CHAPTER NINE

MAKING A SPACE: A COLLABORATIVE INQUIRY

WITH WOMEN AS STAFF DEVELOPMENT

Lesley Treleaven©

Source of the Inquiry in Familiar Echoes

Some time ago I asked a woman I work with "How are you?" Terrible," she replied, breathing out with some relief. "Fragile," another had replied earlier in the day. "OK......" another had answered on the phone, obviously holding her breath hoping, "but just as well you didn't ask me yesterday. I'm coming to the conclusion that I'm going to have to look for another job. I just can't work here any longer."

There were emerging questions as I listened to the stories of women working in the University. What is it about our workplace and its culture that creates this sense of alienation? What accounts for the difference between times of despair and times when women experience their work as satisfying? How do women move between these times? What sense of agency - of capacity to determine our own lives - can and do we have in this workplace? What would need to change in the organisation so that more women could feel that what they did here was not so deeply in conflict with the organisation's cultural norms, explicitly in policies and structures, implicitly in everyday practices and procedures? How could we work creatively and have that full expression of our selves be included as a contribution to the cultural diversity of University life?

I was interested in exploring these complex, practical challenges in the everyday life of women working in the University. They were questions which I frequently encountered in my own practice as a feminist working in a large organisation, and they seemed perhaps to be questions underlying many of the stories I kept hearing.

 

"If you want something to happen, make a space for it." (Movement for the Ordination of Women, Australia)

This chapter focuses on the ways a group of women in one organisation made a space to explore these issues so that something could happen. In the account that follows I outline my assumptions in initiating a collaborative inquiry group and how I shaped the inquiry framework to generate participation. I describe the space we created as participants told and retold stories of their experiences of critical incidents in their working lives. I discuss the development of collaborative processes and how they changed during the life of the group. I illustrate how through this process of collaborative inquiry we developed new understandings that informed our actions towards changing some of our situations as women in an organisation. Finally, I sketch some of what is happening in our workplace by making an innovative space for such a collaborative inquiry.

In offering this account of the inquiry, I am aware of constructing a "fiction" as I systematically select and represent events and interpretations that are unavoidably partial (Clifford 1986, p. 6). Such ambiguities are heightened by the use of story itself as a valid form of researching people's lives, for the storyteller's narrative is a version that cannot be claimed as the only truth; yet the issue of subjectivity (Hollway 1984) - how we each construct and give meanings to our experiences as we dynamically position ourselves in relation to others - is present within any human inquiry and its representation. Thus Hollway (1989, p. 42) argues for a shift of focus "from methodological conditions that will enable the discovery of truth to one of understanding the conditions which produce accounts" that are themselves located within discourses, history and relations.

This account has developed over the eighteen months of our collaborative inquiry. I have drawn on multiple sources of data: a description of the preparatory stage which I wrote at the time and submitted to the group; tape recordings that were made of all meetings, discussions and interviews; notes that I have taken at these sessions; written reflections and evaluations by group members, and extensive journal entries. Given the group's inquiry into its own processes, there was little disagreement as participants read my developing text. We engaged to clarify meanings until in recognising "Yes, that fits with my understanding", we can claim validity for the participants of this current account.

However, some twelve months after first putting this chapter together, I now find aspects of this narrative problematic, for it presents our work through a framework that for me is constantly changing as I continue with the research, especially as I examine the discourses within which our meanings were shaped. This situation serves to highlight that the account's validity is both partial and temporary; not peculiar to this piece of research, except perhaps that it is acknowledged.

 

Locating the Inquiry as Staff Development: Beyond the Deficit Model for Women

As a Staff Development manager, responsible for providing a range of training and development opportunities for all staff in the organisation, I was in a position to initiate an inquiry process that derived from questions in the working lives of women. Participation in such a program is intimately related to the development of individual women on staff as well as to the organisation's development. Furthermore, Staff Development is required to make specific provisions for women: under Australian legislation the University is required to submit Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) and Affirmative Action (AA) Plans for monitoring by Government. However, in Australian Higher Education where most forms of Staff Development are either short courses delivered within the institution or professional development activities such as conference attendance, upgrading formal qualifications or sabbatical leave, a collaborative inquiry approach is significantly different.

Many Affirmative Action training programs rest on an assumption that women have a skill deficit. Thus it is argued that training women in management skills which have traditionally been exercised by men and learning assertive communication, meeting procedures, and financial skills will help address the imbalance between the sexes in the middle and senior levels of an organisation.

The major difficulty of this deficit approach to training lies not only in its failure over the last ten years to produce significant change by increasing the presence of women in management, (Still 1994) but also in the ways it has continued to perpetuate the masculine as a norm against which women are judged negatively (Marshall 1984, Burton 1991).

A further difficulty with such an approach is that it individualises and often psychologises women's absences and silences in management. Training is therefore directed towards developing the competencies of the individual woman and often assumes she needs to overcome psychological traits which are undesirable in positions of responsibility and decision making. This happens because psychological characteristics attributed in Western society to the masculine (competitive, aggressive, rational) are privileged over those attributed to the feminine (co-operative, nurturing, emotional). In turn, these gendered polarisations produce a web of systemic practices and normative values which permeate an organisation (Burton 1991, Blackmore 1992). For example, a female manager concerned with the working conditions of her staff and who was herself under resourced for the workload, was seen as "not coping" when she made repeated requests for change. Her angry outburst at being stalled by managers, recursively fed the gendered beliefs that she was irrational and emotional: "When you've put a rational argument on paper, I'll look at it," she was told. However, it was only after a health crisis and her worker's compensation claim, that several new positions were allocated to the section.

The systemic effects of gendered practices show up individually in women's alienation from the organisational culture, and organisationally in the absence of women in leadership positions. How could an innovative form of Staff Development begin to address these challenges?

By initiating a collaborative action research group as a Leadership Development Program for women it was possible to move away from both the deficit training model and traditional approaches to management training. Furthermore, by focusing on leadership rather than management, it was possible to move beyond hierarchical position and status as the only source of organisational power and influence, to action research the diverse ways women's leadership is expressed (or can be reconstructed) in the workplace.

 

Theoretical Roots

A collaborative action research group provided a suitable framework for this Staff Development program. In contrast to an instructional or skills orientated course, participation in action research informed by critical theory (Lather, 1986) can be empowering as participants engage directly in understanding and acting on issues of concern in their own lives.

