Thank you very much for inviting me to speak at this event. I’m very honoured to be talking at this event alongside these amazing women and organisations. It is so important that we get opportunities like these - where we actually get to celebrate the achievements of the sector and how much change it actually creates - both in the lives of the women we work with but also in attitudes, behaviours and policies of society, decision makers and people in power.

Our voices need to be loud and strong because our voices and actions – indeed our deeds and words – actually creates social change and it is important that this is recognised which is why I think events like these are so important. This is not to disregard or minimise the difficult times we’re in - we can still acknowledge this while also celebrating our achievements.

I’m here to talk about Women’s Resource Centre’s Feminist Leadership project. I feel a bit half as I’ve been delivering this together with Tebs Rashid, the deputy CEO at BTEG (Black Training and Enterprise Group), so it doesn’t feel completely right to be doing this on my own - but she’s given me her blessing.

I’ve been working at Women’s Resource Centre for about 2 and a half years. I’m sure most of you are familiar with WRC but if not - WRC is the national umbrella organisation for women’s organisations in the UK. Our membership and networks include predominantly small local specialist women’s organisations so it is really important for us to always be relevant to their needs with a particular focus on intersectionality.

We strive to give voice to the most marginalised and disadvantaged organisations and work towards transformational and substantive equality for women, joining up the dots of women’s inequality to push for empowerment in its true sense by supporting women and women’s organisations to achieve their full potential.

Our work is guided by our values of feminism, sustainability, collaboration, professionalism, equality and integrity

Our vision is that all women are empowered and have substantive equality

And our mission is to support and stand up for a diverse and thriving women’s sector

We are a non-issue based organisation, which means that we don’t work on one particular issue but have a larger remit - we have a birds-eye view on women’s equality.

About a year and a half ago, I got this idea of creating a feminist leadership programme. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to cover in the training but not much more than that. I approached my boss who said “yes - we’ve wanted to do this for a long time, go for it”. Not long after she said “you should meet this woman - Tebs Rashid - she’s a fantastic trainer and she might be able to help you”. I had never written training materials let alone delivered training. I went to meet Tebs and after me incoherently blabbing on for about 5 minutes about what I had in mind she was like “yes, let’s do this” and off we went.

The reason that I tell the story of how it came together is because you could argue that one of the most important tasks of a leader is to empower others. Would my boss and then Tebs - both much senior than me and with heaps of experience - not have believed in me, this programme might not have happened at all.

Empowerment is key in the training we do. It could be considered a tired term but it is the concept of the sector and we need to use and own it. A while ago WRC had an event here at Mandeville Place titled “What’s feminism got to do with it?” and Foziha Hamid from Women and Girls Network said that for them being empowered is to be resourced internally and externally.

I really liked this definition as for me it implies being provided with both inner strengths, like confidence and self-worth, as well as practical skills, tools and knowledge. And this is very much what we try to do with the feminist leadership programme.

So what is the programme? We are just in the process of finishing the pilot programme which we have been working on for the last 6 months with funding from the Women’s Vote Centenary Fund.

The programme is a training programme which has contained:

  • 2 days of training
  • Peer learning through the creation of a social action project
  • Showcase Event in the Houses of Lords on 11 March 2019

We have delivered the training in 6 different locations in England (Plymouth, Cambridge, Birmingham, Oldham, Hull and Bournemouth) for a total of 75 women. While we have welcomed all women to apply, we have prioritised women between 20 and 30 years old who identify as BME.

The reason for prioritising this group is because we wanted this programme to follow in the footsteps of the suffragettes who illuminated, challenged and ultimately changed a situation of severe political inequality in early 20th century UK. This programme therefore encouraged women to illuminate, challenge and change political inequality in early 21st century UK.

This is not possible without an intersectional analysis.

  • 32% of MPs are women and only 3% of MPs are BME women
  • BME women earn 19.60% less than their male colleagues
  • Young people and women are less likely to vote than others

Since the programme was funded through the Women’s Vote Centenary Fund there was obviously a connection with Women’s Suffrage but I think it is valid today too given the title of this event.

