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Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

How do we bring a feminist lens to governance?

Dec 13, 2023 | Commentary, Leadership, Opinion, Gender, First Person, Feature

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What does it mean to bring a feminist lens to governance? A comprehensive new publication edited by Marian Sawer, Lee Ann Banaszak, Jacqui True, and Johanna Kantola has brought together contributions to explore this question. Written in the middle of our first Covid winter, the process of co-authoring a chapter on feminist governance in the context of advocacy and service delivery was a source of joy.

Our chapter drew together Srilatha Batilwala, Michelle Deshong, Jess Horn, Tanja Kovac, Naomi Woyengu, and myself and evolved through a series of conversations that enabled us to develop personal rapport and intellectual curiosity as we mined our myriad experiences of working in feminist movements for a collective 170 years among us.

At the Melbourne launch of the book this year, I was asked to kick off a panel discussion with the question, “What are the common threads facing feminist organisations grappling with feminist governance?” It’s a question I’ve been grappling with in the context of my own board work recently, and before I turned to the question of the threads, I realised it was important to root my comments in an ethos of care.

And to encourage individuals and organisations to embark on their exploration of feminist governance with kindness. Organisations are individuals in collective form and so the journey requires kindness to self, the others that are with you, and the others that are yet to be convinced that there is such a thing as feminist governance (or that, even if it does exist, that it is a good thing).

Feminist governance, like feminist leadership, is grounded in the recognition that the personal is political. That how you are in the world and how you are perceived in the world is as much a part of a feminist governance practice as the systems and mechanisms that let you explore feminist governance.

So, how you turn up, and how you meet others as they turn up, and how you bring compassion for the journeys we all are on is a critical component. There are very few of us in the world that have not been affected by trauma – which we may or may not have processed. And it comes out in all sorts of ways – often unconscious.

So kindness – it is important as a baseline for how we meet ourselves and others in conversations and actions. I think one of my biggest failures as a leader has been to fail to meet people – myself included – where they are, rather than where I hoped I or they might be. It’s taken time and therapy to get to that realisation.

Woman hands holding pink heart.

Caroline believes kindness is essential in leadership. Picture: Adobe Stock 

And I can only hold on to it firmly because I hold both myself and the folks I failed with a form of compassion that has firm edges – not ones that bleed all over you, but slightly harder edges that enable us to bring radical self-responsibility and accountability – to self and others – into the frame as well.

Kindness is also important because, even if the organisation we are engaged in has solid roots in social justice and feminist movements, we operate in a world that is still dominated by a particular form of power – the power of white, straight, able bodied, cis-gendered, male, educated humans. Efforts to transform our own practices are fundamentally informed by the legal and regulatory systems that authorise particular organisational structures, and by “social norms” that simultaneously authorise and de-authorise the stories we tell about which gender is competent to hold power and what their leadership can look like.

In our chapter we argued that feminist governance needs to expand ideas of the who, what and how of leadership – which is hard, because the money that makes organisations work comes with strings of increasingly mono-cultural forms of governance: a board, a CEO, staff on the rungs below – old-school patriarchal hierarchies.

It becomes important to consciously name and acknowledge the power dynamics – particularly the “power over” dynamic of mainstream governance – and move towards “power with” through, for example, models of co-leadership. To grapple with who is at the heart of our accountability models and expand from a focus on the funders and regulators to center the communities we serve.

We need to reframe risk: in a period of perma-crisis we need to reframe risk as a matter of course, but in feminist organisations where we exist to challenge the status quo, our understanding of risk must inherently be different – because to exist and persist is a risk. We suggested that our reframing of risk collectivise responses – grounding in what the Urgent Action Fund Asia and Pacific call webs of safety and care: evolving practices that enable you to get savvy with risk, and get the supports in place ahead of time.

We asserted the importance of reframing time – of pausing to unpack difficulties and to learn from failure as much as success (to adapt the words of Adrienne Maree Brown, to work at the pace of trust). And finally, we talked about valuing and incorporating an ethic of care – to engage politically and practically in what it means to bring both productive (paid) and reproductive (unpaid) labour to the world – and to recognise, as the UN Women’s Treaty asks us to, that reproductive labour is not just about caring for children or family members, but its also about caring for community.

A final point, and perhaps the most important point, this question exists beyond feminist organisations. Indeed, I think the harder work is how to bring principles of feminist governance into organisations that either have embraced the mainstreaming of feminism but are still inherently patriarchal (and just an aside, that can be the case for so-called feminist organisations as well) or to bring principles of feminist governance into an organisation that goes “what” to feminism?

  • Picture at top: Adobe Stock 
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Dr Caroline Lambert is currently an independent consultant working locally and globally, with a particular focus on feminist organisational development and leadership. She has a sideline interest in feminist economic insights into the gender stories of paid and unpaid work.

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