Gender Equality Week – let human beings, be
Earlier this week, the European Parliament kicked off the third Gender Equality Week, including a series of events tackling issues ranging from equal pay to domestic violence. One of the aims of the Parliament is to empower women in the job market, and to ensure equal access to leadership positions. Which got me to thinking about my own privilege, but also about the challenges that come with being a woman in a leadership position – even today, anno 2022.
It came back to me how, when I had just started my role at Philea two years ago, the opening question of most interviews I was invited to give was ‘how does it feel to be the first female CEO of this organisation?’ Probably to the disappointment of the interviewers, my answer had to be that I had not applied for the specific position of female CEO – but just for the role of CEO, and that I had no clue what it would be like to be a male CEO.
This being said, it is true that as is the case in many sectors – including the non-profit sector – the large proportion of female staff across the workforce is not reflected proportionately at the top. While more and more women around me are gradually taking on leadership roles, I imagine many of them get asked the same question as I: ‘how does it feel to be the first female CEO of this organisation?’
This is especially true if they are still relatively young, and if their leadership style is one that could be labelled as “feminist leadership”: a concept developed and practised mainly by women’s movements in the Global South. It is a leadership style that can be practiced by people of any gender, but that shares a desire to create alternatives to traditional, hierarchical leadership and organisational cultures.
For me, personally, one of the most relevant features of this style of leadership is its desire to have an intentional and compassionate recognition of the fact that every person in my team is more than their job description – and that the skills and behaviours they have developed as a mother, a father, a carer, an amateur athlete, a member of a minority group, also add value to the perspective that they bring to work. And it is therefore my duty to help protect that.
This, however, is easier said than done, and while the concepts of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are higher on the agenda now than they were when I started my first job 20 years ago, the recognition that we don’t all have the same starting position in life is far from being acquired. And as we know, the pandemic, which has affected every part of our lives, has also had a negative impact on the progress made over the past decades on gender equalities. It has affected, in particular, working mothers, black women, senior level women executives, with one in every four women with high responsibility thinking about dialling back their job responsibilities, as it once again turned out to be so difficult to combine family and work.
For me, personally, as a woman in a leadership position, this is and has for the past 12 years – when my eldest son was born – definitely been the most difficult part of being a woman in the workforce, or a female CEO.
While I have struggled at times with the structural barriers, institutional and individual mind-sets that lead to being one of the only women at the table, what has challenged me most is the fact that going home after a long day, my most important job is just beginning: that of being a mother. As much as I can, I refuse to choose between being a mother and being a CEO. I believe a world should be possible in which I can do both. I believe a world where women can do both has the potential to be a better world. One that is more inclusive, and allows for diverse views. One that has a better chance at getting closer to achieving the SDGs. One that will help the advancement of human rights, including, in particular, the protection of children and minorities.
And we are not yet there. Based on my personal experience, more changes are needed in the workforce to achieve this. And while the pandemic negatively affected equalities, I believe it should be possible to use our collective experiment of working from home as an opportunity to have that intentional and compassionate recognition of the fact that every person in our team is more than their job description, which as I said before, is one of the key features I value in feminist leadership.
I applaud the fact that, during the pandemic, small children crawled onto the lap of their parents during important zoom calls. I too have allowed my children to come on screen, and while in the past I had often chosen to hide in a room far away from them while in conference calls, I now invite them to come and say hello to my colleagues. With that I remind them – at least I hope – that I am a human being and that it’s ok for them to be one too.
Let’s hang on to that normality of being a human being even now that office work has once again become part of our routine. Let’s hang on to the fact that fathers too have other responsibilities at home, and that by taking on these responsibilities as well, they allow their wives to progress at work. As I am writing these words, my husband is at home with my sick child. And for gender equality in the workforce to be normalised, I would wish for all fathers to feel respected in the workplace too, when doing their part.
Moving away from my personal plea, I’d like to end by referring back to the work of Philea. Philanthropic organisations are keenly investing in DEI, and we all know it is a journey rather than a destination. Gender equality is one of the many areas of work our members cover, and one of the ways in which we support this, is by hosting a network of funders actively engaged in the gender equality space. And that is great. What would however be even greater, would be to see a gender dimension mainstreamed structurally in organisational policies, practices and cultures. It will take all of us, men, women and other genders to make this come true.