Yesterday marked the inaugural meeting of SING, a women’s network for social innovators. We had a lot of fun. We had a lot of intense conversations. We drank a lot of wine. We probably got a bit shouty at points. It has certainly given me huge food for thought and so I wanted to capture my immediate reactions.
One of the things we kept on coming back to is whether or not we could really justify the exclusively womanly nature of our meeting. I absolutely think we can, for two reasons:
First, the fact is that social innovation, in as much as it is a ‘world’, remains a notably male world, shaped by thinktanks, technology and entrepreneurship. Of course women operate in all these fields, but their presence doesn’t stop such spheres still feeling pretty masculine in their values and their approach. That might not always suit the men operating in these spheres – but it certainly doesn’t work for many women. On that basis alone I think it is entirely reasonable to create a female space in the midst of a male world – not a man-hating one where gender is *always* a problem – but a space which acknowledges that there are still gender dynamics at play, and that yes, such dynamics can be problematic sometimes. As the wine began to flow last night I was struck by how many gender-based tensions women had been internalising in their work contexts. It felt like they were being given air, almost for the first time for some of us.
Second, women probably do have a bigger role as social innovators than we have necessarily recognised so far, because they dominate two key sites of social innovation: the household economy and start ups. On the household stuff, I talked about Robin Murray’s diagram of the economy in a previous post. He values the household economy at three times the size of the state, and half the size again of the market economy. And one thing we know for sure is that households remain firmly female spheres. The barefoot innovators are likely to be women, by this analysis.
If the household economy is one site of social innovation, then social enterprises, networks and movements together represent another site. It is women who are leading the stampede out of large bureaucratic organisations – they are currently starting more new businesses than men, and their start ups are more likely to still be in business five years later than men’s.
For these two reasons alone I think the place of women in social innovation is fascinating and worthy of exploration. We didn’t make too much progress in defining the role of this network last night (we were having too much fun getting to know one another, and besides somewhere along the way the notion of being directional and structured got damned as being terribly masculine) – but for what it’s worth I think there are three aspects to any future network:
One, a support network for venting frustrations, challenging each other in a supportive atmosphere, mentoring across age groups and enjoying each others company. Women like being all of themselves, I think, dropping their ‘professional’ masks and then still working together. Roald Dahl’s depiction of The Witches heaving huge sighs of relief at being able to remove their shoes and wigs may have been unkind, but there’s something in allowing each other to be complete, to bring together personal and professional, that is appealing.
Two, a scouting and storytelling network, for bringing together women who are doing amazing things around the country and indeed the world (we have some stringers in other countries too, and want them to start meeting in a similar way to the session we had last night). I think we so often underestimate the power of the story. We need more examples of women, telling their stories, meeting one another and realising their collective power (more on the Power Audit in another post).
And third, a network that starts to explore a new way of living and working, that is based on ‘feminine’ rather than ‘masculine’ attributes. Over the course of the evening I gathered comments and thoughts that began to give some shape to what this might mean in practice. Things like ‘how women work’, ‘how and what women see’, ‘how women deal with others’, and ‘how women define success’ all came up. Each of these can be further developed – for example, in how women work, issues like being honest about failure, not being the sole owner of an idea, finding new ways of blending home and work rather than choosing between them… If we really wanted to push this on, we might argue that a world based on more feminine qualities would be a more sustainable one, less driven by risk taking and showing off, and more driven by relationships and responsibility. It’s controversial but I for one can’t wait to explore it more.