Handling the inevitable resistance to Gender Equality – Reflections after a capacity building workshop with the TARGET consortium


Liv Baisner and Eva Sophia Myers, Coordinators of the H2020 project SPEAR, University of Southern Denmark, SDU.

Hard won experience is unquestionable: working for and towards gender equality – in Academia as elsewhere – generates resistance. This is hardly a surprise. And yet the endless variety in form, intensity and manner in which resistance shows up, has the capacity to take us, individually, very much by surprise.

The TARGET consortium’s decision to put resistance as an unavoidable phenomenon on the agenda for a capacity building workshop well into the project therefore seemed both timely and relevant.

We have been working as gender practitioners in a university ever since we took the initiative to and had the great fortune to become involved with the FP7 gender implementation project FESTA on behalf of a Science Faculty at a smaller university in Denmark (2012-2017). In our work we have encountered all sorts of responses – and in this, our situation did and does not differ from those of so many others in similar situations. In FESTA we had had the informed foresight to focus on resistance to gender equality as a topic in its own right – a work that resulted in a handbook and webtool on how to handle resistance. This was a great help to us then, and the experience we gathered from this part of the project has been invaluable ever since – not least in making us fully realize, that whereas resistance feels personal, it is rarely purely so. Rather, precisely because it so reliably is bound to turn up at any one point, it can be seen as a general phenomenon. Being able to recognize resistance as such, agents may be freed to act nonetheless, to respond creatively and effectively.

With this experience and approach to resistance at the forefront of our minds, we designed a workshop, where precisely this recognition of resistance would enable the participants to find effective actions that could work in their particular contexts.

The following presents our reflections on how the workshop acted on and with the TARGET consortium.

The workshop format

There were two parts to the resistance workshop: 1) a practice-based theoretical presentation of the concept and consequences of different types of responses to gender equality in academia including resistance. This part was informed by the FESTA handbook and also included a presentation of general psychological mechanisms of what brings about and perpetuates inequality (norms and stereotypes). 2) The second (and largest) part was a set of closely choreographed experiential exercises and reflections, where the participants were guided through different perspectives on how to employ the presented concepts and handles through fictive cases to their own situations and obstacles.

The practice-based presentation

In the practice-based presentation, a number of perspectives on gender equality were offered – with a view to make the understanding immediately operable.

The first was understanding gender equality as a ‘wicked problem’ in Keith Grint’s understanding. That is, as distinct from, on the one hand, a ‘tamed problem’ – and with it a set of tried and true solutions and procedures to deal with the issue(s). And on the other a heightened situation or ‘crisis’ and with it a strong-arm approach and severe measures. In contrast, ‘wicked problems’ are notorious for their high degree of complexity along many dimensions. Wicked problems have no ready solutions but instead have an abundance of unforeseeable implications for multiple actors across a wide spread of sectors and interests. Take for example the refugee or climate situations. Wicked problems also often have the peculiar characteristic that a seeming solution at one point turns up as an added or novel problem somewhere else along the line.  Consequently, wicked problems require long term collaboration and a commitment to working through trial and error – often also between people and functions that do not customarily interact.

The second perspective that was offered was that gender is inextricably linked to power and, conversely, impotence. For this reason alone, Gender Equality work always takes place in a politicized and contentious field characterized by high tension, a high degree of emotional charging and much at stake. Gender Equality can therefore never be reduced to procedural adjustments alone.

The third perspective offered some of the underlying psychological and group dynamics at work in defining, maintaining and conforming to norms (and stereotypes) that we all partake in – but which we in our GE commitment are also required to challenge in order to be able to offer alternative solutions and actions.

Finally, a matrix for categorizing resistance was offered, based primarily on the categories offered in the FESTA handbook.

Experiential exercises and reflections

The experiential exercises and reflections started with a closer look at the diversity of the participants – in relation to their scientific background, their experience with working in Academia and working with gender equality, and with their standpoint in relation to gender equality. Following the presentation, a number of fictive cases were discussed using the Mosaic-game set up, which is a structured format for presenting views and perspectives. This marked interaction, which differs from normal day-to-day conversation is often felt to be frustrating in the moment, but ends up allowing for a deeper joint reflection. During the following break, participants were tasked with reflecting on whether the morning’s workshop had given rise to any new thoughts or perspectives on how to understand or tackle specific situations at home. Based on these individual reflections, groups were formed and tasked with sharing their reflections. Then the groups were asked to choose one or more of the presented ‘cases’ to work over in more depth, carefully considering together the following questions: 

  • In order to understand the situation, is it useful and necessary to think in terms of resistance?
  • If yes – how may the resistance be overcome?
  • What possible avenues for action can you identify together?

The Advisory Group and coordinator were grouped together and had a different set of questions on which to reflect:

  • What have you learnt so far about the TARGET consortium and their challenges and aspirations, and how may you as Advisors and Coordinators assist them and give feedback to them, so that they might become even more effective in identifying and understanding their organizations’ and the wider contexts’ responses and designing adequate/effective action?
  • Anything in particular you want to highlight concerning resistance and other types of responses to gender equality implementation?


Following the group work, a final session of short presentations from the groups brought out a number of creative solutions to actual situations – for instance on who to engage in the institutions and how, in order to work through resistance. The tools and understandings offered in the first part were used very cleverly in identifying specific contexts and useful responses.

The advisory group offered a number of important insights, for instance on how important it is to foster good networks and reflective practices together in order to realize that responses to gender equality work are not personal and need to be seen as general phenomena so that it is possible to respond adequately and effectively. Another important insight was to make sure to celebrate also what feels like ‘small’ successes – and doing it together.

This debriefing showed us a remarkable creativity and intelligence and responsivity to the very complex situations at the home institutions across all the groups. It also demonstrated how ready and hungry the participants were to deal with tough knots – and how competently they could apply the tools and perspectives offered. Importantly, the solutions and responsive actions demonstrated beautifully the truth that GE work requires a multitude of tools, responses, actions, approaches. 

At the very end, we summed up the workshop by asking everyone to give a one-word status on how they felt about the work done. And this to us proved to be a truly magical moment, because compared to the opening reflections a lot of inner movement seemed to have taken place through the workshop – from high hopes and ideals to reality checking and reappraising the state at play, from feeling stuck and a little despondent to feeling supported by the community – and even hopeful. And all together there was a distinct sense of being able to do something rather than being at a loss.

As facilitators it was a great joy to work with the TARGET consortium. The seriousness and readiness to relate to what we offered, and the impressive intelligence with which different aspects and insights were digested and applied have been inspiring to us ever since.