Sabita Rani a lady from southern Bangladesh leads her village group whilst sitting crossed legged in a circle with village group members. Photo credit: Turjoy Chowdhury/ActionAid

Why we need to radically reimagine leadership to achieve gender equality.

By Srabani Sen OBE, CEO and Founder, Full Colour and Chair of Trustees of ActionAid UK

Gender equality matters. You know that right? Not just morally. Not just because all of the world’s people have a right to live on equal terms. Equality has a critical impact on whether economies and societies thrive. It is key to realising the UN Sustainable Development Goals and bringing about a fairer, more resilient future for us all. Mountains of research proves gender equality makes businesses more successful and profitable.

So why is progress towards greater gender quality so glacially slow?

The World Economic Forum states that at the current rate of progress we are 257 years away from closing the gap on women’s economic equality. Not even your grandchildren’s grandchildren will reap the benefits. Covid-19 has further deepened existing inequalities. Decades of hard-won progress is in jeopardy.

The scale of the challenge can feel overwhelming, leaving many shrinking from the task in fear and self-doubt. The way we talk about gender equality can also be a barrier to change. The debates around gender often focus on addressing unequal power structures, the need to deal with our own biases, and for those in power, the need to relinquish some of what we have.

What we don’t often talk about is how to motivate change. Few of the solutions address a fundamental question – what’s in it for those currently in power to change?Before you scroll away thinking you’ve heard it all before – pause. Maybe this article will surprise you…Before you scroll away thinking you’ve heard it all before – pause. Maybe this article will surprise you…

The evidence points to gender equality bringing massive benefits – to society, to economies, to companies. But these benefits feel very distant from our day to day lives. How do we personalise these benefits to inspire us to act? What would gender equality mean for your daughters, your sisters, your nieces, your granddaughters? What would it mean for your companies’ profits, share of the market, ability to develop profitable products and services? And what would that company success mean to your bonuses?

Too often the debates around gender equality imply it is up to “them” to make change happen. Let me bring you in on a secret. You are the agent of change, along with the person sitting next to you and everyone around you.

I have recently become the Chair of Trustees at ActionAid UK, an international charity that works with women and girls living in poverty. One of the things that drew me to the organisation was that we operate on the basis of what we call feminist leadership principles. It is the golden thread running through all we do and how we do it. ActionAid UK is living proof that working through the principles of equality leads to success. For example, despite the pandemic we have continued to deliver with and for women and girls without slowing down; and when many not-for-profits have had to shrink in size, our income has remained stable.

What do we mean by feminist leadership? Broadly it is about changing the way power works within the organisation and making the most of diverse voices, talent and perspectives. It is about collaborating, while keeping a fierce focus on our mission. It is about leadership that actively empowers others to lead, building power with others rather than over them. It is about embracing a journey of continual improvement and not expecting perfection from our colleagues. In practical terms it shapes how we make decisions, problem solve, manage risk, support our staff and fellow board members to be the best versions of themselves they can be. At its heart, feminist leadership principles are about harnessing equality to drive organisational excellence.

Working this way is not always easy. I had a fairly traditional leadership journey, achieving a number of CEO and Chair roles in the NGO sector before setting up Full Colour. Feminist leadership principles constantly challenge how I think and do things. But gosh, is it worth it! It makes “doing” the leadership role fizz with energy. Who wouldn’t want that?

To find out more, check out our Feminist Leadership Principles.

If you are a leader reading this, at whatever level in your organisation – try it out. The personal benefits you’ll reap (being a more effective and successful leader) are countless. The ripple effects you will see will be surprising and exciting – effects on you, your organisation, the people around you in your families and communities. This is how we will achieve the big scale societal gender equality we crave. It starts with you.

Give it a go. You’ll never look back. And your grandchildren will thank you.

Srabani Sen OBE is CEO and Founder of equality, diversity, inclusion and leadership consultancy Full Colour and Chair of Trustees of ActionAid UK

Share this story

Leave a Reply