June 17, 2021

Women-Only Organisations – Managing Differently?

Doctoral researcher Mary Ann le Lean, who is exploring gender equality at executive level in the UK arts sector (twitter: @maryannlelean) reflects on this online seminar hosted by Professor Anne-marie Greene of the University of Leicester. The seminar focused on understanding more about how Clean Break works as an organisation, with distinctive organisational practices characterised by learning through listening to the voices of those involved in its work.

Blog post 1:

Women-Only Organisations – Managing Differently?

Online seminar 22 April 2021

This event was the first of a double-bill on 22 April 2021 arranged by the Women/Theatre/Justice (AHRC) research group, looking at two aspects of Clean Break’s practice – how does this company work as a women-only organisation, and what is involved in a Clean Break collaboration with other organisations?

Women-Only Organisations – Managing Differently? addressed the first aspect: how does Clean Break work as an organisation and what can academic research tell us about women-only organising?  Hosted by Professor Anne-marie Greene of University of Leicester, we heard from Erin Gavaghan (Executive Director of Clean Break) and Professor Gill Kirton (Professor of Employment Relations at Queen Mary University of London’s School of Business and Management).  The opening questions from Anne-marie’s introduction were around how does management work and how are decisions made in women-only organisations, and is Clean Break different in how it organises its work?

Erin started by providing an audio description of herself on screen for those who may need it, and summarised Clean Break’s work for those who hadn’t come across it before, and this set the tone for a considerate, inclusive talk.  This was echoed in Gill’s selection of direct quotes from the women in her research to illustrate her academic findings in the second half of the speakers’ section, and was the key theme that stood out for me.  In consciously choosing to being a women-only organisation, and in asking the question ‘why not include men?’ (an often continuing question, as Gill’s research shows), it seems from the examples shared today that women-only organisations are thoughtful and inclusive in the sense that they work very hard to include the views of the women who work in and for their organisations, those who use their services, and those who participate in their work.

Erin told us that even though she started working at Clean Break with some initial trepidation at stepping into a gender-specific organisation, she felt like she “had come home”.  The supportive and inclusive spaces where women grow in solidarity with each other that Erin highlighted from The Women’s Resource Centre report, Why Women Only?, is one that Erin experiences in her work at Clean Break. 

Two examples of how Clean Break organises and manages itself stand out from Erin’s thoughtful and generously frank description of her experiences as the company’s Executive Director – a shared leadership model, and consultative, collective decision-making. 

In 2018, Clean Break moved from having one woman in the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) role to a three-way shared leadership model with two co-Artistic Directors and an Executive Director acting as joint-CEO.  While Erin is aware of an increasing number of co-Artistic Director pairs, and some joint-CEO roles shared between an Artistic Director and an Executive Director, Clean Break’s three-way shared leadership model is – as far as she knows – unique in the UK theatre sector.  Each woman works the same hours as each other, is paid the same, is equally and jointly responsible as Chief Executive Officer to the Board, but works to their own strengths and responsibilities; this is not the job share model that you may expect.  Work was undertaken to create what Erin called “a compact” between the trio and Clean Break’s Board, and the three women created a compact between themselves, to set out clear expectations and a pathway to work collaboratively.  Erin described the kind of support provided within this shared model as one that she hadn’t experienced elsewhere, and which counteracts the loneliness that some leaders can feel.  Above all, her descriptions of how the leadership trio manage their work and the organisation made it clear why she finds that the shared leadership model enriching, and “worth the extra time and effort that’s required”.

Within this model, pace came up as an underlying theme – how long does a decision need to take?  Who needs to be consulted?  Clean Break not only uses a collaborative decision-making process at executive level, it applies it across the organisation.  Erin’s description of putting service-users and participants firmly at the heart of Clean Break’s purpose and activities brought the issues around time and pace into sharp relief.  With a core team of 20, many of whom work part-time, even just booking a meeting that everyone can attend is a challenge.  Widen this out to all stakeholders, and the operational challenges increase.  That said, the commitment to making sure that no stakeholder is ignored is so key to Clean Break and Erin’s vision, the challenge is one that Clean Break accepts and is still finding ways through.  Erin explained that, as a group, they are still working out which decisions need to be fully consultative and which do not, conscious that “not everything is better when it’s decided by a full committee”.  The organisation also wants to empower people and develop leadership skills, so delegated decision-making is a model that runs side-by-side with the consultative model. As an employer, Clean Break is working to create a culture where employees feel able to bring their “whole selves” to work and within this environment, Erin also found that employees feel safe enough to share with Clean Break, as their employer, any challenges that they have. 

