We can all agree that we lack women, nonbinary and agender people in leadership positions. Most presidents and prime ministers, politicians, CEOs and other executives are still men, whose policies are likely to be shaped by masculine biases and character traits. Given the dominance of male leadership, it may be hard for women and girls to find role models, imagine alternative leadership styles and rethink what leadership actually is supposed to be. Let’s think of what feminist leadership would look like!
Because political and leadership positions have historically been dominated by men, ideas of what constitutes a good leader are associated with masculine traits like competitiveness, decisiveness, toughness and absence of emotions. Women and gender non-conforming individuals are often met with a double-edged sword in institutions that still value such characteristics. When adopting similar traits, they tend to be “punished” for not being or looking like what is expected from a person occupying their position. They are called a bitch, seen as less competent and rated unsympathetic or unempathetic.
When exhibiting characteristics associated with femininity, such as compassion, cautiousness, affection, empathy and the ability to compromise, they are punished for not acting like the gender role associated with the position. The association between men and masculinity on the one hand, and women and femininity on the other explains why women are rated as more qualified with respect to education and health issues, while men are considered better at crisis management, including national security and military crises.
But simply installing women leaders is not enough to achieve feminist leadership. Gender norms are deeply rooted in institutions. Crisis management is an example of a field which structurally favours “masculine” over “feminine” leadership. Crisis management has traditionally called for masculine values, such as rationality, pragmatism, cost-driven concerns and hierarchy. This has in turn downplayed communal values, such as helpfulness, empathy and involvement with social issues, as these are considered feminine concerns. Interestingly, the Covid-19 pandemic has initiated a rethink of crisis management. As the traditional crisis approach has fallen short in accounting for the complexity and unpredictability of the pandemic, many have argued for a more feminine ethics of care approach.
Studies repeatedly find that gender inclusivity in leadership enhances performance in business, politics and other organisations. Diversity of thought leads to better problem-solving and more creative thinking. Most employees believe women leaders to be more trustworthy, honest and ethical in their work than men. They also appreciate women mentors for being inspiring and motivational. Women tend to be collaborative, as illustrated by the fact that women Senators in the US are better at making deals with the opposite party. Finally, companies with women executives tend to make more profit. Some explain women leaders’ high performance by pointing out that, because of the many barriers and biases women face, only the most competent women make it to a leadership position.
But feminist leadership is not just about women holding traditional leadership positions, like CEO, prime-minister, editor-in-chief or member of parliament. When we want to radically rethink leadership to be feminist, we need to go beyond that. Feminist leadership is inclusive and anti-racist. It holds principles like accountability, transparency and vulnerability in high regard which makes it easier to admit mistakes, for instance. Feminist leaders (who do not need to be women!) create space for others to flourish.
But most importantly, feminist leadership is about recognising the many leaders who guide, grow, activate, educate and nurture their communities and families – as happens every day all around us. By crediting their work as leadership, the important roles they fulfil in our lives will finally be recognised as such. Apart from that, by attributing greater value to everyday, community-based and grassroots forms of leadership, we hopefully encourage more people to take up the important work of looking after their next of kin.