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How ActionAid implemented feminist leadership principles

Patti Whaley

A guest post by Patti Whaley, former Chair of ActionAid UK on how the charity implemented feminist leadership principles.

In 2016 ActionAid UK began developing its new five-year strategy. Our trustees wanted organisational culture to be a key pillar in this strategy, so we decided to implement Feminist Leadership Principles across the organisation. As an organisation focussing on women’s rights and on changing the systemic power imbalances that create poverty, we felt that we should represent the external changes we wanted to create in terms of our internal diversity, culture and behaviours – and this change had to be visible at the governance level.  I was then the board Vice-Chair, and had the opportunity to lead a governance review on what feminist leadership would mean at board level.

There are many definitions of feminist leadership. Broadly it is the explicit redistribution of power and responsibility in a way that is inclusive, participatory, and mindful of issues of gender, race, social class, sexual orientation and ability. Feminist leadership is about establishing cooperation instead of competition, and building on the ideas and skills of the whole group rather than the leadership of one or a few powerful individuals.

A key part of this process was developing our Feminist Leadership Principles.  As far as we are aware, feminist leadership has never been implemented across an organisation of our size and complexity, and we have needed to write our own instruction book.  This process was led by the staff, with the support of the board, and resulted in a list of “top ten behaviours” supported by more detailed suggestions of “Do’s and don’ts”.

The Principles are, on the surface, straightforward and common sense – so much so that the question sometimes arises, why are they feminist? Must we use that alienating “F word” at all?

Calling the principles “feminist” reminds us why we are going down this path.  We are not saying that women must be first, or that we want to blame men.  We are reminding ourselves that we are trying to change a system that is built on historic privilege, and that only by acknowledging that privilege can we begin to change it.  We seek to change it not just for women, but for everyone who has been excluded, whether because of race, class, sexuality, disability, or other aspects of identity.  Because systemic privilege is least visible to those who possess it, we need to continually remind ourselves. By using the term “feminist,” we reaffirm our commitment to actively use our power in a more inclusive way. In short, we do not aim to be “better”, we aim to be transformational.  Without that ongoing commitment to acknowledge and change existing power structures, the Principles will still be good management tools — but they will not be transformational.

By this time, I had become the board Chair, and was able to try a number of practical techniques to implement the Principles in board meetings. These included:

  • Different ways of chairing discussion to subvert the influence of the first or more forceful speakers: having everyone write down their own thoughts before anyone spoke; going around the table to gather responses from everyone; encouraging everyone to speak before anyone spoke a second time.
  • Defining what “respectful listening” means to us, actively checking in with that understanding at the beginning of every meeting, and avoiding predatory listening.
  • Working on how to disagree more effectively – using disagreement to ensure that we have fully explored issues and associated risks, and have heard all sides of the argument before we come to a conclusion.

As Chair, it was reassuring to see the more ebullient members of the group start to deliberately hold back to let quieter members have a say.

Our board used the board management software Convene, which allows trustees to log comments and questions in advance of meetings.  Although using Convene was not originally related to the Feminist Principles, it emerged that newer trustees found it helpful to see what questions other trustees had.  It gave them more confidence in raising their own questions, and inadvertently helped to equalise discussion among more and less experienced trustees.

We are now fully committed to the Feminist Leadership Principles.  This doesn’t mean we are finished!  It’s an ongoing process, and we still have a lot to learn.  For example, the financial power of ActionAid UK within the international ActionAid federation means that we must pay close attention to how we exercise our power relative to other ActionAid members.  But this, too, mirrors the change that we are trying to bring about in the larger world, and we can learn from that.  Although my term as an ActionAid board member has come to an end, I have already begun to apply what I learned in my other board roles.  I hope you will find them useful in your own organisation.

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