Is there a difference between being a woman and a feminist in the workplace? What about feminist leadership? There is no doubt that women belong on the job no matter the job: construction, business, engineering, media, academia—plus everything they (we!) set our minds to. But there is more to be said about creating an equitable division of labor in the workplace. Join Debra and lisa as they dig into what feminist leadership looks like.
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Straight Talk On Feminist Leadership
It’s Deborah and lisa here tackling what is going to be a fun and interesting topic about what we need more of in our world now. Was it female leaders occupying spaces or feminist leaders? This is an idea that came to me probably a few months back now. I’m doing research for other show topics that we were talking about as we met some women along the way and had lots of interesting discussions.
I began to think about what it would have meant to so many women, including me, to have more female role models, support, and representation, and what that might’ve meant to us in our lives and careers. I began to grapple with this idea a little bit about what’s the difference between being a female leader and being a feminist leader.
Admittedly, I am not an expert in feminism. I’m not a scholarly reader of feminist theory. I know that. It’s an area where I felt a bit of nervousness around even talking about it or using the word. Not so much now. I’m getting over it, but throughout most of my adult life, it wasn’t a language I was using very much. How about you?
As we were talking about doing this episode, I recalled what I would call my year of ‘peak feminism’, which was in 1990. This was the year after fourteen women were gunned down in Montreal in the engineering school, Université de Montréal. That was part—it wasn’t so much that triggered it, but at that time, ’89 to ’90 was when I was living in Vancouver, Canada. I was working at a feminist bookstore, probably calling myself feminist. I was writing for a feminist newspaper.
I was politically active. It was the first time in my life that I’d ever seen people picketing outside of an abortion clinic, the first day I got to Vancouver. I was around 25. It was a time, so it activated in me a desire, partly born out of the injustice of it all to learn more about feminism. I’d taken a course years before in women’s studies when I was a student in Montreal. I realized now, more particularly, that I was very influenced by American feminism, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Angela Davis, and women who were writing at the time.
Apart from Angela Davis, it was a white Western idea of what feminism meant and what it was. Over the years, I’ve evolved from that early younger self, but I still feel deeply committed to the ideals of feminism. This is an apropos topic for us because it’s not in necessarily being a woman that we advanced feminist causes, but it’s an adopting a feminist mindset. I know that’s what we’re going to be digging into.
Where you’re going with that is that one does not have to be born into a girl’s body to have a feminist mindset. That is important. I’ve also heard it talked about as feminist principles. Why don’t we dig into that a little bit more? What does that mean to us? What does that mean to you about those feminist ideals or feminist principles? What does that mean for leadership? It’s important that we continue to have women advance into positions of influence, leadership, and areas that have been traditionally male-dominated. That is happening now.
One does not have to be born into a woman’s body to have a feminist mindset.
Arguably, it’s probably happened at a slower pace. A lot of us would have thought over the course of our careers in the last years. There was a real push around the time that you were describing when you were in your twenties, and then it seemed to go away for a long time. Now, I’m seeing more focus on this. It could be stated that, in some ways, there have been some steps back when we look at what’s happening globally, especially what’s happening in Afghanistan now. What’s happening in the United States around abortion is becoming huge.
This is unraveling as we have this session. It’s certainly still hugely important, and there’s so much more work to be done. There have been a ton of firsts, which we can talk a little bit more about, but there’s a lot more to come. Let’s start with this. What does that mean by feminist principles mean? What does it mean to you?
Primarily, feminism is born in a place of challenging the traditional ideas of women’s place in the social and economic sphere. Women have traditionally been told that we’re good at certain things like childcare, cooking, and keeping the home fires burning. I know I’m being incredibly reductionist when I say that. It was that women’s sphere was the home, and men were the political and economic sphere. I’m talking largely about Western cultures. Although, there’s a fair bit of history throughout the planet of women being subjugated to roles of dependence.
