What to do when collaboration reproduces hierarchy and inequality

September 12, 2016 0 Comments

This piece was previously titled “Co-Creation is not Co-Creation When…” until one reader, @nhotte, discovered its true title and shared it on Twitter with this more accurate language. Thanks @nhotte!

There may be nothing new under the sun, but things get forgotten or go unresolved. Patterns get played out over and over again in ways we can’t see. One repeating stuck pattern I see in even the most well-meaning, collaborative circles is gender bias.

We know that gender bias takes a personal and economic toll on individuals. But gender bias has collective negative effects which mostly get ignored. Too many good ideas with the potential to move communities, organizations, entire fields forward get lost simply because they happen to come from women. Too many good ideas only get heard when they are picked up by men (who don’t always give women colleagues credit) and much gets lost in translation. All of this is compounded by race and class.

If we know this happens, one outcome is that we struggle to follow a woman’s lead when it comes to doing things differently. We struggle to move from knowledge to practice and to women-led practice.

It’s fine to “include” more women in the conversation; it’s another thing to have a woman lead it.

Hopeful Practices

The most hopeful, equitable practices I’ve seen for group decision-making and organizational strategy are participatory leadership practices and other collaborative methodologies that allow for emergence:

· circle practice, which Janet Malcolm wrote a bit about in her 2013 New Yorker piece on Eileen Fisher, (Ann Linea and Christina Baldwin)

· World Café (Juanita Brown and David Isaacs)

· Pro-Action Café, which combines World Café and Open Space (Rainer von Leoprechting and Ria Baeck)

· Open Space (Harrison Owen)

· Dee Hock’s Chaordic Path model for balancing chaos and order and working with living systems

· Otto Scharmer’s Theory U model for leading from the emerging future

I would include other Art of Hosting practices, which you can read about here if you’re not familiar with them. (What other practices would you include? Please add them in the comments).

I’ve seen people use these practices to transform healthcare systems, connect changemakers working on the same problems, improve shelter systems, and help social workers and activists work with trauma. I’ve used these practices to help activists and leadership teams have more courageous, effective conversations (leading to wiser action), help the lean community offer lean thinking to new contexts, and help women founders drive new projects forward with greater ease. When hosted well, they help unlock stuck patterns by design. More than “invite more voices to the table,” they allow groups to actively work with divergence when voices inevitably diverge.

Little did I know it at the time, but I gravitated toward these processes early in my career because they were places where my ideas and my leadership (as a queer woman of working class roots) were taken seriously.

So, the world is becoming more collaborative and more people are learning about great new participatory leadership processes. Isn’t this all good? Yes and… even with our best collaborative efforts, a meaningful gender analysis is too often just plain missing. Co-creation is not true co-creation if the same power imbalances are present, the same biases aren’t named, the same people are continually muted.

Consider these examples I’ve seen:

· You can host a great meeting that invites everyone’s input and the group’s intelligence to emerge, the men’s insights will hold more weight, and — not knowing what to do about it — leaders won’t address it at all.

· You can talk about the entire history of a field without speaking about women’s contributions to that field or what the lack of women’s contributions has meant for that field.

· You can introduce an idea or new piece of work to a group from a place of inquiry. A woman (or two or three or twelve) will show up with ideas, opinions, and expertise on the topic. Sometimes her ideas will get incorporated or she will be invited to broaden the scope or change the framing of that piece of work. Most of the time this doesn’t happen. I often hear: “Thank you, I’ve never thought of it that way. You’re right, and we absolutely want women’s voices to be a part of this.” What I hear much less frequently is, “Thank you. Could you help us add that dimension to the project? We don’t know how to do it.”

The dominant group doesn’t know that it’s dominating.

Designing for a Group’s Full Intelligence

What I’ve learned is that designing simply for emergence still too often means designing for a collective intelligence to arise that preferences white, straight, men’s voices. We must not design only for inquiry, divergence, and emergence, we must design for a group’s collective full intelligence to emerge — the combined intelligence of everyone in the room, not only those who get heard at first pass. We must design for emergence and equity.

This takes women defining their own terms and being willing to lead the field (why I’m a Leadership Ambassador with Take The Lead), men showing up as vocal advocates (you know who you are), and everyone examining their bias, including women. As my colleague Tuesday Ryan-Hart says:

“Unless you very intentionally and specifically have an equity lens and bring some of that thinking and practice into [systems change work], you might actually change the system… but fundamentally [still have] the same hierarchies and oppressive structures that you had before… You might actually have the same results for people within the system.”

It’s in this spirit that I offer these questions to the participatory leadership and women’s leadership fields both:

1) Do you know when authority and/or expertise is needed versus collaboration and inquiry?

2) Do you have group processes in place that invite divergence and allow for collective intelligence to emerge?

3) Do you give women credit for their work and ideas? For their insights and thought leadership? Do you look at how women have been credited (or not) in your field historically?

4) Do you include women-led research in the research you, your organization or group share about the problem you are aiming to solve, the way work gets done, or the stories you tell about what’s happening across your field? If not, are there women experts you can reach out to?

5) Do you believe women when they tell you about something they’ve experienced first-hand personally or professionally? Do you routinely question women’s lived experience or expertise?

6) Do you claim your “expertise” in a way that silences the voices and opinions of others?

7) As a woman, do you feel comfortable claiming ownership of your ideas and expertise? Being the first one to say something hard or new?

8) As a woman, do you ask for credit when your ideas are used without giving you credit?

9) Who do you already know who can bring in a gender equity lens to your work? An intersectional lens to your work?

These are just a few ideas for how we might design for emergence in a way that explicitly acknowledges gender bias.

Stuck patterns keep showing up until you name them and actively, messily work towards something else. What if we named that gender bias shows up in even the most well-meaning, super-skilled collaborative circles? What if we held on to accountability and released blame? What would become possible in our organizations if we admitted we can’t see what we can’t see?

It’s a powerful question I’ve seen break things open when spoken at a training event or retreat. The hard part is living by these questions when we’re too busy or tired or conflict averse to talk about unjust, unwise power dynamics when they happen in our everyday work.

What experiments in the systems change community (or any other space) are happening that combine participatory leadership and emergent practices with a gender equity len


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