Feb 17, 2020 | Emily Bove

Feminism, my annoying friend

Feminism sometimes feels like an annoying friend who keeps tagging along wherever you go. Go to a party, and there it is, alongside you as you push folks into serious discussions about gender equality that they wish you didn’t start. Raise your children, and there it is again, in the everyday small but so important decisions about what to say, what to teach, and how to show them what it means to live, breathe, and act truly equal.

But as a feminist, the hardest place in which I have had to show up with my values – and maintain them through difficult and challenges moments and situations – is the workplace. Ever since I started my career, I have moved through professional experiences with a bucket full of questions that never got answered by those above me. For example, why am I being paid less than him? Or why is that person not being treated as our professional equal despite being on the same team. Or why is it that behind our social impact narratives lie really harmful assumptions and patterns that we know about but brush under the rug as if they really didn’t matter that much. All these years, I struggled to find folks eager to have those conversations, and answer those questions, and honestly, failed to meet leaders who had the courage to do so.

Then, for the first time ever, I became a manager, and was responsible for a team. It was four years ago, and I was terrified. I had very little management experience, and I wanted to do it right. And just like that, all those questions started coming back at me. New organization, same old questions. They came flowing through the flood gates. Why is there no one under 50 on our Board? Why do we have no diversity in our interns’ pool? Why are we using certain words and not others. What does self-care really mean in this space? What does horizontal decision-making look like in a non-profit? Which voices are not being taken into account at this table? But this time, I was ready and equipped. Bathing in the feminist movement had taught me how to approach these questions with humility and commitment to change. Surely there had to be a feminist leadership model that rose above and beyond, and that could be leveraged to run a non-profit, build a happy and efficient team, and disrupt patterns of inequality that were easily fixed (like hiring a diverse pool of interns).

For two years, I leveraged feminist leadership, not as a title for myself but as a management tool. I also observed other leaders, and how they build power in the organizations they led. I came to believe that our global social impact sector was operating on very restrictive, patriarchal and hierarchical structures that not only held a ridiculous amount of people back (think women of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQI folks, etc..) but also damaged the very missions we were trying to reach worldwide. Those questions that had followed me from the very beginning of my career, were still out there, everywhere, in every organization, in every team, and we, as a sector, were still looking the other way. The good news is that there were also, of course, incredible feminist champions who understood that leadership is a powerful tool, and that beyond pushing for gender programming, there was a need for a change in how we actually thought of and did our work.

I started the Feminist Leadership Project to highlight those voices. To hear feminist leaders’ answers to those very questions. And what answers they have! If we were to listen, digest, and discuss, we could finally move past some of the things that are holding our whole sector back. For example, Zakiya Carr Johnson tells us to think about institutional betrayal and what it has done to generations of folks who have been on both the receiving end and the implementing side of social impact work. Seema Jalan talks about not just passing the torch, but recognizing and seeing that new torches have appeared and that they are building new leadership styles that are aligning with the promises of feminism in the workplace. The incredible Ayla Schlosser shows us – literally shows us – what it means to give up space and power for those who are better equipped and more legitimately positioned for some of our work in this space. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

Truth is, we have a lot of work ahead. A lot of questions to answer. A lot of feminist leaders to hear, support, and follow. But we’ll get there. FAIR SHARE is one path that can lead us to more concrete equality in leadership. The Feminist Leadership Project is a central part of this initiative that can inspire us and bring us together in discussion. I’m proud and honored to be part of both, and hope you will join us. You might just have the answers we’re looking for!