On Friday night, Sydney’s Town Hall was abuzz as audiences gathered to hear Roxane Gay and Christina Hoff Sommers discuss the current state of #Feminism. Representing two opposing views, a robust debate was expected. Alas, poor facilitation saw the event quickly descended into chaos. Positioning two women against each other is not productive for the progression of gender equity. But that isn’t why this event failed – we can have healthy discussions with people we disagree with. I left frustrated and exhausted and it all came down to abysmal facilitation. To be honest, to even call it facilitation is an insult to the profession.
The event was organised by This is 42. Going by their website, it looks like This is 42’s events are usually smaller groups in cafes doing topic 101s with a subject matter expert. In this instance the speaker choice, venue, topic and informed metropolitan audience saw expectations much higher than what they are probably used to. According to their website, they exist to create learning experiences where audiences leave feeling ‘smarter, sharper and more inspired than when they walked in.’ This does not describe my experience.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that there was no explanation for why there were two women from the United States of America to talk about feminism and no local voices – there is not a shortage of speakers.
‘I bet you’re wondering what this penis is doing on stage.’
There are structures in place to ensure not anyone can hand out prescriptions, certify a building is structurally sound or restore a painting. Similarly, facilitation is a skill developed over time best left to the experts. #Feminism got off to a problematic start when the founder of This is 42, Desh Amila, announced that despite all the emails he sent to journalists, he couldn’t find a woman to facilitate the evening and he would be stepping in. Amali confessed to not being up to speed on feminism and that he was willing to learn. He essentially asked for forgiveness for what was to come. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the event was planned back in September 2018. Women make up 50% of the population and we aren’t all journalists. Women are academics, policy leaders, university educators, medical professionals, architects, teachers and so much more. That This is 42 couldn’t find someone willing to facilitate this event and save it from the disaster it became, raises more questions than answers about good practice in event production.
Facilitation 101: essentially you’re a duck on water.
An informed male who identifies as an ally and is a skilled facilitator could have been on stage with Gay and Sommors. Amila should not have been. The questions were so outdated they were 1990’s material or simply offensive. The audience groaned as the guests were asked to define feminism and the role of intersectionality. Roxane declined to answer ‘what is feminism’, stating that ‘if you don’t know what it is by now, you are being wilfully ignorant.’ That was five minutes in and where Roxanne Gay maintained succinct, direct, intelligent answers, Sommers rambled and struggled to put forward a case for why she held her views. The facilitator made no attempt to encourage a deeper conversation.
His body language slumped throughout the evening with his confidence. He was visibly zoning out and disengaged from the debate at hand. He made no effort to manage the audience or hot topics. For example, when too many questions from the audience sought to unpack more depth in Sommer’s controversial stance on educating women how not to get raped, a good facilitator would have identified that it was not productive and asked for questions on new topics. The audience’s verbal and physical dissatisfaction was erupting. The facilitator’s body language showed he knew he had lost control of the event – that is assuming he was in control in the first place. And yet on Sunday night, he got up and did it all again in Melbourne.
What does gender equity really need right now?
Theoretical insights or a robust solution-focused discussion? The information is out there en masse – books, podcasts, web series, journal articles and studies (if you are so inclined). Taking into consideration that:
- One women a week in Australia is murdered by her current or former partner
- one in five women in Australia have experienced sexual violence
- 85% of women in Australia have been sexually harassed
- female graduates earn $5,000 less than male graduates in the same role
- #metoo has mobilised women’s marches globally, with consideration for intersectionality
- a smart dress has been developed and tested in Brazil to heat map the number of times a women is harassed at night
- Jacinda Ardern has reached international headlines for her leadership post the Christchurch massacre
- 127 women made history together in America when they were sworn into the 116th congress this year
- … and that is a chip of the iceberg
we need a solutions-focused discussion with different cogs in the system. Roxane pointed out that the next phase of #metoo should be to move beyond testimony. Which wasn’t to say that testimony isn’t important or that women shouldn’t keep coming forward, but rather to question what we do with this accumulating information as a society. She also called out reproductive rights and the gender pay gap as areas that need work. We can create a space to better understand people with opposing views, however acknowledging that we share the same broader vision, how do we start to address key issues? This is where the facilitation left a lot to be desired.
Questions from the audience started to pick up on key themes, such as the representation of women in the media and managing the fatigue of calling out racism as a person of colour. And that was the audience warming up.
It is important that this event does not discourage Amali (or other men present) willingness to engage with the discourse of gender equity. Rather they should be supported by those around them to learn from this experience and become more informed by actively seeking out more information. What they witnessed is a majority female audience thirsty for change and frustrated at the questions.