A scene from the African Women Leaders Network side event at the U.N. headquarters in New York. Photo by: UN Women / Ryan Brown / CC BY-NC-ND

We are entering a decade that holds great promise for progressing gender equality. Five years ago, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development secured commitment from 193 member states, including commitment to SDG 5: creating a world where every woman and girl enjoys full equality.

At the leadership level, Mexico, Canada, and Sweden are stepping up and explicitly labeling their development assistance and foreign policy as feminist. Over the past two decades, there have been significant improvements for women and girls — particularly in the areas of health and education, which are essential for gender equality.  

Movements such as #MeToo and #NiUnaMas have helped awaken the world to the scale of structural sexism and power abuse. For global NGOs and the United Nations alike, prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse — once a box-ticking exercise in our programming — is increasingly a cornerstone of our work. The safeguarding and abuse of power crisis that hit our sector has exposed a deep disconnect between what we seek to achieve through our programs and the leadership systems, structures, and power within our own organizations.

But these gains are nowhere near enough. Even using the simplest of measures, we are still a century away from reaching gender parity; for women’s economic participation, we are 257 years from closing the gender gap — up from the 202 years reported in 2019. When we report on reaching gender equality in the context of centuries rather than decades it becomes pretty clear that we need to do things differently.

Here we are. March 2020. Women’s Month in a milestone year, where a number of hallmark standards for women’s human rights — from the Beijing Declaration to the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 — are being reviewed and renewed. But decades after these multilateral agreements were signed, they remain — along with ICPD, its sister agreement on sexual and reproductive health and rights — the most progressive commitments to women’s rights the world has ever seen.

Now is the time to reflect on what this progress means for transformation within our own institutions, and to take action to ensure that we in the development sector lead the way on workplace equality.

Because if our sector, one that exists to promote justice and equality, is not willing to take radical action, who will?

An accelerator — inclusive feminist leadership

Ensuring scale, pace, and irreversibility of change toward gender equality and women’s rights requires that we invest in feminist approaches that address the root causes of gender inequality. Many organizations in our sector work to provide access to services, knowledge, and skills for the most marginalized communities, but don’t focus enough on dismantling the systems and structures that contribute to marginalization and oppression in the first place — including within our own organizations.

Lack of feminist leadership in our sector — and the lack of diverse women’s voices in decision-making — undermines the impact our organizations have toward achieving SDG 5 and their ability to safeguard our work force and beneficiaries. According to Fair Share of Women Leaders, the global campaign to achieve a fair share of women in leadership in the social impact sector, women make up nearly 70% of the global workforce in the sector but hold less than 30% of top leadership positions.

In the same way that we are pushing for deeper programmatic transformation, feminist leadership demands that we transform our own organizational system and structures to promote equality. Many well-established INGOs, such as Oxfam and Plan International, are moving down this path of transformation, using feminist leadership approaches. This has entailed looking not just at the programmatic outcome, such as gender equality and women’s rights, but also the process — our ways of working, including, diversity, inclusion, design, implementation, values, staffing, and governance.

Where to start?

1. Agree a set of guiding feminist principles

The starting point for this type of change in organizations is often “value-driven” and agreeing a set of feminist principles. These provide a central point from which behavior and culture change along with management actions — such as HR diversity and inclusion policies, training, skills building, gender audits, gender action plans, strengthening internal justice systems, and governance reform — can start.

Organizations such as the World YWCA have put in place significant changes to transform their own power structures and taken action that created space for 60% of their world board seats to be held by young women, and young women made up 30% of the voting delegates at the recent world council.

But large-scale change often meets resistance. The latest annual report of the Feminist U.N. Campaign noted that commitment to transform the U.N. system for gender equality has been met with internal backlash and been frustrated by larger global and institutional obstacles. A consistent theme in U.N. Secretary-General’s António Guterres speeches is calling for allies to “push back against the push back”. Even among organizations such as the World YWCA, structural changes to meaningfully include young women leaders at all levels of the movement are taking over a decade to reach.

2. Create inclusive and safe spaces

It’s important we start from the vantage point of intersecting inequalities, which place issues of age, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation and gender identity at the heart of change. Feminist approaches to leadership and transformation must include women in all their diversity, and different ways of thinking and organizing — beginning by recognizing where existing power and privilege lie and creating safe spaces for dialogue.

Young women in particular face unique challenges as a result of the intersection of their age and gender. As a result, in the international development and social justice sector, promoting young women’s leadership is particularly crucial to reshape out organizations.

Time and time again, we have heard young women’s stories of inter-generational gatekeeping, tokenism, and a combination of ageism-sexism, and other prejudices that prevent them from realizing their potential as leaders.  

3. Tackle the roots of sexism

By supporting young women’s leadership, we are not only positively impacting girls’ and women’s lives — we are also challenging social norms. Young women are consistently silenced and underestimated by a world that doesn’t see them as archetypal leaders, and it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to confront our biases and call out colleagues when they exhibit biases, too. We must tackle sexism at its root by dismantling harmful attitudes and ideas.

This requires a holistic approach that involves rooting out harmful behaviors within our sector and organizations and using our programming to dismantle gender norms beginning at a young age — reinforcing this work during adolescence and other formative phases in a girls’ life.

We should all be starting candid conversations within our organizations about what feminist leadership looks like. These conversations can be challenging and require uncomfortable introspection about our own behavior and biases, but through them, we can build a future that is far fairer for everyone.

Feminist leadership in development must be about creating a new system where opportunities and choices are accessible to every woman and creating space for a new generation of leaders. This is how we hope to use our power.

The authors will be speaking at Women in Dev, a women-led and women-focused international development conference held in the run-up to International Women’s Day 2020, uniting women to drive change in the development space.

This article is part of our op-ed series #GlobalDevWomen, where we hear from leaders in the sector on key themes around women’s leadership, #AidToo, and empowerment in practice, in the run-up to International Women’s Day.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Malayah Harper

    Malayah Harper is a global champion for women’s rights and a powerful voice for #TimesUp. She is the former general secretary of the World YWCA, a global social movement for women young women and girls in 109 countries and prior to that worked with UNAIDS, DFID, and the World Bank. She is currently serving on the board of SheDecides and on the panel of chief advisors for Fair Share of Women Leaders. She has worked in international health and gender equality for over 20 years.
  • Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen

    Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen has been CEO of child rights organization Plan International since September 2015. Before joining Plan International, Ms. Albrectsen served as the U.N. assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director for management at the United Nations Population Fund. Previously, she was ambassador and undersecretary for management at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.