The image of a leader is typically associated with that of a man. Someone who works towards a larger mission or a goal while motivating others to share that goal and work towards it. This person is typically imagined in a corporate setting, separate from any notion of the economic, social or political scenario around him. Very few questions are usually asked about the status quo and about management and leadership through the male gaze.
On the other hand feminist leadership – as defined by Srilatha Batliwala – is a dynamic quality that enables people to live their lives as they choose, with dignity and with sensitivity to everyone’s choices and decisions. It functions on the assumption that leadership should be a process through which women assert their rights through continued evaluation of their experiences, their roles in society, existing power structures and working towards social change.
However, one should keep in mind that simply having a woman in a leadership position implies that she does not espouse feminist leadership principles. More often than not, women in such leadership positions would have had to fight tooth and nail to get to those positions, often finding themselves in situations where they have had to hide their feminism and conform to patriarchal notions of power to retain those positions.
Batliwala also mentions the need to differentiate between ‘feminist’ leadership and ‘feminine’ leadership. She quotes Bernice Lott as she points out that feminine leadership works on an essentialist categorisation of women as nurturing, caring, supportive etc., without addressing power imbalances and women’s lack of access to positions of authority. This pandemic has brought with it changes to each of our lives – both personal and professional. As lockdown rules and social distancing guidelines have been put in place, our work lives have taken a hit. And now more than ever, it has become important to look at the ways in which our organisations and leadership function.
The focus so far has been on public health and mitigating the economic impact of the pandemic. We have all been urged by our PM, to keep the future of our society and our nation in mind, and soldier on through this period of uncertainty. But, what if leaders of all stripes, from diverse sectors, started to follow the kinds of feminist leadership approaches that have been championed by activists from all over the world for decades. How might this type of leadership help us to navigate our way through these splintered, uncertain times?
Response to COVID 19
While a few of us have had the fortune of working with organisations that are able to sustain their operations with “Work From Home” policies, not everyone has had the same luck. This pandemic has seen some of the top organisations pull out at all stops to adapt to it with an infrastructure that supports a virtual workforce, leaders that are sensitised to pardon any “mistakes” made in this difficult time and activities – meditation, counselling, chai breaks – that help keep the morale up. Companies that function on the labour of the gig economy (Uber, Ola, Grofers, Zomato etc) continue to function with a smaller workforce and with guidelines to uphold social distancing requirements. Cab hailing company Ola, has even encouraged its employees to dedicate four hours of their daily schedule for housework.
Through all of this, it has also been acknowledged that the leaders of these companies are currently functioning in uncharted territories while managing their virtual workforce. So, guidelines have been published by numerous platforms on how to keep team members happy and engaged as they keep operations going – i.e., get better at running virtual meetings; be courageous; stay positive; remember that ‘from crisis comes opportunity. However, this means very little in a country where 90% of the people are involved in the informal economy. With a drastic fall in working hours across all sectors, smaller companies and startups have had to impose pay-cuts, unpaid leaves and resignations on its employees.
Everyone accepts that these are “difficult times”, so much so that we’ve incorporated it into our repertoire for small talk – ( “so, how is everyone holding up during these difficult times?”). There is also a cursory nod towards the “societal implications” of the pandemic. However, there seems to be very little that has been done/said to address these societal implications.
There have been very little efforts taken to meet peoples basic needs with respect to survival and their protection from infection, curfews and lockdowns were imposed with very little warning and a very high degree of police brutality with very little acknowledgement to what this means for specific groups of people within society.
With the closure of schools and an alert to take care of the elderly, we seem to have fallen back on the cushion of gendered norms that make it the responsibility of the women to look after the physical and mental health of all family members, in addition to the household chores and getting on periodic zoom calls. With more than 94% of Indian women employed in the informal sector, and women having been paid less historically, women stand to bear a disproportionate brunt of the repercussions this crisis will bring about.
Apart from the periodic reminder to pitch in with your share of the household work, the measures taken by the state and the organisations so far cater largely to a minuscule portion of the population and remains blind to the rest.
Why Feminist Leadership?
Feminist leadership understands that we are only as safe & empowered as the vulnerable among us. Identifying the vulnerable requires us to dissect economic, social and political systems that produces and maintains such structural inequalities. Feminist leadership would facilitate this process by allowing us to recognise and address asymmetrical and undemocratic power relations within ourselves and organisations.
As we find ourselves more reliant on the care (for ourselves and from others), our ability to afford this care for ourselves and provide it to others becomes political no matter how personal we might argue that it is. A feminist leadership helps question such a system that tells us that certain groups of people are entitled to care, while others continue to remain a mere afterthought.
It also makes us question whether we are accountable to various groups and communities within our organisations and if the policies we have adopted during such times are genuinely appropriate to the needs of the women and other vulnerable groups within our organisation. So, within the context of COVID-19, it would mean questioning the practices that make the informal labour undertaken in each organisation invisible, and take cognisance of the various intersecting identities that face unique forms of burden within the organisation.
To be clear, I am not advocating feminist leadership as the way out of this crisis, I am advocating for it as a way of life beyond this crisis.
Ever since this lockdown has been imposed, we have woken up each day to hear stories of people battling it out to survive the consequences of a hastily imposed lockdown – migrant labourers have been stranded across the country, women have been saddled with the disproportionate burden of the care work, women and children being locked in with their abusers, hatred being spewed along with religious and communal biases, exclusion of transgender people from lockdown guidelines and many many more. Our beloved PM keeps touting that COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language, or border (he forgot gender), and he is right. However, we all know that our response to this disease is most certainly fractured along these lines.
A few days ago, it was announced that the lockdown would be extended to May 3rd. Along with this, guidelines were specified as to how various sections of the economy would resume work. While the term agricultural labour, daily wage earners, and protection measures are deployed liberally in these guidelines, basic questions regarding the safety of women, the plight of migrant workers and smaller establishments still remain unanswered. Not to mention, the insurmountable risk of infection people will be putting themselves in (without access to proper protection equipment) on attempting to restart the economy.
Adopting feminist principles of leadership within our personal lives, and our organisations ultimately allow to question large scale policies that support what is perceived to be the creme de la creme of the economy while offering almost negligible support to the smaller enterprises and informal labourers that hold them up.
Featured Image Source: World Bank Group