There are many possible definitions of leadership, and no single correct one. 

This session was led by Saba Al Mubaslat, a humanitarian who has worked in some of the world’s most challenging contexts – including helping governments throughout the Middle East shape their national agendas around resilience, youth, leadership and positive community engagement – and who is now CEO of the London-based Asfari Foundation. Twentieth century management theorist Chester Bernard defined it as the ability of a superior to influence the behaviour of a group of people, to persuade them to follow a particular course of action. But when a London Business School (LBS) research project presented this definition to a sample of 500 diverse women, 92% of them took issue with the word “superior.” They preferred “team leader,” “influencer,” even “human-centric person;” but not “superior.” If we can take this as indicative of how women perceive leadership, it suggests a real diversion from established norms. Indeed, the same LBS study found women leaders more transformational than men leaders, functioning more as role models for their subordinates than hierarchical bosses. They inspired their teams and spent a lot of time coaching them; they emphasised personal development, teamwork and authentic communication. They also preferred to cultivate collegial atmospheres at work, based on cooperation and collaboration.  

The downsides to female leadership revealed by this study were a lack of assertiveness compared to men, and a reluctance to brand and promote themselves to the same extent as their male colleagues. This reluctance to self-promote brings to mind the everyday women leaders who are never acknowledged: the silent ones, the role models and matriarchs in communities around the world who we don’t celebrate, research or even notice. Adele Benzaken described this type of leadership as one that can be found everywhere: in homes, at work and on streets around the world. Taking examples among vulnerable populations with which she interacts in her work at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, she highlighted the way that sex workers involved are able to increase one another’s self-esteem through peer-to-peer education projects, leading one another to better places—for example, by organising into NGOs to take back and protect their rights. In another example, she cited how transgender women have become more able over the last decade or so to be elected as leaders in many parts of the world, they have succeeded in using their life experiences and the unique hardships they have faced to advance policies that benefit everyone through increased focus on healthcare and protection against discrimination and violence. 

The COVID pandemic is giving us opportunities to try new ideas and break down old ones, to cease focussing so hard on putting human beings in categories and erecting national boundaries. Our differences are our strengths – different points of view multiply the chances of reaching smart answers to problems. This is where the power of equity between men and women is evident: they experience life from different angles. A range of different perspectives of the same challenge provides a fuller, more accurate view of the world. In the late 1940s, Simone de Beauvoir argued that no one is born a woman: instead, they become one. This was a challenge to deterministic thinking that uses biology to explain female inferiority and gender inequity: to a philosopher, womanhood is the result of social and cultural constructs. The power of such constructs can be used for good if we create social contexts in which women are built up as social leaders from childhood.

Runa Khan of Friendship Organisation described how her own journey required her to break free from a social context that did just the opposite. Friendship started as a small organisation with 18 staff running a single hospital ship serving about 1,000 people. It was established in the face of serious opposition. Many said the mobile health-oriented, ship-based model would not work. Twenty years later it is still going, working across the worst-deprived areas of Bangladesh with 3,800 staff providing health services directly to about seven million people every year. To make this happen was hard, even for a person such as Runa who came from a background of extreme privilege. And if it was that difficult for her, she asked, how hard must it be for women brought up in silent, deprived communities with none of those privileges? If she had to face disbelief and lack of faith that she could work as hard as – or harder than – a man, then what barriers do others face? The goal for all of us is clear: take these lessons and apply them through a leadership model of understanding, empathy, compassion, courage and self-belief.  Friendship Organisation does not work just for women but for harmony in humanity, for the men, women and children left behind who need to be pulled up with investment, listened to and given justice. In everything the organisation does – health, education, climate work, cultural preservation – it tries to ensure that all beneficiaries, including women, are strengthened

Women in particular have risen to the challenges of recent times. There have been occasions in the field where almost all frontline workers were women. One young woman, a 16-year-old paralegal, built a raft and saved 45 lives by transporting elderly people and children across a river. Another started a village food bank, inspiring neighbours to help one another, then linking this to the government system to obtain state resources. There are many such inspiring examples. As pointed out by Shehtaz, a young leader from Friendship Organization, women should never be ashamed of being called “emotional” or of being empathetic. Some might see a woman’s humility as their weakness, but there is enormous strength in humility.

