Lessons in teamwork

Humans are social creatures—we understand the vitality of working together. Movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and Schools Strike for Climate show us how uniting behind a common goal enables those too often silenced to make significant socio-cultural and political changes.

Crowds gathered at a Black Lives Matter protest. Photo by James Eades on UnSplash.

As a teacher, program-coordinator, and business developer, I’ve had the opportunity to work  in team environments with a diverse  range of individuals. Team environments are microcosms of wider society—and like in wider society, young women are often silenced. As a young woman, I have seen how sexist, ageist and other stereotypes play into how certain people are treated in teams. 

While this is frustrating to say the least, my experiences have  provided me with an empathetic lens for creating positive team environments. Here are the top 5 feminist teamwork tips I’ve learned along this journey!

Tip 1: Manage expectations

“Assumptions are the termites of relationships”  —Henry Winkler 

When we assume, things get lost in translation. Making our expectations clear is a crucial aspect of positive communication. Contrastingly, poor communication often leads to low morale, missed opportunities, conflict and mistrust. Being considerate and specific in our expectations is foundational to understanding one another. 

Comprehending and communicating can be enhanced through framing. I first learned about framing while doing a group project, where I noticed our team commonly lapsed into silence if I wasn’t actively engaging the conversation. I would immediately fill the silence. I consulted a mentor, who suggested that I allow the silence to hang. Once we got through the awkward stages of the silence, others began to share their thoughts, feeling comfortable to share ideas. When we are always the first to comment, we determine the frame of the conversation; the lens we use and the angle we are considering. Being conscious of the space we take and holding space for others diversifies the perspectives shared, and by extension, widens the spectrum of solutions.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on UnSplash.

At its core, framing is about being conscious of the conversation. It is a conversation technique used to clarify expectations. One way to implement this is through the RACI method of assigning responsibility. By clarifying who is responsible, accountable, consulted and  informed on a project, each team member understands their role and who to consult in various situations.

Another framing technique is Edward DeBono’s concept of the six thinking hats, where different ‘hats’ determine a particular focus. For example, wearing the green hat suggests thinking creatively while the white hat places facts as the focal point. Deciding which hat individuals or an entire team will wear helps direct the conversation to a specific target.

Tip 2: Be conscious of your language

In 2017, at my first Startup Hackathon, we worked in a team of strangers to take a problem and develop a viable solution. We were asked to come up with the worst possible solutions to our problem, then consider how to take these seemingly bad solutions and make them work. These solutions widened the possibilities of viable solutions, helping us pivot from shutting ideas off to exploring how we can make them work. 

Respectful and open language enables us to explore new solutions and concepts rather than being confined to a limited perspective.

We all have something special to bring to the table, and using negative language such as “can’t” and “no” can hurt the person you’re speaking to and stifle conversation. When opening the floor to discussion, using terms such as “how might we…” and “yes, and…” encourages everyone to feel comfortable with sharing their ideas and perspectives. Respectful and open language enables us to explore new solutions and concepts rather than being confined to a limited perspective.

Tip 3: Diversity is a strength

Our distinctive attributes shape our perspectives, allowing us to contribute to team environments in special ways. In the ABC docu-series The School that Tried to End Racism, students are placed at different starting points based on their privilege. Where we start in life can differ depending on our birth lottery, with aspects such as gender, race, class, ability, and religion playing an active-role in determining the opportunities afforded to us. 

In 2017 there were more CEOs named either John, Peter, or David than female CEOs, Moreover, from over 1,800 CEOs on the Fortune 500 list, a mere 19 CEOs were Black, demonstrating that women and People of Colour are offered less opportunities and power in our society. Diversity cannot be present in teams when  marginalised identities are not afforded the same access to opportunities as ‘John’ ‘Peter’ or ‘David’.

‘Pinky glove’ and menstrual cup. Photo sourced from MamaMia (https://www.mamamia.com.au/period-glove-controversy/).

When putting a team together, ensuring diversity is crucial. Without diversity, we can completely miss the mark. For example, Pinky Glove, a single-use pink plastic glove to wear when removing tampons, was created by an all-male team who failed to consult menstruators while developing their product. Pinky Glove was based on the male assumption of periods being ‘dirty’ and undesirable, stigmatising menstruation rather than offering a useful product. Pinky Glove received widespread criticism for their lack of intersectionality and consideration for their target market, showing the importance of having diverse voices in a team.

Have a look at your Instagram, the podcasts you listen to, the books you read and the people you spend your time with—are you exposed to a diverse range of perspectives? 

Tip 4: Be Curious

“I know that I know nothing” —Socrates

When I was at university, a lecturer strongly encouraged curiosity, helping me realise that not knowing is a superpower. When they didn’t know the answer to a question, they would respond by saying “I don’t know, and I will look into it for you”. Responding to not knowing something with curiosity and humility is a strength that enables learning and growth.

…as a young woman in team situations, asking colleagues for help has sometimes been met with the paternalistic assumption that this is because women are fragile, dependent and less intelligent compared to men.

However, as a young woman in team situations, asking colleagues for help has sometimes been met with the paternalistic assumption that this is because women are fragile, dependent and less intelligent compared to men. This is a form of benevolent sexism; insidious behaviours and beliefs that encourage the idea that women are less capable than men and need their help. 

Unfortunately, the patriarchal norms and expectations that underlie benevolent sexism can put women off asking for help. But practising humility allows us to support one another and work more effectively in teams, which may help those from marginalised communities to feel more comfortable in team environments. 

Tip 5: You are not competing with each other

One of the biggest obstacles in teamwork is defensiveness—it’s so easy to let our ego take the driver’s seat. When we do this, we shift from collective progress of searching for a solution to trying to prove that we’re right as individuals. Defensiveness is a reaction based on shame, or feeling attacked. To move beyond defensiveness, we need to reflect on our responses, re-centre ourselves, evaluate why we are feeling defensive, and listen actively. Communicating honestly and with vulnerability is key.

Photo by Nguyen Thu Hoai on UnSplash.

Teamwork isn’t always hi-fives and great outcomes—it’s a skill that takes a long time to learn. It can be especially difficult for young women and people from marginalised communities to feel comfortable and respected in team working situations. Diversity, inclusive language, and understanding how to communicate positively and constructively is vital to ensuring a successful team. Because at its core, teamwork is about working with people.


Eleanor (she/her) is an intersectional feminist living in Naarm.

Since her school days, Eleanor has loved sharing her writing with the world. Whether it was birthday letters, being the editor of the student newsletter, or on her own blog (eleanorharel.co), Eleanor uses her voice and platforms to educate and empower all people. 

Choosing the slow lane in life, Eleanor focuses her time on reading, journaling, and drinking tea.

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