Last week I attended an open forum at the University of Suffolk in Ipswich. There I got involved in a lively conversation around the topic: ‘has it become counter-productive to talk about ‘women’s issues’, or is that conversation now over?’
The contention goes that, by constantly ‘bleating on’ about women’s rights, we’re drawing attention to difference rather than similarity. It keeps women stuck in the role of the weakest link, constantly needing support and special privileges instead of naturally rising to the top through talent and hard work. Surely we’ve moved beyond all that now, haven’t we?
Where to begin….? This discussion is set against a raft of well-worn conversations around lack of equal pay, lack of women in boardrooms, lack of parity when it comes to the division of childcare and housekeeping, let alone particular cultural considerations for many ethnic minority women and the shameful reality of domestic violence. You’ll be familiar with the landscape.
There remains a general and correct understanding that men and women do not yet inhabit a level playing field. (Let’s acknowledge right now that there are areas where women receive enhanced rights over men and that men face challenges that are gender-specific too… I am truly shocked by the figures emerging currently around male suicide here in the UK). Nevertheless, a point of view I hear often is that because women in the UK have, by some measures, ‘come a long way’ since the bra-burning 1970s, there are other, fresher inequalities that now deserve our attention more. Factor in the growing recognition that many of us don’t fit neatly into our gender labels at all, with increasing numbers of people identifying as gender non-binary*, and the question presents itself fair and square: is there still a place for gender-specific programmes like Springboard and its male equivalent, Navigator?
Here’s why I think the answer is still a resounding YES.
It comes down to providing a safe space for conversation. The Springboard and Navigator programmes are about self-discovery and personal growth. They’re not simply training people to be better at their job or learn a new skill – although that’s a welcome by-product. The programmes have been carefully designed to encourage thought about Big Questions: What do I stand for? What do I have going for me? What in my life doesn’t sit well? How effective is my communication with other people – at home, at work, in wider society? What do I want more of? What do I need less of? And once I’ve answered these questions, how do I get moving in my chosen direction?
Sure, a lot of those conversations could happen quite happily in a mixed-gender forum. Over the years I’ve worked with enough people to know that men and women are often each others’ best allies and very open to each others’ experiences.
But what our Springboard and Navigator participants remark upon time and time again is the value of the shared experience. The realisation that other men or other women are going through the same concerns, discomforts, decisions and delights that you are, many of which will be unique to their own gender.
We can never truly walk in another person’s shoes, but we’re likely to find the journey easier if we’re stepping into a pair that feels familiar. And that’s why single gender training works.
*Gender non-binary people are warmly invited onto both Springboard and Navigator.