What does Feminist Leadership mean to us, and why is it so important?

Restless Development’s Co-CEOs Kate Muhwezi and Alex Kent reflect on our feminist leadership approach. 

Feminist Leadership cuts across all that we do at Restless Development.  Much of our work is focused on ensuring young women and girls can lead, are safe from harm, and have control of their own bodies, health, happiness and lives.  We also provide platforms and spaces for  young women and girls to support each other, gaining confidence, opportunities and skills to set them up for life.  

We are especially proud of our projects which help strengthen the roots of feminist youth civil society, ensuring it can thrive. From the launch of the innovative Go Nisha Go online game in India, to the Tikambe Youth Media project in Zambia, or the global We Lead and Feminist Action Lab programmes for young women worldwide, our feminism is at the heart of Restless Development’s youth-led approach.  That’s why this year, we are focusing our annual State of Youth Civil Society report on what it means to be ‘Young, Feminist and Fearless’ in 2023.

However, ‘Feminist Leadership’ means so much more than what we do – it’s the how.  It’s integral to our “Power Shifting” approach; our commitment to intentionally shift power to young people in the Majority World in all that we do.  But why is Feminist Leadership so important and what does it mean for us in practice?

1. Being compassionate to ourselves and everyone we work with. 

We want everyone to thrive as leaders.  But that’s incredibly challenging when you’re grappling with multiple crises; worried about climate change, trying to make ends meet, or when the basics cost more or aren’t available. With prolonged lockdowns, exclusions from education and fewer income opportunities, it’s no surprise that well-being is at an all-time low in all corners of the world, but especially for young people.  

At Restless Development, we want all of our people, volunteers and young leaders to know they are important, and so are their happiness and well-being.  We want our global family to have a sense of belonging which embraces everyone, bringing our full selves into our global teams and spaces.  This means knowing that you are free to make mistakes, ask questions and learn together to be a stronger, more resilient and compassionate team.

There are lots of examples of what this looks like, and we’re still learning (so please share your own ideas!)  But for starters,  all staff are now asked to have a well-being goal as part of their Annual Objectives, which they’re responsible for.  We also have many creative and team project spaces, with regular opportunities to join global initiatives, outside of your regular day job.  

2.  We share the load; The work, and the success

We deliberately took a feminist leadership approach to our latest in-person leadership conference in Zambia.  What did this look like?  Well, it meant shorter ‘business’ sessions, placing equal value on simply being together and having a laugh or a dance.  We also offered two-hour lunch breaks, so that if you wanted to sleep, run, swim or call home at lunch you’d have the time and still be able to be your best self during the conference. The event was jointly run and owned from the workshops to the celebrations, which meant everyone was equally invested, sharing the organisational load and the success.  So that when we returned home we were not only re-connected and re-committed but refreshed, a little bit lighter and reinvigorated for the challenges ahead. 

3. We work to tip the scales when it comes to women in leadership.  

Restless Development has always had slightly more women in the books.  But it took until last year to finally be run by one, or more to the point, two female leaders. 

There are still many rocks in our paths when it comes to women being able to lead organisations.  Women are responsible for a disproportionate amount of caring responsibility and unpaid labour.  We juggle societal expectations, marriage, childbirth and caring for families, neighbours, and anyone that needs it, on top of the ‘day job’. 

For both of us being co-CEOs isn’t a job share, it’s about bringing our full selves to work while also being able to look after our young children. It’s about being able to better handle the stresses and strains that come with the job, alongside illnesses and well life. Our relationship is heavily reliant on trust and enables us to ebb and flow as leaders. We share the load, but also believe we make better decisions because there are two of us, not one.  

And whilst we’re women, we also recognise our enormous privilege. We are both white and British and in our 40s. In this light, we see ourselves as stewards of the agency as we guide it through this transformation phase, striving to shift power and leadership in all that we do. 

This brings us to our last, most important point. 

4. Feminist Leadership isn’t about us, or anyone else in a ‘leadership role’ or team. 

It’s about questioning the structure in the first place. 

For us, taking a feminist leadership approach has seen us transition from a ‘Diversity Equality and Inclusion’ strategy to a new global strategy where Power Shifting is a part of everything we do.  We’re more self-aware about how we work, and how to go about transforming the agency to enable real change. 

Four years ago, we built an inclusive leadership team; a diverse team with young leaders and representation from the majority world.  But we found we were still working predominantly in the same way. Now, we have a much larger, flatter leadership group.  We are less dominated by white, Western voices – the balance of race and ethnicity has tipped the right way.  

Everyone has a clear role and something they’re accountable for, rather than simply being there as a young person.  We embrace the different knowledge that we bring into the space while recognising we are all at different stages of our leadership journey.  Our mission is to make sure this is empowering for everyone.

And now… we are turning to question our own governance structure as an organisation.  What does truly collective global governance look like?  How do we make this happen?  

Applying a feminist leadership lens is helping us assess our progress; making sure that national boundaries and autonomy are respected, while also keeping collective oversight as guardians of a global agency.

It’s not always neat and easy, re-imagining and re-creating a global agency that is all about true power shifting.  But we believe using a feminist leadership approach has been essential to making our journey collective. It has helped keep our eyes on the bigger injustice while carving out a clear pathway to create change together. 

As Hon. Martha Karua, the Kenyan Politician and Feminist says; “Co-ownership means that power must be shared. We really must make sure that all generations have space at the decision-making table.” As we come together to celebrate women globally and reflect on International Women’s Day, we believe our Power Shifting and Feminist Leadership approach has helped fuel our Agency on the course to truly shifting power to young people across the world. Happy International Women’s Day!

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What does Feminist Leadership mean to us, and why is it so important?

by Ayoub Mbumila Reading time: 5 min