Thursday, 28 April 2016

Saying goodbye to being a mother in France, with a tear in my eye

Having recently swapped palm trees for potatoes, here's my story of why I'm refusing to fit the mold of the German "super mum". And why, incidentally, searching for German humor is like searching for Atlantis.

I never did try to hide my ambiguous relationship with the French Riviera. But when I made my pink cupcake announcement, there was one tiiiny other thing I forgot to mention. In fact, we we were soon to leave behind those indestructible palm trees and spotless beaches covered in artificial sand and red English people. The palm trees have been replaced by smoky chimneys of the heavy metal and chemical industry, and rather than consuming fluffy baguette and rosé wine on the beach, our daily fare now tends to include more beer and potatoes.

Germany! My fatherland, my home country, my native land... Boy, it's weird, and wonderful, to be back. Weird, when visitors from abroad demand to eat German food all the time, and I just want to scream
"pleeeease, if I have to eat ONE more pork joint or sausage I might actually DIE!" 
:-) Wonderful, because we've settled in a region full of lovely, welcoming people. And wonderful, because to an extent, I still am German, even though after 13 years abroad I have become a hybrid. People regularly ask which country I'm from, actually. No wonder, considering I've got a Welsh fist name and my surname sounds like it could be Anglo-Saxon. I doubt British people ever thought my surname was English though. Instead, they thought it was hilarious, because to pass wind = to fart.

Anyway, it would seem that now, Mrs Gwendolyn-Farting-Machine is a foreigner no matter where she goes. Weird. I mean, I have an accent in German, but it's a regional accent. Actually I'm almost grateful a lot of people choose to believe I'm foreign instead. I say I'm grateful, because I'm from a rural region of Bavaria, and if you're going to admit you're Bavarian outside of Bavaria, you might as well say you're an asshole. If anyone asks, I say I'm from the Austrian border. I hadn't realised just how unpopular people from Bavaria were in the rest of Germany because I had never lived in another region of Germany. Hell, even within Bavaria, most people hate us. When I took the long, 8-hour train journey to my home town, there was this guy telling everyone who cared to listen how his region, Franconia, came to be annexed by Bavaria, and what a tragedy that was, and how the nasty Bavarians had seized all their artifacts and never returned them.

Apart from the hostility towards my regional background, there are a couple of things that I've not liked so much so far: German humor (or lack thereof?!), and being a mother in Germany. 

So, first of all no-one seems to get my jokes. Instead, I seem to offend people! I'm starting to understand what people mean when they say Germans have no sense of humor. Of course I'm telling myself I've just forgotten how German humor works and I've just got to find it again. But I've got this nagging suspicion that I might as well be searching for Atlantis.

The second challenge has been the hardest. Being a mother in Germany basically seems to involve either putting your career on the back burner, or giving it up entirely, giving up your hobbies and any other trace of adult life, to make room for one role: motherhood. And because I'm very very pregnant right now (baby, pleeeease come out, I'm going to explode!!!), and I haven't been able to go back to lecturing yet as a result, I'm suddenly the main carer, homemaker and all that kind of stuff, while my husband's stuck with the role of the breadwinner. So the lovely arrangement my husband and I used to have, which meant that we both worked part-time and were able to be equal parents, is over.

Whereas in France, it was perfectly normal for me to go back to work after three months' maternity leave, here, it's rare to even find childcare for a baby under the age of one.
It's funny, because I got hired as a full-time teacher at the University of Nice when Momo was 3 months old and no-one, and I mean: no-one, bat an eye. My husband and I chose a lovely childminder, and I went back to work. End of story. Good luck pulling that off in Germany. Here, we're not even entitled to state support for a childminder or crèche unless my husband and I can justify why we need childcare for a baby under the age of 1. That is an entirely alien concept to me. In France, women just go back to work after 3 months. Or they take a few months to relax at home while their child's with a childminder or at a crèche during the day. And they don't feel bad about it at all. As I told you last time, I didn't always find it easy to be a working mum, especially when Momo was just a tiny baby, but I still think it's wrong for the state, or society, to pressure women to stay home.

Here, I keep hearing things like "children under the age of 1 should be with their mother 24/7". Dare do anything that deviates from that norm, and you're branded as a bad mother.

