My college trans* group is presently collecting a petition to defend trans* people’s rights on campus: preferred name policy, gender-neutral bathroom, that kind of stuff. We do the petitioning in person, so a lot of our activity is disturbing random groups of people eating diner or studying exams and asking them whether they’d be interested to hear what we have to say. As a result, completely accidentally, it has also become a way to observe the social power dynamics of gender.
First, I should say that the kind of people I talk to fall broadly into four categories:
- those who had heard of the petition and waited for an opportunity to sign it (personal acquaintances, assorted LGB people who heard about the petition through the campus LGBTQIA* association);
- those who had not heard of us, but know the issues, are very enthusiastic and celebrate the initiative in various ways (mostly women, many of which seem to be 3rd wave feminists);
- those who don’t particularly know the issues at first, but agree with what we want when we tell them (the vast majority);
- those who won’t agree, no matter what I tell them (a small, but unpleasant minority).
It’s also important to say that the majority of the people I encounter are women. The male-female balance at my university is in favour of women, and I’ve done most of my activity in the buildings where social sciences classes are held, and also some in the medical sciences cafeteria — two fields with a majority of female students. I meet a lot of groups of women, some mixed groups, and relatively few groups of men. Therefore, I will mostly talk about mixed and women-only groups — I haven’t noticed anything in men-only groups.
Gendered Power in Small Groups
As I said, a lot of the work is presenting our issues to small groups of people (2-5) in informal settings, such as the cafeteria or various student-run coffee shops. (When there’s only one person, I have them read our text — quicker, easier on me.) Often, the reaction of the group is decided by someone who, informally, assumes leadership for the whole. This leadership is not official, but almost always, there will be one person doing the interaction with me, while the others listen, and will hold an aura of authority. If this leader agrees with the petition, everyone will sign. If not, no one will. The exceptions are very few, I think I can count only one. Some of the time, “leadership” will be sort of shared, but that mostly happens when everyone more or less agrees.
As I said, there are different kinds of people. When someone appears to belong to group 2, i.e. 3rd wave feminist who are actively for trans* rights and defend our cause through and through, they generally assume leadership. In this situation, the leadership mostly takes the form of open and overt signs of approval, suggestions of what we could do next and other signs of agreement and support, or they will push the discussion on other related grounds. They generally don’t need information on the central issue, although they may learn new things on the reality of trans* people on campus (even trans* people learn about this when I talk to them, and this often goes both ways). When there is such a person in a group, job’s done, everyone will sign. Most of these people are women, and by their sheer enthusiasm and visible knowledgeability, they assume group leadership from the start, no matter whether the other people in the group are also in the same category. I will therefore not include these situations which, though relatively frequent (I mean, I’m addressing students between 18 and 25 in mostly left-wing associations, many of which have taken classes on gender — finding 3rd wave feminists with decent knowledge of trans* issues isn’t a surprise), are exceptional in their way and not typical of general social interactions.
The situation is different with groups entirely made out of people from groups 3 and 4, those who are not committed to trans* rights. In these situations, the informal leader may ask for clarifications, express doubts, question our intent and our motives, give counter-arguments to our positions, or, on the bright side, voice surprise at the situations we face or sympathy at our difficulties and show approval to our demands. In the end, if I convince them, the rest of the group signs, and if I don’t, nothing happens.
Strikingly, in mixed male-female groups, when there is no obvious and enthusiastic supporter to assume leadership from the very start, this informal leader will be male almost all of the time. When there are only women, there is a stronger tendency for everyone to have a say, even though someone will be more assertive, have more “airtime” and exert more authority. But in mixed groups, women shut up, except in exceptional cases.
Even if there is one man and several women, the man will be my main interlocutor. It is he who will give his opinion or ask questions while the others nod. Even when the question should matter to women, not men, it is he who will be asking them: men, more than women, will defend the importance of keeping women’s bathrooms (we don’t plan to abolish all gendered spaces, only to have some gender-neutral ones) — of course, misogyny of the “women are weak and must be protected” kind may be involved. And it is he who will, at the end of my argument, decide that “OK, I’ll sign” and take the petition pad first (or, on the contrary, decide not to, after which the others will likely follow).
I don’t think it is a situation I unconsciously create. I’m committed to creating discussion space where gender dynamics to force some (including women) to silence, which is something of a real problem — as we have observed here. As a matter of general practice, I try to look at everyone equally.
Dealing With Leadership
At least, that’s what I do at the beginning. When leadership emerges, the fact of leadership has to be taken into account, both in mixed and women-only groups. What I have observed is that if the leader doesn’t agree, it is unlikely others will, and that if someone signs, it is very likely that the others will. Therefore, I have two objectives: convince the person with informal group authority to give signs of support, and make sure the first person I ask to sign actually does. In practice, I care about convincing more people that what trans* people fight for is right. I have received all sorts of ridiculous refusals, from “everyone experiences discrimination” (thanks for denying our particular form of oppression) to “my religion forbids me” (which is certainly untrue, I have had people from the same religions as those who said that who signed). If they end up sort-of agreeing with trans* right because of how, independently of my action, groups are structured, the foot-in-the-door effect applies, in a way: they have given a form of commitment to trans* rights, which will incite them to give more support later.
If the leader is supportive, I generally don’t do anything particular and continue to address the whole group equally to include everyone. When the leader is lukewarm, however, I will adjust my tactic. For long intervals, I will look at the leader, especially when what I say is meant to convince, but at strategic points, e.g. when I’m using jokes or emotive discourses, which are meant to create visible reactions in the audience, I will look at the other people, with the hope that their reaction will change the leader’s attitude. Also, in these situations when I’m not sure the leader will sign, I will offer the followers to sign first, rather than asking the leader — maybe they will sign, which will cause the others to sign?
The effect of the latter trick is easily observable. In female-only groups, when I offer someone who is not the informal leader to sign first, they do; in a mixed group, everyone waits for the (male) leader’s reaction before signing.
I don’t know if what I do is reinforcing or destructuring gender dynamics in conversation. On the one hand, I am not the cause of them, when there is no reason to the contrary, I try to make everyone participate, man or woman, and when I have to deal with unfavourable authority, I attempts to weaken it. On the hand, I do recognize this authority and center my approach on one person — in mixed group, generally a man. I try to be progressive in this, but do I succeed? You tell me, I really don’t know (please comment!).
Obviously, none of what I have just described is systematic. I have observed a global tendency, but there are exceptions (though admittedly few, in my experience). I didn’t take notes, either — I’m carrying out a petition, not a social study. Although these are just patterns, they are clear to me, and this global pattern (men hold power in conversation) and how it is enforced (by not letting women talk and by silencing them) have been studied in more depth by others, for example in this article (in French) on gender and conversation.