Joanna Maycock

8 March, 2016

Disrupting the status quo: women transforming leadership in civil society

At the European Women’s Lobby, we unite women’s organisations from across Europe fighting for a Feminist Europe in which gender equality is a prerequisite to achieving the well-being of all people and the planet. As part of our campaigning platform, we call for women to be at the heart of decision-making in politics, government, business, institutions, and in civil society.

EWL Young Feminist Summer School 2015 © Isabella Borelli

There has been increasing public attention to the lack of women in political and economic decision making overall: more than 75% of national parliamentarians and more than 80% of members of corporate boards are men. However, very little attention has been paid to the failure of our own sector to address gender inequality in leadership. Most of the evidence I have seen suggests that around 75% of all the staff employed in civil society organisations (CSOs) are women, but less than 30% of the leaders of the largest CSOs are women. But this is not only about having more women operating within a system, it is also about transforming the nature of the systems of decision-making to ensure they are more inclusive, diverse and effective. At its core it is about reconsidering what leadership skills and attributes, and what institutions and structures, are needed for transformative leadership in the 21st century.

Getting serious about transformational and systemic change, means recognising and valuing women’s central role in transformative changes in their homes, their workplaces and societies already. Our failure to effectively address inequalities in our CSO leadership has translated directly into our failure to integrate the transformative power of women’s rights into our work. Whether we are talking about climate change, tax justice, trade, or the redistribution of natural resources: all have gendered dimensions that need to be understood, integrated, addressed.


EWL_1Efforts to redress the gender imbalance are always met with resistance from some women and men. Women often report to me how difficult it is to face off against the male dominated networks within their CSO. Those with power in CSOs perpetuate the system and hold on to power, but often don’t recognise they are doing so, making it doubly difficult to make change happen. So it is essential that any efforts that are made to increase diversity in leadership are intentional, politically backed by leadership and properly resourced.

So what can you do about it?

Check your privilege: Create opportunities to reflect on power and privilege within your own organisation. Try to understand the (hidden) power dynamics that limit and define whose voices are heard or ignored. You can explore gender and other factors such as race, sexual identity, class and ability in this reflection.

Make the issue visible: Gather and publish data on the numbers of women in leadership positions. Explore the pay differentials between women and men so that we can fully appreciate the scale of the challenge.

Set targets and quotas: Nobody loves quotas, but having targets forces organisations to measure and discuss progress. It makes intentions clear to staff and stakeholders. Any quotas or targets need to be backed up with properly resourced policies for recruitment, retention and advancement of women.

Leadership development, sponsorship and mentoring: CSOs should develop properly resourced leadership development programmes for women leaders that include mentoring and sponsorship.

Networking: building networks of women in civil society (within and between organisations) provides opportunities for women to exchange and learn from one another.

If we wish to bring innovations to transform society, we must be prepared to disrupt the power within our own organisations. Making leadership more diverse and inclusive has the real potential to rethink and invert power structures within our organisations, including opening up power and voice to the stakeholders we work with. As feminists we seek to disrupt the notion of power as being finite (i.e. either yours or mine) to see power as an endless resource that can be shared by focusing on building the ‘power within’ (self-awareness); the ‘power with’ (ability to build dialogue and effective coalitions); and the ‘power to’ build new ways of doing things.

At a time when civil society space is closing down everywhere, and our legitimacy as a sector is challenged on all fronts, it is essential for us to walk the talk in terms of the rhetoric about power, rights, gender and social and environmental transformation.

Photos: EWL AGORA Young Feminist Summer School 2015 © Isabella Borelli


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