Feminist leadership and Covid-19 — getting through the tortuous second phase

Pic: Myseum of Toronto

Those of us working on social justice issues can sense something in the air. It’s more than a generalised sense of fatigue among leaders and their teams. People who had been managing relatively well at the beginning of Covid-19 are now struggling. For some it shows up as lethargy and listlessness; for others, activity levels frenetically spike upwards as anxiety reasserts itself. Many people are simply going through the motions, getting through the day, unable to take pleasure in or draw energy from the things that used to sustain or nourish them. What is driving these dynamics? And how can we use feminist principles to respond?

It’s no wonder that our fuel tanks are running low. Many of us have been in some form of lockdown for five months now; in certain countries, the uptick of deaths has been relentless. For our colleagues, sustained levels of uncertainty are becoming unbearable. During the first phase of Covid-19, many of us had a guiding North Star — staying at home to help flatten the curve. Now, it’s unclear what our goals are or what we are working towards. Lockdowns easing do not bring feelings of boundless joy — instead, most of us are still processing our anxiety about whether it really is safe enough to go out. Meanwhile, the disembodiment of remote working is taking a heavy toll: hours of speaking to discombobulated heads on a screen is not fulfilling our need for human connection.

For Black people working in the non-profit sector, the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement has also hit hard, as many organisations issue synthetic statements in response to the murder of George Floyd as a substitute for genuine reform. The writer Zora Neale Hurston once said: ‘I feel most coloured when I am thrown against a sharp white background’. Well, there are few backgrounds as white as the institutions many of us work in, and when our organisations choose to respond in this posturing way, it tempers our genuine hope that change is possible with what feels like cold, hard reality.

Meanwhile, some things are playing out exactly as we feared. The pandemic has allowed intersectional inequalities to spread their reach, and put down deeper, stronger roots. Women around the world are bearing the brunt of the lack of availability of childcare provision. Women of colour are over three times as likely to have lost support from the UK government during Covid-19 than white women. Others, meanwhile, have been rendered invisible. For example, we have heard few public narratives about how disabled people have been impacted by the crisis — there are cases of disabled people issuing legal action against supermarkets who failed to make reasonable adjustments for them to shop safely. Let’s also talk about the situation of sex workers across the world who have been excluded from government support packages, face increased targeting from police, and whose clients may be taking advantage of their inability to earn money during lockdown by demanding riskier services.

How can feminist leaders respond to what often feels like a gruelling second phase of COVID-19?

  • As I have written above, there are so many people who have just not been ‘seen’ during this crisis because the way they experience intersectional oppression falls through the cracks, or because their organisations are ill-equipped to support them. Feminist leaders must do all they can to ensure they are deeply listening to, acknowledging and understanding the diverse needs of their colleagues and line reports. There’s a ‘but’ here — we might think we are expert listeners, but how many of us actively try to strengthen our ‘listening’ muscle? We must be beware of what in organisational theory are known as ‘form traps’ — where the intention behind the way an organisational process plays out (such as a one-to-one check-in with a line report) is very different to the way an individual actually experiences it. I recommend delving into Otto Scharmer’s 4 levels of listening model — or spending some time actively reflecting upon questions like, ‘What personal work/self-care do I need to do to ensure I am fully present and able to listen? What do I find most challenging about listening to my colleagues at the moment?’ Making people feel seen also includes celebrating their contributions, however small. A friend of mine shares an online document with her team, in which every team member populates positive feedback for each other every fortnight. She encourages her team to print out the written feedback, digest and ‘own’ it on a regular basis.
  • The scale of social justice issues we need to respond to seems insurmountable. Despite initial rhetoric from some organisations to allow employees to work at reduced capacity, many non-profit employees are working longer hours than ever. Some people tell me that despite their organisation’s early vigilance to avoid a culture of overworking in the first phase of Covid-19, old habits are dying hard. For others, the ‘gift’ of flexible working is turning out to be a trap — they are still required to do lengthy, unsociable hours in return for their ability to spend a short amount of time on caregiving duties. Staying true to your feminist principles is not incompatible with saying ‘no’. Of course, saying no takes personal and institutional courage — but when we fail to do so, we risk burning out our core: the people who make the work possible in the first place. Have a discussion with your team about unnecessary, time-consuming procedures and activities that are sucking their energy and remove them. In big, bureaucratic organistiations this is easier said than done — but explore what is in your sphere of influence. How can you advocate for more streamlined processes?
  • Hold online space in a feminist way. Privilege and other associated power dynamics can show up in online platforms in ways that drown out important voices and entrench pre-existing inequalities. Not everyone is able to be ‘present’ in the same way online, as they juggle competing demands of child care; need to find a quiet workspace or ensure they have adequate bandwidth. We are having to make important decisions in online spaces where not everyone is meaningfully participating — this has clear implications for the quality of those decisions and the potential of our social justice work to be equitable in and of itself. I recommend this piece from AspirationTech or this guide from WEDO to building online feminist meetings.
  • We will now need to be bolder and more focused than ever on promoting cultures of care. As reserves are running low for so many, consider how you can support your colleagues and line reports to build ‘power within’. A key part of this is helping people tap into their ability to hope and reimagine a better future. An important pain point for many activists is that our hopes of what we might become and achieve post-pandemic seem to be under threat. Some things seem to be defaulting to normal — air pollution levels are rising back up, promises of a green transformation are by no means assured. Discuss this openly with your team — ask them what changes made since the beginning of Covid-19 (organisational, interpersonal, programmatic) should be sustained, and explore ways to make that happen. And start sharing your own personal stories of how you are upping your self-care at the moment — it will encourage others to feel safe doing the same thing. Pay particular attention to your employees of colour — in recent group discussions I’ve had with minoritized groups working in the non-profit sector, nearly all have expressed emotions ranging from fatigue, anger, cynicism, despair and incredulity that they are being pressed to educate white ‘allies’ in their organisation in their journey towards becoming anti-racist. Being used in what is sometimes an extractive way can be extremely draining; so empower your employees to say ‘no’, create a space where they can claim their right to self-care and build an understanding among others that allyship does not involve depleting the reserves of minoritized groups.

Feminist leaders, these are extraordinary times. But we can do this. Let’s all go forward with our heads up and our hearts open. Here’s to better days!

Leila Billing works with Natalie Brook on feminist leadership training. Follow her @leilabilling

Leila Billing is a freelance gender consultant

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