Deanne Weir chairs numerous board and has had a huge career across law, media and screen. She also a lot to say about what it means to be a “Feminist Leader” and why they’re the real game-changers.
This piece covers a lot of ground, including why being a woman in leadership does not automatically make you a ‘feminist leader’, Deanne’s experiences in the legal, business, media and screen sectors, as well as her view on hard quotas and the role of women running businesses. It’s an edited version of a speech Deanne gave last week to mark IWD with IWDA.
This is a fascinating point in history for us to celebrate Feminist Leadership and to ask ourselves just what is next: where is this all going?
I have been thinking about this a lot in recent months. I spend a lot of my time now working in the screen sector and of course the initial momentum for the MeToo and TimesUp campaigns came out of the US screen sector, and was quickly picked up on by a lot of our sisters here in Australia and around the world.
While this activity, and the global focus on it, is very welcome, if you listen to some commentators, it is almost as if Feminist Leadership and women’s voices are a relatively new thing. It has been suggested by some that it has taken the election of an obnoxious, underqualified, misogynist as President of the US to serve as the tipping point to wake everyone up to the need to take action and create change.
This is nonsense of course. We know that there has been well over 100 years of Feminist Leadership and activist history. Organisations like IWDA, led by women, working with women, have been changing the world we live in every single day for many, many years.
But: we also know that having that work understood, acknowledged, appreciated, or amplified by mainstream organisations is an ongoing challenge.
There are certainly some promising signs that this may be evolving, that Feminist Leadership is finally being recognised as a NECESSARY force for change, and to be frank, it is about time.
We need to seize this opportunity, we need to bring Feminist Leadership into all areas of government, business, education and social decision making because if we don’t, I think as a planet we face an extremely challenging future.
For this discussion, I wanted to reflect on some different examples of Feminist Leadership that I have seen throughout my career, which has covered various sectors, and comment on what might be coming next.
Is feminist leadership just leadership by women?
But first, let’s clarify what I think of as Feminist Leadership, because I think there is indeed a difference between Feminist Leadership, and leadership by women. They are not the same thing, but they are definitely not mutually exclusive.
Growing up in a country town in the 70s, there were plenty of women leaders, but feminist leaders were few and far between. We had women farmers, the CWA, women in leadership positions in local business or local government, but most of them lacked what I think of as the key requirement of a feminist leader. To me, a Feminist Leader wants to achieve social transformation: they want to achieve gender equality so that women are treated as human beings with equal rights and equal opportunities to men.
Feminist leaders can be men and women
Feminist leaders, whether they are women or men, have a conscious recognition of the problems and challenges caused by gender inequality, and they are constantly striving to address this inequality through both what they do and how they do it.
On the other hand, women leaders, quite simply, are leaders who happen to be women; but if they don’t apply a feminist lens to their leadership, if they don’t recognise issues of inequality that are inherent within their own universe, if they don’t use their leadership to try and achieve change: then they are just leaders who reinforce the status quo. Just to be clear, these women may be doing great jobs in their chosen fields, they may be great people: all I am pointing out is that their leadership may not be transformative in any way.
I was lucky enough to meet inspiring Feminist Leaders in my early 20s. I joined the Victorian Women’s Electoral Lobby, meeting Val Byth, Meredith Doig and others, women who taught me how to organise, to campaign, to articulate policy arguments. They showed me how important it was to not be a bystander, to call out inequalities that exist, to identify lack of opportunities, to do what I could to help create paths to equality, to empower women to help their own communities and find their own voices.
Through WEL, I was introduced to IWDA, and this was a really important development for me. I am a white person: my upbringing was small town and monocultural. It was also racist: mostly casual, and sometimes overt. Despite being from a low-‐income environment, I still had an abundance of First World privileges, and I have no doubt that I took that privilege into my early practice of feminism. The more I learned about IWDA and its work, the more I understood that I had a heck of a lot of my own unconscious bias about other cultures, other religions, and the role of women in other countries. IWDA’s ethos of working WITH women in other countries, of talking to local women’s organisations, understanding their needs and challenges, and then helping to build their capability to drive change in their own communities: that is inspiring Feminist Leadership.
This was important for me, because it helped me to understand the notion of ‘intersectionality’, a word that is being bandied around a lot. Second wave feminism from the 70’s – of which women like me were the beneficiaries-‐ was often criticised for being about white middle class women, for leaving behind indigenous women, women of colour and those with disability or of other cultures.
