Using the word “sex” in the title of this post is quite definitely a feeble attempt to up this blog’s interest factor (and it might just work…). However, I really am interested in the role sex has in facilitation. I’ll be looking at sex as in gender and sex as in, well, sex.
First two questions:
- Does the rule we know from “When Harry met Sally” – that men and women can’t be friends as sex always gets in the way – apply to mixed groups of adults trying to reach common goals?
- Can women facilitate predominantly male groups without being seen first as a woman and second as a facilitator (with more or less bafflement and acceptance)? And I suppose the same is true of male facilitators and female groups.
I once started a meeting with 20 people and asked them to choose pictures which would help them introduce themselves and talk about their associations with the topic under discussion. One of the participants – middle-aged, successful and a bit sort of normal-looking – was the first to speak. He shared 2 of his 3 chosen pictures with us, giving us an idea of his work and his hopes for the future. It was when he flashed the last picture around that my heart stopped beating and an unusual silence reigned. The picture was of a beautiful woman. His words, and I quote: “But all that stuff isn’t important anyway, as human beings spend over 80% of their time thinking about sex.” Do they? Even when they’re working in a group towards a common goal?
Another sex experience (gender, not sexual) I’ve had as a facilitator was in being told – or rather told off – for being of the wrong sex. Now this is really nothing I did intentionally. Indeed, my parents weren’t too up on gender selection back in the early 70s. (I’m sure it can be done better now.)
And I’ve watched intimate relations grow between participants. At one conference (2-day) a young couple even started sitting on each other’s lap during plenary (well, she was on his). It was a bit embarassing for the other participants. I had a little word in the break. But what else can you do when cupid’s arrow hits across the note pads and eddings?
So obviously sex does play a role in facilitation. Of course there are general rules: don’t cross the professional boundaries of facilitator-participant relations. And try and ask romantically inclined participants to wait until after the official champagne-crowned “Thank you for all the great results” before smothering each other in more or less heavy petting. And don’t wear provocative clothing etc. But it seems to be impossible to completely ban the man-woman from a facilitated process. Can this be used to create benefits and advantages of being a woman (or a man) as a facilitator? Dr. Shere Hite’s tome on Sex and Business suggests that men are often unable to view women as their equals in business, but see them either as mother or potential sex-partner. Is this really true? Are we so preoccupied with the potentiality of the potency surrounding us, that we can’t get on with facilitating or participating in a target oriented process? And is it not also true that gender differences can be used to create a new set of parameters and new opportunities for a group? That in NOT having a fellow male engineer facilitating them, a group of male engineers can discover new ways of working together and new ideas?
Be aware of your sex as a facilitator. People will notice if you’re a man or woman as it’s quite difficult to hide. But I think we are actually able to get on with it quite well. I think most adults are able to buckle down to the issue and question at hand without constantly having to battle with the pangs and pinings of physical attraction or with the prejudices of sexism. Sure, sometimes it’s necessary to get over the gender thing fairly quickly in order to prove to the group of majority-males that a woman can also facilitate technical questions. But once you’ve proven your worth, you will often receive an extra portion of loyalty and productivity from your participants if you aren’t what they are expecting to see standing in front of them (mid-50s, male, white, MSc after the name, etc.).
There is a real danger, though, that I can think of ré sex and facilitation. It’s when you’re a youngish, attractive facilitator (male/female) that has been placed on the stage to try and distract participants’ attention away from contentious, difficult or conflict-scarred issues they have to deal with. Or in order to sell a group of participants preconceived results as their own. That’s (s)exploitation and it doesn’t work and doesn’t produce results.
At the basis and core of the facilitated process is always the issue. Don’t try and offset it with your charms.