Gender and Power in Men’s Behaviour Change Work, Tori Cooke

How can we embed the lived experience of victims of violence as formal knowledge and privilege the authority of women’s experience of violence and abuse into men’s behaviour change practice environments?


I came across the work of Kathleen Carlin from Men Stopping Violence Inc (Atlanta) to assist me in resourcing male practitioners working in men’s behaviour change who were reflecting on their own male privilege.  I subsequently sent it out to a number of men who work diligently in men’s behaviour change, mental health and other practice contexts.  I was seeking their reflections to assist in informing my own thinking and practice about women’s role in men’s behaviour change work.


Kathleen’s work resonated with me about what it is like to work as a woman in this heavily male dominated space (often there is only one woman in the room), and raised some critical questions for me about issues of power/dominance with male activists who are part of informing and walking alongside the journey of reducing violence against women.  In listening to other women practitioners, I hear their experiences of being silenced by theoretical discourses written by men or where the focus of attention has been subjugated from the safety and wellbeing of women and children to privileging men’s health and wellbeing.  This means that women’s experience is then devalued and further silenced through theoretical discourse that holds men’s trauma experience as more important to address than behavioural change.  The dangers inherent in this view is that there is ‘drift’ in program purpose with a resultant outcome of not only silencing women’s authority about those affected by abuse but a nuanced and unexamined sanctioning that places men’s healing issues above women’s safety.


MBC Programs that state they manage this balance need to show transparency in how this is achieved and why they believe it is an integral part of perpetrator accountability in program development, implementation, supervision practices and ongoing sustainability.  Women’s experiences of men’s violence are not an adjunct or symbolic gesture in session plans but should be a core aspect at every layer of this work.  This accountability needs to be an actively visible set of strategies that also includes women’s services as independent evaluators of program performance about the safety and wellbeing of women and children directly affected by men’s violence and abuse.  The starting position for men undertaking this work is often a vulnerable place given these complexities.


I wondered about the inner journey for men starting out in this work and what might be the internal barriers for male practitioners about dominant male culture that have to be worked through in order to meaningfully engage this work.  Would this need to occur in order to deeply listen to women’s individual and broader experiences of violence?


I went on to wonder about what male practitioners thought of women’s authority about this experience and what might be some of the inner processes that activate to prevent deep listening to women’s experiences of violence.  I am curious about how male activists and practitioners understand and draw on what Kathleen terms “women’s authority” in relation to ensuring male practitioners are held accountable for their own practice (Carlin, 2001).


Here is one male practitioner’s eloquent response:

“From my point of view I don’t feel a particular discomfort around accepting women’s authority on men’s behaviour change. I call her the facilitator of the program and people sometimes give me a funny look and say isn’t she your co-facilitator (I try to remind them that we do the same job). I don’t understand why female facilitators would be called co-facilitators. She often contributes more to the group and I am aware that the job is sometimes more difficult for her being around people with such negativity towards women (and she still manages to do a better job than me).”


My anecdotal experience is that the issue of women’s experience can be a highly-contested space that is either invisible, dismissed, denied or positively actively engaged through group supervision or informal conversations with women. This practitioner goes on to share:

“In terms of working with women’s authority I feel comfortable with it. Always in terms of expertise I have looked towards women for guidance (more so than men) this is because in my fields I have typically been lucky enough to be the minority. I studied among mainly women, was supervised by women and have sought their guidance because they were passionate about the same things as me. With this being said, most of what I learned came from books written by white men. I also noticed in previous situations men being promoted before women and women’s opinions around me being dismissed as emotional (this was used to divert attention from the substance and value of what was being said). Similarly, men often held positions of most influence and power.”


“It is important for men to understand the way they use power and how this can (and does) impinge on the rights of others.  They are responsible for the power they hold and its impact on others.”


It would be safe to say that the men and women who work in men’s behaviour change, do so in a complex environment with gender and power relations at the very heart of our contemporary understanding of violence against women.  The barriers to undertaking the deep work required by both genders in understanding gendered relations and socialisation are numerous.  But if we are to be serious about the safety and wellbeing of women and children affected by violence and committed to inviting men using abuse into the long term benefits undertaking the journey of change then these discussions about practice are of profound importance.   I’m happy to summarise this set of musings by drawing on the following heartfelt words by the same male practitioner:

“The misunderstanding around what vulnerability is may be at the heart of some of the resistance to women’s authority. To accept privilege requires the vulnerability to accept that others are not afforded the same benefits as us. To recognise this can threaten the value of what we have achieved and the legitimacy of our struggles. By understanding this privilege, we can develop empathy for those around us. The vulnerable outcome of that is becoming responsible for our own contributions to society and honestly looking at ourselves for what we are. This vulnerability is not a weakness and is a catalyst for growth, without it we become inflexible, stubborn and closed to knowledge greater than our own.”



Carlin, K. (2001). The Men’s Movement of Choice, Men Stopping Violence, Advocating for Change, Atlanta – Read The Mens Movement Of Choice article

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