Many of those criticisms were unfair, and were part of the conservative backlash that tried to sully the entire notion of feminism. However, when thinking about Feminist Leadership today, we need to learn from our history, and ensure that our approach to change does take an ‘intersectional approach’, that we look at the impacts of race, ethnicity, culture and religion as we think about gender inequality.
With its initial focus on movie stars and Hollywood, there is absolutely a risk that the ‘Me Too / TimesUp’ movement could be subject to this criticism, and we need to make sure that this kind of backlash doesn’t prevent real change from occurring on the back of this movement. We are talking about full on societal change here, not just creating better career opportunities for a few.
Pushing for better representation of women in law
As I moved into my career, the question of different motivations behind activism started to arise. In 1996, as a fresh-‐faced young lawyer, I was the founding convenor of the Victoria Women Lawyers Association.
It was our view that to have a truly robust justice system, one that understood the whole community, we needed much better representation of women across the legal profession. If women who were trained to understand rights, to advocate for others, if they were still being discriminated against within their own profession, then what hope was there for anyone else? While much of the conversation was about flexible work practices and the lack of women partners in law firms, the focus was also on improving the profession for the benefit of the whole community.
There is no doubt that some of the women involved in professional organisations are more in the mindset of ‘Women Leaders’ than ‘Feminist Leaders’, that they are thinking about how to benefit from the current power structures as opposed to transforming them, but I like to think they are the minority. There are many women lawyers (and men of course) who work tirelessly to reform, to protect, to advocate for women who don’t have a voice, and our society is the better for it.
Less Feminist Leadership in media and business
I started to see a lot less Feminist Leadership when I became much more immersed in the media and business sectors.
Certainly, there are many sections of the Australian business community where women’s leadership is starting to be embraced but, frankly, apart from some notable examples, there is little Feminist Leadership.
In what we might call the ‘big business’ sector, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of openness to challenging the status quo, of moving away from management and leadership through a male gaze.
Women who are in leading positions have often had to fight tooth and nail just to get there, or to hide their feminism under the table in order to avoid scaring the horses.
We shouldn’t have to work harder than men just to prove ourselves, there shouldn’t be unconscious bias suggesting a man will do a better job simply because of his gender, but it is still there and if we deny it, we are just kidding ourselves. As Ginger Rogers said, she did everything that Fred Astaire did but she did it backwards and wearing high heels: but who is remembered as the genius of song and dance??
What Feminist Leadership really means
Feminist Leadership is about speaking up and continually advocating for change.
The second wave feminists voiced their opinions and fought for our right to have choice, to live our lives as we see fit, and I am grateful for that privilege. But now I ask myself this new question: Do I have to stop myself from criticising other women in business who argue that gender is no longer relevant, or who suggest that because their career has never been impeded then there mustn’t be an issue?
It saddens me that women who have benefitted from the work of those who came before them feel they can’t embrace the ongoing work of driving towards gender equality, or use the phrase ‘feminist’, which is simply about advocating for women to be treated as equal human beings. Those women who came before us ensured that we have the right to vote, the right to education, the right to control our reproductive destiny, and without those achievements, we would not even be at the table.
But there are still not enough of us at enough tables, there is still a significant wage gap, there are still huge challenges for people – women and men -‐ wanting to combine parenthood and career, and we are a poorer society for it.
As a business person, it amazes me that anyone wouldn’t want to access 100% of the available talent pool to give themselves the widest possible choices, but I also understand that fear of change, and I know that those with privilege won’t give it up easily.
Instead, they will continue to argue for ‘merit-‐based’ approaches, without necessarily realising the possibility that their definition of merit is more of a subjective test that prioritises anyone who looks like them. Male dominated cultures will struggle to change, even when there is objective data that diversity in voices and approach leads to different and better decision-‐making and outcomes.
Unconscious bias is holding us all back, by preventing women from accessing opportunities, and by putting unrealistic and harmful expectations on men.
But we don’t have the time to wait for conservative men or women to get comfortable.
We are facing the onslaught of the fourth industrial revolution, with disruptive technologies that will change our society at every single level. And we face huge generational change as Generation Next brings very different values and perspectives to the table. We need as much talent and diversity at the Table as we can get, the challenges are not going to get any easier. We cannot face 21st century technological and societal changes with a 20th century mindset and 19th century institutions.