The collaborative inquiry rested on assumptions that women managing complex lives already brought evidence of considerable management skills. A further assumption was that women's socialisation in awareness of others and their listening skills (Tannen, 1990) could be affirmed and re-valued in a collaborative inquiry process. So in lieu of structured training, my interest lay in facilitating the development of a listening space in which the women participants themselves would shape the inquiry, so that appropriate structures and processes would unfold over time:

I don't have a plan which I carry out, step by step. I move step by step and the design takes shape, with no image of the final form. (Stevens, 1970, p. 118)

Bani Stevens' statement could have been written to describe my way of action researching. It is also a way of proceeding which I have observed in the everyday lives of many women whose activities are often highly divergent, and where a linear way of being is neither desirable nor feasible. Such a familiar way of inquiring is only recently being accorded the status of a research methodology and the knowledge gained being accepted as valid. The variously named academic approaches of emancipatory collaborative action research, participatory research, co-operative inquiry and now human inquiry (Lewin, 1946; Carr and Kemmis; 1986, Heron, 1981; Torbert, 1976; Reason and Rowan 1981) is a field strangely populated by men. Women's development of these research approaches (Stanley and Wise, 1983; Maria Mies, 1983; Patti Lather, 1986; Michelle Fine, 1992, to name only a few) have come principally out of feminism. Their contributions, often in Women's Studies and on the margins of professions or disciplines dominated by traditional (positivist) scientific research, have been less visible (Fine and Gordon, 1992, p. 2; Ward and Grant, 1991, p. 262). The work of such writers have, however, strongly informed the theoretical framework of this inquiry.

Furthermore, women have brought to this inquiry, skills in producing knowledge for action (praxis) that has come out of practical participation in the community, health and welfare sectors, in environmental groups and in education's equity and disadvantage programs. Here their commitment to service provision and political change has come ahead of documenting processes which they have not necessarily conceptualised as research, though their community consultations, submission processes and needs analyses rest solidly on research activity, frequently as collaborative inquiry. Perhaps too, women activists have mistrusted academic theorising as Grimshaw (1986) claims, for theory has so often failed to reflect women's experiences.

Such an absence is apparent for me in action research theory. For example, I have found the circular model of sequenced steps - plan, act, observe and reflect, then re-plan (Kemmis & McTaggart, 1988) to be an incomplete approximation of action research, taking no account of implicit structure embedded within a situation, nor allowing for other forms of knowing beyond that of the conscious, rational mind. This is to ignore knowledge constructed in many forms: from emotions and the body, in creative expression (storytelling, poetry, drawing, music and dance) from synchronicity (coincidence to which meaning is given), and from dreams.

Aware is not just knowing, it's getting in touch, letting my knowing be felt all through me, before moving on. (Stevens, 1970, p. 117)

Such a gestalt approach differs markedly from that of Western rational enlightenment man.

In approaching the inquiry, I brought with me commitments to feminist praxis - knowledge produced about the world for action to change it equitably - and a concern with how we find out what we know - the domain of methodology and epistemology (Harding, 1986). I did not expect to find some universal truths that could be uncovered by "objectivity", but instead accepted that knowledge is itself a social construction. I valued lived experience as a source of constructed knowledge and drew, in part, on the significant contribution to the women's movement of feminist consciousness raising (Weedon, 1987, Fonow and Cook, 1991): as women told their stories and were heard, they developed understandings of the political issues embedded in personal experiences and ways to change

our subjectivity through positioning ourselves in alternative discourses which we produce together: the feminist practice of consciousness-raising takes as its object women's experience of our lives...(The) very process of sharing experience with other women leads to a recognition that the terms in which we understand things are not fixed. Experience is not something that language reflects. In so far as it is meaningful, experience is constituted in language. Language offers a range of ways of interpreting our lives which imply different versions of experience....It is possible to transform the meaning of experience by bringing a different set of assumptions to bear on it. (Weedon, 1987, p. 85).

Later in the inquiry I drew on other postmodern contributions to feminist theory (Hollway, 1984; Walkerdine, 1984; Riley, 1988; Grosz, 1990; Fine, 1992) and its critique (Luke, 1992) as I tried to find a useful place to stand in relation to the politics of feminist theory and practice.

 

 

Shaping the Inquiry Framework

In my experience of collaborative inquiry, it is in the initiatory phase that participation is generated and shaped by attention to two formative dimensions. One is the creation of a space where the inquiry can happen by establishing a framework of enabling structures. The second is the development of a context within this space that is itself productive of collaborative processes. Hence the preparatory phase of the inquiry needs to be congruent with collaborative processes and grounded in responses to exploratory dialogue. Furthermore, language is used with awareness of its capacity to shape participation and collaboration.

Within one organisation and its culture

An obvious design factor was locating the inquiry within one organisation. It enabled the group to research collaboratively the network of discursive practices as they operate within a single organisation, and in the process to reduce some of the isolation of women in their workplace. However, the masculinist culture and politics of the organisation within which the inquiry was sited was itself a subject of inquiry and this produced complex challenges in establishing a suitable inquiry framework.

With a history as an Agricultural College, and later as a College of Advanced Education, the fields of study in this institution have been traditionally staffed by men. All senior appointments, with the exception of the Dean of Nursing appointed twelve years ago, are still held by men. The student culture is still dominated by conservative rural male values that have successfully resisted change towards including a diversity of values despite the appointment of the first female academic staff in 1968, the arrival of female students in 1969, and the College becoming a University in 1989. A new School of Humanities may well attract further diversity in 1995.

With a background of strongly held traditional attitudes towards women amongst those staff who have little experience of accepting women as peers or those administrative staff recruited from the Defence Forces located nearby, there was hostility to Affirmative Action; one story may suffice.

A year before this collaborative inquiry, leaflets advertising Staff Development activities were widely distributed across the campus. The full program included the first courses specifically provided for women under the EEO/AA plan. In one tearoom, there was an angry reaction. One of the academic men concerned "shot the whole bundle of programs in the bin", with a comment designed to threaten women who stepped out of their prescribed roles by acquiring the assertiveness skills advertised in one of the courses. None of the women present in that tearoom registered for the programs.

To reduce the backlash that negatively labels women's participation in specifically targeted programs, we found it effective to adopt several strategies. Firstly, a memo to all senior and middle managers informed them in advance of the programs, drew their attention to the EEO/AA framework within which they were provided, and requested their managerial support by encouraging their female staff to nominate (under NSW legislation EEO responsibilities are written into all supervisory and managerial position descriptions). This worked as a defensive strategy but did not produce affirmative action on the part of managers encouraging staff to participate. Secondly, a written invitation to participate in Staff Development programs was sent to each female member of staff on the payroll, in preference to the practice of advertising in the organisation's information newsletter. Additionally, women's participation was encouraged by personal contact.

Ironically, the decision not to advertise the inquiry publicly, together with my status as an insider rather than as a consultant invited by an inquiring management, constructed the collaborative inquiry initially without organisational visibility. The political benefit, cost and strategic implications of that choice however, places the responsibility on the inquiry group itself for making our action research public knowledge.

Within an unstructured space

The inquiry framework needed to provide a space within which there was freedom from the tyranny of structured training, increasingly demanded in the Australian education and training environment determined by government policies based on foundations of economic rationalism. Since the collaborative inquiry was located within a Staff Development program, it was necessary to develop a framework that supported open exploration rather than instruction or structured training.