The whole idea behind marriage was that a woman was property. When she married, and the dad walked the daughter down the aisle, the tradition was to pass on the ownership of the daughter from the father to the husband. We have long traditions in many different areas of our lives that have entrenched ideas about women’s place in society. Ultimately, what feminism says is we reject this. There’s nothing inherent about me having the particular body identify as a woman, that particular body or reproductive organs that make me have particular aptitudes to do things that are more menial.
I’ll talk about this in a little bit around women in the workplace and how we’re often expected to do the tasks which are called non-promotable, the office varieties, and all of that. I will add one thing here. To me, when I think of feminism as a model of leadership versus a female leader, it’s the idea of moving away from power over, which is a more paternalistic patriarchal idea of leadership, to power with. We’re together. We’re collaborating and leading from a place of the collective. We’re championing the diversity of all voices. That is what it means to step into work, leadership, advocacy, and activism from a feminist perspective.
That’s an interesting point. I want to say that we don’t want to suggest that everybody needs to become an advocate that’s protesting in the streets per se. Feminist leadership and feminist principles are about trying to lean into understanding systemic issues that we do have systems, structures, and built-in biases that have made it much more difficult for certain people to rise through the ranks and to appreciate that we were all going to be better off when we bring this into greater balance.
Feminist leadership is looking for opportunities to dismantle some of those structures, bring more awareness, and bring other people along who have been marginalized by those systemic issues. When you mentioned power over, that’s also important because inherent in the systems we have been working with so far is a very traditional masculine approach to power and leadership that is domineering and aggressive.
We’ve taken that as the way things are. That is what leadership looks like. That’s the way we do things. Many of the women who have made it through those systems and structures did adopt those behaviors. What choice did they have? Otherwise, it would have been pretty tough. We are eternally grateful for those women who pushed through. I’m thinking of a number of women over the years I’ve met or worked with who made it through fields like engineering and who were in financial services and capital markets.
They paved the way, and it wasn’t always easy. Would I call them feminist leaders? Not necessarily, but I don’t want to take away from the hugely important role that those women have played in paving the way, even though they might have been tough people to be around. You and I have both heard people say that they’ve had a challenging time with some female bosses in the past. The last thing I’ll say before I flip it back to you is that the trend in leadership now where the science and the newest thinking in terms of leadership is this idea of leadership as power with versus power over. It also turns out to be the best way to lead.
I find this often a moot point when people talk about the distinction between management and leadership because any role that you have as a leader also has some managerial aspects to it. What we do and have done, and we’re starting to see some shifts that are influenced by feminism, is that you manage projects, schedules, and budgets, but you lead people. People are not to be managed. To me, that’s an idea whose time has come and gone.
When you look at the period of time around COVID, the beginnings, the sequels, and the middle (because I’m hoping that what we’re feeling and living now is a bit of an end or at least a transition to living with the virus), is that the countries that we’re doing the best on this were led by women, like Angela Merkel in Germany and Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, who were taking accountability for appropriate decision-making. I’m flipping gears here, but it’s not necessarily that women are better leaders because they are women. One of our favorite people you and I follow on LinkedIn, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, wrote the piece If Women Are Better Leaders, Then Why Are They Not In Charge?.
This comes back to incredibly powerful systems that have kept women out. I recall not even that many years ago that there was a gentleman’s club in Toronto where I had been asked to do facilitation, and there were two entrances to it. I asked, when I was in there, like, “How come they’re two front doors?” What was explained to me that, up until the ’70s, the one door was the women’s entrance because the women couldn’t go through the front door. We have these systems that have been in place…
To be clear, it wasn’t the 1870s. It was the 1970s.
I was alive when these things were in place. When you talked a moment ago about women excelling in different fields, there was not an even playing field to start with. Women have had to push, and endure, and have things thrown at them, like resistance to women getting an education, going into medicine, all types of things. Not only was it that women intelligent and desired to do these things, but they had to fight against these systemic societal forces that had been put in place by patriarchal institutions and places of higher learning, etc.
Let’s celebrate everything that everybody finds important in their lives.
