What is Feminist Leadership?

27 March 2017

In celebration of International Women’s Day, I was recently invited by UN Women to lead a UN workshop on the topic of Feminist Leadership. What is Feminist Leadership, you ask? It is broadly defined as:

A style of leadership with characteristics commonly associated with social constructs of femininity. I.e. collaborative, relational, consensus-building, open, intuitive, and so on.

Feminist leadership is being called out more and more to manage and deal with increasing global challenges in the socio-political realms. It responds to the long-standing privileging of more masculine ways of leading that have often led to less than desirable outcomes. During the workshop we explored this paradigm, using the lens of power and authority in our professional roles, which made for some illuminating insights.

Using the Grubb School’s definitions we distinguished Authority (relating to role, system and task) from Power (relating to the person). We then explored different perspectives on power, from personal to projected, looking at examples from our own roles. We looked at them from both feminine and masculine angles touching upon those parts that made us feel the most uncomfortable.

We found that many of us women feel most comfortable sitting with and using our personal power, in the form of our educational achievements, skills, capabilities, and accumulated experiences and such. However, many of these same women deny their projected power, or those aspects of power attributed to a person on the basis of their social ranking, personality, or other aspects of perceived identity. Why is this?

In a patriarchal society, we are all too familiar with power attributed to persons of certain identities of gender, race, age, and so forth. In reaction, we have come to see the dynamic of how power is projected as negative and something we should do without. The way power is projected certainly plays a role in perpetuating gender inequalities from white privilege to the objectification of women. Yet, by denying the strength of projected power on ourselves, we might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.

Following a rich discussion, we considered how a function of feminist leadership is to make power dynamics more transparent. For example, how might we be able to recognise how power is projected and distributed in a room? And how do we know when it is projected onto us in our roles? And most important of all, how do we utilise projected power to serve the purpose of our work, missions and organisations? For certain, when we bring all our power to bear on our authority-in-role, we mobilise our leadership to its maximum potential.

We ended with acknowledging, that the way forward was to recognise and integrate our feminine and masculine aspects, available to each of us in our leadership irrespective of our gender.

In the long run it is the complex interplay of different capacities, feminine and masculine, that protects the humanity of human beings.”~ Margaret Mead

- Aarti Kapoor


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