We do not need to endorse biologically essentialist narratives of gender to grant women access to decision-making power — no matter how positive the attributes.
This is great, isn’t it?! Go women! What critiques could Fearless Futures possibly have, we hear you exclaim!
Funny you should mention it, a few actually.
What’s often assumed though left unsaid, when making the claim that it is these leaders’ ‘femaleness’ or ‘womanly-ness’ causing these distinct behaviours, is the common idea that there is in fact some core essence to being a woman. A right way to be a woman that generates these wonderfully womanly behaviours we are seeing these leaders display.
Is it having the right primary sex characteristics? Or the right secondary sex characteristics? Or is it about the right chromosomal makeup? Or the right hormones? Or display the right behaviours for a woman? Or whether you simply look the right way?
There is a silent assumption when we attribute certain behaviours to people’s womanhood that there is in fact a right way to be a woman.
So while we might see these articles as praising women leaders in a defiantly sexist world, where we know that care and compassion because they are feminine-aligned are devalued, this narrative can also subscribe to precisely the logic that puts some women’s lives in danger.
Trans women experience violence because of the rigid perimeter that governs society’s ‘right’ way to be a woman, in large part rooted in conceiving of gender as biologically determined. Trans women to some won’t meet the ‘right’ threshold of woman for their gender to be believed and acknowledged. Racism also plays a role in conceptions of gender, where women who don’t meet eurocentric constructions of womanhood fall foul of the gender police’s regulations. The horrors Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand have endured, for example, see this in action. And the misogynist punishment for not being ‘woman’ enough has always been violence — physical and institutional.
Further, if we endorse this idea that there is some inherent femaleness at play, we again inadvertently erase women’s agency. Women, once more, aren’t really in control of their own destiny — sound familiar?
This focus on the promise that women will effuse care and compassion with every step may mean that some women will gain access to power and decision-making for those organisations keen to ‘reap the benefits’. Such justifications for women’s participation, where participation is conditional on ‘reaping benefits’, is ultimately trying to use the logic of a system of oppression to beat it at its own game. And there may be some who bob to the top. But those women that do, will likely be white, cis, middle class, heterosexual and non-disabled. Focusing on individuals and their representation misdiagnoses what’s actually going on. Yes individuals do matter — certainly from a visibility and symbolism perspective — and that has real power.
And, for there to be the possibility of action and decision-making in service of goals different to our current societal priorities we need to shift to a paradigm that creates, sustains and nurtures the conditions that make those decisions possible beyond individuals.
The gender binary as we know it is an unwinnable game. We need to undo its rules.
All women have a right to decision-making power even if they make mistakes, fail and be awful at it and maybe aren’t compassionate in every moment. Because being allowed to fail and mess up is what cis men get to do in leadership all the time.
All women have a right to participate in decision-making and leadership because. That’s the end of the sentence. They do because they do. Justifications for why they should, or what benefits they may bring, or which specific ‘permissible’ women, are all a diversionary tactic that not only waste our time, but also as you’ll see above, have dangerous corollaries.
To do the work of shifting the paradigm, we need to be able to hold multiple ideas in our minds at once. People leading in alternative ways that centre care and compassion are important. We do not need to endorse biologically essentialist narratives of gender to grant women access to decision-making power — no matter how positive the attributes. We should do everything we can to produce the systemic conditions that ensure that all those marginalised by an unequal distribution of power are afforded access to what is rightfully theirs. As well as ensuring that every one of us is actively geared to prioritising collective-oriented courageous, compassionate decision-making.