by Ash Bruxvoort
At WFAN we strongly believe in the power of women-only learning spaces. Whether a participant is under 30 or over 60, there are unique benefits to these environments. The foremost benefit is the safe space that is created for women to share their experiences with each other, without abiding by the unspoken rules we have learned in patriarchal learning environments.
Our ground-breaking Women Caring for the Land℠ (WCL) program has received many honors, including an Iowa Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence in May 2013. We recently talked to WCL curriculum developer and program evaluator Jean Eells, PhD about her experiences with different facilitation styles and her research.
Gendered Learning Styles
Gendered teaching styles don’t only impact women negatively. Jean references a book by Deborah Tannen, titled “You Just Don’t Understand,” which covers differences in communication styles between men and women.
In the book, Tannen tells a story of a woman student doctor who was very bright but was asking a lot of questions. She was passed over for advancement and when they asked why it was because “she didn’t know much” because she was asking a lot of questions. Tannen shows that men are more likely to perceive questions as an indication of low intelligence or lack of understanding. Because women have experienced this discrimination, we have a tendency to “buy insurance” by downplaying our intelligence. For example, we might preface a question with a phrase like: “Well I might be stupid but I have to ask…” In reality, several people might have the question but the woman student is the only one willing to risk asking.
This story reminded me of a woman I worked with on a farm. One of her greatest strengths was her ability to take risks and make mistakes publicly. She came to the farm prepared to ask questions, and as a result, she learned more and faster—and so did everyone else on the farm. I’ve always found it easier to pretend I know what people are saying, then go home and read voraciously to understand what they were talking about. This method of learning has been imbued with shame for me and has inhibited my learning.
Reactions to Unconventional Learning Spaces
Occasionally in our work, we meet women who do not believe that a woman-only learning space could be beneficial. Many of us who have worked in conservation, science, or manual labor have constructed a persona around ourselves in order to be more accepted by our male colleagues. When we as facilitators come into a room and say that women-only learning spaces and women-centered publications are necessary to advance conservation what we’re saying is flying in the face of that persona.
“Had I encountered some of this when I was in my 20’s and early 30’s I would have never advocated for women-only spaces because I was fighting for a place at the table,” said Jean. “I wanted to make a place in the conservation world. I had to fight for a place to be there. That was about me and about me as an employee, but not about me as a learner.”
Research shows that women do learn differently from men and Jean herself is a leader in that research.
“Women also still need safe spaces in which to say they don’t know or speak about uncomfortable topics. Creating safe spaces gives women the opportunity to discuss issues related to power, not an easy topic to broach in everyday conversation. As they reflect concretely on their unique contexts—where they live, the land they own, and their relationships to others—a window may open on how issues of land and gender may play out on the ground.” (“One size does not fit all: Customizing conservation to a changing demographic.” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, Wells and Eells 2011:138A139A)
Jean says that attendees who are familiar with technical conservation language are sometimes surprised by the non-technical language we use in Women Caring for the Land workshops. Our approach is to use language everyone understands, but for women who have already found their way and are able to navigate through Extension the approachable language seems out of place. As facilitators, we know that women who have done this work are ideal facilitators of Women Caring for the Land workshops. They have already done the work of learning and might be able to help others who don’t understand.
“It’s not that the techniques used in a Woman Caring for the Land learning circle are necessary or right for all women,” said Jean. “Women who have a strong aptitude for science or have worked in the field throughout their careers are more likely to grasp the technical language without additional assistance. But for some women, the publications and education spaces that are focused on their learning styles are effective and necessary.”
Jean added that because our teaching methods are unconventional there is sometimes an assumption that they are not effective. She says she notices the pushback is more likely in spaces where she teaches male facilitators alongside female colleagues.
Exploring Different Facilitation Techniques
In an interview with Christian Science Monitor, Jean details why these gender-specific facilitation techniques are so important. “Agricultural system representatives tend to think and talk production — even when discussing conservation. If a woman doesn’t use the right terminology a man might bluster authoritatively about it. In the setting of a learning circle, we give women the safe space to talk about their conservation desires. This helps them be more confident to go to their tenant and start a discussion.”
At WFAN, we focus on facilitating women-only learning spaces. As a consultant, Jean also teaches male resource professionals about the benefits of women-only learning spaces. She said when she is facilitating to an audience that includes men she is more likely to start with a PowerPoint presentation, whereas with a group of women she would start by listening to the women in their room share their experiences and goals.
“As an instructor, I have to claim that authority and expertise in the beginning, with a group of men in the room you need to do the stand and deliver thing,” she said. “I’ve spent the last nine years doing these meetings trying to figure out how to change myself as an instructor. My hope was that it would be possible to reach more women if I changed my approach.”
There’s value in reconsidering how you present information. In school, we are most often taught in a vertical teaching style where a teacher is standing at the front of the room presenting information. It’s a particular style that falls into gendered ways of teaching and learning, which we were all trained to respond to if we graduated high school and college. This is how most people are accustomed to learning.
Most of us are also familiar with small group activities, where we work with teams on problems with a specific outcome.
“It took me a long time to get used to sitting down to facilitate. We’re so used to instructors standing up in front of the room,” she said. “It’s a challenge to facilitate as a discussion rather than lecture. It’s exhausting having your partners come in and realize it’s a discussion, not a presentation, and witnessing the tension that creates. I know that that was part of the adjustment for me. “