‘soft options’? reflections on an absence of men

An interesting thing that has happened in my teaching at the University this year, and that I hadn’t expected, is that a very clear majority of my students, especially in postgraduate courses, have been women. I have been teaching three modules: Studying Peace in a Changing World (mostly women), Social-Ecological Resilience (all women), and Creative Conflict Transformation (all women, apart from the occasional guest). What follows is a tentative attempt to make sense of this. I first wrote this piece as a discussion piece for students in Creative Conflict Transformation, so some of my reflections refer directly to that module.

Is a module called Creative Conflict Transformation somehow more in tune with women?

Actually, much of the inspiration for that module comes from male scholar-practitioners (John Paul Lederach, Adam Curle, James Thompson). Similarly, while working on this module I was having interesting conversations about the key themes (and also about experiences of gender and other dimensions of identity and otherness) with a couple of male students from last year (both of whom had grown up with, and then questioned, cultures of toxic masculinity). If anything, women are under-represented on the reading list (though hopefully less so in the processes & artefacts we’re engaging with, several of which are the work of creative women).

So what is behind the lack of engagement with a module called Creative Conflict Transformation (and with my other modules too) from the majority of male students? In an attempt to discern patterns, I thought I’d look into who is choosing other modules we’re offering. One interesting thing is that among the sample I looked at, there doesn’t seem to be a module that has as clear a majority of male students as this one has of women. Many modules look fairly evenly balanced. There are, however, a couple of other modules that seem to be attracting mostly women: Skills for Constructive Conflict Engagement and Movements for Social and Ecological Justice (both of which are taught by male colleagues). Like my modules, these are associated with two new MA programmes: Advanced Practice in Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding and Peace, Resilience and Social Justice. Both of these programmes have attracted only women in this, their first year. Why?

What, if any, of this pattern is to do with how metaphors structure our perceptions, our ways of seeing and our ways of being? Is it about the commonly made distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ topics, which sadly pervades our academic field as it does many others? Some quick searches on hard/soft metaphors, gender and academia bring up several pieces of work that are relevant here – on how the hard/soft constellation is associated both with masculinity/femininity and with cold/warm, reliability/mutability, precision/imprecisionon how gendered metaphors, however flawed, have very real implications for what is more and less valued in academia, and for the real-life prospects of male and female academicson how distinctions between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power, though commonly used, can be an obstacle to intelligent discussion. But also, and intriguingly, on how physical experiences of hardness or softness may actually ‘affect cognitive functions that are metaphorically associated with rigidity or flexibility’

How does all of this map onto creativity, conflict resolution, and the idea of structural transformation? How do we hold this alongside the associations of masculinity with originality, creation, inventiveness, adventure, risk-taking (but also security?)? Perhaps this is a case that calls for the practice of ‘paradoxical curiosity’ – the suspension of judgement, the exploration of complexity and ambiguity? Is this about both noticing the way things appear immediately and exploring ‘how perceptions and meanings have emerged and how they might point to realities of both what is now apparent and the invisible that lies beyond what is presented as conclusive’ (Lederach 2005, 37)?

It’s complicated. As Lederach (2005, 36) points out, curiosity is etymologically associated with both care and cure. As he doesn’t point out, this constellation of terms also tends to be associated with women – something that James Thompson, in his essay ‘towards an aesthetics of care’ both explores and tries to go beyond…

What does any or all of this mean in relation to things we’re exploring in Creative Conflict Transformation?

#1 Clearly, metaphors matter. Sometimes, they are helpful in understanding realities; other times, they may obscure what is really going on. Either way, and whether we notice or not, they structure our ways of seeing and our ways of being, and perhaps even our choices of which modules to teach or to participate in. Is it helpful to approach a question like the one of who is (not) in a module via an exploration of metaphors? As we do so, what might we notice about the ways in which such metaphors are linked to gender – and to other markers of identity?

#2 What about the gender dimensions of different creative activities? How might gender shape our zones of (dis)comfort? What does this mean for how we engage with creative practices and the products/performances they generate? What does it mean for how such practices might be used in contexts of conflict, and for whether or not they are helpful?

