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Feminist Leadership and the Board of Tomorrow

Written by Simon Forrester

This week I attended a symposium on Association Governance, and one of the speakers, Patti Whaley from ActionAid, gave me real pause for thought. Those of us who run Boards and Committees know, it’s often difficult to ensure every voice is heard, and we truly represent our membership. I can’t say for sure whether the Boards I have supported over the years have been open to all groups of our membership. I can say for certain I have worked alongside some that have been overly testosterone-fuelled, and dominated by a few strong (male) individuals, where open debate has been stifled.


"Women in associations face a triple burden: Women’s caring, community and income-generating responsibilities can hinder their leadership and participation in volunteer roles"

So, on International Women’s Day, what can a Board do to enshrine equity, ensure every voice is heard, and attract and keep engaged a range of high quality members reflective of their membership and beyond?


Women in associations face a triple burden: Women’s caring, community and income-generating responsibilities can hinder their leadership and participation in volunteer roles. If the Board environment is not a welcoming one, they will direct their efforts elsewhere, and your next potential President or key committee volunteer is lost. Develop a flexible yet supportive approach that accommodates women’s time constraints and maximises their opportunities to participate.


Here’s a ‘starter for ten’ (adapted from a slide put up by Patti) – this is my own interpretation of what is needed, and your mileage may vary.

  1. Sharing Power: Take a hard look at where power actually lies within the association. Support periodic reflection on and documentation of challenges - and successes.

  2. Responsible Use of Power: How are we directing the might of the organisation? Is the tide of our activities raising all boats equally? Inclusion: promote women’s leadership at all levels within the association, make sure women feel empowered to join and lead projects and committees. Explore a range of options and tailor approaches accordingly, e.g. mentoring and coaching, allow skills to be cascaded to all levels.

  3. Accountable Collaboration: Carry out a governance review and ask yourselves some very hard questions – you should anticipate resistance and backlash against efforts to challenge power structures and patriarchal norms. We ‘pale stale males’ don’t like sharing power.

  4. Respectful Feedback: recognise the innate worth of all people and the value of diversity, and communicate in a way that enhances individual’s willingness to support the aims of the group.

  5. Courage: Don’t be afraid to change the way things work, and put the central tenets of the Association somewhere very visible so everyone can be reminded when we weaken and go back to the ‘old ways’.

  6. Zero Tolerance: Challenge those who are undermining your move to a better place. The culture of an organisation is usually instilled from the top down, so make sure you contest behaviours that weaken the Association’s ethos.

  7. Self awareness: ensure everyone is aware of their strengths and challenges, but also the baggage they bring to meetings.

  8. Self Care: make sure every board member takes time to look after themselves, and develops to overcome weaknesses - CPD and support from the centre is vital.

  9. Dismantling Bias: Be aware of unconscious bias, recruitment bias, and even the one that says “I’m aware of bias, so I can’t be biased”! Set up systems of checks and balances to ensure you avoid or confront partiality.


One final suggestion; at your next Board meeting use the GenderEQ app to see how much of the conversation is dominated by male voices. By avoiding male dominance, every voice has an opportunity to be heard.


Some great work is being carried out by the British Dietetic Association into identifying and bringing forward the leaders of tomorrow. I hope to be able to apply these tenets to my CEO role now, and in the future.



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