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Beyond the headcount: leadership for women's rights

Posted by Chloe Safier Regional Gender Lead

27th May 2014

Noorkishili Naing’isa, a woman leader from Tanzania. Credit: Geoff Sayer/Oxfam

Chloe Safier introduces a new guide to placing women's rights at the centre of development organisations and programmes. Transformative leadership goes beyond headcounts of women in senior positions, to promoting a style of leadership which embodies human rights and gender equality.


Women's inclusion in leadership is a popular issue.  Governments debate how many parliamentary seats to allocate to women;  companies invest in women so that they can expand their consumer market or improve growth; and articles abound on how women can rise to leadership positions in the context of pervasive sexism and care responsibilities in their homes.  

Leadership (whether practiced by men, women, boys or girls) must promote equality and justice by transforming unequal power relations

There are many motivations for encouraging women's inclusion in leadership. Some believe that women have a right to participate in the political, social and economic decisions that shape their lives. Others believe that women leaders will be more likely to create certain kinds of change, though this has been debated. For many NGOs, Oxfam included, leadership (whether practiced by men, women, boys or girls) must promote equality and justice by transforming unequal power relations - such as the power inequality caused when women have fewer rights. 

Especially in the world of development specialists, it is critical to understand how certain kinds of  leadership can bring about change. A marginalized person who is put into a position of power might well continue to face marginalization, or might not use that power to fight on behalf of others who have faced similar challenges. Of course, not all women stand for women's rights. Not all leaders fight for equality, and when  they do, they aren't necessarily heard.

Download transformative leadership for women's rightsThat's why Oxfam is investing in an approach called 'Transformative Leadership for Women's Rights' (TLWR). This is based on the idea that when men and women are leaders in a way that embodies human rights, gender equality, participation, consultation, and respect for dignity, they are able to create transformative, lasting, sustainable change.

We have developed a guide that outlines, for our staff and partners, what TLWR means, and how it links to the promotion of women's rights and gender justice. In order to transform gender inequality, we must go beyond addressing the number of women in the room, or the headcount of women in positions of power. Transformation will only happen with a significant change within us, within our work, and our organizational culture; and the way we think collectively and individually about leadership, and organizational structure, and inclusion. TLWR challenges and transforms power relations and structures (in all its different manifestations) to create an enabling environment for the leadership potential of individuals. The guide gives examples and case studies to explain how to apply these concepts in practical terms.  

Adopting TLWR within our programs and policies is complex, but possible. It requires an analysis of the ways that various dimensions of identity (including gender) and marginalization affect access to and expressions of leadership.  It's time to recognize that the 'add women and stir' approach to, the inclusion of women in leadership (whether in development, government, private sector, security, etc) is not going to achieve gender justice and women's rights. We must change the way we think about leadership and power, and apply those lessons to our lives and to our work. Only then will we be the transformation we want to see in the world.

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Header photo: Noorkishili Naing'isa, a woman leader from Tanzania. Credit: Geoff Sayer/Oxfam


Blog post written by Chloe Safier

Regional Gender Lead

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Chloe Safier