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Dismantling Sexist Power Systems - Need for Feminist Leadership

Updated: Sep 5, 2020

Art by Hanna Barczyk
Written By Yashiba Sanil

A couple of weeks back, when I sat down to watch Alexandria Ocasio Cortez take the floor at the House of Representatives, and deliver a searing comeback directed at Republican congressman Ted Yoho and elegantly eviscerate him for calling her a “f*cking bitch” in the very steps of the US Capitol, in front of reporters- it struck me yet again how women in positions of power and leadership are constantly vulnerable to sexist misconduct and prejudiced derogation.

Watching AOC speak about how initially she was willing to brush off the insult as yet another many of the abuses hurled at her from opposing men, hit a chord too close to home. A chord that feels all too familiar for women across the world. Structural misogyny and power imbalances against women in workplaces and high ranking structures have existed with historical precedence and even with the awareness that has been brought through by the feminist movement, the discourse about the imbalance of power and need for female representation and leadership remains as relevant as ever.

The concept of “power” heavily has existed over the years by glorifying “masculine” attributes and male authority. The word male, ambition, authority and power often are perceived as terminologies that go hand in hand.

In most societies, males evidently tend to monopolize positions of authority and are more involved with formal political institutions than women are. If anthropologists limit their interests to the formal level of political processes, assuming it to be the most significant, men will obviously appear to be dominant, and women to be relatively powerless. This dominance/subordination pattern gains further credence in the fact that in many societies, both men and women behave as if men were dominant and as if formal decision-making processes, controlled by men, were actually the most significant (Stephens 1963:289-290).

Simone De Beauvoir characterized the difference between the “Other” and the “Subject” which resonates with the feminist theory based debate of private and public spheres where women were relegated to the “private” sphere historically as they are considered to be beings that are better equipped to handle domestic sphere and private matters rather than “public” or political sphere, according to Beauvoir, the body is linked as “female” and the mind as “male”- establishing that men have set women up as the Other, the inessential, and as a sexed being, in an attempt to secure men’s position as the Subject, the absolute human type, the universal.

Establishing a woman in a state of dependence undoubtedly serves men’s economic interests, ontological and moral ambitions as well.  Simone de Beauvoir argued that the masculine is routinely portrayed as positive (or the norm) whereas the feminine is depicted as inferior.  Feminist thought has successfully questioned the notion of traditional ‘public’ man / ‘private’ woman dichotomy. Feminists have shown that the division between ‘private’ woman and ‘public’ man is designed to prevent feminine values and women’s issues entering the political process. This kind of discourse with time, has led to devaluing female values of leadership and builds a narrative where women are expected to adhere to “masculine” notions of leadership to be taken seriously. Qualities of assertion, domination and toughness are seen as masculine qualities that women need to adapt to if they want to climb up the ladder.

Female leaders or women in workplaces are expected to keep their calm at all points, any voice raised which is considered “out of line” is classified within the sexist notion of female tendency to be “overly emotional” or “hysterical”. A good example of this can be taken again from the Yoho and AOC scenario, where Yoho claimed that he cannot apologize for his “passion”. The same kind of male notion of “passion” exhibited by Brett Kavanaugh when he threw a temper tantrum in front of the Senate judiciary committee and was praised by Trump for his “tone”.

This same notion of “passion” that male figures are not penalized for but would be considered as a “crazy” trait in a woman. A good example to explain would be with this picture of Nancy Pelosi standing up to Donald Trump in a cabinet meeting regarding Syria.Trump took to twitter to caption this image as “Nervous Nancy’s unhinged meltdown.” In an attempt to downplay what very clearly is a lone female leader in a table full of men, asserting herself.

This kind of degradation unfortunately isn’t new, especially against female leaders and women in positions of authority. We often come across demeaning remarks based on sexist stereotypes of women thrown at women all around the world, in different settings. Women have faced such insults for as long as they’ve attempted to carve their place in a male dominated world, to the point where it’s almost normalized to a lot of women as they get used to dehumanizing behaviour and sometimes even feel desensitized to it. Often women don’t report abuse or harassment out of concern of not being taken seriously and fear of being accused of not being “tough” enough. This is one of the most insidious things about patriarchy – it attempts to take the fight out of you.

