I love my writer’s workshop, but…

September 3, 2014 | By | 15 Replies More
Sue Hewitt

Sue Hewitt

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.

Cunning Woman's Cup

Cunning Woman’s Cup

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.

Sue Hewitt

Sue Hewitt

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.



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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

Comments (15)

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  1. I can see a writer’s group going that way, but mostly I’ve experienced a variation. There will be one person who Knows How to Run Everything, and the rest of us have to comply with their decisions — or else. In the last group I was in, this was a woman.

    I volunteered to coordinate — coordinate, not “lead” the way she did — a collaborative side project. She would call me up at eleven at night, insisting I do this or that lest the project fall to pieces — which it did anyhow, in part because of her interference.

    Somehow she saw my unwillingness to obey as a sign I needed improvement. I cut off contact when I caught her instructing mutual friends to tell me I needed to change what colour clothing I wore.

    I really don’t think my time in that group helped my writing much, but it was great for character observation!

  2. Nyla Nox says:

    I think it’s very brave to speak out about your personal experience. I’ve been to groups like that and found it very frustrating.
    For me, the purpose of a writers group is to share writing and support each other through the difficult journey of a writer’s life.
    Pontificating and off-topic ‘strutting’ doesn’t do that for me. I want to meet other writers who are serious about their writing. I want to talk about narrative strategy and suspense, I want to read excerpts from books that I will never write.
    I’m not sure if a women only group is the solution although I’ve had very good experiences in women’s writers groups. It can be really problematic to be selective about membership in small communities, too.
    I guess women are going to have to keep socialising socially inept men – or stand up for their selections and de-selections!

  3. Ruth Sutton says:

    Many years ago I was asked to tackle the gender imbalance in secondary school leadership in my local authority. I proposed leadership training and support in women only groups. The idea was criticised by some men, who felt excluded, and some women, who felt insulted. But I went ahead anyway, and my positive expectations were more than fulfilled. In previous groups I had encountered the same male approach as described in this blog post: competitiveness, hogging attention, concerns about status. In the several cohorts of women only groups we ran none of these occurred, and the quality of conversation, listening, reflection and learning was much better. You might suggest that the women meet as a separate group for a trial period and then bring the experience back to the whole group. Or you might simply opt out of the big group for a while and see if anyone joins you. Don’t expect everyone to agree with you: it can be seen as a retrograde step. But your group is big enough to enable sub- groups to form. Treat it as an experiment and discuss the evidence that arises. Such an evidence-driven approach might even satisfy the quantitative men. Good luck.

  4. I am so with you. Wanted to share this as a giggle (It’s not mine.) The title: Jane Austin Gets Feedback from the Guy in her Workshop.


  5. Dear Sue,
    When I read the phrase, “some are retired, some are working,” I jumped! I have been in groups with retired male (clergy) and working female (clergy) and it’s as if we are from different planets. The guys want to pontificate; the women want to share and learn. Of course I am generalizing, but it seems to hold true that men cling to their “professional standing” while women hold on to – lightly – their personal growth. One particular time, introductions of a new groups took a full forty minutes, as the men “talked over” the others. I think firmness is required. Get a separate space for the men as an experiment. See what happens. In another group where one member was very unruly, we asked the facilitator to keep the group “structured” and that worked very well. Best wishes, @LatelaMary (US)

  6. Jo Carroll says:

    I belong to a mixed group – with just two men. One is quietly spoken, waits till he has something he needs to say and drops it in respectfully. The other is louder, blustery, and assumes a right to speak first and be heard. The problem, as I see it, is he has no insight into this – if challenged he denies it; intellectually he’s respectful of women etc, but he has still be socialised to do the macho thing. I tend to let it go, most of the time, as it would get in the way of talking about the writing if I took him on every time it happens.

  7. The experiences seem to vary widely and some have no issue with mixed groups. Your experience seems clear and it’s a shame to deal with such trepidation when you should have only excitement and a longing to share. I’ve been looking for a new writer’s group myself and it seems finding a good fit isn’t always easy. It sounds like your plan to seek out (or maybe split into) a female-only group might be what your creative soul desires.

    I think it’s a fairly common thing – some of us are comfortable in mixed company and some of us prefer to socialize along gender lines for the most part.

    Your reflection on the age members of the group (as a throw back to when men would have cigars separately from the women) was interesting. Maybe it’s not just a gender but a generational issue?

    Best of luck to you in finding a space where you and your writing can flourish!

  8. Misha says:

    This is certainly not true at Renegade Writers. Although the men outnumber the women, the women are as vocal, often more so than the men. Nor does status appear to matter, even among those who have been published professionally. What we are concerned with is the quality of the work and how to improve it. I know this is unusual in mixed groups, but perhaps it is because we are indeed renegades that it works this way for us.

  9. I think you’re right about the presence of men in a group – it does change the dynamic entirely, not necessarily for the worst, but still. I think your idea of another group with just women would be excellent. Women writers have different concerns – and they’re treated very differently in the marketplace, for sure.

  10. Sue Hewitt, author - The Cunning Woman's Cup says:

    Thank you all for your responses to this, my first ever blog. It is heartening to read your replies, and to read the discussion on the Women Writers Women’s Books face book page. My workshop begins again tomorrow, and I hope that an influx of new female members will have a calming effect on our male members. Time will tell.

  11. Zoe King says:

    In reality, it’s up to your group leader to deal with this problem, but it’s not easy. I run a group here in Norfolk, and used a ‘Sorry’ box to deal with a member who prefaced every comment with ‘sorry’. I introduced the box in a jokey manner, and said that every time she said ‘sorry’ from then on, she had to contribute £1.00 to the box, which would go towards group funds for speakers etc.
    It might be worth chatting to your leader about introducing something similar, as the frustration caused by not addressing the problem could well lead to the break up of what sounds like a very successful group. As long as the idea is introduced in a general (and fun) way, for the good of everyone, to ensure everyone has their say, it might well work.
    Certainly I don’t think you should go along with loins girded, as that undoubtedly ruins your concentration and enjoyment of the sessions.

    Good luck!


  12. Cath Bore says:

    I’ve never experienced macho posturing like you described, but the only members who have point blank asked how much money others make out of writing, have been male. I’m not saying women writers don’t discuss prize money, fees etc but some men I’ve known do seem intent on getting this information out of others. It’s uncomfortable, and not necessary. I actually got asked “What? You got paid – for writing?” once, I felt really awkward.

  13. Lani says:

    I’m an American expat living in Thailand, the first writers group that I joined here was international and men and women. Yes, mostly retired white men, but a mixed group overall. I can relate to your experience perfectly.

    The women often complained about the men taking over and creating a different vibe. So, we started an all-women’s writers group and it was great. You, of course, have the different personalities, but women are more attentive, I feel. I feel like what I have written resonates with them better. I don’t know. Maybe I am wrong, but I understand your situation.

  14. Tam May says:

    I agree with you that for some activities, single gendered groups are better than mixed groups. I think writing is one of them, mainly because it is such a personal thing for many people and fraught with doubts and fears. For something like that, many people feel more comfortable sharing and developing when the group consists of only their gender (male or female).


  15. Annecdotist says:

    Interesting! I suppose we all feel somewhat vulnerable when we share our writing with others and it can be easier for women than men to be upfront about it. Perhaps these men were having to call on their previous status in the workplace to feel they could tolerate the critical gaze? Nevertheless, a pain when you encounter it. But so many variables can impact on group dynamics of which gender is only one. Good luck with managing this within your group!

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