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/imprecision; on 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 academics; on 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?