How Systems and Design Thinking Can Address Violence Against Women

The Never Ending Campaign

Twenty-two years ago a 25-year old male walked into the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal and killed 14 women in a hate crime that injured scores, devastated families and friends of the victims, wounded a school, city and country, and change my life forever. Today, men and women across Canada (and beyond) pause to take stock of the relations between the sexes, the role of violence in our society, and to honour women as they remember the events of that day.

I don’t remember where I was when I heard the news in its fullest. It came out in spurts as these things tend to do when there are so many unknowns happening and much activity. I did know that the enormity of what happened at the Ecole Polytechnique that December 6th took a long time to sink in. Reports on the news that there had been a shooting on a college campus were scary enough, but as  details emerged that it was women who were specifically targetted and as the depth of the carnage unfolded, I felt a profound sense of loss and kinship as many of the victims could have been my peers. This was not just a mourning for the victims themselves, but a loss of innocence (and ignorance) that I never regained. That day changed my life in ways that I wouldn’t come to understand until many years later.

The Montreal Massacre as it was called led me, for the first time in my life, to feel a sense of shame for what I was (a man), not just who I was or what I had done. I didn’t commit the crime, nor did I do anything to stoke the fires of hatred in Marc Lepine, but I started to question what role my society had in the killing and me by extension as male member of that society. That feeling of shame was profound, slow-building and completely opened myself up to a world that I had been too ignorant of. It raised many questions in me about sex, gender roles and my own place within both of those topics.

I was (and am) lucky. I had the fortune to be born into a family of strong women who cared for me and set great examples of what and who humans could be. From my Mom to my cousins, aunts and my grandmothers, I had a remarkable number of female role models to look up to. But I was also born into a society where sexist imagery, jokes, and patriarchal power dynamics were (and are) dominant. Without the openness to discuss these things, challenge them, and with few male role models who did, it was easy to absorb messages —  from mainstream media (movies, TV, magazines), the fashion world, professional sports, and pornography that portrayed women as subservient, sex objects (instead of sexual beings), and weaker-thans — and to hold those positions as unchallenged or taken in uncritically. It was hard to reconcile what I saw in my family with what I saw everywhere else, but somehow these poles just sat in my conscious and unconscious self.

December 6, 1989 changed that and brought those two perspectives into collision.

My world opened up that day and the role that sexism and violence plays in everyday life became apparent and obvious in ways it hadn’t before. Ever since then, the role that violence, sexism, inequality and the insidious ways that these forces are manifest has been at the front of my consciousness. I haven’t always known what to do with these issues, but I have tried to make a difference and continue to be true with myself and others in addressing them whenever I have an opportunity to. This has brought me to many moments with other men that have been uncomfortable; sometimes I’ve done the right thing and spoke out and other times I haven’t. I’m not proud of the latter moments, but I at least know what I didn’t do wasn’t helpful.

Being aware is the first step. But awareness is only a first step and as a researcher, designer, and citizen I demand more.

I have since come to understand those feelings I had that December day and channel them into something productive, but it wasn’t easy. For example, it is sometimes difficult to reconcile activities that are expressions of a certain type of masculinity with those that lead to sexist oppression or intimidation. Sports is a great example of highlighting the best and worst of masculine behaviour. It is too easy to jump towards oppressing men just as men have (sometimes unwittingly or unknowingly) oppressed women.  Attacking men isn’t the answer.

While I think I am aware of how my social position can negatively influence my interactions with others, I certainly do not have the answers for what to do. What I do know is that I need to be vigilant as the system that props up psychological and physical violence against women is powerful indeed. The White Ribbon Campaign (illustrated above) is laudable, but it is a short-burst effort to raise awareness. It isn’t 365 days long and in our minds it should be.

So what should the vigilant, conscientious man do? The following list comes from the Say No to Violence campaign which operates parallel to the White Ribbon Campaign in Canada. It suggests a series of small, but very important steps that men can tangibly take to address this issue in practical terms, but hints at a larger systems answer:

1.  Think about the kind of man you want to be: kind, responsible, one that shares equally in family life and respects women and girls.

2.  Be respectful towards women, girls, and other guys.  Sexism and homophobia hurts us all.

3. Ask first.  Whether it’s holding hands, kissing, or more, it’s important to communicate and seek consent.

4. Never use coercion, threats, or violence in your relationships with others.

5. Wear a white ribbon and pledge to never commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women and girls. Visit our website to order ribbons.

6.  Teach your students and the youth in your community about gender equality and healthy, equal relationships.

7.  Be a good role model and share with the boys and young men around you the importance of respecting women and girls. to find out how.

8.  Learn about the impact of violence against women in your community.  Volunteer with a local shelter or a women’s organization.

9.  Challenge and speak out against hurtful language, sexist jokes, and bullying, in your school, community, workplace, or place of worship.

10.  Link your website to ours or place a banner for our It Starts With You Campaign on your website or blog and help us spread the word.

11.  Accept your role as a man in helping to end violence against women. It affects everyone.

12.  Start a White Ribbon Club or Campaign in your school or community. Visit our website to find out how.

13.  Order our awareness materials and help educate others in your school, community, or workplace about men’s violence against women and girls.

