I chose Gender Studies as my field. There’s a whole backstory as to why, but it culminated in a dream of working in women’s shelters designing and facilitating community outreach education that prevented gender-based violence. Unfortunately, that industry didn’t want me (turns out that operating within an industry full of red tape that perpetuates the problems it claims to try to solve isn’t the right fit for me). So I worked in a lot of different industries- theatre, film, frontline social work, not-for-profits, the restaurant industry, even the cannabis industry, where I got my first upper management role at the age of 26. It was then that I got really curious about leadership and what it meant. If I’m actively working to reject some of these structures (patriarchy, colonialism- capitalism and its children, basically), I figured I should reflect on it. It’s something I still don’t think I’ve really gotten the hang of, years later, and it didn’t click why until recently. I don’t lead like a man, and the hegemonic understanding of leadership is one defined by a colonialist, patriarchal society. Duh.
It is hard to lead in a way that our world, as we know it, wasn’t built around. It’s hard to receive leadership in a way other than the over-under power dynamics that inform how we have learned to be in a social world.
But what does it mean not to lead like a man? Isn’t the very act of defining a concept like leadership in gendered terms essentialist, and thus, oppressive and replicating the same dynamics with which I seek to think my way through and out of? Where does this leave people who don’t fall within a clear gender binary? Where does it leave women who are living and leading in male-dominated industries? Where does it leave men who actively work to reject the masculinities of the past (which inform our concept of “leadership)?
What are we even talking about? The definition of leadership is, “the action of leading a group of people or an organization”. To lead, is defined as, “be a route or means of access to a particular place or in a particular direction”. So, we’re talking about working with others towards a shared goal in a way that provides clear direction.
“Good” leadership is hard to pin down. Traditionally, it’s something that produces results. It’s more about the end project than the process. It gets the team where they need to go. I’ve seen the way this unfolds in workplaces, whether they’re paid or not (unpaid labour is still labour). It causes disconnection among the team throughout the process. It’s not a conducive mindset to being holistically well. And, though capitalism may have us believing otherwise, it’s actually not the most productive way to be. It’s just the way we know.
I asked a really open-ended question on my Facebook page. I limited it to my 1 348 friends and got 60 comments. I asked, “What does it mean to lead like a woman?”. No context, just a question, open to interpretation. A lot of people described their lived experiences of being women in leadership roles. They talked about power struggles, the impact of their appearance on those power struggles, and less pay for more work. One friend I reached out to privately was so burnt out that she shared she’d decided it wasn’t worth the fight to be a woman in leadership right now and that she was going to save her energy. (edit: since publishing this essay, multiple other women I love have reached out to share they feel or have felt this way too.)
A lot of people were reluctant to acknowledge that sexism does rely on binaries that are present in the lived experience of people who will be, correctly or incorrectly, gendered according to the concepts we hold to be true about gender. I want to explicitly acknowledge that it shouldn’t be that way. I hope my son grows into a world where things look wildly different. I do believe we are building that for him and his peers. I think that so many commenters reluctance to essentialize gender is a sign that this shift is immature, but present. Plenty of people acknowledged that they’ve had awesome bosses who were both men and women, as well as terrible bosses who were both men and women. This isn’t surprising, since there have literally been studies done about the phenomenon of women acting masculine, in fact, hypermasculine, in male-dominated spaces.
People asked some important questions I’m still sitting with too.
“Leading like a white woman?” My friend named this as dangerous. I’m going to keep this question at the forefront of my mind as I continue to try to figure this shit out.
People did some cool reporting that might contribute to world-building about leading “like a woman”. They used words I also use when I think about this. Words like compassion, care, fairness, balance, human, listening, empathy, strength, nurturing, serving their people, showing up. So it seems that the consensus in my comment section, and I’d be inclined to agree, is that it is equally as important to consider the human process and the human impact of the labour it takes to reach a shared goal as it is to meet that end goal.
I want to add that I think leading “like a woman” can also mean gathering multiple truths to inform the shared goal so that it really is meaningfully shared.
This language I’m using for the sake of communicating tough ideas to the most people is obviously flawed. I’m not really talking about leading like a woman, I’m talking about creating a conception of leadership that is more human than capitalism-supporting structures allow for. I’m talking about compassionate leadership.
When I wonder what this means for me and the times and spaces where I take leadership, I recognize that I’m too quick to take on too much of the labour on a project. I do this at work when I work with my team to establish what exactly needs to be done and ask others to take ownership over tasks and there are tasks no one else has the capacity for. I take ownership by default, because I’m responsible for the outcome. I do this at home too. I take on more of the load with parenting and housework because I’m good at it and happy to do the work. But this does leave me with more work. Perhaps leading like a woman needn’t mean sacrificing myself OR the wellbeing of my team (or family), but adjusting the goal for the outcome. Maybe it’s as simple as needing a bit more time. Or drawing on the network of relationships outside of the team I’ve worked hard to cultivate. I know it doesn’t mean sacrificing time or the quality of time with my family. I’ve been working on a co-op childcare exchange with another mom and my son frequently nurses in meetings. I know being a woman in leadership means looking to my friends who chose to or are forced to by nature of their subject position radically resist patriarchal concepts of leadership. My friends who reject gender binaries, who don’t experience the benefits of whiteness, my fellow disabled leaders who navigate the fluid restrictions of our bodies. I look to the mothers in my life. Generations of mothers and mothering people.
What does this mean for you? It means there’s a call to operate compassionately within leadership and to orient ourselves within the human impact of labour on our way to reach shared goals, whether that goal is a grant application, launching a new program, obtaining a new account, teaching a child to use the washroom, or working towards the revolution. Maybe this is a small step, but it holds the potential to create a significant impact on the lived experience of people where we’re at right now.
Audre Lorde said, “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing” and I think she gets to the root of what it means to lead compassionately. We must be deliberate in our process and the fluidity of our goals. And we must be afraid of nothing, including the vulnerability that comes with compassionate leadership.