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International Women’s Day

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Leading the way out of crisis: Women’s leadership can reshape our Covid-19 response.

Women in Leadership: Achieving an equal Future in a COVID-19 world is the UN Women theme for International Women’s Day 2021. The pandemic has tested leaders at all levels and in all organisations around the world. Although women leaders are still in the minority, emerging evidence suggests that countries led by women such as New Zealand, Denmark and Taiwan may have displayed a more effective early response to the pandemic. Globally, 70 per cent of health workers and first responders are women, and women-led organisations have been vital to an effective grassroots response, including in countries like Yemen, where access to health facilities is limited.

During the pandemic, leaders of all genders have been managing rapid and unprecedented change: illness, remote working, the accelerated adoption of technology, increases in caring responsibilities and the psychological effects of what has now been almost a year of lockdown here in the UK. Reflecting on this experience, SDDirect colleagues took some time to consider the value of feminist leadership principles. Vital elements include proactive inclusion of all voices in decision-making, even when it is challenging to do so; building relationships of trust; offering and delivering support; and acting to redress the power imbalances that underlie discrimination and exclusion. These qualities are always important, but may be particularly crucial in a crisis.

It can now be said with certainty that COVID-19 is a crisis that has reinforced existing economic and social inequalities, with disproportionate effects on women and girls. We have seen increasing rates of domestic violence and trafficking and new barriers to accessing support. Girls are at increased risk of dropping out of school. Women have been on the front lines as care givers and key workers. Women with disabilities and those with diverse sexual and gender identities face further setbacks.

If we truly intend to ‘build back better’ the response to the pandemic needs to change these patterns, not reinforce them. Already there are concerning indications that opportunities to create a more inclusive and sustainable response are being missed. Ensuring access to vaccines around the world is critical, but inequitable access within countries is equally important and there are real risks facing underserved groups, including people with disabilities and women.  

Yet the opportunities to do better are immense. Covid-19 is arguably the most radical global disruption to social and economic patterns of behaviour since the Second World War. While nobody knows what the ‘new normal’ will be, there is the possibility to design new more equitable, more inclusive and greener solutions, in economic regeneration, the design of services and social protection, and many other areas.

This month’s flagship events held by the Commission on the Status of Women and the Generation Equality campaign offer occasions to build support for women leaders and feminist leadership principles in responding to the pandemic. COVID-19 response will also be top of the agenda at the G7 summit in June. Building back better will be a long-term process. Leaders of all genders will play a crucial part in determining how the recovery plays out, and their response must be informed by the transformative feminist principles of inclusion, accountability, empathy and the courage to #ChooseToChallenge

Sue Griffiths

Managing Director, Social Development Direct