The Gender Issue in Groupwork

Geraldine M. Grindley


The very form in which this paper is written is an example of the kind of gender 
issue which arises frequently in my work. I will begin by defining the terms used 
in the title, and I will follow that with a review of some of the theories about gender
 which I have found useful in reflecting on the topic. I will then give some practical 
examples from my work to illustrate the points that I am making, and from that I
 will attempt to draw some conclusions and hypotheses.

This is a good example of what Jungian psychology has defined as a “masculine”
 way of working – logical, linear and productive. I learned to present my research 
this way while writing a Master’s thesis at University. The conventions for writing
 such documents were developed long ago by male academics, who for the most
 part still govern the system of third level education.

In real life, the process was quite the opposite. I became aware of the gender issue 
through experiences in my practice. I tried to make sense of those experiences by 
reading and research, and the last stage in the process was arriving at a clear 
definition of the terms. In the end I was left with more questions than answers. This 
process is intuitive, interconnected and open – which is very much a “feminine”
 way of working.

In preparing to write this article, I opened my group psychotherapy “bible”, The 
Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy by Yalom (1975). Confidently I 
opened the index to search for references to the word “gender”. Imagine the shock
 when I discovered that the word was not there! Knowing that the words gender
 and sex are often used interchangeably, I looked under “sex”. However I found no
 reference to the sex of the therapist or that of group members. I thought of two
 possible explanations for this omission. The first was that the sex of the therapist 
is not significant in group psychotherapy. The second was that, as Irvin Yalom is
 a man, he does not see gender as an issue when working with groups.

I was surprised, because as a woman who works with groups as a facilitator, trainer 
and group therapist, I am constantly reminded of the gender issue in groups, and
 certainly, in some of the literature it emerges as a significant factor. I assumed that
 it was significant, and worked on that basis.

Working definitions

Before going on to summarise the theories, I think that it is useful to offer a
 working definition of the terms “gender” and “groupwork”. As I have mentioned 
above, the words “sex” and “gender” are often used interchangeably, not only in 
everyday conversation, but also in the literature. The most confusing definition I found was that given in An A-Z of Counselling Theory and Practice, 
(Stewart 1992):

“Femininity/masculinity generally refers to gender, those personal 
characteristics that are believed to differentiate one sex from another.
 Gender is more than the manifest biological differences.” (Pp 87,88).

The definition which I find most helpful is the following:

”Sex refers to genetically determined characteristics and is a biological term, 
whereas gender has a psychological and cultural basis. It is the complex
 interplay of forces of societal expectations with the prescription on
 behaviour, attitudes, and roles based on sex differentation” (Butler & 
Wintram 1991).

Groupwork is defined by the American Association of Specialists in Groupwork as

”a broad professional practice that refers to the giving of help or the
 accomplishment of tasks in a group setting. It involves the application of 
group theory and process by a capable professional practitioner to assist an 
interdependent collection of people to reach their mutual goals, which may
 be personal, interpersonal, or task related in nature.”

There are many different types of groups in existence and the Association
 distinguishes between them, classifying them according to their purpose, into four 
general categories:

(i) Task/Work Groups as groups in which the focus Is on the application of group
 dynamics principles and processes to improve practice and the accomplishment of
 identified work goals.

(ii) Guidance/Psychoeducational Groups are groups which are designed to 
educate group participants who are presently unaffected, about potential threat
 (such as AIDS), a developmental life event (such as a transition point), or to cope
 with an immediate life crisis (such as the suicide of a loved one), with the goal of 
preventing an array of educational and psychological disturbance from occurring.

(iii) Counselling/Interpersonal Problem Solving Groups help participants to
 resolve the usual, yet often difficult, problems of living, through interpersonal
 support and problem-solving and to develop their existing interpersonal problem-
solving competencies that they may be better able to handle future problems of a 
similar nature.

(iv) Psychotherapy/Personality Reconstruction Groups help individual group 
members to remediate their in-depth psychological problems.

