Representation and Leadership: What’s in it for us?

Last month, I attended the UN Women’s Generation Equality Forum as one of the Inter-Council Network’s youth delegates. The Forum discussed many important issues relating to gender equality, which includes the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has simultaneously exposed and widened equality gaps in societies worldwide. I was refreshed to see that feminist leadership is one of the guiding principles of the Action Coalitions, and that this involves “a continuous commitment to keep vigilant about — and challenge — the (re)production of practices and behaviours that deter collaboration, proactive listening and that benefit a few at the expense of others.”

From experience, I find that in Canada, the most prominent and/or well-resourced voices in the fight for democratic leadership tends to focus on women’s leadership, and not feminist leadership. This is a subtle but important distinction to make as the former focuses on individual women attaining leadership position and representation as the end goal.

There is a case to be made for having more women in democratic leadership roles, or leadership positions in general. During the forum itself, the idea of introducing quotas for underrepresented groups was presented as one way to help make this happen, and I am not opposed to it. As it stands, women do not have equal participation and leadership in political and public life. Off the top of my head, I can think of two reasons why gender parity in political participation is important:

  • Lived experiences help shape one’s values and decision-making processes, and ensuring that there are diverse voices at decision-making tables helps reflect the diverse tapestry of citizens’ needs and interests;
  • Prejudiced beliefs, including the belief that effective leadership exclusively comes from a specific demographic, hinders individuals, communities, and societies from reaching their fullest potential. Diverse representation in influential places are reminders that possibilities are also limitless for marginalized people.

However, I find that the cause for having more representation for tends to lack substance because it assumes that simply adding women to existing structures and institutions would always lead to a more equitable society, even without interrogating and redistributing power. This time, I can think of several reasons why this is harmful:

  • Increasing women’s representation alone does not achieve gender equality, gender is more complex than the binary.
  • The ‘add women and stir’ approach invokes benevolent sexism which assumes that women are inherently more nurturing, altruistic, or oriented towards the collective;
  • The belief that representation alone will lead to equity creates an impossible task for the few individuals from underrepresented communities to single-handedly solve cross-generational issues.
  • Most importantly, politics is about the distribution of power and resources, which has life or death consequences. To simply obtain a seat at decision-making tables without developing and standing for politics that promote social justice is hollow and self-serving.

Gender equality is not a result of granting the rare individual from a minoritized group the power to access resources and opportunities that are unjustly denied from all others. Rather, gender equality ensures that gender is no longer a barrier from people accessing them. This may even involve re-imagining ways of governance because feminist leadership requires all of us to redistribute power and responsibility in a way that creates just outcomes.

Like many, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a period of reflection for me: what needs to be done, where people have fallen through the cracks and how I can be a part of the solution. I believe that this crisis has been an opportunity for me to reimagine how communities can come together to take care of its people. Attending the UN Women’s Generation Equality Forum has been a reinvigorating opportunity for me to see people around the world who are invested in the struggle towards just societies and futures.

For those who are interested, the list of commitments can be found here. Furthermore, some of the recorded sessions can be found below:

  1. Women and Transformative Leadership for Generation Equality
  2. Civil Society Pathway and Reflections: Core Group of Generation Equality Forum
  3. The Role of Media in Building A Feminist Agenda
  4. Cities and Territories in Front of an Inclusive Recovery: A25-Year Beijing Review