Walking Alongside: A practice to transform unequal power relations

Nina Benjamin

Walking Alongside: A practice to transform unequal power relations

From 2020 to 2023, the Labour Research Service in partnership with Gender at Work and the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) supported Science Granting Councils (SGCs) in Africa to promote gender transformation in science, technology and innovation (STI).

This article reflects on the use of GAL methodology to address organisational culture. The GAL process draws on feminist thinking, peer learning, action learning and participatory methods. In essence, it brings gender and inclusivity to life for the participants in a concrete and tangible way, both at a personal level and at a collective level.


Walking alongside or accompaniment is about discovering the music in everything we do, not just the music we find in playing musical instruments. The music we are looking for is made of the sounds that sit in all of us and that through deep listening to ourselves and others we are able to hear even without any handmade instrument.

Being able to hear one another’s inner music by listening with the heart is at the centre of an embodied and decolonising practice, a practice that emphasises generosity, openness, reflexivity and ongoing self-critique.

From mentoring to accompaniment

Mentoring most often occurs when a mentor supports the development of someone who is less experienced, known as a mentee. The image that the term mentoring evokes is of an older, wiser person, guiding, and transferring knowledge to a protégé.

In the workplace, mentoring has become increasingly popular as a strategy, for example, in initiating managers into specific roles in the workplace. Mentoring is conventionally recognised as a means for including more women and socially excluded young people in the sciences and related fields such as technology, engineering and maths. The mentor is usually regarded as an expert with a successful career in one of these fields.

As a Gender at Work (G@W) facilitator for the Gender Action Learning (GAL) component of the Gender and Inclusivity Project, I had the responsibility of mentoring two of the participating science granting councils (SGCs). The project was run by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) to help SGCs include more women in the sciences in Africa.

With the GAL approach, we focus on creating relationships of inclusion, equality and partnership between participants and facilitators to challenge the notion of an ‘expert driven’ learning process. As facilitator-mentors, we understood that our role and position in the project gave us the power of the ‘perceived experts’ on gender and inclusivity, a perception we would need to challenge if we were to create the necessary relationships of inclusion, equality and partnership. Interestingly, as Gender at Work facilitators we also came in as novices in the world of the sciences, shifting the power relationship in the opposite direction as we were not on familiar ground. This seeming disadvantage was actually an advantage as we had to practice humility, listen intently and accept that much of the content about the sciences that we were hearing and seeing was in fact unknown to us.

The power of a name

The GAL mentoring process was a series of online engagements where facilitators met with the individual change teams from the different science councils. However, in the Peer Learning workshops change teams met together in cohorts.

Early on we realized that the term ‘mentoring’ was likely to convey what could be a caring, yet essentially hierarchical relationship of the wise mentor and inexperienced mentee. This language did not align with the values and attitudes we held, and we did not wish to bring it into the learning process with the participants. So, at our first mentoring planning session we agreed that instead of engaging in a ‘mentoring’ process, we would be in an ‘accompaniment’ process as ‘companions’ and not ‘mentors’.

“To accompany someone is to go somewhere with him or her, to break bread together, to be present on a journey… There is an element of mystery, of openness, of trust, in accompaniment…”

In her journal article Psychosocial Accompaniment, Mary Watkins traces the idea of accompaniment back to liberation theology in Latin America, which has migrated into liberatory forms of psychology as ‘psychosocial accompaniment’, a process of decolonising psychology where, through dialogue, an attitude of mutual respect, understanding, solidarity and empowerment of the marginalised, is promoted. Watkins’ description of ‘psychosocial accompaniment’ in many ways captures what, as Gender at Work facilitators, we have described as the accompaniment process. It is a process of dialogue focusing on mutual respect and understanding, interpersonal practices that challenge the hierarchy associated with the expert-novice relationship and an unleashing of joint imagination(s) for creating change.

