I am very much looking forward to my writer’s workshop which reconvenes in September after a summer break. Living in a rural and relatively sparsely populated area of Scotland such facilities, within easy driving distance, are few and far between. However – there is one thing that drives me to distraction about it – and the main bones of contention, for me, are the male members.
I know, all those years of fighting for equality of opportunity in all spheres, wanting equal access, and here I am secretly wishing for a women only group. Why? I hear you ask.
Let me describe ‘the group’ which averages between 15 and 24 persons. It is led by Iona McGregor (writes as Iona Carroll), who is a soft spoken, gentle Australian woman. She puts so much effort into preparation of exercises for us, and they always promote much discussion, which, given half a chance, the male members will monopolize, quickly going off on totally different tangents, which tends to lead to their discussion veering swiftly towards becoming confrontational and competitive.
As is often the case in mixed groups, the women are inclined to take a back seat in these circumstances, and precious time is wasted. This may be a uniquely English or Scottish ‘thing’ – perhaps in other countries women do not suffer from this hangover from the days when the women withdrew to the drawing room while the men indulged in port and cigars – alternatively in some countries women may not even have the opportunity to be included in the first place, or the education required to take part.
I have found it necessary on many occasions to speak up to suggest that the men get back on topic and continue their macho struttings ‘at a different time and venue – please’.
The group has been running for a couple of years now, and the majority of members are retired people, with a few of us still of working age including one or two younger folk and is split pretty much down the middle between the genders. For a long time the group remained on first name terms only, giving no indication of previous or current employment or careers, but gradually, whenever the occasion arose, one or two of the men would hint heavily at their past until finally it became clear that this information was very important to them and their perceived ‘status’ within the group.
Just before our summer break this year they managed to get their own way, and everyone took turns in sharing this information. The men were keen to go first, and so they did, the retired general practitioner, the architect, the civil servant, the bon viveur, public speaker and expert on vintage motor vehicles, the lawyer and the Edinburgh banker – and very proud of themselves they seemed indeed – then the women – three published authors, a consultant at the local hospital and M.B.E, a clinical psychologist, a teacher, and two editors of a regional literary and arts magazine.
In my opinion – on the ‘status’ stakes, it worked out fairly evenly, and the male facial expressions of surprise at the achievements of our female members were barely concealed.
As this blog is for a women’s writing and reading audience I know you will all understand immediately that a conversation solely amongst women is a very different animal to a conversation between women with a male presence. I do not really understand why this should still be the case – but I imagine the reverse is true also, and that an all male conversation will also alter quite dramatically if a woman appears.
To a certain extent – we do not even speak the same language. Men tend to be quantitative creatures wanting to measure everything in terms of success as they experience it. Women on the whole tend to be qualitative in their approach and far more willing to collaborate and far less combative.
OK, yes I am making huge generalizations here – but my experience leads me to believe that, in certain situations, separation of the genders works to the benefit of both groups. It is said that, in single sex schools, more girls go on to study sciences and mathematics than in mixed schools. It is said that, boys who are taught in mixed classes by a majority of female teachers do less well than their female counterparts.
I assume that because these types of statistics are quite well known and accepted that there are some underlying reasons for these results. At a guess I would suggest that it is the differing methods of communication used that makes the difference. Males responding better to a quantitative and somewhat confrontational method of teaching and girls to a qualitative supportive approach.
How then do I confront this question in relation to my writer’s workshop?
Do I continue to arrive, loins girded for battle, prepared to talk over others to prevent them talking over me? Do I continue to speak up – despite the fact that it makes my heart pound, and the blood ring in my ears, while my creative self hunkers down out of sight? The answer has to be yes for the time being, and fortunately I am no shrinking violet – but at some point I might just have to raise the possibility of dividing the group along gender lines.
Sue was born in Kent in 1957. She has lived happily with her family in the Scottish Borders for the past 25 years. She works as housekeeper and gardener for the artist Susan Ryder.
The Cunning Woman’s Cup is her first novel.