The Trick of Cooperation: Women Creating Networks of Change

“The opposite to patriarchy is not matriarchy but fraternity, and I think it’s women who are going to have to break the spiral of power and find the trick of cooperation.” - Germaine Greer

  This article was originally published in  Women of Denver's spring publication .

This article was originally published in Women of Denver's spring publication.

We all know that old structures are changing fast. What we don’t always see is that women are playing a pivotal role in birthing the new ones being created.

We also often hear about the challenges women face - and we need to hear more about the strengths we bring to them. Women who are leading change efforts in Denver call us to use our current opportunity to see ourselves - and show up in the networks we are involved in - in new, groundbreaking ways.

The Power and Role of Networks

Despite often having fewer traditional resources, women are incredibly rich in social capital, often exchanged in more informal networks. We rely on informal networks, both online and in person, to get jobs, find childcare, and inform one another about current affairs.

“We don’t know that what we’re doing in informal networks is using our power,” said Nita Mosby Tyler, founder of The Equity Project. “We don’t think about it as power because we only think about power when we think of formal networks. But power sits in all networks. With informal networks, we call it relationship, my peeps, my girlfriends - that is called ‘referent power.’ That to me is the basis of good, authentic networks: Respect and reciprocity is clear and you’re not just leveraging people when you need something.”

For women, these networks extend across apparent boundaries between the personal, professional, and political. “‘The personal is political,’” quips Dede de Percin, executive director of Mile High Health Alliance. “It’s pretty hard to seperate those out. For many people who get to chose their jobs, and not everybody does, they’re drawn to the work for a reason and those reasons tend to be personal.”

Research suggests that women may be more reticent to network or ask for things from their networks simply because they aren’t as confident about the value of what they can reciprocate.

Case in point: Megan Devenport, executive director of Building Bridges, said since taking this position she has discovered that although she needs to compartmentalize her networks less if she wants to be more effective at raising funds for her nonprofit, she is still cautious about building relationships based on wanting to get something out of them.

Inner Work

“I think networks are inside out work,” Tyler said. “It starts with your self-reflection about your own power and from that is the creation of your informal networks and formal networks. Some of these are by association, but some have everything to do with who you are and what you stand for.”

Working in networks can challenge us to change our habits, according to Malinda Mochizuki, an MPA student who works at UC-Denver’s Center on Network Science. Mochizuki describes herself as a Type-A, goal-oriented person.

“As a result of working more in collaborative, network-oriented ways, I’ve found I’ve had to let some of that go,” she said. I had to take a step back and look at the project as a learning process: How can we bring all these different people together and collaborate with one another to meet broader goals while also meeting our individual or organizational goals?”

De Percin worked in a formal network that leveraged leaders from both political parties. She said that formal networks in particular can force us to work with those we don’t always naturally align with.

“Our strategy was to bring the voices to the table that would help get the campaign across the finish line,” she said. As uncomfortable as it can be, she said we need some level of outside opinion to help us avoid groupthink and test ideas, even if it means we work with those with different values than our own.

A New Vision of Leadership

For decades, women have been held to the male leadership model, but we are often criticized when we break from social norms and appear to be more assertive or achievement-oriented. While women are acknowledged for their leadership skills in situations of crisis (known as the glass cliff), too often men are valued for “teamwork” behaviors that are written off as merely stereotypical in women.

Fortunately, women are learning to value one another more.

“What I’m beginning to see more and more of in women’s networks is the valuing of expert power,” Tyler said. “Leadership looks very different when you have a consciousness of expertise, because it’s the valuing of the expertise of others, regardless of their titles.”

Studies have shown that if a group includes more women, its collective intelligence rises (interestingly, it doesn’t necessarily rise if it includes more members with high IQs). Some think it’s because we're less likely to dominate conversations and we're more likely to draw others in, both of which can significantly impact group decision-making and progress.

“As more and more women enter the workforce, we’re seeing much more of a horizontal work structure, where leadership is more distributed and relational,” says Mochizuki. “There’s a shift toward more open, adaptive structures.”

Devenport agrees changemaking and leadership is now happening in decentralized groups, and will continue to be.

“As women, we have a whole lot of alternative ways of leading to offer,” she said. “I think many things are shifting in that direction in part because women are moving into those leadership positions. However, I think in the absence of consciously naming where other more oppressive forms of leadership are showing up, we run the risk of defaulting into that.”

How you can be the Change

“There’s so much ambiguity around these moves that we are we making,” Tyler said. “We’re calling it a ‘movement,’ which to me indicates temporary, in response to. It’s not a movement, we’re changing the culture.”

“We have to start naming it as power.”

Here are some tips these women gave for others looking to lead themselves and their networks towards a better culture for us all:

  • Recognize your power and strengths and look for opportunities to join new networks based on them.
  • Learn about internalized misogyny and intersectional feminism and reflect how they affect group dynamics. Seek out accountability partners, both who share similar identities and who represent different ones.
  • Meet regularly with women in similar positions as you to share about challenges and celebrate each others’ successes.

This article was originally published in Women of Denver's spring publication.