Choosing the collective: Challenging conventional ideas of women’s leadership

Lessons emerging from our research shows that collectives allow bonding and connections through identities other than gender, enabling significant change in entrenched gender-power relations.

By Deepa Joshi, Lead, Gender, Youth and Inclusion, IWMI and Alan Nicol, Strategic Program Director – Water Growth and Inclusion, IWMI

Photo: Neil Palmer / IWMI
Photo: Neil Palmer / IWMI

This year, the dual themes of International Women’s Day are ‘Women in Leadership’ and ‘Choosing to Challenge’. Putting the two together, we at IWMI are choosing to challenge conventional ideas of women’s leadership.

Challenging conventional approaches that promote ‘individual women as leaders’ is not just a spin on melding the two themes together. It speaks to history and the evident dangers of (over)celebrating individual leadership – where the ‘person’ becomes the pivot point around which all else turns. What really matters is the nature and quality of leadership. Individual leaders can go a long way towards tackling entrenched systems of injustices, but only collective leadership can really tackle issues of power, hierarchy, race, ethnicity, class and other subtle, yet real matters of division.

Examples of this are clearly visible from the global North to the global South, with the drastic political reversals during recent turbulent years in the United States being a case in point.

There are many more examples which tell us that focusing on an individual – of whatever gender – can drown out the voices, opinions and, more importantly, work and struggles of less visible, less audible, and less prominent ‘others’. A good illustration of this was last year’s photograph of youth climate activists, including Greta Thunberg at the World Economic Forum’s annual Davos event in which the image of Vanessa Nakate from Uganda was cropped out.

When the focus is on transformational change in gender relations, it is all the more important to promote plural marginalised voices, experiences, challenges and achievements. What matters in the final analysis is not just the representation of a female leader or the affirmation once a year on why women matter. What really matters is a collective reshaping of intents, ideas, values, actions and behaviours for transformative change. The latter is what will dent entrenched patriarchy.

Our call for a shift from simplistic focus on individual women as leaders is reflected in our research insights, which show what it takes to ensure more sustainable inclusion and representation.

Recent IWMI/WLE research has been shaped by feminist perspectives on the need and value add of collective leadership. An action research project funded by ACIAR enabled the establishment of 18 agriculture collectives in Nepal Terai, West Bengal and India, allowing diverse groups of female and male marginal, tenant farmers and landless labourers to pool their resources, plan, engage and farm collectively.

The study showed that in highly stratified social settings marked by patriarchy such as in South Asia, collective action works best in enabling meaningful representation in decision-making, with collective ‘boundedness and mutual vulnerability’ helping in negotiating and tackling entrenched gender inequalities at home, and on the land.

The Eastern Gangetic Plains connecting the Terai regions of Nepal, North Bengal and the flood plains of North Bihar in India, and North Bangladesh, make for South Asia’s infamous poverty square. Smallholder farmers in this region have long experienced high levels of poverty, driven by small land holdings, extractive tenancy agreements and landlessness. All of this happens in the face of entrenched inequalities by gender, caste and class. The EGP is also increasingly in the news as a growing climate hotspot, where the vulnerability of its marginal and tenant farmers, increasing food insecurity, male out-migration and declining access to reliable water resources create a complex set of human insecurities and risks.

Women smallholders here and elsewhere are often the most marginalised and vulnerable to climate shocks. This is because gender-power hierarchies and entrenched social norms have resulted in a relative lack of education and technical skills, combined with a lack of assets and financial capital and restrictions on mobility. Implementing climate smart technologies in this region may seem a sensible thing to do, but such interventions often fail to transform the lives and livelihoods of the most marginalized. Women are not a homogenous category – climate vulnerabilities experienced by women are deeply crosscut by intersectional inequalities – such as poverty, caste, age, disability, ethnicity etc.

Lessons emerging from our research show that collectives allow bonding and connections through identities other than gender, enabling significant change in entrenched gender-power relations. Our question, therefore, on International Women’s Day, is to think of leadership and change not as necessarily an individual phenomenon, but rather a collective action challenge where diverse leadership groups with women at their heart, can enable and sustain real transformations in the way systems are managed and maintained. If poor, marginalised farmers in EGP can do it, might we use their example more widely to shape our own responses to the complex challenges we face?

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