Review of the literature

A number of theories have helped me to deal more effectively with the gender 
issue in groups. The first is a paradigm developed by Robert Boyd (1991) to
 explain the forces operating in a group at any time. He called it the Matrix Model. 
He took Foulkes’ (1948) concept of the group-as-a-whole, in which the group he suggested that this living organism is made up of three interacting and dynamic 
systems. The three systems are the Personality System, the Cultural System and
 the Social System. Boyd argues that the small group exists in a cultural context
 within a given society. It is affected by the structures and patterns of the society in
 which it exists. The structures and patterns relating to gender in the society of 
origin, therefore, have an impact on the culture of the group. As we live in a 
society where women are still disadvantaged and oppressed, where the dominant
 culture is male, then it is certain that these patterns will be ingrained in the group.

This theory is supported by the work of Brown (1992), and Brown and Mistry
 (1997). These authors define sex as the “biologically determined differences 
between men and women” and gender as “socially constructed meanings 
associated with male and female”. In extensive research into the subject, they 
came up with four major findings:

1. The sex of group workers and group members has a profound effect on group 
behaviour and process

2. Groups are a microcosm of the wider society

3. Women are frequently disadvantaged in mixed groups because their needs tend 
to get subordinated to those of men. One reason for this differential experience is 
that the presence of women is often “used” by men unconsciously, to enable them 
to be more expressive and in touch with their feelings

4. The singleton member is prone to marginalisation and stereotyping.

Garvin and Reed (1983 p. 147) suggest that “…the gender…of the groupworker
 (and all leaders) has an impact on group situations that may be of equal force to the
 variables we customarily seek to affect, such as programme, leadership technique, 
group composition, and so forth.”. This statement seems very strong and 
unequivocal, compared to Vernelle’s (1994, p.82) rather more tentative statement 
that “It is often useful for co-leaders to be different kinds of people: one male, one 
female for example”.

Whitaker (1985) on the other hand, agrees that the presence of two therapists in a
 group can be an advantage, on the basis that the group is more likely to simulate a 
family, but she argues that there is no evidence to suggest that the pair of therapists
 have to be of different sexes, for one therapist to be seen as the mother and the
 other as the father. She goes on to emphasise the necessity for the co-workers,
 whether male and female, or both of the same sex, to be “clearly different persons,
 with different strengths and sensivities, but …(sharing) certain basic stances and
 values concerning the group” (p96).

Psychoanalytic theories have also helped me to makes sense of some of the
 situations that develop in groups. Freud’s (1921) theory that people are driven to
 join groups out of a deep unconscious need to resolve unresolved relationships
 from the past, and that the mechanism they use to do that is transference, explains
 the apparently strange interactions that happen in groups. If we agree that in order for transference to take place, the recipient offers a “hook” on which to hang the
 transference, then the first “hook” offered by the group leader is the perceived
 authority role, but the second “hook” must surely be the gender of the leader.

Jungian theories about masculine and feminine, and the developmental stages of 
the anima and animus as developed by Jung, Neumann and Von Franz, and further
 explored by Hill (1992) have helped me to understand at an intellectual level 
something that I have always been aware of at a more intuitive level. My own 
theory is that groupwork is by its nature “feminine”, particularly as one moves 
along the continuum from Task/Work groups towards Therapy/Personality
 Reconstruction groups, and that women are more naturally attracted to it than men.
 However, as the groups moves through the various stages of development, it takes
 on a more “masculine” form. The role of the leader in making this transformation 
effective and constructive for the members is very important, and therefore, the 
gender of the leader, or the gender balance of the members and the leadership team,
 or indeed the gender-awareness of the leaders is crucial to the transformative effect 
of groupwork.

This theory is supported by Elliott, in a paper entitled “The womb and gender 
identity” in Brown & Zinkin (1994 p. 125), who says that

From the beginning most women seemed to know immediately and 
intuitively how to ‘proceed’ in psychotherapy, which gave them an edge and 
an advantage over the men, Group therapy, I began to think, was being
 experienced as a feminine activity….women are given a familiar model 
while men are exposed to the unfamiliar. Therapy deals with the unseen,
 with emotions and thoughts that cannot be physically touched, that come 
from inside the mind and body. I suggest that the group-analytic process 
corresponds unconsciously to the little girl’s discovery that her reproductive
 organs lie not outside the body where they can be seen and touched, but
 inside where they can only be fantasised or talked about.

