When I first started working in the area of international development, the issue that most drew my attention was that of the plight of women in emerging economies who suffered oppression at the hands of patriarchal societies. Women are by far and away the largest oppressed group in the world still today and most likely to suffer from poverty, conflict and disease. We only need to see what is happening with the likes of groups such as Boko Haram, intent on denying women rights to education and empowerment, to see the urgency of the problem. Even in the more ‘developed’ world, we have a long way to go to establish parity with men in the workplace, in the public sphere and even in the home.
My journey with Hua Dan, the organization that I established to empower migrant and rural women and children with confidence, leadership skills and creativity, has been both a joy and a challenge (see here) but it has also served to underline my commitment to working on issues of women’s empowerment. I’ve blogged before on some of the stories of the women I work with. Dong Fen, the first woman to attend one of our workshops is now the General Manager of our China programmes and oversees all aspects of the day-to-day running of the organization. It has been a joy to witness her growth and maturity into this role, despite the inevitable bumps along the way, and I marvel at how far she has come towards understanding the needs of the communities we work with and what Hua Dan can best contribute to Chinese society. Her commitment, dedication and, most of all, vision of what can be achieved have inspired me beyond belief and I marvel at her continued persistence in the face of numerous obstacles.
It seems to me that the call for feminine leadership has never been stronger. To me, the urgency of having women in positions of leadership is imperative to create a greater balance of power and to neutralize the violence and aggression that still seems to be such a part of our world. As a feminist I have never been of the opinion that the fight is simply about removing all the human barriers to women’s equality but relies just as much on a more nuanced understanding of empowering the ‘feminine qualities’ within each one of us, including men.
To me, part of the problem lies in our de-valuing qualities we often associate with women and to deny their role in leadership. I love this quote of Martin Luther King who talks about the interrelationship between power and love and it could well be argued that this also conveys the tension between ‘male’ and ‘female’ ways of leading.
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
I’ve written previously on the need for a more feminine style of leadership and, in this previous blog post, suggested that women were the custodians of the concept of feminine leadership and that their role was to bring out those qualities of love, compassion, collaboration, creativity, beauty, nurturing, empowerment in themselves and others, including the men they work with and for. This is as much a part of women’s leadership is about as it is supporting women to develop and express those masculine qualities such as strength, discipline, justice, order, integrity. None of these qualities are the exclusive preserve of men or women, but true leadership is evidenced in our ability to draw out and empower these qualities in each other. We need to ensure that we continue to support and strengthen both women and men’s ability to lead in all areas of life, through a higher understanding of our qualities.
What is interesting is that, ultimately, Martin Luther King, chose love. He realized that this was the only power that was really worth having. He himself embodied that traditionally ‘feminine’ quality and used that love to truly express power. Whilst he himself proved that love was not a quality unique to women, his recognition that this supreme quality was really all that mattered is, why I believe, women have a duty to lead – with love – in all aspects of human experience and thus to bring about transformation in our world.
I am a trained actress and founder and director of Hua Dan, one of China’s first and leading social enterprises. Hua Dan uses the power of participation in drama-based workshops to reveal and develop individual and community potential. Hua Dan has a particular focus on working with China’s rural-to-urban migrant workers, particularly women, who work in the manufacturing and service industries, at the heart of China’s economic boom.