#3 What do gender imbalances – and imbalances in relation to other aspects of identity too – in a module, in an organisation, in the field of peace/conflict/development work mean for who we are (not) connected to? For our capacity to build transformational platforms (which Lederach suggests should seek to link people who are differently positioned and bring different perspectives)? How might these imbalances be expressions of, or the results of, processes of othering? What might it take to overcome them?

#4 How do aspects of our identities, embodied experiences, and the metaphors and concepts that shape and structure them influence what we are drawn to, what comes to us easily, and what we might struggle with in the ‘disciplines’ Lederach suggests we cultivate to become reflective practitioners of conflict transformation – seeing ourselves as part of webs of relations, paradoxical curiosity, creativity/imagination, a willingness to take risks and explore the unknown?


  1. Last week I was reading the article “Beyond Buzzwords – ‘Poverty Reduction’, ‘Participation’ and ‘Empowerment’ in Development Policy, by
    Andrea Cornwall and Karen Brock. While reflecting on the role of development in the light of human rights, the authors used the premise that “words build worlds”, and affirmed: “If words make worlds, struggles over meaning are not just about semantics: they gain a very real material dimension.” Hence, they argued, when words become meaningless in terms of their effective influence in the real world, or if they assume a biased meaning instead, it is our duty (as scholars, practitioners, policy makers…) to invent new words or to pilfer from other vocabularies. And a means to do it would be to give meaning to metaphors (which are never neutral) as they are put to use in politics.

    Although not reflecting specifically about gender issues, I think their insight is very useful in this discussion. Equally, as an enthusiast of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Philology studies (I know, not a gender expert himself!), I quite agree on his affirmations that metaphors “treat as equal what is inherently similar”, and when we use them to build our ideas of what is “true”, they become a foundation for power, moral and political struggles (F. Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense).

    The Chinese study you mentioned pointed out that “the hardness experience affects cognitive functions that are metaphorically associated with rigidity or flexibility”. When doing my MA in Bradford, I came across some readings that discussed the binary social constructions on gender issues, one of them being Pierre Bourdieu’s explanations on how “virility” has been connected to a masculine characteristic, in opposition to the feminine “virtue” (La domination masculine). Firstly referring to the inherent reproductive foundation of such metaphors, but later developing into much more complex meanings, as “virility” became a synonym of skills for violence, combat and vengeance (hence, hardness), whereas “virtue” acquired a negative adjective concerning to “vulnerability” – a characteristic that could either be hidden of lost, depending on women’s behaviour, on how they “care” about it (which made me relate with Lederach’s “curiosity” and the “cure and care” characteristics).

    Now, in the light of such concepts, and personally thinking of the role of creativity as the core of the module you mentioned, I can reflect on some aspects I have experienced myself as the only female police officer working on a SWAT-like police unit. I was invited to be the head of intelligence in such unit 4 years ago, and it turned out that the skills they were looking for were “curiosity and attention to detail”. In my interview, the police chief told me “that’s why we need a woman here, because these men I have here can only do push ups and shoot guns”. Although frustrated with his comments, I accepted the challenge, which involved pretty much giving orders to a group of 30 men carrying at least two fire guns each and plus 20kg of police gears on their muscles everyday. And, of course, to be their leader, to gain their respect and trust, I had to proof I was not only a “creative” person, but rather, that I was not vulnerable, and I could be as “viril” as them (or, sometimes, even more). In this sense, I could personally experience both the “hardness” of police trainings (which are meant basically to build “muscle memory” so we can react automatically in the imminence of a threat); and the flexibility inherent to the creativity process, so necessary in intelligence practices and investigations on the streets. At the end of the day, I am not sure if they really have completely accepted me as a leader (as I still can sense a power dispute sometimes), but the process of respecting my decisions and following my commands was definitely facilitated by the use of metaphors that they started to use in their “habitus”, such as “Cinthia is more of a man than many police officers out there” (which is also, unfortunately, a biased one). Interestingly, after me, another woman was able to join the special forces, as the men officers started to “open the path” to women’s participation in their circle (as long, of course, as they can proof some masculine qualities).

