I have never considered myself a feminist.
Not in the extreme sense of the term anyway.
Although I have always advocated for equality of opportunities for everyone, whichever sex they identify with, I never contemplated burning my bra. I even enjoy the differences we have in my household, in the roles we play (although I do need to feel free to play that role, I don’t want to pigeon-hole myself into it).
So, when last summer I came across the Women in Sustainability Network, I was sceptical at first.
I imagined a lot of women badmouthing men, squawking like chickens in the barnyard. I obviously had a much distorted view of feminism.
But boy, I was wrong!
I attended one of the Women in Sustainability events and found the presentations and group discussions beautifully enriching. The focus was on how women can become stronger to be better sustainability advocates. There was no comparison to men. It was all about acquiring the confidence to sit at the top tables; doing justice to the skills and qualifications women can bring to those tables, which often we don’t have the opportunity to do.
I loved it.
So I decided to take on the role of Women in Sustainability Hub Lead for Hertfordshire, the region where I live.
I have to say, the biggest lesson of all has come from the first event we hosted as Women in Sustainability Network Herts hub.
On the 30th of September 2020, we had 50 amazing women coming together to learn Why the World Needs More Jacindas to Tackle the Environmental Crisis.
In agreement with the WINS leader, Rhian Sherrington, I decided to start the history of my hub focusing on women's strengths in leadership and sustainability. I wanted an inspiring event to kick off in the right way, to show women that they can make the difference, that they have the power and the right to make things better in this Planet.
Now, this promised to be an “us versus them” type of event, on the basis that women leaders around the world (including Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s PM, the inspiration behind the event title) did so much better than their male counterparts to contain the coronavirus during the first wave of the pandemic. But I didn’t want that.
I wanted women at the event to learn from the illuminated women (and men) who showed exceptional leadership qualities that can help us tackle the environmental crisis effectively, just as they did with the virus.
What key strengths women leaders demonstrate that made the difference then?
We had the good fortune to discuss this with five outstanding women who embody these powerful leadership characteristics:
Giovanna Jagger, co-founder of WokenUp.com, and One of the 10 Most Influential Women in Technology 2020;
Sian Conway, Founder of #EthicalHour, and Sustainability Speaker & Writer;
Tara Button, Founder of BuyMeOnce.com and Bestselling Author;
Georgia Elliott-Smith, MD at Element 4 and Environmental Activist;
Kate Levine, Founder of Kate Levine Consulting, and Former Global Activism and Communications Director at The Body Shop.
They went through bullying and they were told that they would never be leaders because they cared too much about people. They are activists, moving the masses with their strong ethics and belief in a better world. They challenge the status quo with their ground-breaking businesses and their capacity to put people together and create community.
We had a beautifully lively discussion, from where the most important strengths women leaders need to have are immediately emerged:
- Resilience, or the ability to bounce back from setbacks and being constantly put down by society;
- Courage, to stand up, be heard, and not be dismissed, even if you are the only one in a room to have a certain opinion;
- The ability to get out of your own head and inside other people’s heads and this (we all agreed) might be what prevents other leaders from being equally successful. Ego kills collaboration and it is in the way when trying to take decisions for the greater good;
- Collaboration, and being able to listen actively to others and to bring them with you in your journey.
Additionally, it was recognised that women often haveto bebetter than men, when they haven’t got the privilege to be automatically considered for leadership roles. Same goes for other exceptional leaders that had to fight for their place at the top, like Barrack Obama.
Among things that made a real difference during COVID was the ability to be empathetic (as opposed to letting big egos and self-interest decide for everyone else). This clashes with the prototypical idea of the strong leader. It doesn’t mean being weak though, that’s a big misconception. Being warm and focus on people instead of profit, but decisive enough to do the right thing at the right time is what probably made the biggest difference. Think of the Dalai Lama, a strong but warm leader, who also happens to be a man.
Emotional intelligence is therefore a trait that needs to be developed and cultivated for effective leadership and to inspire loyalty and trust in people.
We also analysed in small groups what are the potential barriers to acting as leaders or even accessing leadership positions.
Top of the chart, self-confidence.
Research has demonstrated that women outperform men in almost every key leadership capacity (ref. Harvard Business Review), from taking the initiative to communicating powerfully, to displaying high integrity, to inspiring and motivating others, to building strong relationships. However, they don’t believe they do. Stereotypes die slowly, but women are their own worst advocates. A woman won’t apply for a job unless she thinks she can do every single task she will be required to, a man will apply even if he can do half of the tasks required. Statistically, that gives more chances to men to get the top jobs.
Participants to the event identified other barriers to leadership for women, like perfectionism, people-pleasing, impostor syndrome, and interestingly, trying to compete like men, instead of focusing on our own style and strengths.
The event was meant to last one and a half hour, but it was so enjoyable and enriching that many decided to stay for nearly another hour, so we finished it by looking at how we can apply our newly identified strengths to the environmental crisis.
Some of the suggested actions were:
- Celebrate inspiring women;
- Mentor other women, join forces, network and collaborate;
- Deal with people who have different world views and different backgrounds by using emotional intelligence;
- Take the bull by the horns and display that to the world, but don’t dictate, show people along the way;
- Have the confidence to stand up and say what you believe, and be a role model to others;
- Be curious;
- Use social media to demonstrate your beliefs;
- Take small steps, changing minds one at the time;
- Buy other people eco-gifts, to inspire them;
- Use your ability to listen and connect on a personal level;
- Challenge social norms on leadership;
- Raise girls to be less people-pleasing and boys to be more nurturing and less self-involved;
- Be aware of the power we have;
- Understand what people needs;
- Trust with your heart and allow your passion to show.
I can safely say I am a feminist now.
And although I won’t be burning my bras any time soon, I want to support other women to show their courage and use their strengths to save the planet.
We can’t be shy or modest anymore, we need our best abilities to be put to good use, right now.
The world needs us.
With special thanks for our great Hub Ambassadors – Irene Talento, Rachel Wootliff and Olivia Crowshow.
Do you want to join Women in Sustainability Herts' newsletter and be the fist to know when we host other great events like this one? Sign up for our newsletter here.