March 10th, 2015

Maureen O’Hara – Women’s Ways of Knowing

On 3 December 2014, 120 women gathered in the august surroundings of the Mitchell Library, Glasgow to hear Professor Maureen O’Hara reflect on the theme of Women’s Ways of Knowing and to talk amongst each other about some of the ideas that came up during the talk.

The women came from a range of backgrounds – artists, doctors, nurses, therapists, organizational leaders. The event was a collaboration between the International Futures Forum and PAL Labs.

Click here to read a Storify of live-tweets from the event.

The event was inspired by the book edited by Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule published in their seminal work, Women’s Ways of Knowing (1986/1997). Their in-depth interviews with 135 women from different walks of life demonstrated that women’s journey to selfhood, voice, and authorship of their lives diverge from men’s and this influences how they understand and prioritize their lives, careers and actions. The women in the study approached life from a more holistic, relational and affective way of being.

Women's Ways of Knowing

Women’s Ways of Knowing, the book which inspired Maureen’s talk

Professor O’Hara picked up on this theme from the perspective of her own professional life which started with her work with with Carl Rogers, American psychologist who developed person-centred psychology and also her own interest in women’s psychology. It is the latter which has shown her through her practice and the voices of all those she worked which that women’s consciousness is different to the mainstream narrative of who we are. She began to understand that there are real differences in the forms of consciousness that people have – in terms of class, gender, cultural setting where they grow up. She became more interested in the context that people live in and impact of that on their psychology.

At the same time, she become aware that we are in a massive transition – all of our lives in the grip of major global transformation. Although the challenges we are facing as a humanity include technological questions and how we provide food and deal with climate change, how we support refugees, manage/avoid wars and so on – at the core is whether we can cope with this massive change. So many of the ways that we talk about these issues are in a fairly dehumanized way – the person at the centre of it is barely acknowledged.

We have conversations about economics, politics, policy etc but we are not having a conversation about consciousness. A large part of Professor O’Hara’s work is to try to get this question into our public conversation.

Dance At The Edge: Competence, Culture and Organisation in the 21st Century by Maureen O'Hara

Dance At The Edge: Competence, Culture and Organisation in the 21st Century by Maureen O’Hara

After 30 years as a person-centred psychotherapist she has been able to hear in the voices of the people she was working with was a story about the limitation about the kind of consciousness that we are given at school and by official institutional narratives, especially for women. The Western dominant narrative is particularly male.

It is in this context in the early stages of civilisational crisis that non-male, non-white, non-western ways of knowing have to become into focus. Vaclav Havel said: “Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed — be it ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization — will be unavoidable.”

In other words, we have an obligation to understand and change/adapt our consciousness at this time as citizens of a global society – impacts economics, politics, and so on.

Experiment after experiment is demonstrating now that in many of the major aspects of psychology there is a difference between different groups of people’s sense of consciousness – men and women, different cultures and nations.

We know that some people literally cant see things, notice or understand things because no frame of reference – meaning making comes from culture, brain develops from culture. Even our sense of wellbeing is different in different contexts. We are learning that women’s ways of knowing are clearly distinct from the ways we have been institutionally taught. The way we see the world, our values, and the way we make meaning are different.

We have been brought up on the narrative of men superior, women inferior. So we’ve tried to cultivate women to be more like men to give them a hand up. This, for many women, is like being forced to be in the world in a way that doesn’t feel natural/doesn’t feel like first language/if I had my preference this is not the way I would do it. In all major aspects of psychology we now know that the differences between women and men differences are clear and significant – significant because they bring us to the big question: What kind of consciousness do we need to go into the 21st Century? What do we need where all our norms all being challenged? Mono cultures are no longer a reality We live in complex multicultured, multilingual, multi-ways of being, multigendered realities and our basic anchors of psychological life re up for grabs and being re-negotiated.

We are in a time when western technological enlightenment’s way of understanding the world: a way which is largely male, largely white, largely western – is no longer adequate for the problems that we have. They are so multidimensional and so big (“wicked problems”) – where everything is connected to everything else needs more than that linear, atomistic western male mind which has been dominant for 150 years. This way no longer adequate for very complex, holistic, relational problems we face.

We need new skills in this transition – skills for seeing networks, recognizing holistic patterns, grasping complexity without being overwhelmed by it, for dealing with multiple kinds of relationships, being able to hold on to emotional ground while operating in highly technological world. Where are these going to come from? Well, it turns out we have a vast reservoir of people who have these skills – for the most part the ways that women are – holistic reasoning, manage subjectivity and objectivity, relational, holistic, complex, knowing things from the inside out.

We also know that women have been leading double lives. We have one way of being with kids, our friends, our communities and another way of being at work and good at both and the interaction between both. Just one example of this is Sarah Ruddock’s work on maternal thinking. She noticed that mothers have particular way of being able to see both the present and future, for example when managing a toddler temper tantrum – here and now and future. Also, mothers are good at treating every child individually but treating them equally, creating sense of justice but in the terms of that child, ie balancing the specific and the general. Mothers do this because they need to in the lives that they lead

We need to stop trying to deal with the messes of 21st Century with the minds of the 20th – our current kinds of learning institutions are no longer adequate for what we need in the real world – we need to look for different places to find out how we organize projects, organize ourselves, do things. At the IFF we have been tracking these people, what we call Persons of Tomorrow.

We find that these people show up all the time – people who seem to have a different kind of consciousness – they are less individualistic, less materialistic, more empathic, more interested in the environment, more sympathetic to relationships. They are everywhere – usually in small scale projects all over the world – small NGO’s with people whose cultural origins – Alaska, Iceland – people are pulling themselves out of the dominant narrative and finding other ways to address issues from child malnutrition, to planting new kinds of crop, and so on. They aren’t ignoring the need the science on the same level as we currently have but they are not limiting themselves to it and are creating new realities and solving problems that used to be unsolvable.

These people are hybrids – they have the linear logic at home in a university in the west but they can also do other things – relate to each other, treat each other well, work out what people need. My optimism is that despite sometimes endless drumbeat of things that are wrong – we are seeing people all over the world who are working differently to create new solutions and creating new consciousnesses which we need in order to play the huge game we have ahead of us and to address the issues that Vaclav Havel pointed it. It will be a consciousness which has some more of women’s ways of knowing as well as some of men’s ways of knowing.



Visit Maureen’s website
The Other Inconvenient Truth: Psychological challenges of epochal crisis (2009)
Dance At The Edge: Competence, Culture and Organisation in the 21st Century