I’ve been lucky in my life to have had some really good bosses.
Then again, I’ve also had the extremely good fortune to work for a lot of feminists.
One of my first bosses took me under her wing, inspiring a confidence in me as a writer and a communications maven that I’d never tapped into prior.
She made me feel like I could have ownership not only over my own work, but over the entire launch of our media-based campaign to spark conversations around rape culture and consent – and the massive changes we were hoping would come from what we were doing. She was my mentor before I knew what real mentorship looked like.
And one of my most recent bosses believed in me – often even more than I believed in myself – and let me take full reign over my domain, even when my ideas weren’t necessarily what she’d have suggested or put into place. She challenged me to take on tasks that I felt were outside of my skill areas, prodding me to stop seeing myself as limited in any capacity.
Along the way, I’ve been granted the opportunities to work with other fearless feminist leaders who value my input, imbue me with a sense of agency and self-confidence, and encourage me to take challenges, dream big, and even be a leader myself.
And that’s what real leadership should look like: instilling in others the capacity to grow, go deeper, and go bigger.
Unfortunately, lots of folks don’t work with bosses who want to treat them well.
For too many people, going to work is mentally taxing, emotionally exhausting, and otherwise soul-crushing.
But there’s a better way to lead. And it’s called “feminist leadership.”
So, What is Feminist Leadership?
Well, our conception of power and leadership in work environments is, like most other things, inextricably linked to the lopsided social and cultural structures that marginalize and oppress us.
From a feminist perspective, that means that our understandings of “good” and “ideal” power and leadership structures and styles are patriarchal – and thus, value what is seen as “masculine” and revere maleness above all.
That’s why norms around leadership reinforce hierarchies and broad divisions of labor. It’s why our leaders so often see employee potential and capability through a lens shaped by stereotypes about gender, sex, race, class, and national origin. It’s why we view workplaces as environments where power and respect are rooted in dominance, violence, and authority.
A patriarchal workplace is a toxic workplace.
It’s competitive, inflexible, authoritarian, and driven by output and results – not human potential and fulfilment.
And it doesn’t have to be that way.
There are a lot of studies out there that say women are better leaders because they’re women. And there are a lot of studies out there saying women lead differently because they’re different. But that’s not what feminist leadership refers to.
People of all genders can be feminist leaders, just like people of all genders can be toxic bosses.
But feminist leadership is about subverting traditionally masculine and male notions of power, and sometimes doing so by embracing what we see as “feminine” qualities or traits.
“Feminist leadership” is about fundamentally changing what “power” looks like at work.
So here are five ways to lead as a feminist – no matter what work you do in what realm.
1. Practice What You Preach – Formally and Informally
Feminist leadership is, first and foremost, about leading with the values of feminism in mind.
CREA (Creating Resources In Action) has done some awesome work to cultivate feminist leadership and nail down what it really stands for. And according to them, feminist leaders “will strive to make the practice of power visible, democratic, legitimate and accountable, at all levels, and in both private and public realms.”
It’s also about codifying those values and building a work culture that fosters them.
They should be focused on shaping work policies that place value on employee satisfaction over corporate success.
They should try their best to ensure that at every level, members of an organization feel respected and valued.
They should be focused on building diverse and inclusive spaces at work, keeping operations transparent, and doing all they can to acknowledge the needs and desires of everyone their decisions impact.
And they should be following their own policies and values even when it’s hard or when they don’t think anyone is watching.
Feminist leadership can take on a lot of shapes, encompass a lot of work styles, and shake up lots of different kinds of workplaces. But it always needs to be about leaders upholding a feminist ethos – and living it every day in their own work.
2. Redefine ‘Success’ and ‘Hard Work’
For too long, the measure of a good employee has been how much they are willing to toil, sacrifice, and put in for the “greater good” of a company; how much money they bring in; how many hard metrics they hit each month; and how alike they can make themselves to the company’s established leaders.
And for too long, the most valued employees have been those who fit homogenous molds, who do things they way they’ve always been done, and who uphold the status quo.
Feminist leadership is about rewarding labor and measuring success differently.
And in order to do that, feminist leaders need to place an emphasis on individual freedom, flexibility, and empathy.
Feminism tells us that different perspectives make us stronger, that balance in our lives should be key in a world where we value each other’s humanity, and that respect and support for everyone in our movement – at every level of understanding and capacity – is of the utmost importance.
Feminist leadership puts that into practice.
A feminist leader knows that a workplace is only sustainable when its members have control over their own lives and the sense of balance they need to keep it in motion.
She values a slower timeline with more gradual results over a projected time estimate that puts her employees’ schedules out of whack.
He gives his employees control over their schedules to allow them to fit in their own personal needs as well as their professional requirements in a day.
They strive to shape a work culture where human needs are seen as equally important to the organization’s goals.
A feminist leader also knows that every team member has value.
At every level of an organization, people bring to the table their own experiences, skill sets, and unique knowledge of the world.