The commonest consideration of sex or gender in the literature is in relation to
 group composition. Many writers mentioned above, and also Whitaker (1985),
 Bernard & MacKenzie (1994), present the cases for homogeneous and non-
homgenous groups. Conditions for homogeneity include the sex of the members. 
The argument seems to be that in some cases and at some stages in the
 development of the members, single sex groups are useful, if not essential. This
 argument is particularly strong in the case of women’s groups, where the 
population is often very vulnerable or opressed, where the intervention is often
 made in response to a perceived crisis, and when it is a relatively short-term 
intervention. However in long-term developmental groups, heterogeneity in 
relation to sex. offers a greater challenge to members to overcome difficulties.

Whitaker 11985 p. 179)) cautions that “it is undesirable for a composition to include 
only one woman, or one man. or one non-white, or one much older or much younger person.” She gives two reasons for this. The first is that the singleton 
member may be cast into a stereotyped role by the other members, and the second 
is that the singleton member has a “ready-made defense mechanism available to 
him” which enables him to avoid dealing with the implications of his behaviour in
 the group.

Examples from my own experiences in groups

Moving on from the theories to the practice, my own awareness of the importance
 of the gender issue in groups developed gradually. I began my work in
 predominantly male teams in groupwork in the early 70’s. There I was stereotyped 
by my male colleagues as a “typical” woman – I talked “too” much and I was 
”very” emotional. I carried that for many years, trying in those work groups, to
 behave more like a man and at the same time, in my youth groups, being sensitive
 and protective towards the young women in my groups and valuing unduly any
 contribution by the young men which took the form of “feminine” behaviour.
 Somewhere along the line, I managed to reach a point where I had integrated the 
feminine and the masculine in my own work with groups, and in a sense this was
 a necessary development, when I became a trainer, because the task of a groupwork 
trainer is to use the dynamics of a group to help the members learn about groups,
 and develop the attitudes and skills for working in groups, which requires both the 
feminine and masculine approach.

Boyd’s (1991) theory about the Cultural System in the group was demonstrated
 dramatically for me when, within the last few years, I began to work as a 
Management Consultant and Trainer in the Business sector. The clientele in these
 groups is mixed, but often with more men than women. My two colleagues are 
both men from a management background. My first experience in this 
environment was as a participant, when I took part in the programme to evaluate 
it. I was one of four women in a group of ten, with two male co-trainers. I found 
this experience very difficult. It seemed to me that the men in the group did almost
 all of the talking, and that the two trainers were unaware of this dynamic. When I
 fed back my observation, not only the men in the group, but also the women, 
angrily denied that this was the case. Shortly after this the women began to 
participate more, but often their contribution mirrored that of the men in the group.

Later when I began to work with my two colleagues as a trainer in this programme,
 they did most of the input, while I concentrated on facilitating the group process.
 After a while I began to notice once again that the men spoke much more than the 
women, and spoke to the two male trainers, rather than to me. Again when I
 commented on this in the processing of the work, my two colleagues said that they 
hadn’t noticed the development of this pattern at the time. The group members 
were angry and defensive about what I said, but interestingly, all the women were 
first to challenge my observation. They were listened to by the men at this point,
 because they were also supporting the position of the men in the group, but that 
was enough to change the pattern of communication, and from that point on, the
 women participated as much as, if not more than, the men.

It seems obvious to me that these participants brought with them into the group the 
culture of their workplaces – a male dominated culture, where women are just
 beginning to make their mark, and where often, to fit in, they think that they have 
to learn to behave in a masculine way.

It was as a group work trainer that I began to take an interest in the theories of Allan
 Brown and Tara Mistry. In one group, which had 2 men and 8 women, the men 
said that they felt constantly frustrated because they were afraid to be spontaneous 
in a group composed mostly of women, with a women trainer. They said that they 
would behave differently in a group where there more men. They said that they
 held back because they didn’t want to hurt or upset the women, or because they 
thought that the women might not be able to “cope” with their behaviour. When
 the group talked about this, the women said that they missed the masculine energy 
in these groups, and they wished that the men would be more spontaneous.

