Dominance: the danger of extrapolation

MALE DOMINANCE in institutions like business and government continues, despite broad support for equitable treatment and conditions for women.

Even though women have shown they can do the same work, accept the same responsibilities and solve problems as well as men, they still have far to go to achieve equal treatment. Salary differences between men and women are just one example of this.

What about community organisation?

That’s institutions. What about community organisations?

There is too little information to properly assess gender domination in the social enterprise and voluntary community sector. That’s the case with a social movement I have a long association with, the practice of permaculture design.

Permaculture can be defined as a platform of ethics, principles and practices upon which its practitioners build useful applications. Those applications might be in areas of commercial and DIY food production, energy and water efficient building design, renewable energy, landcape design, community development and social decision making. It is a comprehensive system and its applications depend on where practitioners apply its principles, for the principles are the main guide for projects.

The allegation. True? Untrue?

Over the past few years there have been allegations made that the permaculture design system in Australia is male dominated. The observation gained traction when a female permaculture educator raised it on a social media channel widely accessed by permaculture practitioners.

The person who made the observation has influence among women in the design system and the idea has achieved a level of support. If a little thinking is not applied and the idea taken at face value, it risks becoming accepted truth. This seems to have happened to some extent.

Thinking back to permaculture’s early years, the 1980s and the 1990s, the claim was true. But by how large a margin?

If gender numbers are the criteria, then males, especially prominent males, thought leaders in the movement, did dominate. If influence is the criteria then male dominance would have been less because there were influential female thought leaders in permaculture from its early days. People like Robyn Francis and Lee Harrison in Australia, for example.

Let me be clear that I am talking about permaculture in Australia, the design system’s birthplace in the late 1970s. Given the male dominance in society in those years it should be no surprise that permaculture reflected the larger social imbalance.

The evidence now

Figuring out the gender balance in permaculture is difficult because there has been little social research into participation. Trends in permaculture have gone largely unmonitored over the years. All people have to go on is their particular experience of organisations and of the movement in particular areas.

This is, I think, what that social media commentator might have done in alleging male dominance in the design system. It may well be true in the area in which she practices.

On reading her comment I added up male and female numbers in projects I am involved in. They were about even. I repeated the tally over time and came to the same conclusion. Occasionally there were more males than females. Mostly there were more females than males.

The risk of extrapolation

Permaculture espouses equity, so a fair go for women is built into the system. How to go about that is the pertinent operational question. The observation by the permaculture educator is therefore to be treated seriously.

The social media conversation raises something more general than the allegation, however. It is a philosophical question, one about logic. It is this: if we extrapolate the particular into the general we run the risk of being wrong.

The particular, the observation that males dominate permaculture in the region where the permaculture educator lives and works was stated as an observation applicable everywhere. I, as well as others, challenged her statement using gender numbers in the areas where we work to support our contention that because males dominate in one geographic region it does not logically follow that they dominate everywhere.

If it is demonstratably true that males dominate across the country then it is reasonable to expect that they dominate in particualr places, although reason suggest there would be exceptions. It doesn’t work the other way though. Dominance in a particular region does not imply male dominance in general. Extrapolating ignores the regional variation found in diverse practices like permaculture design.



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