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Mansplaining Feminist Leadership

James Traeger sees feminist leadership as part of creating a more inclusive culture. Could staying silent be his wisest contribution to the conversation?
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Mayvin Director James Traeger sees feminist leadership as part of creating a more inclusive culture. But could staying silent be his wisest contribution to the conversation?

We sat in a circle, myself and five women. The speaker at this conference had just described herself, amongst other things, as a feminist leader. We were tasked to come up with questions in our small groups. The women in my group were slightly taken aback by the speaker's description of herself as a feminist. One of the group said 'feminist leadership doesn’t feel very inclusive - what about the men she manages?’ She looks directly at me, and I am, in that moment, completely thrown. I do not know what to say. As my brain whirrs, a reflexive angel on my shoulder is amused to notice the irony of being silenced in this way. Like women are, I imagine, in so many settings?

I have been here before. Once I got into deep trouble when I was sitting with a group of women at a dinner in a business school, drinking cheap red wine and talking about organisational culture. One of them, who worked as an HRBP in a bank, said, ‘There isn’t a problem with our culture - women are treated completely equally in our business.’ I choked into my glass. ‘But we have just heard a speech from your HRD, a middle-aged white man, who sits on an Executive Board, who are also all men, telling you, the HRBPs, who are almost all women, effectively that you are ‘all doing very well’. How does that look like being treated equally?’ A row ensued, and of course, I deserved the ire directed at me, as the main mansplainer of feminism.

So how do I deal with that irony in a wiser way? You see I don’t think that it is a denial of inclusivity for a woman to say she is a feminist leader. I see it as a challenge to unequal power. I see the possibility of feminist leadership as one of creating a more inclusive culture. I also see the resistance to a woman making this type of claim as a very subtle and pernicious form of misogyny, exhibited regularly by both men and women. But how can I mansplain that to a group of women? Should I?

It might be that the self-proclaimed feminist leader at the conference has read about the work of Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule, published under the title "Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind" (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule 1986). In this formulation, they describe five different perspectives through which women come to know develop and understand the world, based on their traditional position in society. (I don’t dare to explain the other four, because I am already skating on thin ice here.) According to this model, the first stage of women’s knowing is silence. Should I just accept what so many people from identities subjected to oppressive social structures over the centuries have accepted as their position? In other words, is it good for a man to stay silent, for a change? (And I note, that by writing this blog I am not staying silent myself).

Reference: Belenky, M.F., B.M. Clinchy, N.R. Goldberger and J.M. Tarule. 1986. Women's Ways of Knowing. Basic Books, NY.

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