Paradoxically, in making space for the spontaneity and creativity of inquiry, I have observed that implicitly structuring processes emerge. They are not the explicit structures that a facilitator may lay down in order to direct, focus or control the direction of the inquiry (though at times we have indeed negotiated such facilitation). They are implicit ordering processes that are responsive to felt need, enable expression and lead to subsequent action. They will be highlighted in the following account of our inquiry.

With interested participants

In representing the nature of a collaborative inquiry to possible participants, I was aware that it could evoke anxiety with its lack of structure, excitement with its open-endedness, and uncertainty with its unpredictability regarding specifically desired outcomes. I wanted to include those who were new to such a research process whilst representing it adequately so that self-nomination would lead to a workable group.

I therefore spent a lot of time making initial contact with women personally or by phone, talking with them about their experiences as women working in the organisation, sharing the patterns that I was making from these conversations, and exploring what a collaborative inquiry could offer them. This "getting in register", actively listening and using language that expressed their own concerns and interests, enabled me to establish the inquiry framework in response to participants.

The invitation phase is not a task that can be delegated, but one integral to the formation of the collaborative group. My hunch is that this is because language itself shapes the inquiry, just as attention to recursivity (every part of the inquiry process informing the next) informs the development of an appropriate framework. This process is well illustrated by how I moved in the initiation phase from sending a written invitation for self-nomination, to a verbal invitation which women could accept or reject, to an exploratory dialogue which created participation in a space of inquiry. As I engaged in numerous conversations with women individually, I was able to develop my understanding of what I heard in this phase as:

women had their heads down and tails up - they were isolated and busy;

women wanted to know how they could manage themselves and others in an environment where thriving/surviving in a gendered culture were the greatest challenges;

women wanted to find ways to bring leadership in an effective and powerful way to diversify the organisational culture currently based on dominant masculine norms.

The group was therefore formed on a self-nomination basis from the open written invitation, phone contact and the informal networking of the snowball technique (where those interested are asked to suggest others who may be interested). Yet one participant later interpreted my personal approach as "an acknowledgement that I had something to offer... knowledge is power. " The snowball method has obvious limitations as she indicated: "I know (now) of people who would desperately like to be included for support and for other information. Because you've been part of it, you can now identify people who could be interested."

 

From Dialogue to Collaborative Group: An Introductory Session

Scheduling the initial meeting was well worth considerable consultation to find the optimum time for those who had indicated interest. By placing it around both sides of lunchtime, staff could readily opt to participate in different parts of the introductory program. The three parts were developed in response to the dialogues of the initial stage and further illustrate the recursivity of collaborative inquiry. The first purpose was to bring together women who were scattered across the campus as many had indicated their isolation. The second was to provide time over lunch for informal networking. The third, and primary purpose, was to clarify the Staff Development opportunity and for women to make an informed choice about participating in the collaborative inquiry of the Leadership Development Program. In this third phase, women addressed the following questions:

What is the inquiry that we each bring to this group?

What is collaborative action research and what might it mean in terms of this inquiry?

What do we need of each other to work together? (group commitments and ethics);

How shall we arrange our inquiry process? (logistics).

Within the introductory group, most women were not only comfortable but welcomed an opportunity where they did not have to fight to be heard and could have uninterrupted time to gather their thoughts on issues that they wanted to explore collaboratively. Some women chose only to take up the chance to network briefly with women from other Faculties, while a few others considered that issues applied equally to men and women in their department.

 

Participants

Who then formed the first collaborative inquiry group? Eleven academic women from four of the five Faculties: the sciences (agriculture, horticulture, food technology and science) have a long tradition of male appointments; nursing has traditionally been staffed by females. Thus the group was well placed to explore workplace issues of sex and gender in a University.

Some aspects of the group are particularly homogeneous: all are white with English speaking backgrounds reflecting the lack of diversity in female staff appointments at the University. Heterogeneity in the group has come from our differing families of origin and current personal circumstances, enabling us to consider more widely the issues of race and class and age that braid with gender. The group includes tenured, contract and part-time staff; some on staff for twenty five years, some only recently; thus there are senior lecturers, lecturers and tutors. Some have held management positions within their Faculty or on University Committees, others have no experience of these aspects of University life. The variations of employment provide opportunity to examine differences within the University, across Faculties, and over the period of the inquiry whilst the University underwent restructuring at national and internal levels.

Awareness of the organisational culture from which participants came into the collaborative inquiry group was vital. Whilst an academic culture often promotes tolerance for ambiguity in the pursuit of knowledge and supports individual freedom to engage in that pursuit with considerable autonomy, the administrative culture of the institution as a whole and that of some Faculties demands accountability and demonstrable productivity on a task basis that is often very closely supervised. This has placed pressure on women who have internalised this supervisory gaze or experience it through peers. For these reasons, a transition period within the life of the collaborative inquiry enabled some participants to re-value other ways of being that were unfamiliar in the context of this organisational culture but not unfamiliar to them in their everyday lives:

"As you all know I was very loath to join this group. I resisted like hell (laughter). I was a scientist, and issues were cut and dried. There was an acceptance that we ran meetings with an agenda. What we've been doing here, I was doing with mothers and women friends. That wasn't of any value. It's interesting how set groups (those with a set agenda) come to the same place as we have without structure."

 

Storytelling as Inquiry

Stories as a rich expression of human experience have been approached by researchers in several ways: by Peter Reason (1981) as a source of explanation and expression in human inquiry; by Frigga Haug (1983) as a way of examining collective memories; by Jean Houston (1987) in connecting people with myth as inspiration; by qualitative researchers like Bronwyn Davies (1989) using story to reveal how children construct their gendered worlds; by Maria Mies (1991) in consciousness raising as a way to tap collective stories; and by Carolyn Steedman (1986) who examines biography (her own and her mother's) to unsettle theories of working class and gender that fail to be useful in explaining these two lives.

In making a space where we could tell our stories, we moved slowly through an organically structured process which enabled stories to emerge. How did we do this? Quite simply, we began in the introductory session by introducing ourselves by name, faculty, how long we'd been here and the gender patterns in the faculty. I took on the role of facilitator by phrasing some core questions like these which were written up on a whiteboard (to the side of the room so it did not dominate the more informal space). Thus a space was systematically made by each woman giving specific data about her workplace. We then moved to a reflective and more interactive process of sharing a little of what it had been like working here drawing on our experiences, by asking: "What draws each of us here this morning?" With this sequencing, we drew on our own and others' stories quite readily.

One night, preoccupied with the research methodology, I had the following dream:

I am looking for the big myth.... I am on my hands and knees in the desert. Coming up out of the ground is a mat of very tiny, newly emerging wildflowers. It is like a cut carpet, and I take great care in examining the new shoots. It is hardly one big myth. More like many, many stories that make the mat.

I felt confident that through the gathering of these incipient blooms, it would be possible to discern a larger pattern, though it might stop short of the mythic and reveal something more everyday!

