Feminist Leadership: Our Future in Times of Pandemics

08 Mar 2021
Edda Kirleis Thought Leader

COVID-19 is not only a medical disaster. In the course of it, we witnessed a steep increase of inequalities all over the globe. While the important and relevant priority of saving lives of those severely affected by COVID-19 dominate political decisions, those living in the informal sector without formal labour contracts or land ownership and without access to social security are equally threatened in their survival. Lockdowns and economic crises severely affect their livelihoods. For those among them affected by COVID-19, access to health services, a universal Human Right, is a far cry. The “COVID-19 world”, as the UN puts it, is not a new world – it just exposes the ugly face of inequality and the inability or unwillingness of our leadership to deliver equality in this world more than ever.

If we zoom into those communities affected by the multiple crises exposed in our “COVID-19 World”, we realize that they face many forms of discrimination and exclusion. We can see that increasing aggression triggered by the many frustrations coming along with pandemic politics are acted out on women all over the world. Levels of violence against women have never been increasing as much as now. This is a shadow pandemic: acc. to a recent study, UN Women observe a rise of 30% in domestic violence worldwide (on average across all countries) in 2020. In other words, 1 in 5 women became subject to domestic violence.

Not only Germany shows alarming rates. Minority communities, (religious, ethnic, Dalits, indigenous, differently abled, migrants, queer – to name a few) are often targeted as scapegoats. When those who are responsible for providing an environment, in which each human being can feel safe and enjoy rights and entitlements fail, it is easy to divert attention from their failure. Hate campaigns turn frustrated actors against the disempowered and vulnerable, who suffer twice - from the negligence of the system and the hate and violence of a politicized mob, which may even turn a neighbour into an enemy.

Many women from marginalized communities suffer from multiple forms of discrimination. How does an elderly, differently abled, women from a Dalit community cope in the COVID-19 world? Surely, her chances are different from those of the young girl in her neighbourhood who studies for her school exams? And surely different from a black American woman’ s opportunities who lost her job in the COVID-19 crisis? However, all of them are united in sharing experiences of disempowerment and inequality, are likely to have experienced physical and structural violence.  We therefore have to understand that the process of achieving an equal future for all, as suggested by the UN, needs to take intersections of different forms of discrimination and exclusion into account. Discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation cuts through all communities, be these marginalized or not. Equality is always, but never only, about power relations between women and men.

Our current global system of neo-liberal capitalism based on unleashed finance capitalism beyond control is producing and reproducing such intersecting inequalities and forms of discrimination. As long as profit maximization in the hands of a few is the only goal in our world, exploitation of the marginalized, of women, of nature remains to be the backbone of our economic system. Most governments fail to control the international finance capital and its impact on their economies, they often even become their agents. Furthermore, in the last decade, we have witnessed, how several governments have turned authoritarian, with increased limitations on spaces for dissent, critical thinking and participation and major cuts in social spending and tax justice. These increase inequalities further, even without the pandemic. Needless to mention their deeply patriarchal violent nature.

What could “women in leadership” mean in such a setting? Certainly, it cannot stop at simply increasing the number of female persons in a system, which perpetuates inequalities. If women in leadership are meant to achieve an “equal future”, we require a major transformation of our economic system, of power structures and power relations from the local to the global level. All forms of exclusion and discrimination need to be overcome. It is not by coincidence that many initiatives for transformation are initiated by those groups who experience disempowerment the most.

It is feminist and grassroots movements all over the world who are speaking out for an economic and ecological transformation, based on values that our patriarchal and profit-oriented world neglects and denies: Care, love, empathy. These are values often associated with women and considered as weak.

These, however, are values every leadership has to include if we want to live in a world with more equality? Women in leadership can pave this way, if guided by feminist principles. Figures of women in leadership are still terribly low, and the UN needs to be appreciated for campaigning for a major increase. But just increasing the number of women will not change unjust systems.  Promoting women in leadership will not work as recipe for equality unless care, love and empathy are the guiding core values for a structural and societal transformation towards an equal future. These feminist values need to be promoted by women and encompassed by all leaders. In families as much as in local communities, in politics, state institutions as much as in business. We need feminist leadership by all actors to challenge the patriarchal, exploitative and excluding logic of our economic and political systems in solidarity.

Another world is possible where no one is left behind.


Edda Kirleis, is a German social scientist closely related to South Asia since 1982. She has served the voluntary development sector with different organisations, focussing on gender justice and conflict transformation.