14.  Watch our collection of powerful digital stories to learn about the important connection between masculinity and gender equality.

15.  As a community leader, policy maker, funder, or NGO staff member, read our issue brief to learn about the important role that men and boys can play in ending gender-based violence.

16.  As a father or a family member, teaching the boys in your life about healthy equal relationships helps you do your part in creating healthy families and strengthening family bonds.

These suggestions all can help. Perhaps not surprisingly to readers of this blog, I would argue that there is a big role for systems and design thinking here. It’s one thing to be the change you wish to see in the world, but like Mohandas Ghandi who said this first, you need to change the system and design a strategy for doing it with others for that change to take root with others and spread. Campaigns like White Ribbon are one start. Another is to create the kind of sex and gender-positive organizations (including schools) that provide the scaffolding for allowing people to be themselves to the fullest without fear of violence, discrimination or abuse.

Yet another is to support women (and men) in being able to talk about these issues openly without judgement; design interaction spaces for dialogue just as some are trying with the occupy movement. As a man thinking back on the events of December 6th, 1989 I can remember feeling so alone in my ability to have conversations about the subject matter that didn’t resort into a guilt-trip (for being a man), seeing the event as the act of a lone, crazy individual (being dismissive), or just invoking a sense of despair at the complexity of it all (giving up). There was and is something that can be done. It’s just that it won’t change overnight and is an issue so entrenched into our society that it will be hard to untangle, but it can be done. This is a more wicked problem that it needs to be, but it nonetheless is one. In addressing its root causes and its superficial and deep consequences, we need to think bigger, smarter and act in ways that fit with a complex system.

So where to? From a systems perspective there are things we can do:

  1. Follow the list above — as many or as few items as possible — and do it as often as possible. Small, coordinated steps instill change in ways that don’t disrupt the system to create a backlash, nor does it let it the status quo rule;
  2. Share your experiences (maximize feedback, evaluate), learn from others and integrate this learning into your life and adapt your strategies based on this feedback. Keep changing, evolving and learning;
  3. Get diverse: bring in those that might have new perspectives and might not be the most obvious champions for women’s safety and gender equity and equality (improve learning). Some of the greatest insights and opportunities may come from going beyond the realm we’re familiar with;
  4. Find specific issues and topics that a wide range of people can see themselves in (create an attractor and probe) and make it something that people can self-organize around. Rather than ‘set the agenda’, throw out ideas and nurture the ones that people gravitate to and leverage that momentum into something that can emerge;
  5. Try being oblique (in your strategy). Consider indirect routes to tackling the issue as sometimes thorny, complex issues are best tackled indirectly through other channels (e.g., sports)
  6. Be persistent. Systems change doesn’t happen quickly except in times of great crisis and chaos and not always to our advantage. Steady and continuous will win the day.
From a designer’s perspective, we can help by determining the position of the problem and finding out what it really is.
  1. Spend time finding out what the problem is. Is it violence? Is it something that leads to violence? Is it a structure that leads to something that leads to violence? Asking why a LOT can help. Designers spend a lot of time problem finding.
  2. Frame the issue in the context of the people involved. Get empathic. Men, consider what life might be like living in fear of violence, being denied opportunities because of your sex, or what it would be like to have your value judged solely by how you look or what you could do for the opposite sex. Take sides — both sides — and see imagine what it is like to be a women who is stalked, abused, neglected or ignored. Alternatively, consider what it might be like for a man to get so caught up that he physically assaults someone he genuinely loves, or imagine what it would feel like not to have love at all and to hate those that do. Contemplate what it might be like to be a child to see the two people she or he loves most nearly kill one another in a rage that often feels like you caused it or growing up with the idea that another sex is inferior because that’s all you’ve been told. None of these are particularly pleasant, but only when we can see the whole issue — including that of victims and perpetrators and see them with empathy, compassion and understanding can we design solutions that might alleviate the problem;
  3. Develop solutions with those most affected –  and this might mean involving men more than women sometimes (which is the exact opposite of what we do now). The solutions might not reside in the most obvious place and maybe it means stepping out of the conventional spaces into something a little more uncomfortable, yet closer to the problem;
  4. Prototype. Try things out and evaluate what happens when you do something. Small, safe-fail experiments allow you to learn as you go rather than aim to change the entire system at once, offering a lot of options for innovation.

Today, as we remember the lives lost and damaged from the events of December 6th and the global challenge that this represents, consider taking up the challenge and perhaps together we can systems think and design our way to a healthier, more equitable world for men and women alike.

Imagine how we can create a system that makes the unthinkable truly so. As designers, envision what we could do if we engaged people in the design challenge to reimagine our sex and gender roles in a healthier image.

Yesterday, I wrote about how women are becoming the leaders in our complex world. The issue of violence against women is an area where men can step up and show some leadership too. Indeed, it is a space for all of us to take charge and lead. Let’s step it up.

And for men? Wear your ribbon proud today and carry that thought with you the remaining 364 days of the year.

White Ribbon, worn

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