Anyway, because of this huge cultural (and bureaucratic) difference, I've still not been able to sort out childcare. I've found a lovely childminder whom I trust, but the council refuses to give sufficient financial support because "a baby under the age of one should be with its parents". Our baby's due in a few weeks' time, and I'm starting to get a bit nervous... Maybe moving back to Germany wasn't such a great idea after all?

Despite all this, I've started training as a sex therapist and I've been learning some really interesting stuff. As part of my training, I've got a lot planned for my return from maternity leave. In fact, one of the first things I'll do when I get back is go on a workshop run by one of Germany's most renowned sex therapists. So that's something exciting to look forward to.

It's not that being a mother is not exciting. It is. But I refuse to accept what German women are supposed to accept: that my children should be the centre of my universe, while my partner gets to enjoy the full spectrum of adult life. Why should German women have to focus exclusively on being a mother? Why can't they, like French women, be entitled to being a part of the professional community, pursue hobbies, and maintain an romantic relationship with their partner? Even when their child is under the age of 1?

For anyone interested in the perks of being a mother in France, I recommend Pamela Druckerman's French Children don't throw Food. Her book Lust in Translation is also very interesting. I just read it as part of my training. It's a comparison of attitudes towards adultery in a variety of countries...

Monday, 26 October 2015

My love-hate relationship with being a working mum

Balancing my baby and her nursery bag with one arm, schlepping my teacher's briefcase with the other. Add a bag of groceries here and there, and this would be my early experience of being a working parent. And don't forget the sore back, and the nagging heartache when I would leave my baby with a childminder...mixed in with a frequent sense of relief, of being able to breathe, relax, when I was not having to care for my baby. Compared to taking care of her, work would seem like a walk in the park.

I've been pursuing my career since my daughter was three months old, and she's now two years old and at times, I still feel guilty for being a working mum. I look around at all the French mums and dads dropping their babies off at the crèche on their way to work, and I think: why do I feel so guilty when everyone thinks it's normal to be a working parent? Anyway, here are five things I remind myself of when I feel guilty:

1. Would a man feel guilty?

The funny thing is, despite the fact that they tend to spend more time with their children than men, women still feel more guilty than their partners.

2. I'm a role model for my daughter

I want Momo to grow up with a working mum so that she can see that it's completely normal for women to pursue their career. My mother was a stay-at-home mum, so that's all I've ever known, and it might be why I struggle so much now. My partner's mum had a brilliant career and that was completely normal for him. And he never felt like there was anything wrong with that. He still got a lot of quality time with both of his parents, and they are very close.

3. Being a part of the professional community is good for my mental health

I felt my identity change a lot when I became a mother. For a while, I was really confused. At first, my love for my daughter was so big it seemed to eclipse everyone and everything else. Then I realised that all the other parts of who I had been were still there, but that from now on, they would have to coexist with my role as a mother. Now, I am used to being a mum and I can see that being a mum is just a part of who I am. I am also woman who loves her partner, who enjoys her friendships, her hobbies, AND her work.
My work has always been important to me. I don't want to give up that part of me, because it's part of who I am and I enjoy it, and it helps me stay sane. And I don't need to give up that part of myself in order to be a good mum. Noone would dream of asking a man to give up his career for his children.

4. It's good for my marriage

Men tend to be the main breadwinners, but what we often forget is that it's not an easy role. It's a lot of weight on their shoulders and it also potentially means that they don't get to spend enough time with their children. By going out to work, I can help ensure that my husband doesn't need to carry a disproportionate amount of financial responsibility for our family. It also ensures my financial independence, so that I don't end up in a situation where I can't leave our relationship for financial reasons.

5. My daughter seems happy

And, last but not least, my daughter seemed to enjoy being with her childminder and the three other kids there. She still has a special relationship with one of her former playmates. Now she's in kindergarten and she enjoys it so much she doesn't want to leave when I come and pick her up.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Introducting Belly Button Photography

Today, I shall finally make that announcement I said I'd make with pink cupcakes. So here goes my very special surprise! My new venture, Belly Button Photography.

Over the last year, a lot has been changing around here. I told you I quit my lecturing job, but you really have no idea what's been going on since then, have you... so let's remedy that! So, I quit my lecturing job in order to have more time to prepare my research project on women and sexual abuse in Paraguay. But things never turn out the way you expect them to, do they? Anyway, after working on this heart and soul for a few months, unfortunately I had to abandon that idea - at least for the foreseeable future. It's a shame, because I really feel that this is such an important subject. But who knows what the future will bring?