Challenging the role of the expert by practising horizontality

Stepping into the learning process as a ‘companion,’ I found myself playing the role of an accompanist, similar to that of an accompanist in a music concert. As a ‘companion’ or accompanier, I was to hold the space while listening intently and intentionally to the participants’ emerging ideas and strategies as they unfolded. This I found incredibly challenging. My first impulse was to intervene, manage, fix or control the situation. Why allow for a long meandering when I could shorten the journey with quick answers derived from years of experience?  I was, after all, regarded as the ‘gender expert’ by the participants in the GAL process, employed to provide technical knowledge for creating a gender balance in the science granting councils (SGCs). But how much of the context of that did I really understand? Would I be there when the well-worn strategies of ‘gender mainstreaming’, ‘gender champions’, ‘gender policies’ and so on were tried out? Would I be there when the members of change teams from the SGCs struggled to be seen, heard or acknowledged once they returned to working in their councils, or when women in the councils chose invisibility as a way to avoid dealing with uncomfortable and undermining situations? No, I would not. So, my role as an accompanier challenged me to think beyond the box of technical, gender equality tools under my arm. ‘Walking alongside’ meant shifting my gaze left, right, to the front but also to the back, all the while staying in step with those being accompanied, like a true companion on a journey. Letting go of trying to fix the situation was about my process of letting go of a power that I am constantly tempted to impose. It is the exclusionary power of the teacher, the power of the expert, a power that is held in place through the assumed ‘knowing of the expert’ and lack of knowing of everyone else.

As my accompaniment journey unfolded, I found that it was not the leading, guiding or even the supporting roles I played that were key to my work as an accompanier. It was rather the ongoing practice of learning to share power, to interrogate my assumptions, choose questions that truly inquired and listen to responses with a deep appreciation of what each person brought into the accompaniment process. Although she calls the process ‘mentoring,’ Srilatha Batliwala in the book ‘Feminist Mentoring for Feminist Futures’ writes about sharing power but also ‘giving up power’ where you open yourself to a process of appreciative inquiry. Most conversations focus on power and control but with an appreciative inquiry approach the focus is on asking yourself and others powerful questions that constructively reveal truths about yourself. This is where you hold up a mirror and see internalised patriarchal and other biases as well as your inner power to create change.

Working with our power – as both the accompanier and accompanied

As facilitators in the Gender and Inclusivity Project we accompanied members of change teams in SGCs. Change team members in turn accompanied and will continue to accompany their fellow council members or the members of constituencies interacting with their council, for example young students studying in the sciences or related fields or women researchers and practitioners applying for grants.

I was also privileged to be able to operate in both roles as an accompanier and an accompanied person. As an accompanier to initially both the Ugandan and Zambian change teams and later only to the Zambian change team, my role was to guide the accompaniment process. At the same time, the G@W facilitators worked very closely as a team and I found myself being accompanied by my fellow facilitators, each one sharing their different lives, professional experience, knowledge and skill. I often found myself being guided by their insights.

My experience of being accompanied was vital in shaping my role as an accompanier. It was in the facilitator team that I experienced a generative, dialogical space supporting contestation, where it was not only safe but liberating to express and hear different views and experiences. Guided by our core framing question: What will it take for SGCs to more fully develop and implement policy commitments around gender and inclusivity? we questioned not only each other’s ideas, but our own relationships to privilege and power. Each facilitator brought in their own unique experience and while we had a common core framing question for the project, each one of us had our own internal questions about what it meant to be a woman and a facilitator in a team tasked with leading a project on gender and inclusivity.

At different points each of us became the accompanier or the accompanied and all of this happened through critical conversations. These were conversations that challenged while being explicitly grounded in a feminist ethics of care, empathy and trust and where no question or concern was regarded as ‘foolish’ and no person acted as the ‘role model’ for others to follow. Although each facilitator might have entered a conversation with a different perspective, we would leave with an agreement on what we would first ‘test out’ in our practice and then come back to reflect on. This process of experimenting and testing out not only applied to our ‘outside’ work with the change team members, but also to the individual interior work of what it meant to challenge the patriarchal power relations we are all part of.

‘Walking alongside’ as an accompanier to the change teams

‘Learning to learn and learning to listen’ was my way to challenge the vertical hierarchy of expertism and to practise horizontality. Each session of accompanying the change team members of the Zambian National Science and Technology Council opened my eyes to ways of sharing and not imposing on others my experience of working with gender and inclusivity. Using an appreciative inquiry lens, I understood that change begins with the questions you ask. The questions themselves are not neutral and with each question I asked, I was exerting some influence and power. However, what was most important was that I maintain an openness and sense of curiosity – not feigned curiosity – but a genuine interest in learning from participants’ responses. It was this willingness to learn from those I accompanied that was key to creating the relations of horizontality, essential to any embodied, decolonising practice.

*This article was written for the Human Sciences Research Council.

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