Module 4: Behaviour to be counteracted
The course on which you are teaching assistant may not have any obvious direct relationship to gender (examples are courses in solid mechanics and quantum mechanics), but teaching is a social activity, and this means that it is necessary to be aware of more than just the subject of study. Here, we have chosen to focus on several processes and methods that are used to exert negative power over other people. In 1976, Berit Ås described five such subtle oppression techniques, which she called “master suppression techniques”. It is important for all of us to know how to identify these techniques and make them visible. The master suppression techniques are not sex-specific, which means that anyone can be subject to them, or can unconsciously use them on others.
An awareness of these techniques makes it possible for us to make the master suppression techniques visible, and to counteract them. Subsequently, in order to provide good examples and renew the social climate, we can also attempt to use affirmation techniques.
The five master suppression techniques identified by Ås are:
- Making invisible
- Heap blame/put to shame
- Withholding information
- Double bind
The text below provides ideas about how to counteract the master suppression techniques when you encounter them. The techniques presented were developed by the Empowerment Network at Stockholm University (ENSU). Each master suppression technique is illustrated by a film that demonstrates a situation in which the technique is used.
4.1 Making invisible
The technique of making a person invisible conveys that the material provided by the person is not important or useful. The aim is to make the person feel insignificant and insecure.
The technique can be applied in a direct form with words and/or body language, or it may be used indirectly.
- Your name is not used.
- Your work is referred to in dismissive terms.
- Attention is directed away from you through disturbing noise such as the scraping of chairs, rustling of papers, coughing, etc.
- No one takes any notes or poses questions that show they are listening.
- Someone repeats what you have just said as if it were their own idea.
If you are forgotten, dismissed or met with anything other than genuine interest, you may be the target of this technique.
Counter-technique – Take up space
Try to avoid becoming a victim or feeling belittled. It is important in this situation not to demonstrate anger or frustration: calmly claim your right to demand attention.
Action should be taken immediately, and it must be made clear that this behaviour is not acceptable. On occasions when you are talking without being acknowledged, it may be a good idea to stop talking and make the point that it is important to you that the others listen properly.
In many cases, it may be necessary to make the perpetrator aware of what you experience as unacceptable behaviour. “Did you really say…?”, “Do you mean that…?”, “Well, I think you have neglected to introduce me by my name”.
Validation technique – Visibilising
Take the people around you seriously and demonstrate engagement with them. In order to make others visible and validate them, it is important to listen, provide feedback and provide constructive criticism.
This will indirectly result in your own visibilisation, since it inspires mutual respect.
4.2 Heap blame/put to shame
When someone makes you feel ashamed or guilty for an action or situation for which you are not to blame, you are experiencing the second master suppression technique. This may manifest as a mixture of the other master suppression techniques, with the result that the person internalises the message and blames himself or herself.
- No one listens to what you say at the meeting and you feel that you have expressed yourself poorly or imprecisely.
- You have been given too many tasks, which leads to you having a bad conscience because you have not completed them, rather than taking a critical look at your work situation.
Counter-technique – Intellectualisation
Try to realise that your feelings of guilt or shame have been imposed on you by someone else. Try to critically examine your situation: describe why you feel guilt and where this feeling comes from. Could it be that someone tried to “dump” his or her own guilt on you to save his or her own skin?
Validation technique – Affirm yourself and others
Since people internalise guilt and shame, validation must also begin internally. Define other, positive, standards that suit you and the life you have chosen, and discard, for example, feelings of guilt that arise when you have been assigned an unreasonable level of responsibility.
All forms of behaviour that provide affirmation, backing up and support are the opposite of the assignment of guilt and shame. Affirmation of yourself also means affirmation of others.
Ridicule is, for example, making jokes at the expense of others. It may also be presenting another person or their arguments as silly and unimportant; using, for example, striking but inapplicable comparisons.
One version of ridicule is infantilisation. This involves treating someone as a child, and taking on the role of adult who knows best: (“Oh, honey/sweetie/my dear girl, what on earth are you doing?”).
Whatever the subject of the ridicule subsequently says or does, she has a lower value in the eyes of others. Being exposed to ridicule may cause a feeling of worthlessness.
- You attempt to present something important, but your colleagues laugh at your accent and say that you sound like a person in a popular TV series.
- A colleague makes disparaging remarks about your appearance in front of other people.
Counter-technique – Questioning
Do not allow jokes or comments based on ridicule to pass unnoticed. Never join in the laughter, but bring the conversation to a halt and request an explanation.
Remain composed and logical, and make it clear that you do not accept this treatment. Analyse the ridicule and ask the perpetrator to clarify what is meant. It can be helpful to repeat what has been said verbatim, and ask for an explanation (“What do you mean when you say that a woman would not be able to deal with it?”).
Validation technique – Respecting
Respect and treat all people seriously. Pose questions about the ideas and points of view of others, in order to give them mental space.
4.4 Withholding information
Withholding information involves keeping someone in the dark about certain matters. People are excluded or marginalised when significant information is withheld from them.
It is more difficult to act correctly when you are not privy to all relevant information. It is also possible that you will start to doubt your own opinion in certain matters.
- You become aware that your colleagues have held a meeting at which you should have been present.
- Decisions that should have been made in a meeting have already been made in an informal context which was not accessible to everyone involved.
Counter-technique – Cards on the table
In situations in which matters have been discussed and solutions drawn up without your participation, remind the others that you are all members of a working group to which everyone must be allowed to contribute. It is also possible to compliment the people who have held the discussions in your absence, and then to ask them what they have concluded and how they did so, before any decision is made.
If you have been repeatedly subjected to the withholding of information, point this out to the person in charge and indicate that there are structural issues at work that result in your not receiving the information you are entitled to.
Assume that the withholding is a consequence of poor information management or of people being unaware of their behaviour and its consequences.
Validation technique – Inform
Make sure that you inform everyone and include them in decision-making processes. Make sure that quieter individuals are heard. If projects are discussed outside of working hours, be prepared to inform the remaining group members of the conclusions you have reached and explain how.
4.5 Double bind
The double bind leaves you feeling that whatever choice you make, it will be the wrong one. If you work conscientiously, you may be described as slow, but if you work rapidly, you are accused of carelessness. It may also be a case of the priorities you assign. If you channel most of your efforts into work, you’re accused of neglecting your partner, while if things are the other way around, you’re considered to lack drive.
To be punished no matter what choices you make can lead to you investing all of your time and energy into trying to “do the right thing”. This means that you are allowing other people to tell you what to do and how to do it. You have become powerless.
Counter-technique – Break free of the pattern
Consider your own priorities and understand how you reached them. Inform others who are affected by your choices of the priorities you have set. Remember that you know what is important in your life and what is important to you.
Validation technique – Double reward
Try to view things from the perspective that everyone does as well as they can in the circumstances. If a person arrives late to a meeting, it may be more rewarding to believe that the person did his or her best to arrive on time. Then, use this as an opportunity to hold a discussion about the importance of arriving on time. Take this approach rather than becoming irritated.
This perspective means, for example, that you understand that when a person declines to participate in a certain activity it only means only that the person is declining the activity, not the relationship itself.
4.6 Summary – Counter-techniques and validation techniques
Take up space
Cards on the table
Information and inclusion
Break free of the pattern
Heap blame/put to shame
Setting reasonable standards and conflict resolution
4. Behaviour to be counteracted
6. Teaching assistant experiences
8. Plan for the gender-awareness course
Do you have any questions or comments? Or if you represent another organization or academy, and want to use this material? Please contact course coordinator:
Last updated: 2020-06-29