The Suffragettes exposed and challenged the taken-for-granted assumption that women are unsuited to have an active and strong presence in public and political life on an equal footing of men. Through persistence and skills, they managed to create social change. We hope that this programme may have continued their legacy through illuminating and challenging the gender stereotyping that contributes to women’s inequality by equipping women with the skills, tools and knowledge to become leaders of social change tomorrow.

During the two days of training we covered topics such as feminism, intersectionality, unconscious bias, leadership traits and skills. We discussed the relationship between power and empowerment, emotional intelligence, and self-care and burnout. We also covered topics related to project management and public speaking.

It was important to us that both feminism and intersectionality were underlying themes of the training. We called the programme Women’s Leadership for Social Change. This was largely a strategic move since feminism is such a controversial term. However, while social change can happen without feminism, I doubt feminism without social change is a thing.

Feminism for me is useful in so many levels in understanding society and inequality. It is:

  • Explanatory – it explains the reasons of inequality
  • Critical – it criticises inequality
  • Normative/transformative – it wants to change this inequality, create social change and achieve equality

However, feminism is not complete without an intersectional perspective. Frankly, we do not want all new and emerging women leaders to look like me. And we want those looking like me to understand this. Which is why we ensure that intersectional feminism was a recurrent and underlying theme throughout the training.

We want to challenge the traditional assumption of what a leader looks and act like – a leader is not a white man in a suit. We are all leaders in our own right but it’s about providing that space for self-reflection and the ability to actually take a step back from our daily life to see that yes, I can and I do lead. This training is not about practicing a firm handshake…

Part of the training was for the women to plan, manage and deliver a small scale social action project. We asked them to as a group – bear in mind they did not know each other upon stepping into the room – to identify a social issue they wanted to tackle in some way. Once identified, we asked them to come up with a way to actually tackle this issue through a project. This was a chance for them to apply the learning from the training into practice.

A theme that ran through the two days and also was reflected in the social action projects that the groups chose to do was the importance of the sisterhood. The power of the sisterhood is profound. I know I speak to the converted here but the training made me reflect and realise the actual scale of this.

Upon coming to the training we asked the women what they wanted to get out of it. Some women then told us that they’ve experienced more oppression from women than from men. While I recognise this is their experience and it is not for me to judge this in any way, it was important for me when doing the training that we change this narrative of women being argumentative and difficult. This is a patriarchal narrative.

And while it can certainly be correct in many situations - I’m not saying women are unequivocally good, harmonious and cooperative - women can be just as corrupted by power as men, and patriarchy - and neoliberalism - is brutal. However, we need to stay focused. There is a famous saying that “there’s a special place in hell for women not helping other women”. I actually think it’s Madeleine Albright who said it, which is unfortunate. But I would like to flip it and say that there is a special place in hell for men only helping other men - and that place is pretty crowded and way past its capacity.

We have to stay focused on who the real enemy is. And that is patriarchy. The social order that celebrates masculine norms, ideals, and bodies and which creates an Us and Them dichotomy where the Us is those conforming to the Masculine, White, Heteronormative, and Middle-Class norm and the Other is the rest of us. And the further away you are from this norm the more severe is the oppression, discrimination and repression.

At the training we did one exercise where the participants were asked to do a short presentation about themselves where they would answer 5 questions. One of these questions was around a life event that had shaped their life. This event could be either a positive experience or a difficult one. We had not anticipated the effect of this exercise but it allowed for the participants to not only open up but to own their experience. As one of our participants said when I interviewed her and asked about how they came up with their social action project:

“We felt really trusting of each other and we felt really open of each other once we’d shared our stories. I think once the first person spoke, because I didn’t know how in depth I would go with my own story and then the first person spoke and I was like ‘Oh, this is what it’s going to be like. I’m so happy that we’re being this open’ and I think that allowed people to be even more open about their own stories you know. And I think it’s that kind of space that we had that just had this kind of honesty. You know that sort of pure raw honesty that you don’t normally share with anyone else. Especially because we were strangers. I didn’t think it’d be that powerful in the room and it just was. And that kind of birthed the booklet from it. And I feel like that was what we want to share with other people that read it”

This quote comes from one of the participants in the Plymouth group and describes the booklet of each other' stories that they made as their social action project.

