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Durham University

Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing


CSGS Blog - One Day Workshop by Susan Frenk and Simon Forrest, co-directors CSGS

(1 June 2017)

When Chevening asked CSGS to create a one-day workshop around Gender and Leadership, it provided the perfect arena to interrogate historic models and map out alternatives for a better future….Thanks to Sam Mercadante from Chevening and Margret Rowe our Scholarships Officer, Durham University, we gathered 41 Chevening scholars from around the world in the Lindisfarne Centre. Pooling our shared experiences, hopes and aspirations produced a dynamic, multifaceted exploration of obstacles and possibilities, an unexpected degree of consensus and some fine-grained attention to the detail of soft and hard forms of power.

Following a welcome from the Provost, Antony Long, our keynote speaker, Lena Dominelli, elicited qualities of good and bad leadership from the scholars, working in small groups warmed up by arrival conversations over coffee and pastries. Images of a cluster of leaders in different fields, from politics to fashion and cartoons, differently gendered and operating in different contexts, served as stimulus. Desirable qualities clustered around someone capable of inspiring others through their humanity, empathy, ability to work in or with teams built by trust, creativity, deep listening and patient relationship-building. The ability to take responsibility for their mistakes and work through mistakes made by others in a positive, constructive and consistent manner; to display humility and demonstrate they really care about people and issues , were seen as keys to unleashing the potential of all, rather than reproducing existing matrices – conscious and unconscious – of merit.

The scholars approached bad leadership with equal enthusiasm and energy: hierarchical, non-inclusive, authoritarian and arrogant…. Intolerant of critique, rigid and insensitive, these leaders were deemed to lack emotional intelligence, disconnecting from the realities of their communities yet craving attention, even adulation. Verbal violence and humiliation were part of their everyday repertoire, sometimes accompanied by physical force. Some abused their power for personal gain and their inability to build consensus meant that their mantra was defensive: ‘there is no alternative’.

As she gathered the feedback, Lena responded from her own experience of navigating hierarchical institutions, the social movements in which she had participated and the shifting political contexts which had enabled or closed down positive change. Drawing out parallels between the views and experiences of the different generations in the room played out as a leitmotif through the sessions that followed, each break for refreshments buzzing with further discussion.

An invitation to analyse the gendering of language and imagery led by Susan Frenk culled a flood of examples, which suggested that we have not come a long way (baby). Agency was still perceived to be coded as masculine in most ambits; passivity as a ‘feminine’ quality - despite our ability to discuss good/bad leadership in gender-neutral terms…. ‘Rational’ men were ‘strong ‘leaders, while women were cast as emotional, maternal figures whose marital status was problematized whether married/unmarried/with children or childless. Men who spoke out were ‘confident’; women ‘loud’ or ’pushy’, although some cultures were thought to encourage women into discussion and disputation compared to those where they are ‘socialised into silence’. Even as gender binaries have repeatedly been questioned and negotiated transgressively in everyday life, there was broad agreement that women taking on leadership roles were expected to ‘act like a man’, according to a narrative of masculinity that was equally inimical to a wide range of men. Women were accused of ‘wanting to have it all’ for expectations that men in the same roles took for granted. Men who spoke out for women’s or other human rights were lauded for critiquing social injustice but women, lgbt+ people and trade unionists were branded self-interested. Women continue to be assessed continuously on their physical appearance and their sexuality and sexual activity generate endless speculation. Sexism is frequently passed off as ‘joking’ with people of all genders who challenge it being characterized as ‘humourless’, ‘touchy’ or ‘difficult. Men socialize; women and gay men ‘gossip’. More traditional male leaders were said to be permitted more latitude while diverse leaders were treated dismissively at the first error – and errors brought demands for visible punishment.

The dominant framework in most societies/media was deemed to be competitive, rather than collaborative, often couched in loosely (misread) ‘Darwinian’ terms and a notional ‘free market’ capitalism. However, where men were additionally encouraged to bond through a range of approved activities, only feminist discourses or often problematic discourses of ‘natural’ bonds of womanhood/motherhood stood in counterpoint to incessant pitting of woman against woman – epitomized in the recent reporting of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon through their clothing, personal style and an assumed personal antagonism rather than their policies. 

In a glow of solidarity, albeit overcast by these insights, tea and cake revived us for a panel discussion chaired by Susan, with three women leaders of different ages, backgrounds and ethnicities with co-host Simon Forrest manfully reversing the usual token slot.

Sade Sangowara joined us as the CEO of a local social enterprise CIC Cultures 

Lisa Whiting, the Academic Affairs Officer from our own Students’ Union 

Ritu Kataky, Reader in Chemistry

Simon Forrest 

The realms of Science, Student representation and social entrepreneurialism were voiced by women; power, gender and representation in academia by a male leader highly respected by his female colleagues. Acute, subtle questions were showered on the panelists about their motivation, struggles and most cherished moments. Survival tips, the societies we can potentially create with democratic deployment of robotisation and emergent models of wealth and time distribution, micro and macro interventions kept the panel well beyond the allotted hour. But endings, incomplete though they be, are inevitable and we finished in agreement not just to conquer the world, but to change it.