So we began our inquiry by telling our stories, using our experiences of the everyday situation to hand as a rich source of data for critically examining different working lives in the one organisation. We did this in several ways: initially in a spontaneous, unstructured space that I find useful to refer to as the emergent phase. Later, in a residential space we used a highly structured process (Southgate 1985), which I have called Listening Circles (Treleaven 1991), as a way of bringing our daily life stories into the group, as a basis for reflection, understanding and action. More recently, we have been revisiting old stories in new forms as we have moved in a spiral outward from the experiences of individual women into action at the organisational level.

Stories emerging in the space

When we met to begin our inquiry, Edith arrived in a rush straight from a meeting carrying a bundle of papers.

"Can I tell you where I've just come from and why I'm late, it's relevant I'm sure to the group..... I've just been to see the editor of the centenary history because I was asked to write a history of women for it. I'm feeling very tentative because I don't know whether it'll be accepted as I've written it because the people I've interviewed have not always..... but I've tried to be quite fair in putting in what they've said rather than my own judgements.... thought I've been quite objective and scientific and I'm aware that people will say you've been very emotive... I'd like to read some of it to you if you want to hear it....

"It's very much a commentary on motting.... Motting is basically to do with initiation.... 'The 1971 intake was motted.... The activities included: being run through the sheep yards like sheep with human dogs barking and biting, being sold to "Sirs" (third years) by auction to be their slaves, being taught the College war cry and traditions, general mental torture and physical unpleasantness, eating cornflakes like sheep, scrubbing the front drive with a toothbrush, swimming through pig effluent, all spitting into a bowl and then being fed it back again (it turned out to be egg white)' (Parker, 1991, p. 372)...

I didn't put in bum running.... some of it's almost unprintable.... based on the barstardisation in public schools.... The staff were always amazed that the Home Economics girls participated really willingly and fully in motting because they chose to. I don't think they really did choose to. Some of them really remember it as wonderful but some of them remember it being absolutely terrifying. There was one girl who reported that she got blood poisoning from swimming through the pig stuff and she was too scared to go to the local doctor because the press were around, so she went to the Penrith Hospital where they wouldn't know she was from the College .... It's been modified because all this brought on a government inquiry in 1983... but what happens when you bring rules in to change things is that a whole lot of things go underground and a lot of this is still happening."

The point is not whether both girls and boys were motted, nor whether such bullying behaviour was "just boys being boys", but rather the nature of the maculinist culture and its domination. Working in an institution that tolerates such practices serves to illustrate the underlying values from which many women feel alienated.

In constructing the story of women's places, changing roles and unchanging status in the institution's one hundred years, Edith had conducted research based on 330 questionaires and interviews with male and female members of the Old Boys Union (a telling title itself). From Edith's herstory and a well known refrain, "Hawkesbury and women are like oil and water, they just don't mix," we began to see how the roots of our group's inquiry were deeply bound up in the institution's history.

Such synchronicity at the beginning of our inquiry affirmed the unstructured process of making space for a way of inquiring that was not the function of planning or controlling content. One story evoked another, creatively releasing the memory of others. We told our stories as a way of building relationship, and the meaning of the stories was not hurried by applying analytic processes in the early stage. Thus a crucial aspect of participation was to allow the process of collaborative inquiry to unfold. It is a way of engaging in "a process, which is seen as simply happening and is not to be forced or achieved by an effort of the will ....(it) is a mixture of attentiveness and contemplation." (Ulanov in Weinrib, 1983, p. 41)

 

Stories facilitated by the Listening Circles

In a residential soon after the inquiry group began, there was sufficient time for an activity which invited participants to share one trauma, trivia and joy (Southgate, 1985) from their experiences of working in the organisation. This developed into sustained storytelling that broke many of the silences between women in the one workplace:

"I was supporting a workshop where a group of senior staff used, with much glee, the particularly sexist metaphor of pack rape to describe the lack of collaboration in a recent decision taken to introduce condom vending machines. I found their behaviour both inappropriate and offensive. I decided later to speak to the initiator about my own response as a means of engaging responsibly with change. His initial reaction was 'It's none of your business what men say in the privacy of their own company.' He had forgotten that there had been three women present, and that it was a University activity, even if it did include dinner. Three months later, it was still on his mind; he called me over at a staff function: 'I've thought about what you said. I can see your point.' Since then I haven't been in the position to work with those staff.... and I hadn't made that connection till now... I do feel vulnerable breaking my silence... but if we don't tell these stories, and they aren't part of our research to point to how men construct women and relate to women's issues, then how can we demonstrate that things need to change?"

We debriefed, analysing the individual stories we told in the Listening Circles in a structured group process (see Treleaven, 1991 for a detailed example). This format enabled us to move our collaboration into identifying themes embedded in groups of stories and advocating ways of acting/responding that we elicited from our "reading" of the stories themselves. For instance, Donna heard in one group of stories women's tendency to go and talk with a colleague when a difficulty arose. When a man responded instrumentally to this interpersonal approach by dealing with the situation impersonally through bureaucratic or formal procedures, she noted that the women felt frustrated at not being heard. These stories illustrated how the dominant culture operated to produce taken-for-granted communication patterns that worked against these women's preferred style in given work situations. In advocating possibilities, Jill recognised that the women seemed cautious of on the spot responses, and noted that some of the best resolutions had occurred when the storyteller was aware of her feelings, bodily reactions and had taken time to consider a way of approaching the situation, occasionally using an advocate. There was concern in the group that adopting the norms of organisational communication was to negate our diversity, and thus further questions for inquiry were posed. These engagements with the data by the group also highlight inter subjectivity in collaborative inquiry quite explicitly.

Stories of spiralling action research

Stories have interwoven. As emergent processes within different individual stories have unfolded, changes have been produced in the everyday lives of some of the women, in the way the group conducts itself, and more widely in the horizontal diffusion into parts of the organisation. This centrifugal process of diffusion has brought stories of action research cycles which could be described as spiralling outward, connecting women within and beyond the group.

Mary arrived one time waving our local University Information Newsletter. "Has anyone seen this? There wasn't a single female staff rep elected for next year on any of these committees...."

We asked some obvious questions about how many women had stood, and then why there had been none standing. Some of the group recognised their need to find out how the nomination process worked, what the politics were of standing as a female staff member across Faculty interests or as the Faculty rep who was female. We discussed what membership of such committees required in terms of workload and prior experience, women's expectations of themselves as committee members and by contrast, the reported behaviour of men in terms of what they required of themselves in performing such membership roles in terms of time commitment and preparation for meetings. Participants told stories of the ineffectiveness and frustration of being token committee members, and also of the need to have (at worst even) a woman's presence that circumscribed some limits around the men's behaviour from equity perspectives. One spoke about how offering the different viewpoint sometimes meant that another woman more likely to agree with the men, would be invited to join a committee or working party on subsequent occasions. Few of the inquiry group had experienced being a useful or valued committee member at University level within this masculinist organisation. Yet committees were acknowledged as the major decision making forums, so the debate continued about how women were going to change what we couldn't take part in effectively.