Gill’s own experience of working within women-only groups and her subsequent academic career researching such groups, echoed a lot of Erin’s experiences at Clean Break.  She prefaced her section with a concise summary of the two main motivations for setting up and maintaining women-only organisations.  One is a belief that there is an essential and inherent difference between women and men, and therefore women’s interests are best served separately from men.  The other motivation arises from feminist grievances based on the gendered hierarchies that exclude women from power, and therefore women can only be heard and serve their interests away from men.  This does not fully express the many reasons why a women-only group may form, and it does not mean that all women-only organisations would describe themselves as feminist – indeed sometimes they would directly eschew that position.  But, as Gill described, they all create spaces for women with similar interests and experiences to gather in what is often now described as a ‘safe space’, free from the threat of actual or symbolic violence of men towards women, ranging from physical threat or harm to the micro-aggressions of interruptions and/or ‘mansplaining’.

Gill’s reflections and findings around women-only groups mirrored Clean Break’s model of collaborative and consultative decisions, flat leadership structures, and the importance of putting service users or recipients at the centre of the organisation’s work.  We heard again about the problems that collective, shared power can bring – not only because of length of time it takes to come to decisions and take action, but also because a fundamental agreement about a group’s purpose does not always then translate into agreement on every operational decision.  Examples such as making cuts to an organisation’s budget can be difficult to hold within a collective decision-making model if one group of employees or service-users will be negatively affected by the decision – in terms of industrial relations, where would that power then sit, who is the subject of a grievance from an employee treated unfairly, if everyone in the organisation has shared fully in the budget cut decision?

The conversation between Erin and Gill before and after the small break-out group conversations (which were confidential and not recorded) showed how useful it was to hear lived experiences and academic research.  Indeed, Erin shared that she and Clean Break are really benefitting from taking part in the Women/Theatre/Justice research, not least because they are learning so much from hearing new, external perspectives about how Clean Break manages itself as an organisation. 

When questions from the virtual floor were included in the conversation, we heard about Gill’s findings that women-only Trade Union groups are now grappling with the question of how expansive a concept of ‘womanhood’ can and should be.  Erin explained that Clean Break is open to what a definition of a women-only organisation can be, and is being led by their Members in navigating gender identity now.  Gill highlighted the parallels between the exclusion of Black women from 1970s feminist discourse, followed by the complexities of class in developing feminist approaches to organising, and the current complexities of trans-women and non-binary identities when it comes to defining women-only organisations.  Neither Erin nor Gill were aware of any organisations which have set out a clear path to follow on that yet.

Despite the repeated acknowledgements about the high demands on time within consultative decision-making models, and the huge amount of work still needing to be done to achieve gender equality in mixed organisations, both Erin and Gill have experienced, and still believe in, the good work that women-only organisations can undertake.  Hopefully this event went some way in helping Erin reach her goals of shouting louder about Clean Break’s achievements and help other organisations learn how to create work environments where women are able to work in a supportive, safe environment, where decision-making processes are inclusive, and where leadership does not fall to just one, lonely leader. 

Finally, a participant’s question about what changes Erin and Gill can foresee coming out from the Covid-19 pandemic, gave us all pause for thought and a moment of sombre reflection before Anne-marie wrapped up for the morning.  We know there has been and continues to be a disproportionate burden and negative impact on women across the world and, while Erin described a burning need to be hopeful about positive change coming from this knowledge of an unequal impact on women, her hope is mixed with an underlying cynicism.  Gill was also hopeful about positive change, but at the moment cannot see any fundamental change to the gender contract coming out of the pandemic.

For the full recording of the Erin and Gill’s main contributions, I would encourage all who are able to watch the Clean Break: Managing Differently? recording on the WTJ YouTube channel. Re-listening before I finalised this blog post really brought home to me Erin’s points that “slowing down to listen and take notice is a lesson I’m learning reaps great rewards”.