Anyway, with this project on hold, and my teaching commitments reduced to a minimum, I ended up having lots of time to do something fun. So I started a photography course last autumn and then treated myself to a professional portrait photography class. I was really just going to go there for fun - unlike most of the other participants who were already working as photographers. We took turns taking pictures of two models, both women. One of them actually specialises in artistic BDSM, and I can honestly tell you that taking pictures of her was tough tough tough. She was alluring, dominant, always in control. Perfect for a dominatrix, more difficult when you're trying to sneak behind that wall protecting her inner self.

I was luckier with fashion model, M. She had this knack for changing from super sad, to cheeky, to happy, in the blink of an eye. So I ended up being able to capture some of her deeper emotions. When we all sat down and showed our best pictures, our teacher was really happy with mine and that made me exceedingly proud of myself and it made me realise that I could actually do this! I could actually be a photographer. Everyone was saying how sensitive I was to these women's feelings. How I'd managed to get them to open up and capture real, natural feelings of sadness and joy where many had found it very hard to capture anything other than fake smiles. One of the participants said I seem to have a special connection with women, and I should really keep doing what I'm doing.

So I took their advice and I kept going, because I could, seen as I just so happened to have this unexpected, huge amount of time on my hands:) I started training full time until I got to that point where I felt happy enough with the quality of my pictures. This is when I set up Belly Button Photography.

So why the pink cupcakes? Because my logo is pink, duh!:)

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Surviving the Riviera floods

So! I had a surprise planned for you this week. But then everything changed when the French Riviera was hit by a massive storm and subsequent severe floods everywhere. You may wonder what a picture of Momo and pink cupcakes has got to do with anything. I'll get to that.

Anyway, my family and I were lucky as we just about managed to stop the water from coming in through our front door, but so many people lost everything. It's heartbreaking to see all the destruction around us. I drove past the golf course thinking:

"boy oh boy, where are all the rich people in this area going to play golf from now on?"

Seriously though, parts of my village are devastated, people have died, there are trees strewn across formerly immaculate lawns, there is mud everywhere. We are all tired and sad.

One would think now that the Côte d'Azur has lost its superficial prettiness, its profound ugliness would be overwhelming.

I fear that would most certainly be the case, if it weren't for the great spirit of solidarity surrounding us at this time. I mean, I had never MET most of the other families living in my building.

I saw so many faces I'd never seen before as we were all working together to divert the floods out of our hallway and into the garage (yay! Screw those Porsches and Four-by-Fours!). We actually talked to each other. Don't worry, give it a week or two and it'll all go back to normal and we'll avoid all human contact and spend our evenings online or watching telly again...reducing all human contact to an angry honk or two during rush hour.

Come to think of it, people aren't even honking anymore. It's bizarre, everyone's so subdued. This really doesn't feel like the Côte d'Azur I used to love and hate so much!

Have I ever mentioned I hate this place? Which brings me to the surprise I said I had for you this week. But with everything that's been going on, I'm afraid you'll have to wait a little longer until my surprise will be revealed...Shame though. I was going to announce it with these pink cupcakes. But they were given to families in need instead. And to Momo of course.

Sorry guys!

Bye for now,


PS Don't worry about the palm trees. Even a meteor coming in at 60,000mph couldn't uproot those fuckers.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Breasts and nipples

Catchy title, I know. It's the rentrée in France, which is when the French start working again after disappearing into the ether for a month or two. You know, everyone who can afford it just buggers off to Ile de Ré island or their country house in Provence at some point in July or August. And now they're all back in full swing. So I told myself, Goodness Gracious Gwen, get a grip and get that blog going again. So today I'm back in full swing with breasts and nipples and alliterations starting with the letter G.

So, I found myself staring at my Italian colleague's cleavage the other day. We were having dessert and every time she bent over to scoop up some of her mousse au chocolat, I'd catch a glimpse of the tiniest bit of lace behind the topmost button of her shirt. You know, just the tiniest bit, not too much, just enough to keep you guessing what the rest of it might look like. It can't be a bra, I thought, its too high up. What on earth could it be?
There was some awesome use of lingerie going on right in front of me and because I couldn't guess what she was wearing, in the end I just asked her. She smiled and told me that it was a lace undershirt. And that she never wore bras despite the fact that she's got a large cleavage and her Mamma keeps telling her "Valentina, per carità, large breasts need support or they start sagging!". Sagging my arse, she said. My breasts can support themselves, thank you very much.

