A challenge like no other for women leaders

shirley ottoShirley Otto, is a specialist in governance and management in third sector organisations in Scotland. Based in Edinburgh she works as an independent trainer, facilitator and consultant. She is an Exchange Fellow at the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships on the Feminist Governance Project. Sarah Morton is the Co-Director of the Knowledge Exchange, Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (CRFR), and Knowledge Exchange Specialist, Scottish School for Public Health Research (SSPHR) University of Edinburgh. She is working with Shirley on the Feminist Governance Project.

Being entrusted with ensuring support for women who have experienced violence is a challenge like no other for women leaders.

In the UK most services for women survivors of violence are registered charities and therefore have trustees: a group of volunteers who are entrusted with upholding the values and overseeing the work and its funding.

However small or locally based rape crisis and women’s aid organisations may be, the trustees and staff face major complexities and dilemmas. Not least of those dilemmas are the values at the core of the work; values with profound implications for the identity of the organisation, ways of working and the motivation of those involved. Most services are for, and provided by, women, and implicitly or explicitly influenced by feminist thinking, i.e. feminist values rooted in the assertion that the violence against women is both a cause and a consequence of inequalities between men and women.

So what does it require to be a feminist organisation and what does it entail being a trustee of a feminist service? In particular being a trustee of an organisation doing tough front-line work with the ever-present risk of burnout? These question are being explored by the Feminist Governance Project, a collaboration between the Centre for Research into Families and Relationships (CRFR) at the University of Edinburgh, Rape Crisis England and Wales (RC+EW) and Rape Crisis Scotland (RCS).

The project has explored how trustees understand feminist values and how these are or can be realised in governance (i.e. the role of trustees) of charities and has made recommendations and produced material for advice and training.  The study explored two interrelationships areas:

(i) feminist values/ charity governance, and

(ii) charity governance/ sexual violence. Understanding these issues has been developed from visiting and listening to trustees, interviewing individual practitioners, academics and trainers, running workshops and literature searches.

What is involved in being a feminist trustee?

Trustees of charities are expected to ensure adherence to core values. Six core values have emerged from discussions so far. They are:

  • Solidarity based on challenging gender oppression, which assumes a common commitment to social change/ justice and expressed, for example in recruitment and training of trustees;
  • Accountability – for values in action, behaviour and outcomes; including duty of care for staff and volunteers;
  • Inclusive – seeking and celebrating difference and having processes for managing disagreements and conflicts;
  • Positive use of power – ensuring clear roles and allocation of authority (located in functions) as well as transparent and collaborative processes;
  • Survivor’s voice – active use of ways of ‘hearing’ and affirming the views and experience of women using services and ensuring these voices influence priorities and plans;
  • Emotional responsibility – individuals being responsible for the expression of strong feelings and reflective spaces in meetings and review sessions.

What has also become apparent is that being feminist trustees requires managing significant dilemmas. Trustees of charities have the final authority, formally, in their organisation. How does this requirement fit with ideologies rooted in the sharing of power? What is accountability feminist-style and addressing the notion of ‘positive power’.

Charity trustees are a vital link between the internal and external worlds of their organisation. It is important they ensure adherence to values and assist with the ‘contested’ areas that are inevitable in the modern charity committed to collaboration to achieve the breadth of services required to support survivors. For feminist leaders this means holding on to their values whilst also collaborating with partners or authorities who may be indifferent or hostile to feminist values but who are essential to delivering support services

Clearly there are many ways in which women are, and can be, dynamic, inspiring and effective in making a difference in our world. One such group of women are those signing up to be trustees of services dedicated to supporting survivors of violence and committed to challenging the inequalities that allow for such abuse of power.

Shirley Otto and Sarah Morton, Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (CRFR).  A full briefing will be available here.

2 Comments on A challenge like no other for women leaders

  1. The Feminist Governance Project sounds as though it is doing some very important work in providing the framework to support trustees in doing a difficult job.

  2. A really interesting research project. One of the questions I mulled over in my own article was how to reconcile feminist principles of collaboration to the notion of a single leader – I wish I’d have seen your piece first ! Having been on the board of a women’s aid organisation I know first hand how difficult it is to balance all of the issues you mention and look forward to reading the completed report.

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