However, my comment is that if the men were more spontaneous and less careful 
about how they interacted with the women in the group, the chances are that the
 women in the group might be angry with them, and accuse them of being sexist or 
insensitive. If the men were able to bear this response, then both sexes would be 
able to work out new ways of communicating and relating.

This hypothesis was reinforced for me in another training group, where there were
 two men and 10 women. I brought in male co-trainers to work with me on two
 separate occasions. Both times, one of the men seemed to want to tell the new male 
trainer how hard it had been for him to be a man in this group of women. It seemed 
that only when he had the safety and support of a man with some apparent power
 in the group, was he able to say these things. Another man in the group said that
 he never felt understood by the women in the group (obviously including me). All 
the women in the group, including me, were surprised and hurt, because we had
 given a lot of time and space to this man, and had thought that we were being most 
understanding of him.

I have conducted a number of sessions where we explicitly address the gender 
issue. The way we do this in the training group, is to ask the men and women to 
talk to one another in single sex groups first about how it is to be a man or woman
 in this group, what it is that they would like the other group to understand about 
them, and what they would like the members of the other group to do differently
 in relation to the members of their group. Then we ask the two groups to share
 what they have said with one another. In one of the groups, it seemed that the men
 were saying that the women were demonstrating both feminine and masculine
 behaviours, and that there seemed to be no role for the men. This is just a small sample of experiences, but it seems to indicate a preoccupation
 with gender issues which exists in all mixed groups, and seems to indicate that the
 gender of the members and the leader is significant in some way.

As a groupworker, I am aware of the effect that the gender of the group members
 has on me. At one time, I worked as a consultant to women’s religious
 communities. Then I was invited to work with a religious order of men, and for
 three years I worked with small groups in that congregation. I was quite astonished
 at the differences I noticed in the way that I worked.

First of all, I found that my methodology changed. With the women’s groups, they
 were usually willing to take part in an exercise first, then reflect on the experience 
and finally to explore the theoretical concepts behind the experience – the 
stereotype of the feminine way of working – open, intuitive and interconnected. In
 the men’s groups, I found that to get their participation in an exercise, I had first to 
explain why I was doing it and what they might achieve by taking part – the
 stereotypical “masculine” way of working – linear, logical and productive.

Secondly, I had a different experience of conflict. In the groups of women, if the
 members didn’t agree, or didn’t want to do what I proposed, they would openly 
disagree or refuse, and we would work through the conflict reasonably well. But
 with the men’s groups, I was often fooled into thinking that they had agreed to do 
something, only to find out later, that they hadn’t done what they were asked. I 
wondered if I had been a man, would they have been more open in their dealing 
with me – and I think it was probably because they thought that as a woman I might
 not be able to cope with them if they opposed me!

Thirdly, I discovered in myself a different energetic response to the men. Working
 with these groups at the start was very exciting. It evoked my own masculine 
energy, my power, and, of course, my sexual energy. My animus got a chance to 
exercise itself more than in the women’s groups. I found it easier to be confronting 
and direct – in some way I assumed that the men were more resilient and more
 robust – in a sense colluding with their stereotypes. As I continued to work with
 them, this energy and excitement was modified, as I tried to deal with the
 tranferences – I found that the men’s groups preferred me to be nurturing and
 caring, and were sometimes quite disconcerted and angry when I engaged in the
 “masculine” behaviour that I found so energising and creative. I later felt as if I 
was engaged in a constant struggle to hold on to my own identity in these groups 
and not to allow myself to be forced into sets of stereotypical behaviour. Even
 allowing for the fact that the members of these groups came from a very male
 culture, I imagine that I was experiencing many of the difficulties that a single man
 in any group of women might feel, but that a single woman in an all male group
 would feel even more.

Conclusions and questions

Apart from a general belief that in long-term developmental groups, it is more 
useful to have a mixture of men and women members, it seems that there are two 
schools of thought about the significance of gender or sex of the group conductor.
 On the one hand we have those from an analytic background, who do not regard it as an important consideration, and on the other hand we have those from a social
 work background engaged in all levels of groupwork, who see it as a critical issue.