As you said, I’m grateful to both women that we know and women who’ve come before us because a lot has been done so that people like you and I are in a far better position than our mothers and grandmothers were. I did say at the beginning that I wanted to mention this. This was the article I saw in the Financial Times about these women who realized that they weren’t advancing in their careers as quickly as men. They sat down and tried to figure out, “Why is it?”
They came up with a list of what they called the non-promotable tasks, NPTs. Non-promotable tasks are the things like organizing a colleague leaving the present, being on a committee for the United Way campaign, or upskilling an intern. These are things that are not going to be seen by the leaders of the organization, the people who make ideas or make decisions around promotion, as things that are going to drive your career.
There’s nothing inherent about a woman’s pair of hands better at washing dishes than a man’s pair of hands. At least, I’ve yet to see the evidence on this. Women often end up in these tasks. What’s been interesting is the research shows if you have a group of men who have had some event, the men will naturally figure out what to do, and they will do it. As soon as you have a mixed-gender group in the workplace, the men will leave at the end of the event. The women will step in and do the tidying up and the cleaning.
One of the things that they say in this particular article is that men will step away from unrewarded and non-promotable work. It says here in the data that the median that women spend in a year on these non-promotable tasks at work is about 200 hours, a month of extra dead-end work in your career. This is a real issue. Why again? When we talk about feminism, it’s not about making the men do the dishes. Let’s talk about an equitable division of labor in the workplace for things that we’re all a part of.
I have lived that. I’ve seen that happen. An organization I worked with a couple of times a year would host events for clients in their space. For many years, I saw this play out that a whole bunch of the women in the organization with various roles, which wasn’t necessarily our job, would set up for the event and deal with the catering. The food was prepared, but there was so much extra work to do. Who was all in the kitchen at the end of the evening, tidying up, organizing, putting all the furniture back?
It was so fascinating to me to see this completely divided down gender lines where all the women were doing those things. Here’s the thing. I fell into it because I didn’t want to be an asshole. I don’t want to look at all my female colleagues doing this work, and I’m going to be like, “See you later.” It had always bothered me, and it was never openly discussed.
You’re reminding me of something else that I’m probably not going to get much applause for this, but I will say it anyway. It’s from someone who never had children. It was the times in my career when there was a baby shower, or somebody was getting married. We were all invited to chip in. These are great things to celebrate. I’m not dismissing that these are powerful things, but nobody threw any party for me over the course of my career until I was leaving, and it was my goodbye party.
The accomplishments that I had that were non-traditional female roles were never appreciated and celebrated. I sound judge-y about it, but I’m not. To me, these are cultural things that show up in organizations. A feminist organization celebrates everybody’s accomplishments, whether they’re popping out babies, getting a Master’s degree, starting a side hustle, or putting their kids through university. Let’s celebrate everything that everybody finds important in their lives. Let’s dial down these traditional celebrations that reinforce what we think is important as a society because everybody’s contribution is important regardless of what that is.
It’s a good point. I hadn’t thought of it that way before. Feminist leadership is about being a change agent. We talked a little bit about power. I know you had some things to say about that. Power is a tough one for me. We talked a bit about power with versus power over. Female expression of power is a tricky area. Did you have anything else that you wanted to talk about with regards to that?
I would add that we have a very narrow definition of power. Power can be nuanced. It can be subtle. It can be deeply tactful. It can be applied in some instances and not others. It’s also the value that we give, who, in fact, has the power. I was reading something. It was about how we often dismiss the power or the people wielding power based on hierarchy and status. We automatically assume that because somebody is higher up in an organization, their words are more meaningful, and their opinion is more important.
It was an Amy Edmondson’s The Fearless Organization. In the notion of hierarchy, we need people in decision-making positions in order to call the shots to some extent. For a large part of our history and organizational life, those people have been men. We lose out a lot when a small group of people in powerful positions are making the decisions if we expand our idea of power to think like, “Who has some knowledge and some interest in this? Who can contribute to a decision in the best interests of all of us?” That changes our definition of power from being a position or a role that you carry in an organization.