    Looking back at the modules you mentioned, one question I used to ask myself about the PSID department at the University of Bradford was why, in such a diverse environment, we had only one “gender-day”? Why not, instead, include reflections about gender / women participation in each and every module? Why, beyond that, the majority of students (at least in my term) are women? Funny fact: when I was selected to study in Bradford and I told my fellow police officers that I was going to be in “Peace Studies”, the reaction was one of frustration… but when I mentioned “in the sub-area of Political Violence and Terrorism”, I was even mentioned on their social media as “the Brazilian warrior seeking for knowledge abroad to defend us from future threats”. Funny fact 2: I wouldn’t have been given permission for annual leave if I had chosen a “softer program”.

    Well… I think I have said a lot already, but to conclude, I guess the examples above show the importance of thinking about how metaphors can build realities, and how they can also break or reinforce prejudice. Two points seem more relevant to me: the political use we make of metaphors (as we can both try to give them new meanings or use them as they are to build new realities) and the role of men in helping to break gender prejudice, even if by questionable use of metaphors. Hence, the role of creativity here would be that of reinventing and reapplying such metaphors in social spaces, preferably in democratic ways and with the awareness and participation of all involved, men and women.

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  2. Firstly, thank you Ute for the deep and reflexive post, and thank you Cynthia for your insightful, and personal, reflections. This is a really expansive issue for me, and one to which I feel I will likely only do disservice to in such a short post. But I will try a few thoughts that arose for me.

    I suppose I will start by saying these reflections align with my own experiences as a peace/conflict educator. Indeed straight away the use of peace/conflict suggests the struggle I have with an often binary world positioned within dichotomies placed upon us. For me it is this limiting (modernist?) binary way of seeing the world which I attribute much of the reflections discussed. Working with young men, I have also experienced reactions to the word ‘peace’ where it is perceived as soft, “fluffy” and feminine. This has led to many young men not only resisting peace education workshops, but sometimes actively pushing against them. As I questioned this, as a male myself, I remember how such words are gendered and thus carry huge amounts pf power that is often not perceived. Masculinity and peace (or at least how it was conceived and taught) were seeming opposites that resulted in one playing against the other. ‘If I want to be seen as masculine I cannot be peaceful’, or even further ‘if I want to be seen as masculine, I must push against all that is seen as soft…and peace is one of those’. I think much of the issue here lies in our current constructions of masculinity as much as it does in language, but of course these two are heavily interconnected.

    Perhaps it should also be added that my perspective is partial and does not aim to suggest this is all men’s experiences, as we are not one homogenous blob and there is huge amounts of diversity and complexity carried within (again binary worldview issues). Masculinity/ies and peace is my particular area of study, so I should also be explicit about that. An interesting study might be to look at those who perceive peace in these ways and those who do not. What were some experiences that led to these interpretations of peace? Masculinity (or the interpretation of it), might be simply one intersection…but my biases are that it might be a major contributor. Or at least the lens through which much of the interpretation was done through.

    I’m already babbling. Needless to say, I personally feel it is the exact purpose of peace education…if not education in general, to explore these aspects. To add onto your comment Ute, if metaphors (or words in general), “structure our perceptions, our ways of seeing and our ways of being” in the world, what and how should we do about it? For me this is about explicitly exploring these aspects and how we encounter them in the world. It is to look into the lived experiences of those present (and not) to make those taken-for-granted aspects become a) perceived and known, b) understood, and then hopefully, c) discussed about their consequences and choices to act in different ways. You mentioned Lederach’s paradoxical curiosity, and I absolutely agree this is a key aspect to this and for peace education in general. For me, this is about ‘diffracting’ experiences so that new knowledges (with an ‘s’) become visible. This must not simply be heady (rational), but should include exploration of the heart (emotions), the body (embodiments and performances) and even the spirit. Personally my interests lie in ‘affective’ pedagogies that employ the personal that bring new insights to that individual and then when shared bring new insights to the group, for example autoethnography. However, ironically, I am aware that these too might fall back into the trap of gendered labels that would mean they appeal to some more than others. Using the words of courage (opposed to vulnerability) and exploration (opposed to study) might be ways to (re)word the labels to get men in the door whereupon you can start to explore these assumptions. Finding entry points are a key focus for me. One of which I have constantly played with for some of the young men I work with (again not saying all) is the peaceful warrior.