Some of us acknowledged resistance to take up committee membership because of our sex; we did not want to be positioned as the token woman/women; we did not believe that it was an effective location in which to use our energy in wanting to change practices; nor that we would have much influence to do so in this institution. If requested to join a committee, we wanted to join on the basis of what we had to offer. Naive perhaps until that value is established. In summary, women examined their silences and found that we wanted to find other effective ways of being heard that did not position us as targets of sex discreditation (Spender, 1992). We wanted to explore how we could create space on our own terms, rather than respond to others' needs (for a token woman). What were these reconstructed forms of participation?

Some months later Linda brought a story continuing these themes.

"The Dean walked into my office last week and said, 'I'd like you to join the Faculty management committee. We need a woman and I value what you have to offer.' I told him firstly that I didn't want to be invited on as a woman, and secondly that I had no evidence of him valuing me. I shut the door and confronted him about what I'd been upset about last year: why I'd sometimes chosen silence; how it was difficult not only to represent a whole different agenda, but also a whole different way of doing things.... the story that I'd told in the Listening Circles. He listened but he didn't engage with the personal, only the safe intellectual stuff about representation and token women.... I told him I'd have to think about his request and get back to him. That was ten days ago and it feels really powerful to have been able to take that time to work it through rather than give him an answer straight away."

In previous meetings of the inquiry group we had explored how we said, "Yes", on the spot, to the constant stream of requests from staff, students, family and friends. We recognised that this was part of our socialisation as girls and the expectations of us as women: "It was also extraordinarily difficult to hold that space open. I could hardly.... bear to pass him in the corridor I felt so guilty."

We understood that such ways of responding continually placed us in a reactive position. We found it useful to explore ways of "putting a foot in the door before it slams shut" so that we were not locked in to others' demands of us and later regretting it. Some members of the group decided to take time to consider requests before giving an answer, and others told stories of using administrative procedural knowledge to refuse requests that were not our responsibility. What we wanted was a sense of control over our own lives, enabling us to make choices about what we did want to put our energy into, rather than finding ourselves doing things without any apparent choice.

Linda continued with her story in another meeting of our collaborative group.

"I got the other women in the Faculty together and we discussed it (the Dean's request)..... we agreed that the position should be rotated.... and that it was important that we find other creative areas we could be involved in."

It was at another lunchtime gathering that Linda spoke about a research application that this newly formed group of women had put in for seed funding by the University.

"We decided in the Faculty that we didn't want to necessarily respond to the requests about committees, and we can't respond to all the requests made of us anyhow. So we started to ask as a group, what's the best way to use our own energy, to set our own agenda? We made a clear decision to do things in the Faculty that came out of a feminist consciousness. And that's a direct result of this inquiry group, I wouldn't have approached the other women without this structure of collaboration.... They were like the spot fires we talked about at the beginning."

We recalled many times an image of spot fires that I brought to the group after bushfires had threatened our house. The process of horizontal diffusion seemed to be well described by the metaphor of sparks being ignited in joint collaboration, starting another fire at some distance separate from but connected to the same source of energy; of the fires clearing heavy loads of undergrowth, forcing seeds open in the heat, and encouraging the cycle of bush regeneration.

This particular cycle seemed to have gone full circle and spiralled outwards: not only were the women successful in their submission for research funding, but later Linda joined the new Faculty management committee. After a major restructuring of Faculties and a promotion, this time it was Linda's own choice to stand as a woman. She said she felt able to represent different points of view in that forum, due to recent leadership experiences in the absence of the Department's director, and that she would be one of few staff able to bring a sense of the department's history to impending decisions. Rather than a response to a hierarchical request from the Dean, this was now a test of putting herself forward.

The ways in which Linda reconstructed the nomination process and her options for decision making as a committee member negotiating back with the staff group, were part of the rich tapestry of spiralling action research for herself and the other inquiry participants. It was not surprising, given the multiple and conflicting discourses within which women are located in their working lives that, for all this resolution, there was a hint of ambivalence and an escape clause in Linda's account. Her throwaway line "I can always leave," was soon forgotten.

 

Developing Collaborative Processes

Developing collaborative processes is a deliberate and dynamic activity. As initiator, facilitator, convenor, researcher, housekeeper and participant, I have been differently positioned during the life of the group, and as the group reshaped itself during the course of the inquiry. For example, as a staff development professional with group skills, I positioned myself as facilitator of the transition process into a collaborative inquiry. The women unfamiliar with collaborative action research and those anticipating a more instructive mode also positioned me as facilitator first of their learning, and then of the group process.

Trust as a basis for collaboration

In the transition phase there was a need to build trust between the women in the group and trust in the process of inquiry. We did this initially by sharing our hopes and concerns related to the inquiry and its process, examining what commitments we were each willing to offer, and what we would each require of ourselves and other participants in working towards fulfilling our stated interests. We explored our varying understandings of confidentiality and its relationship to trust as it ranged from personal trust to the political complexities of trust in the workplace. Within the inquiry group, we were committed to sharing power (though of course we had people or topics that tended to dominate), and to individually being responsible for creating value from our participation in the collaborative processes (though there were times when we forgot and just felt impatient!)

Our approach was typical of feminist practice with explicit agreements that enabled each woman to have space in which to be heard without interruption (though in practice we had enthusiastic interrupters from time to time), to speak only for herself, and to respect each participant's contributions to the inquiry as confidential. These ways of working together were significantly different from the workplace culture, reflected in a passionate poem that I wrote in a burst of energy after sitting reflectively in a meeting with some very vocal men:

No longer am I willing

to fight in the cut and thrust of conversation

to make space to hear my voice

assuming my contribution is most worthy.

No longer am I willing

to state my piece

when the ebb and flow means it no longer connects

to what is now present.

No longer am I willing

to allow invasive thrusts to consume my energy,

to divert the flow of creative revelation

that stillness can allow.

I will speak where I can be heard.

In here is a resounding cave.

(Treleaven, 1990)

The development of trust and group bonding are conditions which fundamentally influence participation and the extent to which people are willing to explore issues through situations grounded in their experience. Initially, it was relatively easy to assume and hence draw upon trust based on our shared identity and structural subordination as women (Finch, 1984). However, the boundaries of trust have been mobile; expanding and contracting as each woman has implicitly or explicitly assessed her position given varying contexts; sometimes women have spoken in the absence of another member from her Faculty, others have chosen occasions not to trust colleagues in situations where there is professional competition, and women have made varying choices about trusting the group when their personal situations have changed, seeking either support or time out. Trust is particularly highlighted in this inquiry group because it is located within the one dispersed yet common workplace. Unlike a group formed beyond the boundary of the workplace, perhaps on assumptions of past and continuing friendships, what is at stake differs for members of an inquiry group formed within an organisation. The only commitments to each other as colleagues are those that we choose to construct from our membership of the inquiry group and shared commitment to the project/s of the group: these are richly diverse, often contradictory and always changing. Thus, a collaborative workplace group has the advantage of placing the research within the many complex and ambiguous social situations that impact significantly on women, as we think and act, feel and respond - sometimes choosing silence, other times to tell our stories.