As I write this, I remember that the fathers of group analysis were Freud, Foulkes,
 and Bion; the originator of the encounter group was Carl Rogers, and the person 
who “invented” the T-group was Kurt Lewin. Brown and Zinkin’s book on group 
psychoanalysis has papers by sixteen different authors, one of which is a woman. 
However, my hypothesis is weakened by the fact that Dorothy Stock Whittaker is
 a woman, and comes from a social work background. Having once been told by a 
mixed group that there was no gender issue in the group until I “brought it in”, I 
wonder if women group conductors are more sensitised to the issue than men.

Obviously, those who engage in social groupwork, are intervening mainly at the 
level of the Social System in society as a whole, and therefore need to address the
 parallel process in the small group which can be seen as a microcosm of that 
society. They often work in a fairly time-limited way with client groups.

From the point of view of group analytic psychotherapy, the leader of the group is
 often expected to provide a blank screen for the group onto which the members can 
project their fantasies, and in doing so they can explore and become aware of their 
cultural conditioning, which dictates the way they relate to others and to the world
 around them. This type of groupwork has a much longer life span, and therefore
 there is more time for that awareness to evolve, without having to address it
 deliberately. Perhaps in this type of group, the sex or gender of the conductor is not 
so important.

However, in a T-Group, it is assumed that the membership will be mixed, and that 
there will be two convenors, one male and one female. T-Groups are based on the
 group psychoanalytical model, but are short-term intensive groups.

If I return to my own experience, at an intuitive level, I am sure that the gender of
 the group members and the conductor/s of the group is significant. Certainly in
 Task/Work groups, where the life of the group is relatively short-term, the group 
has clearly defined goals, and the role of the leader is to enable the group to balance 
the task and the socio-emotional content (or process) of the group, in my 
experience the gender of the leader is quite significant. The group process, being 
secondary but essential to the achievement of the task, is usually a microcosm of
 the process of the larger social system – either the organisation, or the community 
- and the gender issue must be addressed, or else it will affect the functioning of 
the group.

I believe that the same applies to the training group, but that in such groups there 
is an even greater urgency about addressing it. Trainers, either in reality, or in the 
perception of trainees, have additional powers vested in them, because they also 
have the task of assessment or evaluation. Unconscious attitudes to power and 
authority are inextricably mixed up with gender issues in society as a whole.

In training groups and task/work groups, at least, I believe that the gender issue 
needs to be named and discussed. It already exists in the group unconscious and 
unless it is brought into the conscious realm, it will affect the group dynamics. 
Once it has been brought to the foreground, it can be worked through.

When men and women are co-working, in any kind of group, it seems to be a very
 important part of their preparation for the work that they address the gender issue
 between them, and that they explore their own stereotypes and assumptions. If not
 they may be providing unhealthy models for the group members, and creating a
 parallel process in the group dynamic which is not helpful for the group.

I am particularly unclear about the position held by those engaged in humanistic 
and integrative psychotherapy. In my reading to date I have found no reference, 
and in all the documents relating to standards and codes of practice, I have not seen 
it mentioned. So I wonder where members of IAHIP stand on the issue.

In conclusion, I should like to say that, although the gender question seems to be
 neglected in much of the literature, it would appear to be a live issue for those who
 work in groups. The question is why is this so. It is possible that in the evolution
 of groupwork and group therapy, we are only becoming aware of the importance
 of the issue. It could also be that traditionally many trainers and researchers have
 been men, and that women are more aware of the issue than men. Whatever the
 reason, in a world dominated by logic and reason, it is difficult to defend the
 assertion that gender is important, or even to engage in dialogue about it at an 
intellectual level, in the absence of serious qualitative and quantitative research.
 But the energy and emotion generated by the topic among people in groups is
 surely a reliable indication that such dialogue and research is worthwhile.


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Geraldine Grindley is a trainer and consultant in the area of group dynamics. She
 is the founder and director of Group & Interpersonal Training, and also maintains 
a private practice as a psychotherpist in Dublin.