How Feminist Leadership is transforming our workplace.

  • Date: 21/07/2021
  • Author: Jo-Ann Ward

ActionAid Ireland’s transformative vision of a just world free from poverty, oppression, and patriarchy requires transformative feminist leaders. This means we have leaders who enable others to lead, building power with them instead of over them. We are embracing feminist leadership because it is consistent with our work in advancing women’s rights and promoting equality. We consider feminist leadership vital to the success of our mission.

Read more about the ten principles of feminist leadership here.

Feminist Leadership is shaped by the need to practice feminist values personally, professionally, and politically. As the famous feminist mantra goes, ‘the private is political’.

Let’s hear from our staff members to explore what Feminist Leadership means to them on a personal level and how it has influenced their workplace culture.

Julianne Flynn, Individual Giving and Campaigns Executive

We live in a hyper-competitive world where we view power as a zero-sum game. Under this lens, we don’t benefit from sharing our power because we constantly view ourselves as being in competition with others. Feminist leadership is concerned with moving from our current obsession with power over others, to sharing power with others. 

Power is evident in every social problem and lies within how societies are organised. Looking at the world through a feminist leadership power analysis helps us recognise the interconnectedness of poverty and inequality. It helps us use feminist values to combat these oppressive forces. It provides a deep framework for understanding ActionAid’s work. By connecting various struggles, from the climate crisis to income inequality, we work building power with others to demand a fairer and more equal distribution of power.

Alongside this framework, we must also work to get our own ‘house in order’. If we want to advance a feminist vision of social justice, then we must start with ourselves and our internal workplace culture. On a day-to-day level, this forces me to question: how do visible or invisible forms of power play out in ActionAid Ireland? Are we making sure all voices are heard? Are we using our platform in a fair way? How can I share my knowledge and skills with others? 

While I inevitably make mistakes and sometimes rush to decisions, keeping these questions in the forefront of my mind is a reminder to constantly strive to do better and be the change I wish to seek in the world.

Nina Jerez, Digital Campaigns Executive

When I began working for ActionAid in 2019, one of the first things that made them different from other organisations, was the flexible working conditions. I did not know this additional benefit was part of a feminist leadership strategy that ActionAid had been working so hard to implement across programmes and administrative offices. 

This made my life easier as a first-time mother. I could track the hours I was working as a part-time employee and request half-days off for the extra hours I had accumulated. Even before the pandemic, I could accommodate my work schedule at my convenience and still avail of those flexi-hours. This was possible because ActionAid considered my caring responsibilities. 

On top of that, there has always been a sense of trust and honesty behind ActionAid’s physical and virtual doors. I keep noticing a flexible and supportive work environment even during stressful times. Certainly, I feel that I can count on a great team that is always open to listening to personal struggles. I think all of us are learning to make better decisions as a team. We are sharing power to achieve common goals, and learning more about feminist leadership to become more empowered not only in our jobs but also in our personal lives.

Feminist leadership can be complex, as there are no technical measures to tell us we are on the right path. Importantly however, we are becoming more mindful of its principles from a practical point of view and in our daily lives.

Cillian Quinn, Policy and Programmes Officer

Starting to work for an organisation that adopts Feminist Leadership principles has been a revelation to me.  If I am being completely honest, when I started to work with ActionAid Ireland, I originally thought that it’s great that the organisation commits to operating like this, but I questioned if it would happen in practice. To my delight, my pessimistic mindset was wrong!

It is easy to highlight what FL has done for making my life in ActionAid a pleasant experience thus far. From my manager encouraging me to take on more responsibilities to the CEO respecting my time as much as her own. Feminist Leadership has led me to have a greater belief in my own abilities. In turn, this has meant I am more committed to my role day in and day out.

Working in Ireland

As I said, highlighting what FL has done for me personally is easy but so is highlighting what it has done for the work I am doing. We are currently running a project where we work with women living in Direct Provision called Amplify Our Voices. The project aims to give a voice to women who would possibly be unheard otherwise, and it is them that determine what they speak about. Often in NGO work those in head office determine the project direction and focus. With this project, we very much are acting in a facilitation role. We want the participants to determine the direction of the project and decide what they want to get from it. This is a clear example of the programme team committing to the Feminist Leadership principles. We hope that by sharing power and practicing accountable collaboration, we will see greater programmatic outcomes. 

Going forward I will continue to not only adopt a feminist leadership approach in how I interact with my colleagues but also in the decisions I make around my work. I strongly believe that following feminist leadership principles is not only the right thing to do but also the most sensible for ensuring transformative change in the work we do.