Creating a listening space

Establishing conditions that would generate a listening space in the workplace was a significant aspect of developing collaboration. The venue chosen was relaxing, away from the classrooms and staffrooms where there were interrupting demands and no confidentiality. In contrast to a training room with audiovisual hardware and chairs at desks, the room was furnished with low comfortable chairs, an attractive mat under the large coffee table where there was a collection of books, articles, flyers and fresh flowers. The meeting place did not change and thus the taken-for-granted security of re-entering that space over time became conducive to engagement in a different way of being. "One of the reasons it could stay relaxed and different" Susan thought "was that the space wouldn't be invaded by men. Quite often you might sit round at work in this way, and then a man or someone else, it didn't have to be a man, would walk in and it would be different. Whereas you knew here that wouldn't happen... it was part of the calm". Women would tune in as they entered, very often bringing a similar topic.

A simple but varying lunch was provided, and in the sharing of food and drink some of the implicit time-honoured associations of the ritual were evoked. (As for the housekeeping role, I sometimes wished I knew exactly how many to prepare for!)

We agreed to work with the ambiguity of women's busy and complex lives, by meeting monthly at first, and later fortnightly, for two hours over the lunch period. We agreed that as there was no common lunch time across the campus, women would come when they could, and stay as long as they could, as often as they were able, given the multiple demands made of them.

In one sense the space was like a family lounge room with people coming and going throughout the two hours, grabbing a bite to eat, sharing something of their current story, hearing some others, and departing to go on with their everyday activities. Thus my intention at the outset of the research project to be:

Action researching as a way of being - in our lives, at work, at home, such that the inquiry is a form of consciousness that we bring to our daily interactions, rather than a research topic we undertake. I imagine most of the action researching taking place outside the group itself, as praxis (Treleaven, journal 1990).

Yet, there was an expressed commitment by the women to the inquiry group and their ongoing participation over eighteen months. Unlike other programs that necessitate confirmations of attendance, the women took responsibility for their own attendance, placing it high in their competing priorities. At the beginning of a new year when teaching and study timetables changed, two women discontinued after approximately six months and another joined on her return from leave. Usually there were six of the nine women able to make our on campus meetings. It proved easier to attend a dedicated period off campus for sustained inquiry but I found trying to plan these as a full group extraordinarily trying!

 

Keeping the space open

At each meeting there has been a productive gathering, unrelated to the size of the group. Rather it would seem, that the significance lay in keeping the space of inquiry open and active, using the opportunity of differently constituted groups to make more spaces for different aspects of the inquiry, "with each day having its own ecology" as Edith put it. One time we talked of daughters and of their expectations, assumptions and anticipated choices in the interaction between work and family; but we did that only when we were a group of mothers with daughters. It allowed us to reflect on our own patterns and to reconstruct some of the meanings that we had attributed to our own lives, by placing them in an historical context.

 

Including body and emotion

As participants with emotions and bodies which are themselves often ignored sources of our knowing (Crawford et al 1992), we made space in our workplace inquiry to speak about our bodies, and to allow ourselves and each other to express emotions that accompanied our stories - anger, despair and grief as well as joy and its accompanying laughter or well-being, have been catalysts to new understanding and acting. Helen noticed the frequent use of apology, theorised its impact, then devised a forfeit that had us laughing each time one of us fell into using "I'm sorry" and had to take up an appropriately repentant position on her knees. When we considered our inquiry process, Helen drew our attention to her impression that "we spend as much time laughing as we do crying," and my listening to the tapes confirmed this view. Menopause and breast cancer wove through some of our lives and so were present in our inquiry as people and structures demonstrated varying capacities to respond.

 

Extending the spaces

In addition to our basic meeting pattern, the group took up the opportunity for off campus residential workshops which are a structural feature of our Staff Development approach to in-depth learning (Brown and Atkins, 1988 for a literature review). Each year, a residential of two days with an overnight stay was designed collaboratively within the group, including its location to take account of family responsibilities. The first was highly successful in enabling the development of trust and the focus of the inquiry. The second clearly reflected how the inquiry had developed to challenge individual women's career decisions and had moved towards collective action on projects of shared interest. Another supportive space was made off campus in the informality of a participant's home one day during a particularly difficult period.

 

Widening the collaborative network

As part of resourcing the Leadership Development Program, women beyond the group have been invited to share their stories with us. At the second residential, a senior academic from an established University narrated her career story, weaving together aspects of study, employment, mentoring, personal decisions and strategies. Engaging with her story from a less masculinist culture, provoked new questions and challenged the extent of possibilities for some of the women. Invitations like these provide a new Staff Development alternative to the "expert" role of the external consultant; offer resourcing congruent with the form of collaborative inquiry and an orientation towards inquiry rather than didactic or solution orientated approaches. They also enable networking that is professionally based, in contrast to the consultancy situation.

With external participation, it is possible to avoid several of the implicit dangers of collaborative inquiry. Participants are not assumed to fully resource their own inquiry but are able to draw on knowledges beyond the group (Reason 1988, p. 104). External voices can also present a challenge to the paradigms within which the inquiry/co-researchers are located. For example, Susan who struggled against drawing on procedural knowledge as a valid way to create change between people, came to accept for herself the value of such knowledge in this wider context of the senior woman's story, and her later stories reflected changes in action.

Initially I was reluctant to "impose", from outside the group, others' theory or even my own interpretations when the research project was basically conceptualised as a grounded theory approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) where theory is constructed principally from data. However, as I explored these issues with the group, with my supervisor and in the literature (Adler & Adler, 1987), I came to see the obvious - that there is no tabula rasa (blank slate) to which data is gathered anyhow. Rather, validity rested on participants engaging in collaborative inquiry, constructing new understandings that informed their subsequent and thus different actions which were themselves examined in the spiralling research process through later stories. The tension of holding back as a fully participating co-researcher began to disperse; only to resurface when I found that I was the principal person bringing theory to the group. Again, I adopted the self reflexive approach of bringing this to the group; they saw our inquiry as testing out whether such theory was useful for them.

 

Shifts in collaborative processes

There have been several transitions in the collaborative processes within the group. Many of the early stories that participants brought into the inquiry group allowed "a slow sorting through" that was reflective for the storyteller, a source of "data" for collaborative inquiry by participants, and increased our knowledge of the organisation and its power regimes. The listening space was characterised by the spontaneity of content in the form of story, critical incident or diffuse conversation.

