Sunday, March 09, 2014

Power and lightbulb moments

With it being International Women's Day the other day, I have been thinking about the power some have over others. I was struck by the message that in NSW, domestic violence is still the most common case that police respond to, and that half of all cases go unreported. It was suggested that there are more than 700 instances of domestic violence occuring in NSW every day. It's clear to me that there is still so much to be done in Australia to close the gap in opportunity, power and safety between men and women, yet many people in Australia believe that all the battles have already been fought, and that there is nothing a woman can't do, if she would just stop complaining and get on with it.

Then, across the Pacific ocean, I find myself on the opposite end of the power spectrum. As a white woman I am constantly aware of my own power and privilege. In Solomon Islands I represent those who have greater access to money, safety and decision making ability. This was made even more startlingly clear to me this past week when my Solomon Islands colleagues were invited to share about some of the power inequalities that they experience in a cross-cultural group. For the first time in five years, the "elephant in the room" was being discussed. They explained how it felt that decisions were already made before the meeting had started, how they felt inferior and unable to contribute anything worthwhile, and how some more powerful people would interrupt, talk over and generally not seem to value the "Solomon voice".

Suddenly, I saw that lightbulb moment happen for the most powerful people in the room. Instead of insistently denying any suggestion that interactions within our cross-cultural group were not 100% rosy, as had been the reaction in the past, there was genuine listening, and they began to understand. We agreed upon some ways to change the power dynamic a little - discussing more complex issues in smaller groups before sharing with the wider group, allowing a moment of silent reflection before rushing in with our thoughts, and taking a secret ballot to find out how people actually feel about the level of power that they hold in the group. As a result, the mood in the group really improved for the better.

In the taxi later on my Solomon colleagues and I were discussing this turn of events. We couldn't believe how much things had changed. Then one of my colleagues summed it up: "I just realised that she didn't realise what she was doing". What we had assumed was deliberate we began to realise was not. Some just hadn't realised the extent of their power. It was our own lightbulb moment.

So, as I think about the men in my life, I realise that some of them probably just don't realise either. Of course, my friends range from those men who would describe themselves as feminists and "get it", to those who can't understand why you'd need a women's only space, and all those in between who benefit in many little ways from the position of power that they hold.

As I listened to my Sols colleagues share their discomfort, I could relate. I sometimes feel that my views are unimportant and that decisions are already made by others with more power. And I wonder how I can learn from my Solomon Islands colleagues about how can I share my experience with those in more powerful positions than me in a way that allows that realisation, and enables them to be part of the solution rather than feeling like the problem?

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