The pandemic has revealed many ugly truths across the world, including huge and fundamental issues of inequity. Prominent among these is the fact that women do not have equal access to services. In one sobering example cited by Saba, disturbing trends are emerging in some places of families prioritising male members for vaccination, compounding one access inequity with another. COVID-19 may have intensified this imbalance to some extent, but it is not new. It is the story of women in every culture, religion, country, continent or context to be overlooked, factored out of community successes. Vinu Aram described how her work with Shanti Ashram in India has highlighted four worrying trends during the pandemic that are harmful to women, and particularly indicative of the fragility of the women’s agenda. The first has been the disruption of sexual and reproductive health services and the shortage of supplies, including contraception, during lockdowns. The result has been a huge spike of sexual health issues and unwanted pregnancies, and the public health system is not coping. The second has been a reversal in maternal mortality gains. The third is the increasing vulnerability of adolescent girls and a spike in child marriages; and the fourth is rising hunger – not just in India but all over the world, to a level that none of us expected to see again. These crises highlight clearly how gains in women’s empowerment over the last decades are very fragile. Constant work is needed to sustain them, lift them, invest in them and advocate for them – from women and men alike. To start with, as vaccine programmes are rolled out in more and more places, they should be seen through a gender lens, with explicit strategies to prioritise women’s access. To quote Mahatma Gandhi: “all work is half done if women are not involved.” 

But speaking about equity, and what to do about it, is not always simple. One audience member argued that she did not “…want to be equal to a man, just to be recognized for my contribution, my competence, my uniqueness.” Is fighting for absolute equality the right approach, instead of simply fighting to be able to compete as individuals? Under prevalent governance mechanisms, where all human rights are fair game for secular or religious authoritarianism, it may be that not many women actually want to be equal to the men in their particular communities or groups. In fact, across the world, most of us are probably treated pretty badly. So it’s not equality per se that we all have to struggle for, but human rights and human dignity.

Away from pressing short term equity problems, Dr Aram suggested a number of strategies through which women can be helped to move from the front lines to positions of leadership, impact and responsibility. First is to make homes into nurturing spaces: families can be strong units of social transformation if they are underpinned by a larger drive for social empowerment, and religions and cultures have major roles to play in raising leaders. Secondly, education should present the leadership journey as a clear possibility, raising awareness so young women can hold decision-makers to account from an early age, starting in families. Injustice starts early. Thirdly, daring is important: asking new questions, having a vision, and feeling that change is possible, individually and collectively. Fourth is sorority: it is a powerful thing to be in the company of other female leaders, feeling enabled to speak from the heart, without any pressure to prove anything. Fifth is the need to establish equal partnerships with boys and young men, thinking, challenging and asking ethical questions together from a young age. Dr Aram finished cited her own mother, who came from a generation that had to fight for everything, and therefore one whose hands are never tired, hearts are never closed, and minds are always open. Theorising is good, but we need to get going. “Once you start working, things will move.” Keeping the agenda going is important.

While there are clearly not enough women at the highest levels of political and corporate structures, it is important also, as diversity and inclusion become more widely seen as valuable, to ensure that women are not included just as a box-ticking exercise. Facilitator Lily Gros pointed out the stark reality of statistics—for example, 119 countries have never had a female leader and women and minorities together make up only 31% of all the board seats of Fortune 500 companies. Similar figures are everywhere. But less noticed than these injustices are the ways in which different social constructs compound one another. Women leaders are one thing; how many of these are white women leaders is another. Then how many are privileged white women leaders; then heterosexual privileged white women leaders; and so on. All these add up. Current realities do not represent the totality and the wholeness of women. The issue of power must also consider things that make power unilateral, and the visions of power that propagate across the globe: why are leadership books the same in airports around the world? It makes no sense, but in high profile, international, corporate and multilateral settings, the vision is homogenous.

The earlier point about self-branding and self-promotion is crucial. The studies of Google’s “I Am Remarkable” project suggest that this is a serious issue for women who want to move up the corporate ladder. One study in an internal Hewlett-Packard report showed that women only applied for jobs if they had 100% of the desired capacities, but that men would do so with only 60% and the intention to learn the rest in post. It is also sad that women in senior positions in western companies tend to regard other such women as competitors. 

All these issues require new viewpoints. Work on leadership, progress away from the default white male model, starts at home. All of us need to deconstruct our own biases and areas of ignorance and establish how we need to educate ourselves. All of us have a duty, whoever we are, whatever our identities, to become informed allies to people intentionally or unintentionally excluded from power. Sometimes exclusion happens just because it’s structural, without thought. If we do not work to deconstruct our worlds and pick out the invisible threads that bind our societies, looking closely at how they mirror our internal systems, we will be unable to build for the future. In all this change, it is important to remember not only to talk about how women will make a difference but to acknowledge that women are making a difference. This is a key part of the relearning that has to happen.

