Feminist leadership journeys, part 2: resistance, reflexivity and resignation

Leila Billing
6 min readJun 1, 2023
Black circle with white writing in middle saying ‘We Are Feminist Leaders’

This blog is the second part in the series ‘Feminist Leadership Journeys’. To read the first in the series, visit this page.

This year, We Are Feminist Leaders asked recent participants on our 12-week online feminist leadership programme to share some thoughts about how they engaged with the course content and what impact the programme had on them. We wanted to create a mosaic made up of participants’ diverse feminist leadership journeys. We asked participants to share whatever they wanted to. We were particularly interested in the bad as well as the good. The personal and the political. The discomfort as well as the joy.

Parts of the mosaic that you’ll read below reflect the ways in which participants engaged open-heartedly and courageously with issues relating to power and privilege. Their experiences of confronting harmful power structures, while at times painful, have given them rich insights into how power operates, how it might be dismantled, and what alternative ways of holding power might offer us. They teach us how a greater understanding of power — often developed through building their own reflective practice — can be a catalyst for feminist action. And that feminist action can sometimes mean stepping away from systems that do not serve us.

Please note these are participants’ own words. We thank them for the power of their writing.

“‘Women’s leadership’ programmes I had been on in the past had always focused on understanding how I could succeed or progress my career by, essentially, beating patriarchal systems at their own game. This had always made me feel that if I couldn’t succeed or progress in these structures, that it was my fault or that I hadn’t tried hard enough. The We Are Feminist Leaders programme showed me that these structures and systems had been designed specifically to prevent me from succeeding and that, as a feminist leader in the UK Violence Against Women and Girls sector, it was my job to create better structures and systems to enable those around me to shine in their own individual and unique ways, uninhibited.

Leila and Natalie from We Are Feminist Leaders also challenged me to continually check in on my power and privilege in my feminist leadership practice. This is not always comfortable, but I’ve already seen the impact that simply vocalising my blind spots and promoting collaboration can have on the people around me, who all bring value to the conversation. I’m still a work in progress, but acknowledging my imperfections and maintaining transparency will be key to my feminist leadership journey moving forward.” Beki Osborne

“The impact of the ‘We are feminist leaders’ course on me and my working practices was profound. The weekly reflexive practice, the rich and diverse range of resources that were shared and the group discussions, allowed me to think through and articulate some hard truths. Since the course:

· I have a deeper understanding of feminist leadership principles. I pro-actively ask myself — am I adhering to these?

· I made a promise to myself to continue to speak up against systems of power and oppression.

· I do regular reflexive practice through journaling — looking at what went well, what went badly and what I would do differently if I could and therefore what have I learnt.

· I resigned from my job and left the violence against women and girls sector. I realised that all the systems in place are a replica of the hierarchical patriarchal profitable sector with a distinct lack of diversity and inclusion within organisations and a lack of equity in services provided. Women are expected to stay in their lane and under a glass ceiling i.e. there is little scope for climbing the ladder or reward and recognition for additional efforts. For career progression, and learning and growth, I need to look elsewhere. At least now, I have an understanding of these systems at play and confidence in myself to attempt to disrupt and dismantle systems that are oppressive to all people, wherever I end up.” Anonymous

“I came onto the course with an instinct that I wanted to practise feminist leadership but with only a superficial, mostly conceptual understanding of what that meant and no clear roadmap on how I could practise and embody these principles in day to day life. With the luxury of three months to dig deeper with fellow course participants, I was able to expand my understanding and concretize key principles such as intersectionality, radical love and collective care. I also examined how I may have used hidden power previously and what it takes, personally and professionally, to push past patriarchal ways of working to transform and create new forms of power in my workplace. The two mantras that I try to live by now are ‘Be compassionate — no one is perfect, we’re all learning (but you do need to be accountable)’ and ‘Always examine the underlying systems/structures of power’ at play in any given situation or decision making moment. In this way, I try to assess who is being heard, who isn’t, whose needs are being met and whose aren’t and how this can be challenged. It’s hard work and personally challenging at times — it’s a long journey, but it’s also hugely rewarding and grows so many useful insights (and new friendships!)” Charlotte

“One of the things that resonated the most with me in the We Are Feminist Leaders programme was that feminist leadership starts with ourselves. It is clear that our efforts to put feminist leadership into practice will, at least sometimes, continue to be faced with resistance from others. But if we don’t start work within, as one of our peers put it, our own inner obstacles and biases will also get in our way. I’ve learned that starting with ourselves means reflecting on our experiences of power, our degree of openness to being accountable to others (and accepting that we might be wrong!), but also being kind to ourselves and prioritising self-care to recharge.” Joana

“As I look back, I don’t think I was fully prepared for all the growth and grounding that the weeks of learning and connecting would bring. Being enveloped in a space where openness, self-reflection and compassion were welcomed was very refreshing and heart-warming. As the programme was centred around simplicity and introspection, I had space to immerse myself into the many teachings around power, accountability, care and more. I have gained a renewed sense of enthusiasm and positivity that while being imperfect and living in an equally imperfect world, there are ways — big or small — to drive change” Sanne

“Perhaps what I am holding on to most strongly in the months since the end of the programme, is Sonya Ruparel’s exhortation at a fireside chat, “to hold power well” and “move away from heroic leadership to collective responsibility”. Personally, this has meant recognising the limits of my own positional power and focusing on actions within my span of control. It has meant an attempt to create psychological safety for co-workers and partners whenever I interact with them. Finally, it has meant continuously reminding myself that I don’t have to fit anyone’s box of what a feminist leader looks like. I can learn and un-learn my way to the box (or circle or triangle) that most aligns with my values as a feminist.” Ishita

If you’re as inspired by these words as we are, you can find out more about our upcoming 12-week feminist leadership programme here. The programme starts in September 2023 and places will be available to book from 7 June 2023.

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