In brief

The stories and ideas we consume shape our views, belief systems and our sense of what is possible. In this blog, Iona Lawrence offers some personal reflections on the shortcomings of her bookshelf and asks who else she should be reading and what needs to change in order to ensure people leading relationship-centred change have a chance to hold the mic.

At home I have a whole bookshelf stacked with nonfiction books that have inspired or challenged my thinking about the need to build a world of good relationships. (These nonfiction books sit alongside a larger stack of fiction books that have also inspired me, I hasten to add). These books include

  • Humankind – Rutger Bregman
  • Atlas of the Heart – Brene Brown
  • Radical Help – Hilary Cottam
  • The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt
  • All About Love – bell hooks
  • Palaces For The People – Eric Klinenberg
  • Emergent Strategy – Adrienne Maree Brown
  • Together – Vivek Murthy
  • Bowling Alone – Robert Putnam
  • Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation – Richard Sennett 
  • Paradise Built In Hell – Rebecca Solnit
  • The Good Life – Robert Waldinger and Marc Shulz

Of course there are plenty of other people whose blogs, articles and newsletters I am informed by. But these are as close to “blockbusters” as I think we have. These are the sorts of books that people quote at me regularly. And they are the books I’ve recommended to my friends or family who don’t work in the sectors or fields I work in, as a way for them to understand the ideas and themes I’m preoccupied with.

So it’s with deep gratitude for the authors’ contributions that I want to ask you if you notice what I notice? An overwhelmingly male, white, American leaning. Not universal of course, but a strong pattern.

This pattern might be comprehensible in industries where certain groups and identities predominate in practice and also in theory. With 98% of electricians and mechanics are male (Career Smart) – it would therefore be logical (but not necessarily good!) that they predominate the theory as well as the practice.

So the niggle with relationships, of course, is that those who have the mic and therefore the ability to influence the field don’t represent the reality as we at The Relationships Project see it, at least. The field of relationship-centred practice consists of a much more diverse and vibrant array of people doing the day-to-day work than my bookshelf would suggest. 

Let’s focus on gender roles within paid and unpaid relationship-centred work for a minute…

Women do most of the unpaid caring within families – both up and down generations. Over half of working-age women are providing an average of 45 hours of unpaid care every week, while 25% of men provide 17 hours, according to a study highlighting the gulf in unpaid care work (Centre for Progressive Policy, 2022)

Over 97% of nursery workers are women. (Career Smart)

Women make up two thirds of the voluntary sector workforce (NCVO, 2022)

Women carried out significantly more voluntary work as part of grassroots and mutual aid efforts in the lockdowns (Sociological Review, 2021)

And all this was reflected when we analysed the applications to The Relationships Collective in 2022 and discovered that there was an overwhelming female leaning to the applications – a leaning that is represented in the final group too.

And of course a wider view of these gender biases reveals that relationship-centred work – paid and unpaid – is carried by an array of other diverse and intersecting identities including people of colour and people with disabilities (there’s plenty in the 2021 Census and the Covid Social Study to back this up). 

The biases of who gets the mic and how substantial their reach and platform is are the result of complex overlapping problems that reach beyond relational work itself – from power in the publishing industry to who has the time, cash and self belief needed to put pen to paper in the first place. 

But one thing is clear: this bias is not because diverse communities and movements of people aren’t deeply engaged in the building of a relationship-centred future. 

And why does all this matter? Because stories, narratives and ideas shape the way people act, funders fund, policy makers make policy and everything in between. If we don’t listen to the views and perspectives of those doing ‘the work’, we don’t stand the chance of making the breakthroughs we need.

So I have 2 questions: 

  1. Am I trapped in my own biases and is my bookshelf missing some key names or contributions you think should be there? 
  2. What can be done now to ensure in 10 years time everyone’s bookshelves and brains are full of the ideas and leadership of an array of voices from the frontline of relationship-centred practice?