. By the end of the first day, it was clear that this programme was like nothing we had ever experienced. The observations of the faculty were usually so shocking that we didn’t want to believe them, but the evidence was mounting that they were strictly based on observations of actual behavior in the group. We had already started seeing the first layer of our stereotypes that determined how seriously we took someone or if we allowed their authority to stand, or undermined it. All this without intending. We were shocked everytime to realize what we had done automatically as a group.

Sex, age, power – powerful programming around these determining our responses to people. On a very easy to understand level, would you trust a police man or police woman with your safety? Or, if you saw a stranger on the street, would you be as likely to be attracted or repulsed by a virile looking man/woman (opposite gender) in his prime or a potbellied, graying woman/man (same gender as yours) – both being utter strangers? We have these tapes playing in our head creating inexplicable biases we don’t even realize exist. We act on those biases. As a society, we have many common biases that get acted on, which can be a very powerful thing to overcome when they are harmful.

One of the many interesting observations around gender and leadership was that a situation with threat or potential for bad performance had a higher rate of women representatives. This was very clearly observed as men leading group decisions till such a time as a representative leader had to step up for something unknown (and the programme was VERY intimidating psychologically). In almost every instance, it was a woman who either volunteered (me included), or got nominated. However, the leader to take over from her was male in EVERY instance the group successfully passed the phase. It was unanimously agreed based on our individual observations that the perception of challenge was followed a woman becoming a leader in every instance that a woman led the group. Men leaders led both in times of challenge or otherwise. There was no instance of women leaders when the group was enjoying fruits of success, but one that could have become (but didn’t). That was the factual data from within the group. There also were a few hypotheses raised as to why this might be so. The top three that caught the interest of the group were:

  1. As a group, we were trying to “preserve” our males by treating women as cannon fodder in situations of threat, bringing men to the fore again once the threat had passed.
  2. The vulnerability of the group in facing an unknown challenge was expressed in the form of a woman being its face.
  3. There was an unconscious attempt to manipulate a potentially unfavorable authority by charming/seducing them by means of a woman into being more favorable.

The programme concluded before the group reached any kind of consensus, and we mostly found further data that could mean any or all of the three. Inconclusive, but incredibly insightful on gender and leadership. However, there were some inescapable observations:

  1. Gender skews our thinking so profoundly that is is impossible to even understand the full extent of it. There is an overwhelming bias to the advantage of men and both men and women [often unconsciously] conspire to maintain it.
  2. This bias is not necessarily functional to the objectives or well being of anyone, though it does serve to make the immediate experience of men easier and women more difficult than it would be under strictly equal conditions.
  3. “Logic” is usually not logical. An overwhelming observation repeated hundreds of times was that behavior was largely determined by stereotypes and once a choice was made, logic was selected that would justify it. Sometimes it failed to stand up to scrutiny without an admission of intent to handicap women and give men an advantage. While reviewing our own behavior, the group was easily able to come up with logical explanations for alternative choices, though they had been inexplicably rejected in making the original choice.
  4. Men dominate women, women are conditioned to accept the dominance of men, “society” or the group is conditioned to seeing this as normal and equality, in fact, jars.
  5. Unless there is a threat or any other hindrance, the tendency is for men to have an absolute say over happenings in the group, including happenings relevant to women.

I was reminded of this today, when a lot of articles are happening considering that it is International Women’s Day. Some that stayed in mind and triggered recall of this pattern are:

In Subject for debate: Are women people? Jessica Winters describes the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 16, 2012 consisted of Catholic Bishop William Lori, the Rev. Matthew Harrison, Dr. Ben Mitchell, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and Craig Mitchell – all men – with the stated purpose of determining the Obama administration’s policy on contraception.

India has an increasing number of women leaders as our economy is in increasing crisis. From 9% last year to 14% this year in senior management positions. HR, a department under increasing stress of inadequate performance due to job hopping, difficulty in finding excellent professionals, and managing employee satisfaction in the face of depressing economic scenarios has the most women at 24%. Last year, 1% of CEOs were female, this year it is 10%. Financial officers have also gone up to 10%.

On the contrary, China, doing well so far is reporting a low number of women in executive positions as compared with last year. A sentence that particularly jumped off the page for me is:

Anthea Wang, vice-president of public relations and media communications at DaimlerNortheast Asia Ltd and Mercedes-Benz (China) Ltd, said women enjoy certain advantagesthat, during negotiations, can help parties that are at odds on some issue reach commonground.

There are other examples, but they are not the point. It isn’t as though observations from a small group of people will apply exactly to a world with multiple ethnicities and many possibly related variables. But I think it underscores something I have been saying for a long time.

The inequalities that give birth to human rights problems are not necessarily deliberate and thus cannot be fixed with our current approach of relying on laws alone. They are very subtle ways in which we, as a group change our choices to address biases and priorities that we are not consciously aware of even having and would likely outright reject if we were making conscious choices. We need to address human minds in a well researched, knowledge oriented and systematic manner and develop within society the skills to recognize their actions and their impact on the well being of everyone. In other words, the government needs to urgently start making serious investments in social analysis to see desperately needed changes on the human rights front.

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