Sep 15, 2020 | Mouna Ben Garga and Safia Khan

The Missing Conversation on Civil Society Leadership

As civil society moves to become more diverse and inclusive, women seem to be the answer for inclusive hiring for most. However, most organisations fail to consider the implications of only looking at one intersection in a binary sense of gender. As Women of Colour, we don’t come in the same size; we are diverse groups from diverse backgrounds. Failing to consider the intersectionality of Women of Colour undermines efforts of inclusivity. In fact, without addressing this dimension of feminism, any discussion about empowering women is another form of tokenism, an optic to check a box. Intersectional feminism is important to understand and to address the barriers that Women of Colour face. Movements such as FAIR SHARE are the spaces where our voices should be heard and where these challenges should be explained.  

When we commit to the advancement of social impact, we naively expect that discrimination, racism, and patriarchy vanish in the holy sphere of human rights. As if working in civil society provides immunity against these challenges. Guess what? The reality is far different from these expectations of equality, equity, and justice within the sector. In many ways, civil society mirrors society as a whole and perpetuate the same systems of oppression that it claims to want to dismantle.  

Women of Colour from the Global South are still not given the same significance as their northern counterparts. We find ourselves judged based on a Northern set of principles that many civil society organisations (CSOs) use for performance measures. Ironically, speaking more than one language for Women of Colour whose English is not their first language, is an important asset to land a job in CSOs, and yet hinder your career advancement. Our work, performance, and opportunities will be judged against our English articulation. In many meetings, we provide ideas that get ignored until mansplained and rephrased to “better” English. This barrier is used consistently to discredit voices from the Global South and paint Women of Colour as unfit for leadership roles in this sector.

Apart from language barriers, we’ve found ourselves requested to work harder and commit more to advance and lead. Women say they have to work twice as hard as men to get equal opportunities. We, Women from the Global South, have to work three times as hard as our white counterparts to access those opportunities and to overcome another layer of workplace discrimination and biases.  

Our limited access to leadership positions in the civil society sector is hampering sustainable social change. Much like economic reform institutions, many organisations in our sector are headed by individuals who have never faced the injustices they aim to address. Many brave women in the Global South try to address these gaps, challenge the status quo in civil society and feminist movements, and fight for access. We need to carve out more spaces for conversations and action around the inclusion of Women of Colour in the workplace.

There are no permanent solutions and no governance structure that can fully solve these challenges. The barriers are non-static, complex, and intersectional. CSOs need to have a true, open reflection about their role and their impact. Empathic listening, critical assessments, and thoughtful adjustments are vital to respond to these barriers and their effects on social justice. Indeed, greater impact happens when people directly affected by a challenge are given the platform and resources to address it. Feminist leadership requires empathy and compassion; only when all women receive their due can we truly dismantle both the patriarchal and colonial barriers that hold us back.