Azza Karam, Secretary-General of Religions for Peace – “the UN of religions” – discussed the role of faith and faith leaders in achieving this more equitable world. The diversity among religious leaders is vast—not only geographic but also dogmatic, theological and every other form of diversity known to humankind. As Dr Karam pointed out, Dr Aram is one such leader, one of the chairs of the movement – stereotypes are misleading. To think of religious leadership as confined to ordained ministry is to be blind to the ways in which religious leadership reflects us all. The religious world is full of women of faith who are leaders by virtue of service. Others lead through their intellect; yet others are theologians. 

The notion that religion is an oppressive force that subordinates women has weakened women’s movements around the world. The reality of that oppression exists, of course; but if 82% of the world’s population professes a faith, the diversity inherent in that should make us pause. Women in faith do different things, they are believers in their own ways, they are different. Religion is not just men in robes who represent institutions, but faith as it is made and lived and changed. Some women honour its most critical foundations; some women uphold the harm it can do. Being able to understand that complexity also means being able to honour the fact that women exist to complement one another, and sometimes to be better than one another. Each of us is meant to contribute something, and each of us has the duty—as Lily pointed out—to examine the foundations of truths and perceptions and be self-critical. We must reflect on our own understandings, because sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally, we perpetuate the norms that are harmful to those around us. 

Being self-critical also demands that we appreciate that not everything we do with good intent is necessarily helpful for everyone else. At times we perpetuate discrimination even as we seek to counter it. The example of Sojourner Truth, a slave in the United States in the early 1800s, is a powerful story. She chose not one battle, but many: as a woman, a black woman and a slave. Though she was a suffragette, her first battle was with other women, other suffragettes, but white ones. Though these people demanded the vote as women, strategically and rationally they chose not to support the black vote, for fear it would hurt their cause. This thinking, in one form or another, is part of all our individual realities. We make choices all the time, for ourselves and for the communities that we serve, and sometimes those choices are not clear. Sometimes they force us into opposition to different things. That reality is something that women confront more frequently than men, simply by virtue of the fact that they experience so many different barriers. Sojourner’s name was one she chose. She called herself Truth because to choose truth is to choose a hard, constantly challenging reality. Those of us committed to truth will certainly be an enemy to somebody at some point in time, and sometimes enemies to many people at the same time. Being for truth, not compromising, not always agreeing or saying the right things, is to be in a systematic state of battle. All women find themselves in spaces where they are not accepted, but those women who choose to work in contentious spaces – politically, financially or socially – and insist on upholding their truth, have made a hard choice. But many do.

There is a simple reason for needing more women in power: if we achieve that, we’re using all the human intelligence instead of just a portion of it. But as a wise person once said, until men are liberated, we won’t see women in power.  The call for human dignity for everyone is a powerful thing. Cultures and faiths are important resources in achieving it. One very pragmatic measure that can be taken is for all of us who have power over resources to do regular audits of equity and equality any time those resources are distributed or allocated. Our identities may be complex, fragile, composite things, and we want to define them ourselves, actively and not as a reactionary response to trauma. But the less sophisticated principles of equity and equality remain very valuable for analysis and distribution of resources.

There are no half-truths: at some point, all of us must choose where we stand. The world needs women to work as a collective, collaborating across all borders. There are so many injustices, but for justice to become the norm, all of them need to be addressed together. We do not live in boxes and we cannot approach issues one by one, ticking them off as we go. We have all the means – education, connectivity, knowledge, expertise, compassion and emotion – and we are connected, not just digitally but also by destiny. It is impossible to save one community without saving all of them, just as it is impossible to salvage the planet without rescuing all the people on it. The differences within this mass of humanity are a strength: they let us complement one another. The feminine and the masculine lie to some extent within all of us, and we all need muscle and we all need heart. This is not a war, we are not victims. We have what it takes to fight for the oppressed, the voiceless and those unable to seek justice. With determination to do that, with love, the world may become better.

If the task is to construct new models of leadership, then there are many ways to go about it. An intergenerational approach to the problem requires three things: leading by example so young people can believe in what they see; creating spaces for women to learn and finding women to fill those spaces; and forming equal partnerships with boys and men. Joining or building communities is crucial. We are not alone, and one of the biggest mistakes we can make is to act like we are. Women should embrace their emotional nature, using that emotion, not hiding it. They should be deliberate in finding and working with others, but also brave enough to find those who may be very different in their beliefs. Looking deliberately for those who are different is crucial: those alliances of difference are exactly what transformation requires. When we’re always working in cliques of like-minded people, we don’t change much. But when we seek to bring together the full scope of diversity, working deliberately, together, to serve, that is transformation.