Siobhán McGee – CEO

On joining ActionAid in 2015, I joined an international organisation vigorously engaged and thinking deeply about power. ActionAid had deliberately chosen to transform from a northern-led INGO to become a federated global alliance of equal members. ActionAid recognised however, that this shift was only a baby step forward; there was still much work to do. So, since 2015 I have been part of discussions with my colleagues and peers in Ireland and in other countries, about applying the power of feminist leadership in our work. Fundamentally, feminist leadership seeks to understand our relationship with power, achieve social transformation, and enable people to realise their rights. Feminist leadership is a bridge between our ambitions to address the structural causes of inequality and poverty, and our actions. It is a way for us to walk the talk.

The Women Directors in ActionAid globally sought to find ways to make our commitment to feminist leadership accessible and tangible. We wanted to build collective understanding across the organisation about what feminist leadership actually looked like. In addition, we wanted a way to hold ourselves, and each other, to account. And so, we created the Top Ten Feminist Leadership Principles; they are the foundation stones in our journey to practice feminist leadership. 

Feminist Leadership is personal

For me, feminist leadership is deeply personal, as well as organisational. It’s about how I turn up for my colleagues, how I model feminist leadership to listen, to share power. It is about building a workplace culture and strategy that enables everyone to do and enjoy their best work. And where each person realises the contribution they’re making to transforming lives, working for social justice, and ending poverty. Feminist leadership aims to build inclusion and solidarity with partners, communities, colleagues, and supporters. And to ensure that through our collective action, we give voice and power to the most marginalised.

Caroline Nkirote – Proposal Development Officer

I now know why I have always admired ActionAid Ireland (as an outsider) who worked closely with one of its programmes in Kenya. Reflecting on ActionAid Ireland’s Feminist Leadership Journey and Principles shared, I wish that all development organizations had this work culture. I have only been with ActionAid Ireland for four days at the time of writing this but already I am impressed by how well feminist leadership principles are genuinely entrenched and practiced in everything the organization does.

I know exactly what is expected of me because it is documented, shared and practiced. What struck me the most was how respectful everyone is of each other’s time. It is motivating to work on tasks knowing that there is a team ready to support when called upon. I already feel part of the family. This is the way to go for All organizations. ActionAid Ireland indeed lives feminist leadership principles!

Katie Ryan – Individual Giving Manager

When I think about the 10 Feminist Leadership Principles, I’m confident that these principles align with my own personal values. Still, I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of an organisation that is committed to these values – and not just on paper.

I’ve worked in plenty of companies where my value was simply my ‘output’. Little attention was paid to an employee’s own well-being outside of their job. This was highlighted to me last year when our lives changed in the blink of an eye thanks to Covid-19. Like many, I found myself working from home with two small children and wondering how it was going to work. I heard horror stories from friends about managers asking that their children do not appear on lengthy Zoom calls or working into the early hours to facilitate tight deadlines. That’s not to say I didn’t have some overwhelming days (I definitely did!) but ActionAid supported me from the start.

From simple questions like colleagues asking, ‘how are you holding up, can I help you with anything?’, to my manager helping me re-structure my working hours to give me more time with my children, ActionAid took an employee-focused approach from the start.  

In my own role, I recognise that there is a wealth of expertise and knowledge in my team that I want to help foster, but that I can also learn from myself. In creating spaces for others to develop and lead I believe that we are helping to advance ActionAid’s overall mission to create a fairer, more equal world. I also recognise that I don’t always get things right – I am human, I make mistakes. Feminist Leadership acknowledges this, and I view it as being on a journey of continued improvement. 

Jo-Ann Ward – Communications & Campaigns Coordinator

I think sometimes the word feminist can scare people. But feminism is not anti-men. It is about equality. Most things in the world are designed by men for men. Including some aspects of development. For example, in times of humanitarian disaster, often people who are menstruating, pregnant women, and lactating mothers are forgotten. When responding to disasters, ActionAid ensures that those whose needs are forgotten, often the most marginalised women, receive the support they need. Likewise, we seek to give women in local communities more power and control of the response. Local woman ensure no one is left behind during an emergency.

We are trying to share power, be more inclusive and self-aware in all aspects of our programme work. And so, I think it is fundamental that we also analyse other aspects of how we work. How we work together as a team; how we lead and how we communicate. This is where the ten feminist leadership principles offer a helpful and important framework. They keep us accountable to our values. And they also keep us questioning how we can keep improving. They have helped us to foster a great workplace culture, which is a good place to start for tackling the many challenges that we face!  

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