    To sum up, I think the labels we use are very important. ‘Words matter’ and bring materiality the worlds we inhabit. But I also believe that (mattered) experiences and activities matter. Perhaps the explorations and disentanglement of such labels and experiences so they become visible is the purpose of any education that seeks to destabilise our taken-for-granted ways of being in the world. It seeks to question these influences that effect and affect us in subtle and hidden ways. Gender and the gendered world, in my opinion, is one of these aspects that should be explicitly explored.

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  3. Echoing Cinthia and Tim above, first and foremost, thank you for writing this insightful and inspiring piece, Ute! I think this is such an important and underexplored area in the peace studies field. I find a lot of resonance between this discussion and my own work and research as well. Like Tim, I focus on peace education, masculinities, and affective engagement and learning approaches. I really appreciate the personal and professional reflections from your classes Ute, as well as Cinthia and Tim’s localized insights from their practices. I too have noticed some of the themes we are discussing here in the classroom.

    I started my teaching career with a fusion of poetry and peace education and often found young men initially resistant and absent. Young men tended to think poetry and peace were ‘soft’ and/or ‘feminine.’ Learning to engage men in these topics required building relationships and trust and strategically thinking about pedagogy and praxis. But I would argue, more importantly and more influential to my own continued research and practice, it required leaning into and interrogating the gendered nature of their resistance rather than only trying to circumvent and strategize around it.

    I ended up leaving broad peace and arts education to work specifically on masculinities and peace education for this reason. As noted in the discussion above, if we want to understand why men don’t show up in our peace classrooms, we must examine the constructions of some types of masculinities, often dominant and popularized conceptions, that are themselves part of the barriers to engagement.

    I think your second question at the end of the piece, engaging how gender intersects and fuels our zones of (dis)comfort is so important here. And as your, along with Cinthia and Tim’s comments cemented, the gendered nature of our word is constantly and dynamically intertwined in our language, and through our language into our actions. I’ve enjoyed reading a lot of the links that have been shared in this thread and would like to add the work of Dr. Sara Cobb to the conversation. Her work on conflict narrative analysis helps guide my thinking around the impact of language and stories. Echoing the article Cinthia mentioned from Cornwall and Brock, Cobb argues stores are the ‘architecture of our consciousness’ and that they shape the way we think, speak, and act. Thus, the gendered implications of language for peace and education are substantial and clearly impacting the material realities of who engages, who shows up in the classroom, and also who feels welcome/invited/accepted in such spaces. This could open a hundred other spiraling conversations, but I’ll try to steer my comments back for now.

    As my work gravitated more towards gender and masculinity-specific issues around peace I’ve noticed a similar pattern. Not only are men sometimes absent from certain peace-focused classrooms, they are also absent from many gender-focused classrooms, often-times for similar reasons. When I was in Bradford last year giving a talk about ‘engaging men in the prevention of violence against women’ the room was full, but it also clearly lacked gender diversity. This is not a unique moment but is in fact very representative. Some men tend to think that issues about gender are ‘not for them’. All that to say, again I think this is a really important and underexamined issue in our collective and related fields around peace work. We need what scholar Jackson Katz calls a ‘fundamental paradigm shift’ in the way some constructions of masculinity see and interact with issues of gender, gender-based violence, and broader peace work. We need what bell hooks calls ‘blueprints for change’ in order to address this lack of engagement and cultivate more gender-diverse spaces for such important and relevant conversations and education.

    I find your explorations into the role of metaphor really helpful here. Metaphors can help us understand the barriers to engagement and I think they can also help us actively interrogate and construct alternatives. Metaphor can operate throughout the cycle of our praxis, both informing our thoughts and theories as well as scaffolding our practices and actions.

    As you mentioned in your work, I too have found a lot of resonance in Lederach’s and particularly in his moral imagination framework. In order to address the issues our practices have shown and that metaphors have illuminated; we need a mindset shift. I think Lederach’s work can be applied to working with young men on these issues directly. A ‘moral imagination of masculinities’ could be a guiding framework to help us think about these issues, to teach these topics, and to engage with gendered-barriers that leave some of our classrooms as we often see them today.

    This too could spiral into a many more discussion and perhaps that is a wonderful sign. Your piece and the subsequent conversation is such a potent arena for conversations that can inform our collective practices. I hope we can find ways to continue this conversation online and in-person. Thanks so much for bringing these ideas forward, Ute. And on a personal note, thanks so much for all that you have done to inform and inspire my own thinking and practice.

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