Applying Feminist Leadership Principles to Working from Home in times of COVID-19 (For the COFEM Blog)

(This piece was first published in the COFEM blog here. The Coalition of Feminists for Social Change (COFEM) is an advocacy collective of thought leaders, activists, practitioners and academics working globally to end violence against women and girls)

With the spread of COVID-19, organizations worldwide have been scaling down their physical offices and asking employees to work from their homes. For many this is a new experience. For others working remotely may have been the norm.  However, there are still many adjustments that all those “working from home” must make as a result of the pandemic.  It is important to consider those adjustments through a gendered lens, in order to appreciate the many specific (and often additional) challenges faced by women who are working from home.  Alongside this, there are lessons to learn from applying feminist principles to management
Applying feminist principles to management – particularly in a pandemic – draws from practicing feminist leadership, and applying those principles to managing organizations and staff. It means understand as Billing writes, “that we’re only as safe — or empowered — as the most vulnerable among us”. It means applying an intersectional analysis “to understand how the virus disproportionately impacts specific groups of people, who, because of their intersecting identities, face unique forms of burden”. It means having equity, empowerment, inclusion and justice for all at the heart of decision making, and opening doors as power holders to those who most need the access. It means applying feminist ideas and beliefs to management of organizations and staff.
Drawing from these principles, here are five insights for how organizations can better support staff working from home during this pandemic:

  1. Recognize the difference between ‘working from home’ and working while at home: Language matters – and changing how people currently working from home are referred to acknowledges that the same routine, space and environment staff  have in their office, is now disrupted and difficult (if not impossible) to replicate. For example economist Nicholas Bloom describes, “The closure of schools and transition to “distance learning” for students has forced many working parents to take on the additional job of full-time teacher.” The  majority of those facing this burden are women.  Applying feminist principles to management means it is important to recognize the gendered realities of where the responsibility to undertake this additional care work lies and shift management and support accordingly. As the poet Hafiz says, “the words we speak become the house we live in”.
  1. Embracing flexibility as a reality: One reason people work from home–outside of this pandemic–is the flexibility it affords. However, people who have been thrust into this situation unexpectedly may struggle to find their feet – and may need new methods of support to continue. As mentioned for example, a disproportionate amount of care work falls on women who are now facing additional burdens, and also remember single parents and their specific struggles – in general as well as in these circumstances. There is an urgent need to embrace flexibility as a practice to reflect these realities by speaking to teams and seeing what shifts can be made around usual working hours and meetings or call times etc. so they can manage these circumstances. Additionally, rethink what ‘normal’ working hours are or can be, considering staff’s care responsibilities. Applying feminist principles to management means re-examining power relations and dynamics that are both visible and invisible – and then working to transform them.
  1. Making safety, well-being and mental health a priority: It is very difficult to be ‘business as usual’ in this environment, and it is vital that we acknowledge many people are feeling increased pressure and anxiety.  For example, many people who work in the GBV space are feeling more stress knowing that women are experiencing an increase in violence due to COVID-19, social distancing and self-isolation. They are also struggling with anxiety over how best to reach out and ask for support in circumstances where there are curfews and lockdowns in place, which make it difficult to fall back on previously used methods. Staff may also be at risk of experiencing GBV, some countries are reporting 30% increases in domestic violence as a result of COVID-19. Reach out to your employees beyond work deliverables. Give people the space to share how they feel and support them as best you can. Change working routines in tangible ways, such as checking-in with people just to chat and knowing how to respond if things are not OK – including knowing what information to give staff who disclose violence or abuse. Applying feminist principles to management as Leila Billing writes means modeling vulnerability, and “surfacing people’s ideas, fears and aspirations makes us all feel we can bring our full selves to work”.
  1. Understanding offline issues manifesting in the online: Everyday sexism, harassment and other issues don’t just vanish because we are now all at home, they simply manifest in other ways. Reports show that women are facing increased trolling online in this pandemic, people are expressing concerns about how to manage workplace harassment that could manifest in new ways; women are facing increasing pressures and burdens as their unpaid care work increases and domestic violence incidents are increasing on a large scale, prompting the UN Secretary General to ask for GBV response to be included in national responses to COVID-19. Applying feminist principles to management means understanding how the virus disproportionately affects specific people because of their identities. For examples among the most vulnerable in this time are women of colour in contractual or temporary positions, daily-wage or shift-based workers, and those living in urban poverty. Applying feminist principles to management means thinking about the unique struggles different staff may be facing and identifying how to best support them.
  1. Supporting your teams in tangible ways: While expressing concern and reaching out is important to do as managers and leaders, it is also equally vital that it translates into tangible action that employees can feel. We can start by adjusting expectations for what people can deliver taking into account their circumstances and dynamics. A friend told me that prior to COVID-19, her lunch would be provided by the office canteen and now she spends an extra hour a day at minimum sourcing groceries and cooking meals. There are good practices to draw from – for example the Wall Street Journal reported, “Facebook Inc. will give all of its full-time employees an additional $1,000 in their next paycheck and will give everyone the same “exceeds expectations” performance review for the first half of the year”. Applying feminist principles to management includes asking how we can include tangible support like this for teams. How do policies and practices created to address this that reflect people’s struggles and imagine a more just and equitable alternative reality?

These are trying times for everyone, but maybe they can also provide a vital opportunity to have candid conversations about how to re-frame and re-think leadership and management and make sure they reflect the gendered, complex and layered realities of people’s lives. In applying these principles, it is an opportunity to self-reflect on how to transform traditional approaches, open doors when power is held, and center leadership around principles of equity, justice and empowerment. It is going beyond the usual labor practices and create transformative approaches that center people and their well-being as a priority.
As Malayah Harper and Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen write “These conversations can be challenging and require uncomfortable introspection about our own behavior and biases, but through them, we can build a future that is far fairer for everyone”. What could be more feminist than that?