I found that quite inspiring. Made me think of how wearing a bra is almost compulsory here, while virtually none of my friends back in Argentina wore bras. There seemed to be this acceptance there that breasts are just fine the way they are. Breasts don't need to be squeezed into a particular shape, neatly separated into two standardized cups, and people don't tend to frown upon the outline of a nipple or two underneath a tank top.

My Scottish ex always used to say that he only ever wears boxers because he just loves that feeling of everything hanging loose (except when he went commando because he'd forgotten to do his laundry, or when he was wearing a kilt, obviously). I guess undershirts are for breasts what boxers are for balls. Pardon my French but now that Momo repeats everything I say I need to use every opportunity I get to swear in writing.

Anyway, I think most of you know my stance on breasts. I think everyone should be allowed to NOT wear bras or any other type of lingerie underneath, and should not be shamed for doing so. By the way, I also think it's unfair that men can walk around topless in public while women can't. I know you're all thinking but she lives in France and French women are all topless on the beach. Yes there definitely is more of an acceptance to be topless on beaches here, but it's usually foreign women who enjoy that freedom the most, and sorry but being topless on the beach just isn't enough. Tanning topless is accepted but you're not really supposed to walk around or swim topless, for example. That's just stupid. I'm sorry but I think women should be allowed to be topless wherever men are allowed to be topless, simple as. I think it's stupid that breasts and women's nipples are sexualised. Breasts aren't sexual. They're just breasts.

Anyway, that's it from me for now. Have a great week!


PS. Check out this other post about breasts

Monday, 24 August 2015

Reading Gender Neutral Parenting

I'm not dead!!! Sorry guys, I've been finding it quite hard to find the head-space to sit down and write for the blog. A lot of things are changing round here. None that I'm ready to share just yet... but hopefully soon! Anyway, a while ago I promised you a review of Gender Neutral Parenting. So here it goes!

Years ago, long before we decided to have a child, my partner and I went to a parenting workshop at the Feminism in London conference - a conference which attracts thousands of attendees every year. The next one's this October and Let Toys be Toys are doing a workshop, so join in if you're interested. We've always found these workshops quite helpful because they're a great place to discuss parenting issues with other gender-aware people.

After having Momo, we got Paige Lucas-Stannard's book Gender Neutral Parenting, which looked like one of the most well-researched books on the topic. Paige starts off by explaining gender. In the next couple of chapters, she talks about some of the major stereotypes about girls and boys and why they're harmful. Stuff like Girls are princesses, pure and more social, while boys learn to speak later, and are doomed to becoming emotionally limited slaves to their sex drive. Paige lists a series of surprising and shocking examples of how these stereotypes are perpetuated through the media and toy industry.

I've used it mainly as a reference book though, rather than reading it cover to cover. For example, a while ago my partner and I were wondering which kinds of skills girls are less likely to acquire than boys, so that we could support Mo better in her development. So I looked up Paige's section on skills, and she basically says that there is a bias towards:

  • large motor skills (includes whole body, large movement) = for boys
  • fine motor skills (precision hand movement) = for girls

Paige lists examples for both types of skills, which is handy when you're trying to determine which skills you've been neglecting in your own child. So, for example, we realised that we could do more ball-games with Mo.

Or another time, I felt under a lot of pressure to make Mo appear more feminine, as an important person in our lives was really upset that Momo didn't wear dresses and had short hair. She was worried that Mo would look at her childhood pictures and consider herself ugly because, in a lot of her photographs, she doesn't look feminine. It sounds crazy as I'm writing it but to be honest, I sometimes worried about the same thing. I guess it might be because as girls, we're taught that what matters most in pictures is that you look cute. I think that when we look at pictures of boys, we're more interested in what they're doing, and spend less time thinking about their looks.

That's when I was glad to be able to turn to Paige's section on "dealing with Naysayers", where she lists common gender myths and how she responds to them. Her thoughtful and respectful ready-made answers helped me to systematically think through my own parenting principles, and I actually ended up revising some of my ideas, and losing some of my fears.

Anyway, that's it from me for now. Have a great week!