I can tell you… once you walk out the door and are unemployed or retired, that status is gone. Let’s look at ourselves as a powerful group of people in the workplace who can make things happen as opposed to the boss calling the shots, and the boss is the wisest. We talk about psychological safety in the workplace. It gets often feels unsafe to say what’s on your mind.
With women, there was lots of research on, whether you call it Imposter syndrome or being told to be a good girl your whole life, that they often don’t feel comfortable speaking up in these hierarchical organizations or power structures. To me, it’s about expanding what we believe the power to be, how we define power and start changing our notions of what it means to contribute to an organization, its goals, mission, and vision. That’s my final word on power.
It’s asking women to be courageous. I don’t think that’s only true of feminist leaders. Any woman who’s pushing has pushed her way into spaces where she’s one of very few, if not the only woman. I have a friend. She’s only in her 40s, and she’s an architect. When she started architecture school of 100 people in the program, she was 1 of 10 women. There’s still a long way to go. I’ll use a couple of examples, like the construction industry or engineering field. What we’ve realized is that when women started to go into these types of programs, that work was done. Women are going there now. Now we’re okay. It’s going to all be fine.
Let’s look at ourselves as a powerful group of people in the workplace who can make things happen.
What was not taken into account? What were those environments going to be like for women? That’s where we’ve realized, “There are all these systemic things happening,” and some outright blatant #MeToo thing and some blatant sexual harassment and discrimination too. Some of it is very subtle. Some of it is pretty in your face. We’ve realized there’s a lot going on in work environments that we need to be aware of to make these spaces more safe and welcoming places where we don’t have to put on our armor every day to go into the workplace. That’s what I mean by that courageousness. It has taken a great deal of courage.
The other thing I wanted to add to this in terms of what I think about when I think of feminist leadership and feminist principles is the idea that when we think about the traits that we consider more traditionally feminine. Empathy may be one of them, compassion perhaps, caring. We realize that those things have a great deal of value. They have not had value in an economic sense. My theory on that is largely because traditionally and historically, most of that work has been provided for free by women because they did not have the option as you spoke to in the beginning.
They didn’t have the opportunities. There were relegated to those roles. Now, what we’re realizing is caring for your house, preparing food, cooking, caring for children, teaching them, parenting, caring for elderly people, showing up, being able to help people who are suffering from health issues, mental health challenges, and socio-economic issues where I’m thinking of social work.
These professions have been grossly undervalued. What I think part of feminist leadership is also understanding that even if we want to lean into all those more feminine attributes, they’re not worthless. If you have to start paying someone to do all of those things and want good quality care, you’re going to realize how valuable that is to you quickly.
One of my perpetual gripes is that many restaurants are run by chefs, these ego-personality chefs. Women are cooking, and I have a huge generalization caveat. Women have been cooking meals for children and their families their entire lives, and men coming home from work. When a man cooks, there’s the celebrity aspect to it. You can think about a woman as a kindergarten teacher versus a tenured male professor in an engineering school. You can look at any of these things, which could be considered the more nurturing and caring. When men take it on as a profession, it’s exalted, but what women do for free it’s not valued in the same way.
I would argue. It’s probably more important to take care of children well than 21-year-old university students, but that’s a little bias that I’m sharing there. I want to say something because I had thought about it in our conversation. I didn’t call it out. We’re talking about women, feminism, and trans women. I want to call out also women of colour who face this intersectionality of not only being a woman and being treated poorly as women, generally or it can be in the workplace. Particularly in non-traditional workplaces, but also face the added stress and often bigotry and prejudice for being a person of colour. There is some other stuff that we’re not touching on in this conversation that is at play for many women in the workplace and on this planet.
In preparation for this episode, I was googling firsts for women in the year 2021, which is the year that we’ve completed. There were a number of articles that came up that listed anywhere between 21 to 22. There were a number of things that talked about firsts for women. I won’t go through them all. I could name a few.