What distinguished the early stories was "the high emotional energy, almost as though a lid had been taken off the stories that we had been living over the top of". Mary expressed the oppositional bonding process well: "I've made the connection with others and it's pain, the way they've been treated," and carried it beyond the group in a project she later initiated, demonstrating what Lather (1986) refers to as catalytic validity - the capacity of the research process to impact participants knowing of their reality and energise them towards self-determined action. Our stories included images and laughter in unexpectedly creative ways that shifted our ways of being with our everyday experiences of working in the institution; the endorphins released in our laughter often helped us lighten up.

Our collaborative processes have also been characterised by responsiveness to what has been brought to the group in ways that are affirming and sometimes challenging. When Edith was preparing a talk for a Women's Network event, she ran it past the group. When Jill dismissed her life as really quite trivial, some of the group challenged her, and she recognised the sense of loss she felt now having been "a clever child destined for great things." We have collaborated around specific situations in our working life, theorising, exploring options and tracking their development in later stories. Stories often provided material for examining power relations as we experienced their effects on our employment and promotion. As a sense of identity politics developed, our collaboration broadened and action research projects were established with women beyond the group, as, for example, in the provision of a permanent Women's Room on campus.

Our engagement in the group has been with respect and an ethic of care for the well-being of those present (Gilligan, 1982). Problematically for the research, this has sometimes meant avoiding conflict (Brown and Gilligan, 1992) and not examining our differences. It is a complex situation: some women want to protect the supportive context of the group given our particular workplace; some have chosen to respect the different styles of handling conflict and not confront those who have indicated their unwillingness; some have discussed differences beyond the group.

However, some women have a strong desire to reconstruct new identities as women aspiring to or holding positions of leadership in such a way that would, of themselves, challenge the masculinist norms of the University. In recognising that this is no easy task, some of the group were impatient to move to a reconstructive phase. Such a phase required a change in the collaborative relations to include the exploration of difference without avoiding productive conflict or confrontation.

We came up to this place many times as a group. At our last meeting for the year we had a powerful exchange of difference between two women. We explored through dialogue the choices they made about strategies and whether these compromised their (feminist) principles, such as lobbying senior staff to sponsor an invitation to a female to apply for a recently advertised position. This challenging exploration of feminist politics energised significant change in my own understanding of the assumptions and difficulties in "shared identity" and how to proceed with a feminist project; in particular, I concluded that action now needs to be directed towards gender inclusive behaviour by men if we are to further women's participation. The group also learned that we could dialogue through differences in ways that were productive even while they challenged our values profoundly.

 

Analysing and documenting collaboratively

It would be inaccurate to describe the analysis and writing processes of this project as a separate linear phase. Indeed, much of our work in the inquiry has relied upon collaborating to name issues as part of the spiralling movement into action both in the workplace and in our own ways of framing our situations. Some of our analytical work has been informed by theory that we have brought into the group. Some of our theorising has emerged like the wildflowers in my dream, coming up out of the ground of our inquiry within the group as a second order analysis (Guba and Lincoln, 1989). My own systematic third order analysis of our data for discourses and subjectivities within which the stories are located, is a further source of material for collaborative inquiry and is thereby producing a fourth order analysis.

Yet as a researcher, the interests in theorising and documenting our inquiry are my own. One is as a co-researcher with my colleagues examining the experiences of women surviving/thriving in a masculinist organisation, especially as we take action towards inclusive forms of participation and leadership; a second is as a staff development practitioner in action researching my professional practice with our client groups; and the third is as a postgraduate student undertaking a doctoral research project with a collaborative inquiry methodology. In practice, this nesting of activity one within the other somewhat like a Russian doll, has been an effective way to bring together parts of my life that would otherwise have been fragmented. It has not proved problematic as much as it has required the reflexivity (Stanley, 1991; Steier, 1991) of observing the interaction between positions, and reflecting on and engaging in the ambiguities and contradictions, as a part of the research process itself. I have often used my journal for reflection and explored with group members their expectations and perceptions. It has been a fortunate reminder that research is not a tidy, clear cut activity but that at some level, the subjectivity of the reseachers is always present.

There is demonstrably a new level of collaboration required for the documentation of our inquiry. Here each of us is positioned differently: in part, because of individual research and study commitments in disciplines outside our inquiry. The energy in the group is most strongly constellated around participation in the process of the inquiry and its integral action outcomes. As a researcher wanting to see an account of our praxis made more available, there are new challenges to develop congruent forms of collaboration in this phase. It will also be necessary to negotiate in practice the ethics discussed in principle when the group was forming. These include confidentiality, visibility in the text, rights of the co-researchers to varying interpretations, intellectual property, publication, and the production of a thesis for an academic award.

 

Outcomes and Ownership

Participants' ownership of the outcomes of our collaborative action research are embedded in our ways of inquiring and in the collaborative processes that unfold towards action. As one woman reflected: "I don't take on a project because I have to but because I want to." Outcomes and ownership are integral to the recursive nature of our work together.

While some outcomes were expected and formed the basis of the proposal, others could not have been predicted given the generative nature of the inquiry. This has made the work most exciting.

Broadly speaking, participation in the collaborative inquiry is producing changes that can be clustered in three domains. Firstly, there are the anticipated Staff Development outcomes in individual personal and professional development. Secondly, there is the potential for longterm organisational change: by drawing attention to the gendered culture and reconstructing forms of leadership and participation that are inclusive of women. Such "outcomes" are quite diffuse; they also meet resistance and elicit backlash (Faludi, 1991) since they fundamentally challenge existing regimes of power. Thirdly, there are research outcomes: in the substantive issues of the research, in the research methodology, and for participants as researchers (for a full discussion see Treleaven, in preparation).

 

Individual outcomes

In recognising our own stories that we share with other women in the organisation and in listening to stories which are different, women's isolation has been reduced and collaborative networks that live well beyond the inquiry group itself have developed. The politics of this is a significant issue given the organisational culture.

Since much of the research method relies on viewing stories of critical incidents as "data", by gathering such data over time it has been possible to evaluate outcomes through actions located in later stories. These stories are understood in the context of being produced within women's subjectivities rather than being viewed at "face value" as fact. Changes in the stories themselves and changes in how women later retell their stories indicate shifts in women's construction of their subjectivities. Linda's stories of joining the Faculty Management Committee, for example are illustrative of the process whereby the storyteller herself takes up a new position (Walkerdine, 1984) as agent in relation to an earlier situation concerning women's participation and leadership.

While information as new knowledge is certainly one outcome for participants, an outcome for some has been a transformed position with respect to their identities and possible futures as women in academia. It is reflected in women asking new questions and making space in their working lives to engage with them. As a nurse, Rosemary gained from her inquiry colleagues and our residential visitor, a sense of "Now I know what it means to be an academic," and the decisions that she makes have begun to come from this perspective rather than from trying to advance her career by gaining approval from her seniors.