Monday, 20 April 2015

Loving the clitoris

This fancy clitoral stimulator was apprehended whilst trying to audition for the Muppet show
For many men, sex that doesn't involve the penis in some way is very frustrating. Women have their very own "penis", the clitoris, and it has just as many nerve endings as the penis. Yet the way we have sex tends to leave the clitoris out of the picture. 

That's why I'm going to talk about the clitoris today. About a really good book on the clitoris, and about some wisdom I got out of the local sex shop. But before I do, let me go off on a tangent. It's not even a tangent, because it's completely unrelated to the clitoris. But what the heck.

Anyway, I have a number of funky titles on my bookshelf, being a sexpert and all. Yay! what a pun! Sex+expert=sexpert. Oh... my husband says it's actually not that funny. Whatever. Here are a few of my favourite titles:

- The Clitoral Truth -

- The Vagina Book. -

And my personal downfall:

- Lose Weight! Get Laid! Find God! -

In which Ben Carey and Henrik Delehag tell you what to do with each year of your life. Age 30: procreate. Tick! Now 31, I'm supposed to be making "a doomed attempt at staying in shape". Remember how I went crazy going dancing three nights a week and all? Trust me, those days are long gone... though now that it's warm enough for beach salsa, I might just go back to it... Did I ever mention that I live on the Côte d'Azur? Mouahahahaha! Skipping ahead to age 37: Have an early midlife crisis. Age 99: Have a near-death experience. And so forth.

Then I find THE page. Age 23: Sleep around. With a grid to document your conquests. Now I just so happened to be 23 when I got this book. I don't know about you, but whenever I'm presented with a blank grid to fill in about myself, I can't resist. And for some reason, ever since that fateful day when I went on a trip down memory lane and diligently filled in all the sections on the page, every single one of my house guests seems to be irresistably drawn to this book. Seriously, I put it on the top shelf in the living room, thinking: what is the likelihood anyone will notice it there? But inevitably, they will zoom in on that particular bookshelf, and a dainty hand will spring up to pluck this jinxed book of doom off the shelf.

The Clitoral Truth

Anyway. I wasn't actually going to talk about Lose Weight! Get Laid! today. Instead, I want to recommend The Clitoral Truth by Rebecca Chalker. Here's why: Rebecca is an assiduous researcher, and hers is the only book which focuses entirely on the clitoris, where to find it exactly (it's got exterior and interior parts, did you know?), how it works, and its history. Clitoral history? Does that even exist? Oh yes. It includes people like Freud telling us that mature women must have vaginal orgasms and not clitoral orgasms and all that pile of bullshit. Remember: Freud is not your Friend!!! And: the vaginal orgasm is incredibly rare.

So, why should we pledge to handle our clitorises with love, respect, and naughtiness, for as long as we live? Because it's our very own version of the penis. Here are three facts to remember about the clitoris:

1. The clitoris has at least as many nerve endings as the penis.

2. Most women can't reach orgasm without sustained stimulation of their clitoris. Think about it: would your average guy find it OK to have sex without his penis being involved in any way? I don't think so.

3. This is why there is absolutely NO reason why a clitoris shouldn't be given the same amount of attention as a penis.

If you're interested in finding out more about Rebecca's book, here's Tracee Cornforth's highly informative interview with her.

Clitoral stimulation for lazybone(r)s (hahaha, soooo funny!)

Finally, I'm aware that many people find it difficult to maintain stimulation on their partner's clitoris during sex. Which is why I always insist on the importance of not having penetrative sex. Because when you're enveloped in your own pleasure, busy enjoying the sensations around your penis during penetrative sex, focusing on maintaining pressure on the clitoral area can be a challenge.

However, if you do want to have penetrative sex, a clitoral stimulator can come in handy. Staff at sex shops can advise. I chatted to the staff down at Easylove and they said that right now, their most popular model is tongue-shaped with a finger hoop on each side so it doesn't slide off your hand. It also provides intense vibration, which many women prefer. So, there you go, wisdom out of the sex shop. Here's an entertaining video explaining different types of clitoral stimulators. Cheerio! And remember: Freud is NOT your Friend!

Monday, 23 February 2015

A book about gender neutral parenting

Howdy folks!
Just a short book and website recommendation for you this week. Following up on my feminist parenting posts, I have started looking at the recent books published on gender-neutral parenting and I've just ordered one for my partner to read and review. It's called "Gender Neutral Parenting: Raising Kids with the Freedom to Be Themselves."
I'd also like to recommend the website and magazine "everyday feminism" where I first came across this book. Quite a few good reads there!