Women in or aspiring to be part of the public sphere are expected to take as less space as they possibly can. This starts from the conditioned teaching that often girls are taught right from an early age as Chimamanda Adichie puts it-

We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls “You can have ambition but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful otherwise you will threaten the man.”

This kind of gender discrimination, stereotypes and sexism play as key factors that impact having an equal distribution of power in the public sphere. It’s been proven that the higher we go up structures, the less women there are, not because women are any less capable but because of the system of power that works to the disadvantage of women. A glaring visual representation example can be taken through Elle UK’s #MoreWomen campaign where men were photoshopped out of group photographs of leaders in politics, business, entertainment and the media, revealing that the women left behind look shockingly less in number.

According to a study conducted by Harvard Business review, it was highlighted that women scored higher when it comes to leadership skills and make highly competent leaders, according to those who work with them, however what’s holding them back is not lack of capability but a dearth of opportunity. When given those opportunities, women are just as likely to succeed in higher level positions as men.

Women in the younger age group even though highly competent, in their self-evaluation were not confident enough to generously score themselves compared to men. Therefore it is important for leaders to take a hard look at what gets in the way of promoting women in their organizations. The unconscious bias that women don’t belong in senior level positions also plays a big role. It’s imperative that organizations change the way they make hiring and promotion decisions and ensure that eligible women are given serious consideration, as well assure them of their competence and encourage them to seek promotions earlier in their careers.

Understanding feminist leadership and its need

Feminist leadership at its very root emphasizes on re-imagining power distribution- which means shifting focus from individual concentrated control to shared power. It addresses sources and structures of inequality and oppression- both visible and invisible and works to create solutions in an inclusive manner. Feminist leadership pushes for community building and more representative leadership. It imbibes values of empathy, justice and fairness and also focuses on safer environments, self and community care and brings awareness to self as part of a larger whole.

Female leaders have proven to be extremely competent especially in today’s scenario by using aspects of feminist leadership to tackle COVID 19 in their respective countries. Some examples, such as that of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, Prime Minister Sanna Marin of Finland are proof of how female leadership can indeed chart an example for the rest of the world to follow. Having female leaders highlights how a country is open towards more diverse viewpoints, and adopting feminist leadership ideals can create meaningful engagement and establish co-operation instead of competition.

Values of feminist leadership can be perfectly described in Jacinda Ardern’s words when asked about politics and leadership- “One of the sad things that I’ve seen in political leadership is – because we’ve placed over time so much emphasis on notions of assertiveness and strength – that we probably have assumed that it means you can’t have those other qualities of kindness and empathy. And yet, when you think about all the big challenges that we face in the world, that’s probably the quality we need the most. We need our leaders to be able to empathise with the circumstances of others; to empathise with the next generation that we’re making decisions on behalf of. And if we focus only on being seen to be the strongest, most powerful person in the room, then I think we lose what we’re meant to be here for. So I’m proudly focused on empathy, because you can be both empathetic and strong.”

Some critical lessons from feminist leadership include focusing on transformational change in the system which means leading through inspiration, transforming people’s attitudes and beliefs, and aligning people with meaning and purpose. Transformational leadership is linked to higher levels of teamwork and co- ordination, better performance and productivity. It also seeks to put people ahead of oneself, the current male system of power focuses more on individualistic power which is concentrated in nature- which means that it makes it difficult to increase efficiency and direct focus on turning a team to a high efficiency group when the focus lies more on oneself. Therefore it is important to adapt a style of leadership in which community building is at the forefront and focus is also on elevating others.

To create a space where we can bring forth more inclusivity and diverse opinions and functioning, there is a need to tackle factors that push back women from positions of leadership, which means engaging with issues of structural sexism and seeking to dismantle the unequal power structure that only advantages those who have historically had power and agency. Bringing forth ideals of feminist leadership and creating space for more representation of female leaders would bring forth propensity for change in the system. There is a need for us as a society to encourage women and other marginalized community members to take up more space at the top, unapologetically.

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