In my view, I would love to see harder quotas put into effect: if we can’t do this organically, then we need to intervene to make adjustments. What is the worst that could happen? Seriously?
Women creating opportunities from small businesses
Small business in Australia is obviously different to the corporate end of town, with many more women leading small businesses and trying to create their own opportunities, and great organisations helping to make this happen.
As an example, Global Sisters is a fabulous organisation that our Foundation has been supporting for the last couple of years.
They help train low-income and refugee women to unleash their inner entrepreneur, to use their innate talents to setup their own small businesses. The organisation provides business education, business coaching, microfinance, marketing and sales support and technology access for a period of up to 3 years. Global Sisters has operations in 5 Australian locations, and has trained over 500 women and supported over 130 businesses.
This is Feminist Leadership at its best, working with these women to find solutions that work for them and their families. Yet sometimes our existing systems and institutions don’t help.
Many of these women are on benefits, and while they are keen to take control of their own destiny, stand on their own two feet and run their own business, they are also terrified of losing benefits if the business revenue doesn’t arrive.
They don’t have the luxury of no cashflow when they are the main source of funding for a family. And by definition, cashflow from small businesses can be uncertain and lumpy. These are women for whom regular paid employment may not be suitable due to their personal circumstances, whether as refugees, or due to health issues or other constraints. Many of them are also terrified of providing information to the government due to past experience in their home country, so applying for an ABN, a tax file number, filing BAS statements: these are all scary things for many women. We talk of getting policy settings right for innovation and entrepreneurship, but often we are doing so through a ‘male’ or unreconstructed gaze, with our focus on which company is going to be the next technology unicorn, ignoring that some of the biggest innovation is going on at the grassroots level. Finding policy settings that can support these women to support themselves is critical.
Women on screen
And when we talk of small business we can also talk about my other passion, the screen sector, which is actually made up of mostly small businesses.
I was watching the Golden Globe Awards telecast which was a very big moment for the MeToo movement, with some incredible speeches and calls to arms, including the now infamous ‘Oprah for President’ speech. But the speech that struck me the most was one that pointed out that it was important not to miss the point of who the MeToo movement was really for. The people in the room that night at the Golden Globes, the high-powered actors, directors and producers, they are in effect the tip of the iceberg of the industry.
Around the world, the screen sector is made up mostly of all of those behind the scenes people who are critical to making any film or TV project actually happen. The script editors, the construction folks, hair and make up people, caterers, camera operators: tens of thousands of often low paid workers who are entitled to be treated with respect and provided with opportunities regardless of their gender. It is important to continue to point out that movements to end discrimination, harassment and bullying are about creating equality to benefit all of society, not just a privileged few. This moves beyond gender into the sphere of power and privilege.
The screen sector is a particularly important one in this discussion, because the cultural product produced by the sector is a critical influencer in how we see gender roles in our society. It does matter who commissions, writes, directs, produces and sells our screen products. It does matter whose stories are being told, whose perspective is being represented.
If all we ever see on screen is women as mothers, secretaries or prostitutes, then what do we think our daughters will aspire to, or what our sons will expect?
Is it any wonder we have multilayered unconscious bias when we only tell half of our stories. We say that you can’t be what you can’t see, and we need to see and hear from female characters in all of their complexity. Following the release of the movie Wonder Woman, an amazing thing happened: both little girls and little boys were dressing up in costumes of their favourite new superhero: Wonder Woman!!
Think about what that does to the perception of a young child….women can be my heroes. And women’s AFL: when I watch a game on TV, it brings tears to my eyes to see young boys wanting autographs from female players: it is just not that hard to make that change happen!
And of course this is the point: this is why we must seize this moment and bring Feminist Leadership to the fore, enrol more men into the charge, then drive change for everyone. A society that marginalises and discriminates against half of its population cannot be a good society. A society that prevents half of its population from realising their economic, cultural, physical or spiritual potential cannot be an enriched society.
And when we look at the basic data, we know that we can be a better society.
Even if mainstream media has been a bit slow to catch on, the fact is that we are surrounded by incredible examples of Feminist Leadership, none better than IWDA. I can think of no better way to celebrate International Women’s Day than for us to all walk away from here today with a commitment to take those examples into our own everyday lives, to seize this moment to do whatever we can to push harder for gender equality: I can’t wait to see the results.