Have a great week,

Monday, 16 February 2015

Playing with things girls aren't supposed to play with

I promised I'd write something about children's toys, so here you go:)
Some of you may remember my post about the Pink Stinks! campaign, which campaigns against the differences in the toys boys and girls get to play with in the UK, and there are similar initiatives in other countries as well now.

When my partner and I had Momo, we gave the whole boys' toys and girls' toys question some thought and we decided that we wanted to encourage her to play with what are traditionally considered "boys' toys". Because we knew that most other people were going to do the opposite. By encouraging her to play with boys' toys, we're redressing the balance. Or trying to, at least.

We want Momo to have the same chances in life as a boy. So I try to build a lot of cube towers with her, because research suggests that girls might be less good at understanding three-dimensional space (which isn't handy for maths) because they don't play with things such as cubes so much. So again, this is about trying to redress the balance.

So when our parents asked what they could get her for Christmas, we deliberately suggested things like a workbench with a hammer and a drill, rather than dolls or a play kitchen, because she gets to play with those a lot when she's with her minder.

One thing we definitely want to avoid however, is to make her feel guilty or bad about playing with "girls' toys" (see Sheila's post about the dangers of doing this).

Momo's 20 months old now, so a bit over a year and a half. She's enjoys playing with all kinds of toys. She likes her workbench, though she's not playing with it that much. I think that might be because neither my partner nor I are taking the time to show her how to really use all the accessories. And because she doesn't see either of us work on an adult workbench or with things such as drills. When my brother was building his house, he used his drill a lot, and I think it was quite natural for his son to want to use his toy drill as a consequence of that. Because my feeling is that children like to imitate what their parents are doing.

Anyway, that's all I've got to say for now about toys! Cheerio!

Monday, 9 February 2015

Boys' clothes/ girls' clothes

Glitter, ruffles and pearl stitching - just a few random things boys aren't allowed to wear

I've got to share the sexist comment of the day before I start because it's so good. Carneval's approaching fast, and I overheard a couple of parents worrying about their children's costume choices:

---My daughter said she wants to be either Spiderman or a pirate. That really worries me. I told her, you can't do that, but she insists that her costume's going to be one or the other.

---I know the problem. Last year our child-minder organised a kiddies' dressing-up party with lots of different disguises for the children to play with. When she emailed me the pictures there was my son wearing a Minnie Mouse costume! And pink shoes to go with it! I wasn't happy at all.

Of course, I had to jump in there, and I said that I don't see a reason why we should limit our children's choice of clothes because of their sex. That's when I decided to gather some thoughts on boy's and girl's clothes. And it struck me that society mostly limits boys' choice of clothes.

We have a daughter. She's 20 months old and I've just discovered my passion for sewing. So I started looking through the latest pattern books. And I realized that I've got a choice: either I make girl's clothes, or I make boy's clothes. Because already at this age there's a subtle difference in the way clothes are cut. Boy's tops have got wider shoulders. What for? To make boys look bulkier, stronger? And why do girl's tops have narrow shoulders? To make them look slighter? Hmmm.
Why can girls wear tights and leggings, but boys can't? And what about ruffles? Why is there an unspoken rule that boy must never wear ruffles of any kind? Or glitter? The list goes on.

The boy's section in clothing stores is far smaller than the girl's section, starting at newborn size. That's a scandal. Clearly, boy's (and men's) clothes are much more limited. Girls and women would not be frowned upon if they were wearing an item of clothing deemed "masculine". Whereas boys can't wear girl's clothes. This is starting to change, though, I think. At least there is hope. I'm thinking about David Beckham bravely pioneering the male headband in the late 1990s. Or increasingly feminized clothes for men in department stores: the colour pink; low-cut necklines similar to women's; thin cotton scarves. Granted, these tend to be worn by gay men or fashionistas. But it's a start!

Last random thought, then I'll go to bed: I read a feminist manifesto (I think it was Susan Brownmiller) a few years ago which argued that giving women and girls so much choice in clothing is a way of sidetracking them so they have less time to focus on getting ahead. Just like expecting them to spend much more time than boys on grooming of all kind, like "doing" their hair (Susan likes to joke about the use of "doing" in this context. She's like, what does a non-done hair look like?), and later, their makeup, shaving their legs and armpits etc.

Night night everyone!