Whether someone is a secretary, a junior executive, or a partner, their input and suggestions are valid and should be welcome. Whether someone excels at technical work or creative tasks, they should feel they can contribute to the success of their organization.
Rather than push their own employees to fit into a specific idea or mold, a feminist leader figures out where each employee stands out – and then uses their unique skills to the organization’s benefit.
Rather than pushing folks to do work that doesn’t thrill them, a feminist leader tries to redistribute tasks along lines of professional desire.
By shaping their workplaces according to the needs and wants of their team, a feminist leader is subverting the norm of our professional culture that tells us what we need to be in order to succeed.
Instead, feminist leadership is about fostering workplaces where everyone feels valued, fulfilled, and visible.
3. Share Power – And Credit for Work
Feminist leaders need to challenge all kinds of power – whether it’s formal or informal, visible or hidden.
Often, the drive of a workforce is borne of competition.
Folks feel that “power” is limited – and thus, they find themselves fighting with one another to claim it. Rather than support one another or otherwise lift one another up, colleagues often focus more on tearing one another down to make themselves look better or snagging tasks someone else would enjoy more or find more fulfillment in doing because they see those tasks as more important or impressive.
What we’re left with in these workplaces is an environment where people are more focused on getting credit for successes or taking on powerful positions than investing in the long-term success of their team or their organization.
And thus, a cycle begins: The power-hungry come into positions, they reward others who are the same, and the rest of us suffer.
Feminist leadership is about valuing everyone’s contributions – and putting the process over self-importance.
Whereas some leaders might collaborate on a project with their subordinates only to then claim full credit for it, or do whatever it takes to be in a formal position of power over someone else, feminist leaders should be trying to see everyone’s unique contributions in full light and value them equitably.
No task, big or small, is insignificant or should be seen as unworthy of praise and appreciation in an organization guided by the principles of feminism. Whatever people can add to the mix is of value, because everyone is valued.
That means feminist leadership is also about sharing authority and power and making decisions collaboratively.
Feminist leadership rejects the idea of “lone wolf” leaders that our patriarchal culture values so highly.
Instead, feminist leadership is about collective leadership, democratic power structures, and consensus-building. It’s about dismantling hierarchy, not just doing better within one.
Feminist leadership is participatory, inclusive, and horizontal.
Rather than competing for power, folks working with a feminist leader should feel like they have their own tiny bit of authority and agency – and that they’re part of something bigger than themselves.
4. Build Community and Relationships
What if our managers and supervisors were equally concerned about our relationships with one another and our output for our organizations?
What if fostering an awesome workplace was just as important as reaching quarterly goals?
Feminist leadership is about building community and forming relationships that make an organization’s work stronger – whether it’s by forging coalitions, building bonds with potential allies, or even getting to know their adversaries and competitors a little better.
That means building workplaces where diversity and inclusion are cornerstones, and providing everyone – regardless of their age, gender, ability, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or sex – with a work environment that feels safe.
5. Mentor and Empower Your Team at Every Level
Leadership is not inherent. It isn’t natural.
Sure, some of our leadership practices are unique and intuitive to us: Extroverts may find that the public speaking aspects of positions of power are a breeze, for example. But often, good leaders aren’t self-taught.
Instead, they’re mentored and empowered by their colleagues and shaped by their experiences.
Feminist leadership posits that we all have the capability to lead.
It’s a form of leadership that views every contributor or team member or employee as having areas of expertise, thought leadership, and excellence.
And because feminist leadership is about collective power and relationship-building, it requires that folks in positions of power see a large part of their roles as centered around empowering and mentoring those around them.
Patriarchal notions of power pit us against one another. Feminist leadership challenges us to see the best in one another, and help each other to grow and succeed.
Instead of focusing on how high we can climb the corporate ladder, feminist leadership challenges each and every one of us to focus on cultivating the “next generation” of leaders, helping teach one another the skills we’re well-versed in ourselves, and sharing power and opportunity.
Instead of competing amongst ourselves for glory and control, feminist leadership challenges us to share the wealth of knowledge and skills we have with one another for the greater good of what we’re working toward.
Mentorship and empowerment shouldn’t be opportunities that are only within reach for some of us.
That’s why feminist leadership means embracing that each of us can both teach and learn – that within every single one of us is the potential for more greatness and to impart some of that greatness on someone else.
To be a feminist leader in any work environment is revolutionary.
To treat those you oversee with respect, destroy pedestals of power even when they benefit you, and empower the people who shape your success is a far step from the toxic work environments that so often stress us out, burn us out, and keep us down.
Feminist leadership is about challenging ourselves and the people we work alongside to trust one another, support one another, and grow with one another.
And that’s pretty damn powerful, if you ask me.
Carmen Rios is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She splits her time disparately between feminist rabble-rousing, writing, public speaking, and flower-picking. A professional feminist by day and overemotional writer by night, Carmen is currently Communications Coordinator at the Feminist Majority Foundation and the Feminism and Community Editor at Autostraddle. You can follow her on Twitter @carmenriosss and Tumblr to learn more about her feelings.
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