Bani Shorter suggests

initiatory seeing comes in the performance of ceremonies that draw on myth, metaphor and ritual; it is not the mere acquisition of knowledge, nor the subsequent interpretation, but a change of being." (1987. p. 41)

Such a transitional space has been evoked and available in our listening to the stories, in our meetings over lunch and in the Listening Circles, where we have explored ways of positioning ourselves differently and collectively sought to produce alternative discourses within our workplace. This kind of integrated learning can enable an ontological shift - a change in the way of being of a person - and is one of the fundamental claims to the validity of this inquiry process as a form of Staff Development.

Another significant individual outcome is related not to women changing but rather to women in the group affirming the various ways in which their values and approaches are brought to their work in a culture that they feel devalues their differences and strengths. "I just didn't know how much strength there was in coming together like this; I've come to see the value of putting in my twopenneth worth when I try to get people to work together in our department: it really is a worthwhile contribution."

 

Diffuse outcomes

The most intriguing outcomes are in the ways that women are acting together to challenge the basic assumptions of the dominant masculine values in the organisation. While such actions often spring from women's grievances and disadvantage, women are also finding forums in which to take their own initiatives and influence practices which have kept reproducing the established norms of leadership. Their active participation in bringing new ways of acting in decision making forums will help diversify notions of leadership. Elizabeth's story is illustrative.

Elizabeth was invited to take part in the consultative process to review the organisation's structure. At the wrapping up of one meeting, she challenged the Chair's concluding summary as being representative of all who had attended. She noted that very little had been heard from the three women and the one non-English speaking background man, and that in such silence the consensus of "Well, we're all agreed that...." could hardly be presumed. Her challenge was followed by a long silence. She then continued that the meeting's recommendation for cross faculty communication and co-operation was already happening with a group of academic women who met regularly in the Academic Women's Leadership Development group. One of the most vocal men cut across her, "Who's your leader?" Contained within his demand to know who headed up the group were numerous assumptions about his own construction of leadership. "The women are," was the thoughtful response from another woman in our inquiry group also at the meeting. Stunned, he tried again. "You mean you haven't got a leader?" "Yes, the women." From the exchange that followed, a space was opened up for a member of the Review Committee to consult with our inquiry group. In turn, we sought to broaden women's input into the Review by inviting many interested women to this meeting. The inquiry group then took responsibility for preparing a submission to the Review Committee that both identified issues affecting women staff and gave different perspectives on the University's future shape from those already canvassed. In this way, Elizabeth's challenge demonstrates both the recursivity and horizontal diffusion of collaborative inquiry.

In this brief discussion of outcomes, I am suggesting that this particular collaborative inquiry as a form of Staff Development points to its potential for being both individually and organisationally productive of change towards a more equitable and diverse culture in the workplace, by unsettling acceptance of the dominant modes of decision making, leadership and women's participation. However, in the interim, in terms of Staff Development for women, outcomes suggest that learning is supported and integrated through such a process as collaborative inquiry.

 

A Collaborative Inquiry with Women

What is distinctive about this collaborative inquiry? Foremost it is collaboration with women from one organisation; with women in a masculinist organisation, across traditionally gendered areas. It lies ambiguously between a workplace group of colleagues and the many groups constituted by women outside an institution.

In the space created by women in this collaborative inquiry, it became possible using the situations to hand in our everyday working lives, to allow emergent processes in shared stories to unfold, producing knowledge for action. The inquiry developed out of feminist values of sharing power, responsibility and knowledge amongst participants, with attention to our processes of inquiry.

The collaborative inquiry began round women-centred ways of working. We began with assumptions that perhaps women had a different voice (Gilligan, 1982) and different ways of knowing (Belenky and colleagues, 1986). In the course of our inquiry, we unsettled some of our fundamental understandings of what we each meant by the category 'women', whilst recognising that there were ways of working characterised as feminine that were de-valued and excluded in an organisational culture based on the dominance of values ascribed to the masculine. Some of the approaches attributed to the feminine were accessible to us in contexts beyond our workplace, and their persistent and systemic exclusion from the diversity of expression within the workplace produced an alienation many women felt.

The inquiry enabled us to examine ways in which such a gendered culture is produced and reproduced in our workplace. Our explorations provide rich data for analysis of both the discourses operating within the organisation, and for analysis of female subjectivity - the ways in which women are positioned by others and by themselves within these discourses. We heard in the stories how positions taken up by men and women are not equally available to each sex, since both discourses and subjectivity are themselves gendered. We looked at how we found ourselves positioned within completing and contradictory discourses, and could identify how individuals take up one rather than another position according to the relative power available in a particular position at a particular time. From our collaborative action research, it became clear that the dominance of masculinist discourses produced female subjectivity as a site for the reproduction of gender within the organisation (Treleaven, in preparation). The telling of our stories in an open space enabled participants not only to contribute rich empirical data, but also to engage in the emergent processes of the research from which new understandings were generated collaboratively through reflection on action.

There is abundant evidence of the need to reconstruct (particularly in our workplace) those traditionally gendered expectations of women to support in quiet, invisible ways the 'real work' being done by men in patriarchal organisations which, like the church and the medical profession, universities exemplify (Poiner, 1991).

For some of us, our choice to continue working in the organisation is dependent on finding new ways to express ourselves creatively beyond the absence and silence bestowed by gendered politics: to draw on notions of our agency in producing and reproducing the conditions of our lives, and to work collectively with others beyond the inquiry group in a politics of shared action. Change directed towards revaluing 'the feminine' which is split off, devalued and then projected on to women to carry is, I suggest, at the heart of making a workplace genuinely gender inclusive. For the exertion of personal power over others is driven by the fear of difference and is accompanied by the need to exclude difference which cannot even be acknowledged as threat. A politics of change that pays attention to the dynamics of subjectivity and investments in power is indicative of a way forward.

How we can make such shifts in an organisation so that there are diverse and integral spaces where women can work creatively and participate fully continues to be the subject of inquiry. For the present, it seems that when we are able to make listening spaces, we allow a form of knowing from which spontaneous action flows. It is like a shower of rain in the desert that produces a profusion of wildflowers.

 

Acknowledgements

I warmly acknowledge my colleagues at the University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury with whom I shared this collaborative inquiry over two years, and whose feedback on drafts until this account represented our shared truths was an integral part of our collaboration. They continue in many different ways to make new spaces in which something can happen in the working lives of women. I am delighted by the widening network of women researchers across the University and have appreciated the encouragement given by many. Rosemary Leonard, Penny Rossiter and Caroline Williams offered valuable feedback on the initial draft. Jenny Onyx has kindly kept me in touch with the fire kindling this project. Lesley Johnson has played a significant role in my grappling with feminist theory, as I relate it to my practice. Peter Reason engaged with me in editorial email communications that were stimulating. Fiona Plesman offered friendship that kept me going over the rough ground. To you all, my heartfelt thanks. Lesley T