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Why women don't dare to speak in meetings, and what we can do about it - Part 2: Creating an inclusive meeting

me doing a "silent applause", a tool which comes in handy in very large meetings
It's basic psychology, really: when you're not active in meetings, you become sleepy. I learned this as a student and it's something I'm acutely aware of in my work as a teacher. If I talk at my students for 45 minutes, most of them will nod off. If I get them to discuss, they perk up. It's the same in meetings. In a good meeting, everyone feels comfortable participating, there are times of passivity (listening) and activity (speaking) for everyone.

Over the years, I've been able to watch and learn from a couple of really good meeting facilitators who've taught me how to manage group discussions so that everyone feels comfortable participating and gets an equal share of speaking time. Most of the time, in order to achieve this, all you need to do is make a few small adjustments. So, today's post is about what you can do to create an inclusive meeting environment if you're the one running a meeting. If you're thinking now: but I never run meetings, my boss does. Then bear with me, because

The boss doesn't run the meeting
Sound too anarchic? If you try it you'll see that it is really useful to have somebody in a meeting whose role is to manage speaking time, stay aware of group dynamics, and to ensure the meeting stays focused. The boss can do it, of course, but it might be better if they don't. Because bosses tend to ramble. Because they can.

Setting the scene
When I'm running a seminar or a meeting, I first of all make sure that the room is set up properly, ideally so that everyone can sit in a circle. This tends to be the norm for meetings, which is good. If it's not the case in your meeting, try and see if there's anything you can do about the way the room is set up.

Then, once everyone's sat down, I give everyone a big welcoming smile and I look around and make sure I can physically see everyone. I make sure I know everyone's name, and I try to address them by name throughout the meeting.

First of all, I introduce the agenda. Depending on who I'm working with and how contentious the discussion is likely to be, I may also introduce and clarify a number of ground rules before we start. For example:
1. emphasise the importance of listening: no interruptions. This particularly helps women participate, because, statistically, women suffer the most from interruptions, and usually don't speak again after being interrupted.
2. in larger meetings, raising your hand before you speak becomes obligatory. This helps avoid a situation where only the most confident people with the loudest voices are able to participate - and these will tend to be men.
3. Participants are asked to stick to the agenda.
4. if you're in agreement with something that is being said, instead of waiting for your turn to speak you can do a silent applause. A silent applause is when you raise both your palms up and wiggle them. This is a useful technique for very large meetings as it saves a lot of time and helps get a general sense of where people stand.

When you facilitate (or "chair") a meeting, try to be very aware of who speaks for how long and how often. I always take notes on who has raised their hand, and in which order. Bearing in mind that particularly women tend to speak less, you may even want to clock speaking time to ensure you stay objective when allocating speaking time. This way, you can make sure to ask those people who haven't spoken to voice their opinion, and allow somebody who hasn't spoken yet or very little to jump the queue when several people raise their hands to speak.

If no-one dares to speak
One of the challenges a facilitator may need to deal with is silence in meetings. I've got two recommendations for that:
1. It's really really important to wait (count to 5 in your head!) after you've announced an item on the agenda. Use this time to look around the room to solicit participation.
2. If you can't get a discussion going, use what teachers call the "snow-balling" technique. This means setting up small groups, for example "talk to the person sitting next to you", to discuss the issue. Warn everyone that one person of the group will have to report back to the whole group. Snowballing works really well because it builds on women's communication habits. Have you ever noticed how women will not say anything throughout an entire meeting, then the minute the meeting's over they're chatting away vigorously to the person next to them? This is because they feel more comfortable communicating in informal situations. This is why snowballing works so well, particularly for women and people who are afraid of speaking in public.

Throughout the meeting, I try to remember that my main role is to ensure the discussion stays inclusive so everyone feels comfortable participating. This includes making sure that everyone stays on topic and no-one monopolizes speaking time. This means that 1) I'm not allowed to monopolize speaking time either, and 2) I have to interrupt people who are speaking for too long in order to ask them to wrap up so we can move on the the next item on the agenda, or so other people who are waiting to speak get a chance to do so. I'm also in charge of time-keeping more generally, i.e. it's my responsibility to make sure the meeting doesn't overrun. Finally, my role also includes making sure we take regular breaks, particularly in longer meetings.

Quite a lot to juggle there, but practice makes perfect! And the dynamism this technique brings into meetings makes it totally worth it!