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.
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.