LONDON — The development sector is led by men, despite efforts to get more women into leadership roles. Recent research suggests that women make up about 70% of the world’s social impact workforce but hold just 30% of top leadership positions.
“When we speak about feminism, it has to cut across whether black, white — we all need to acknowledge our privilege.”— Mpho Mpofu, founder and executive director, The Voice of Africa Trust
A feminist leadership approach could be the key to spurring the radical and systemic change needed for a more inclusive and accountable sector, according to leaders at this month’s Women in Dev conference in London.
But what exactly would that look like? In line with several other organizations, ActionAid — which has worked to implement a feminist leadership model — identifies self-care, collaboration, inclusion, dismantling bias, and sharing power as key aspects.
Ten years since the concept was first discussed by Srilatha Batliwala, it is encouraging to see feminist leadership gaining traction in global development, conference attendees said. But growing alongside this movement are concerns that it does not serve all women equally, too often failing to address the unique issues faced by women of color, for example.
A truly inclusive feminist approach would impact decision-making at all levels of development, they said — and many women leaders are optimistic that this approach is within reach.
Can feminist leadership support all women?
Moving toward inclusive feminism requires a recognition of privilege and power and a willingness to tackle those issues. This involves addressing a range of barriers and looking at disparities across race, ethnicity, religion, and gender binaries, said Traci Baird, president and CEO of EngenderHealth.
“If you have the principle and philosophy that this is about equal — really equal — and equitable opportunity … then I think that’s an approach we can all take,” Baird said.
But Uma Mishra-Newbery, executive director at Women’s March Global, says she struggles with the very concept of feminist leadership and feels it is entrenched in “white feminism.”
Seeing more women in leadership positions is not progress if all those women are white, she said, adding that the number of women of color in leadership positions at development institutions is still “grossly lacking.”
“When we use a feminist lens to look at gender equality, we’re only doing it to make ourselves … feel comfortable — like, ‘Yes, we’ve achieved gender equity,’” Mishra-Newbery said. “But when you have a staff of 30 people that are all white, that is not actually equity, which is why it’s dangerous.”
Intersectional leadership — based on the understanding that different types of inequality can create obstacles for people in interconnected ways — is key. Such a framework would involve radically open and honest conversations and create space for equality at all levels, Mishra-Newbery said.
Mpho Mpofu, founder and executive director of The Voice of Africa Trust, said she believes that white feminism has been dominant so far and that intersectionality is key going forward. She encouraged a collaborative approach to see real progress in the sector but cautioned against personalizing the struggle.
“As a black feminist, I tend to say, ‘Consider your privilege,’ as well. Let’s not point fingers at white feminists,” Mpofu said. “When we speak about feminism, it has to cut across whether black, white — we all need to acknowledge our privilege.”
Without properly understanding why there is a need to progress women’s rights, regardless of race or other differences, it will be impossible to have a feminist leadership that will “reap fruits in generations to come,” Mpofu said.
Spurring recruitment, funding, and design change
Reorienting decision-making toward inclusive feminism would impact every aspect of organizations, starting with recruitment and program design.
Organizations would have to look at whether their recruitment policies and practices enhance women in the workplace, leaders said. And women would be trusted to lead programs across all sectors of development, not just those considered “women’s issues.”
Dr. Roopa Dhatt, executive director and co-founder of Women in Global Health, suggested that feminist leadership, if applied at all levels, would see senior leadership being representative of the global population, with gender parity just the start.
Organizational cultures would shift and enable work environments that value all perspectives equally. This, in turn, would have a huge impact on how different situations are viewed, Dhatt said, referencing the recent stories of women health professionals responding to COVID-19 who have been criticized for requesting more feminine hygiene products. Within a feminist leadership approach, this would not even be an issue, she said, as access to feminine hygiene products would already be on the global agenda.
Ideally, women’s issues would get the appropriate attention but no longer be talked about as “the other,” Dhatt said. Too often, health issues that impact women and girls are seen as special interest concerns and are more difficult to get on the agenda of governments and civil society organizations.
But a feminist approach would shift this mindset, she suggested. In the health sector specifically, this might lead to an increase in research and development funding for women’s issues, which are currently underfunded, Dhatt said.
A change in how funding is allocated would allow smaller organizations, more likely to be women-led, fairer access to resources, Baird said.
The current model supports bigger organizations, which are often male-led, she said, and the bigger an organization, the more it can invest in securing the next award or grant, allowing it to continue to grow. A feminist approach could help solve this issue.
“If we have feminist approaches within organizations, we can work with the donor community … to have a more merit-based, positive feedback loop,” Baird said.