The importance of the sisterhood and sharing stories and connecting to one another is really something that is visible in all the other group’s social action projects.

In Oldham, they put on an event at the Oldham’s Library. They had women of varying ages and backgrounds attending the event and they did a few different activities, like a story-sharing experience, taster yoga sessions and African drumming.

The Cambridge group created a blog called “Let’s talk about…” that was posted on WRC’s website. The blog contains one story about period poverty and one interview with a participant affected by the hostile environment.

The Birmingham group also created an online blog, “Sharing stories: Empowering the Sisterhood” which was later turned into a booklet and distributed at the House of Lords. As of 11 March, the blog had reached 1400 people and been visited by 436 people from 7 countries.

The Hull group created a film “Have you got the picture yet “about body image and self-worth which at the time of writing has over 4000 views.

The Bournemouth group had a stall at an event for 400 girls with activities and resources: mindfulness chocolate eating, choose-your-story booklet, business cards with messages about healthy relationships, and a message board where the girls wrote empowering messages to other girls/women.  A large amount of teachers were present at this event and requested more of the material to be able to distribute to their students.

I think the choices the groups made in terms of their social action projects is really telling regarding the importance of that sisterhood - how a connection of women where trust and understanding is fostered through sharing stories is incredibly powerful.

So the project certainly had an impact in the wider communities. But for us the most important thing was actually the impact the programme had on participants.  As a result of the training, applicants have:

  •         Applied and got accepted to higher education
  •         Increased confidence in applying for managerial roles
  •         Changed jobs to more senior position
  •         Considering going into politics
  •         Established a women’s group
  •         Auditioned and got a part in a play

After completion of the training:

84% of the participants felt comfortable as a leader

85% were confident in speaking in front of others

94% were confident in their ability to create social change

And 90% saw themselves as a future leader

The running theme in the feedback we have received is that this training has increased the self-confidence and self-worth amongst the women.  Perhaps this is the most important outcome. I think what we did with the training that was so profound and perhaps unanticipated by us was that we provided the opportunity to self-reflect. This self-reflection made a lot of women realise that actually they do have a lot of leadership skills and that they are actually leaders in their own right, not despite of what they have been through but with their experiences as an asset. I think I would like to finish up this presentation with a few quotes from the women involved that I think shows the impact/change that this programme enabled:

“On a personal level this training has helped me immensely. I had lost a lot of confidence in myself for many reasons over the years. This course has lit a fire in my belly again. It has reminded me who I am, who I can be and what I can do.   On a professional level I have so many ideas to go forward with in our charity. This will hopefully involve our local community”

“Personally, I have learnt to take charge in life and have more self-confidence in myself I have control of how my life story is going to turn out. I have also learnt to love myself more and take time out for myself. If I look after myself, it will make it easier for me to look after others and make a better impact in my community. The training has empowered me to get involved with other women lead projects in the community. “

“The impact of this training on me personally has been huge actually. I have found so much more confidence in my abilities to manage projects and create something. I have increased confidence in public speaking also, and feel incredibly empowered to have my voice heard. These skills and increased confidence will also enhance my professional life and job role. In the community I hope that the booklet will encourage people to reflect on their own journeys and in doing so, to appreciate their experiences and how far they have come in life. I hope it will encourage people to have their voices heard and to recognize there are so many common threads in what we all experience”

“I think the training has allowed me to build my confidence as a leader. Previously I would not have described myself as a leader but the training allowed me to recognise that I am indeed a leader. In the future I will be more likely to put myself forward for leadership roles”


This talk was delivered by Evelina Svensson at the Special Event "Deeds and Words: The Women's Sector Creating Change" on 21 March 2019. The talk has been adapted to suit blog format.

Feminist Leadership

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