Kamala Harris is an obvious one, the first female Vice President in the United States but also the first Black and first South Asian American to hold that position. There’s a ton more. There’s so much there. Many of those examples were American. One Canadian example is Mary Simon, who became Canada’s first indigenous Governor-General.
This is a broad list that crosses politics and sports. There were a couple of women who became officials in the NFL. It crosses politics, businesses, you name it, across the gamut. A lot of these women are in their 50s. They’re getting these opportunities later in life, which makes sense, especially if they were moms.
Maybe that slowed things down. For any woman, it’s usually a long road and takes more time. A lot of these women are coming to things later in life. One great example of that is a woman named Wally Funk, who was on the New Shepard Rocket in July at the age of 82, making her the oldest person to ever go to space.
Before that, she was the first female Federal Aviation Administration Inspector and the first female Air Safety Inspector at the National Transportation Safety Board. There are lots of young women too, who are doing amazing things. I want to bring that up because, although there are things happening in our culture and around the world, I’ve had moments watching the news where it’s been tough to watch some of this stuff, but women are doing those firsts.
The other point I want to make about that is there are so many more firsts to come. Women of all ages are doing them. I’m so excited to see what the next 10 to 20 years bring because the generations coming behind us, and I’ll call it Millennial women, are going to start doing amazing things and breaking this stuff wide open.
I’m excited to see what’s going to happen when we get to a tipping point, especially in education. Women are already outpacing men. Architecture is a great example. There are more women, first-year architects in schools for the most part, at least here in Canada, than there are men. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens.
Bring it, sisters. We’re waiting to applaud you all.
Anything else before we wrap?
I want to acknowledge where I touched on women of our mother or grandmother’s generations. They would’ve loved to have had the opportunities you and I have had. I recall a conversation once with my mother. Later in life, when I was a teenager, she went back to work. She was working in education. She said, “The things I could have done if I hadn’t raised a family.” She didn’t say it in a way that was about like, “Look what you took away from me, you ungrateful children.” At least I didn’t hear it that way. Those are the creative, artistic, smart women like my mother and many other women who didn’t get the opportunities we had.
We are standing on the shoulders of giants ourselves who made our lives and our opportunities possible. Part of the role of women who become mothers is to help educate their sons and what it means for these young men to become feminists and support the women in their lives. Feminism has been given a bad rap that it’s about women taking something away from men. It’s not that at all. It’s about equality, fairness, respect, and all of us feeling safe, whether what time of the day it is to be out on the streets. It’s being promoted because of your skills and not because you’re part of the golf club where all your male buddies hang out.
This ultimately creates a better world for all of us. The more people we have making decisions, the more representation we have and the more we see ourselves—whether it’s sports figures, leadership positions, or wherever—it makes it possible for younger people to go in the direction we need people to be going. I’m with you. I’m hopeful because I’ve seen a change in my own lifetime.
You reminded me. I saw my mom. I’ve heard her say this before, but she said it again. She said when she first got married in her early twenties to someone she knew in high school, who was my dad, she never thought she would work. That’s what she saw was possible for herself. That was an assumption she made that she didn’t challenge. Now, she did end up working.
This is why I want to applaud, whether it’s people, leaders, or feminist leaders. We need more of all of it, but we need those change agents, especially. For other women, it creates a vision that they can have of what is possible for themselves, which is hugely important to have those, to be able to see that, and to have those role models.
That’s a wrap for this episode. Thank you so much for joining us. If you have something to say about female leaders versus feminist leaders, we’d love to know about it. Send us your questions. Also, we like to tackle workplace challenges that people are having, so you can get in touch with lisa and me and learn more about our work through our website at WorkRevolutionPodcast.com. Bye for now.
Bye for now, everyone.
- If Women Are Better Leaders, Then Why Are They Not In Charge? – Forbes article
- The club that teaches women how to say ‘no’ to office housework – Financial Times article
- The Fearless Organization