Sex and Facilitation

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.

5 thoughts on “Sex and Facilitation

  1. Hannah Keyser

    Really interesting ideas. As a medical scientist I am in a traditionally male-dominated profession (though this is quickly changing) and I’m aware that I can use my femininity to perhaps manipulate my male colleagues. However, if I do this am I harming my career and professional relationships with not just the men but also other women? It is easy to charm men and the short term benefits can be great but overall I am reducing my worth and my ideas will be seen as less valuable because my colleagues see me firstly as a woman and secondly as a scientist.

    I suppose though that the other side of the argument is that women should be able to express their femininity without devaluing themselves. An ideal, I realise.

    1. Natasha Walker Post author

      One of the great thinkers of the 20th century was Virginia Woolf. She suffered terribly through her thinking, but has left us with mighty thoughts and reflections on gender: “It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only? Ought not education to bring out and fortify the differences rather than the similarities?” (A Room of One’s Own)
      In the same way as education should recognise and foster the differences between the sexes, participatory processes can also function better if communication and facilitation take these differences into account and – yes, perhaps even allow for some playful exploration between the sexes. Of course, going too far can be manipulative and devaluating, as you correctly suggest, Hannah.
      Perhaps we should be talking less just about the differences in the sexes and more about diversity in general. What about differences in age, race, academic or economic background, religion, etc.? It’s important that there’s a recognition of the differences and also of the similarities. Why? Because we can only survive and prosper in the “the vastness and variety of the world” if the variety of the people populating it are constructively involved in solving the great problems and questions confronting us: climate change, poverty, racism, global health and peace, hunger, etc.
      In order to utilise diversity it is necessary to understand, come to terms with and express one’s own individuality. And then construct and nurture an atmosphere in which a) people are interested in other people and their respective individualities, b) people like to seek out and build on their similarities and c) people are encouraged to seek out their differences with fascination, humour and respect.
      This is not about tolerance. We should be careful about demanding tolerance for different people. I was part of a really interesting discussion on diversity at the German President’s Forum Demographic Change. Tolerance is not enough. The example: if I “tolerate” a noise, it means I’m able to either blank it out, ignore it or somehow stop it disturbing me. It certainly doesn’t mean that I accept, appreciate or enjoy the noise! Indeed, if all I can do is “tolerate” the noise, after a while, I’ll no longer be able to cope with it, and will have to either leave the room or get rid of the noise in another way. If we replace “noise” with “person”, I think it’s obvious that we’re on dangerous and quite unconstructive ground. Let’s move on beyond tolerance and start embracing diversity. In facilitation, education and in our lives in general.

  2. Shawn Cunningham

    Dear Natasha,

    I like your brave confrontation with this topic! But let’s all admit it, sex, sexuality or gender often arise during workshops. During an evaluation of one of my first facilitation trainings that I presented, a female participants explained that her greatest disappointment with the training was that nobody came to her room the previous night. I could have dies in front of my group. You should have seen the expressions on some of the faces!! I also had a problem once with my co-facilitator flirting openly with female participants in a workshop we were facilitating.

    I consider myself to be very open and sensitive to gender issues. I am married to a wife who never stands back at any challenge, especially if they come from egoistic male egos. So I have a picture in my mind that women can do whatever they want to if they apply their minds (and sometimes a bit more). So I am always surprised when I have female participants in my workshops who do not want to try things (because they are women), or that prefer to stay in the very traditional roles in their societies.

    However, the opposite is also true. I have often come across women who know how to use their sharp minds, charm and their sexuality to win hearts and minds in workshops!

    Best wishes,

    Shawn Cunningham

  3. Felix Oldenburg

    Hi Natasha,

    what a great idea to write this blog.

    Here is a thought: Sex is in the eye of the beholder. And you get weird beholders sometimes. So the choice is not so much between having a male or female facilitator but between dealing with gender expectations of your group.

    And perhaps this is also why facilitation with a man AND a woman works so well in many cases: Expectations can be easier confirmed.

    Best, Felix

    So the real question could be: When do you align yourself with a

    1. Natasha Walker Post author

      Felix, been meaning to reply to this. Firstly, thanks. Secondly, please note it’s not finished somehow. And thirdly, let me now comment:
      I don’t like the thought of a facilitator being subject to wierd beholders. I agree though, that it’s about expectations. And it’s important to know and understand them. Talk to participants in the breaks. They’ll always come out with something if it’s an issue. Like “Well, well, well. It’s not often we have the pleasure of a female telling us what to do.” Then it’s one’s decision whether to laugh it off or ask something like “How do you feel about it?” (or perhaps something a little less complicated).
      I also want to say what a pleasure it was working in our mixed facilitation team last weekend in Brussels.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s